In our new world of social media, a world of speed and as-it's-happening immediacy, personal interconnectedness and global reach, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Digg, etc., are tools of tremendous power, especially in the marketing of books and discovery of authors. Those tools also pose problems. Nowadays, a few keystrokes can powerfully magnify intolerance and bullying or spread a falsehood or incomplete story fast and wide, often with dire consequences. We were all made especially aware of this in the tragic incident of cyberbullying at Rutgers University last year. As publishers, it behooves us to be very aware of the blogosphere and digital environment with respect to titles in process on a daily basis. A news item suddenly creates an opportunity, or a celebrity meltdown jeopardizes a planned book. And in the sudden viral spread of a headline, facts are often the first casualty.
At Running Press, we faced this firsthand just last week. Third-party error and miscommunication went viral and led to the spread of untrue accusations of intolerance and censorship. Running Press copublishes a successful series of romance anthologies that originate with Constable & Robinson in the United Kingdom. C&R engages a freelance editor in the U.K. for each anthology, and we have no contact with that editor. The editor is supplied guidelines (e.g., "We need steampunk stories"), and that freelance editor then commissions the stories from writers. For an upcoming YA anthology, Wicked Pretty Things: 13 Dark Faerie Romances, C&R's U.K. freelance editor, Tricia Telep, commissioned a story from author Jessica Verday titled, "Flesh Which Is Not Flesh." According to Verday, when the manuscript was delivered, Telep requested that the author alter the story so the romance not reflect a male/male relationship, citing—quite incorrectly—that Running Press preferred YA anthologies to exclude "alternative lifestyles." At this point, things started moving very quickly, but it's instructive to bear in mind the following facts, and then I will tell you what happened next.
Running Press publishes for truly diverse audiences, including male/male historical romances, lesbian erotica, and even the New York Times–bestselling 30th anniversary edition of Free to Be... You and Me, a landmark book about tolerance, identity, and rejection of gender stereotypes.
Running Press's guidelines for YA anthologies do not exclude diverse lifestyles. C&R's freelance editor was incorrect in stating this to the author, and furthermore, she never informed C&R—which in turn did not inform Running Press of the editor's request.
One more thing: the publisher of Running Press (me) is an openly gay man.
What happened next is a cautionary tale for all publishers. Ms. Verday, understandably, refused to change her story and pulled it from the anthology. Then she took to her blog and social media connections, and accused Running Press of intolerance and censorship. Other authors in the anthology asked to pull their stories, believing the account. Fans, librarians, and a handful of authors in the anthology became angry. Authors in other anthologies began to send us e-mails expressing concern. This all happened in just a few days. We at Running Press contacted Verday immediately to assure her that we had no such guidelines and would be excited to include her story as written. But she was unyielding.
I take a couple of important lessons from this episode. First, it is clearer than ever that we as publishers need to make sure our values and guidelines are completely clear—not just to our employees, but to the many third-party hands that touch a book project, from author through to reader, including business partners and freelancers. Secondly, we all need to constantly monitor correspondence and activity relating to our projects (my advice: set up a Google alert for all your titles). Be aware, in this 24/7 world, a few days can be a very long time. And lastly, when there are inevitable misunderstandings, as with all human enterprises, be sure to be available, be accountable, and stand up and say what is right.
Please let's consider this an open memo to all authors, editors, agents, and business partners, past, present, and future. At Running Press, we value diversity, we abhor censorship and bigotry, we stand behind the creativity and authenticity of our authors, and we see ourselves as a vital connection between those voices and the world.
Christopher Navratil is the publisher of Running Press.
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