I’ve spent enough time in Romlandia to see that there are kerfuffles that seem huge and all-consuming but then, after all the ink is spilled and spleen is vented, they’re quickly forgotten. And then there are things like the Big Reveal Jane Litte dropped last week. The effects of that little revelation keep spreading, and I suspect we haven’t heard the last of it yet.
As someone who has observed, participated in, and written about books and this community for years, my first instinct was to dive right in, and start reporting with a timeline. But my gut kept telling me to stop and weigh my words a bit. A mentor I’ve long trusted always told me to listen to the gut and I’m glad I did this time.
My first reaction on hearing Jane’s news was, “Okay, good for her,” but then more facts started coming out. And as I tried to put together all the facts, I started to see problems. And I’m not the only one.
Right out of the gate, Wendy the Superlibrarian put words to the vague unease that settled over me soon after the announcement, and I found her blog enlightening. In it, Wendy indicates that the whole affair “looks squirky.” It does indeed.
And the more I think about it, the more I’m bothered by the lack of disclosure. As reviewers, we work hard to build up a position of trust with readers. I know that Jane isn’t the first blogger to get a book deal but there’s something different about this one. Given that she wants to keep her blog going while also writing her books, I can understand wanting to keep identities separate.
What I’m less understanding about are some of the apparent conflicts of interest that others have noted, including those that Sarah from Smart Bitches addressed in a Q&A with Dabney Grinnan from this site. If you haven’t seen Sarah’s words, they’re well worth a read. I say that not because one of my colleagues interviewed her, but because I do think she has been courageous and open in facing up to what she knew and how she handled it.
The Ethical Issues
And the ethical issues?
For instance, Jane (who obviously knew full well that she was also Jen Frederick) decided to give her author persona some publicity by having “Jen” donate a Kindle Fire to DABWAHA. I would expect participants thought someone other than Jane herself had donated the prize. The sponsorship/donation does look more than a little bit misleading.
And then there’s the issue of the guest post recommending one of Jen Frederick’s books. I don’t know for certain and to my knowledge the post’s author hasn’t said anything on the subject, but I do doubt that the guest poster knew Jane Litte/Jen Frederick were the same person. However, again this is a situation where Jane would have obviously known and yet she ran the item anyway.
Then there’s the column written by Kati, a regular reviewer at Dear Author. In listing one of Jen Frederick’s books as a best read of the year on Dear Author, Kati did disclose that she beta read for Jen Frederick, but nowhere did she mention that Jen Frederick and Jane Litte were the same person. I haven’t seen any public comment from Kati as to whether she knew Jen Frederick was also Jane Litte, so it’s unclear that she knew she was recommending a book written by the site owner at the time she wrote the column. The more trusting part of me hopes that maybe she didn’t know the two were the same, but even so, we get back to the ownership problem. Jane owns the blog and ultimately, it’s problematic that she ran the column without addressing the ethical issue.
And speaking of addressing issues, the daily deals go out under Jane’s byline, so one can presume she knew she was pushing her own book by posting it in this column. And that she did so without disclosing that she was urging readers to go buy her own book definitely looks problematic.
Do I think that authors always need to publicly disclose their private lives or even other pseudonyms? Not necessarily. One can write books and still have some privacy, and it’s certainly not unheard of for authors to use more than one name or even to review pseudonymously. However, when one operates a reader-focused blog which runs articles advocating for transparency and ethical reviewing, readers expect that the bloggers will be open and honest with them. If Jane Litte decided to write books under another name, fine. However, doing things such as using one of her own reviewers as a beta reader and promoting the books on the blog without disclosure of their true authorship robs the blog readers of the chance to make an informed decision.
And under those circumstances, it’s not surprising that some readers feel betrayed. After all, the community at that site trusted Dear Author to be a reader space and it turned out that things weren’t entirely as they appeared. Azteclady captures that sense of betrayal (and a good deal of the timeline) here, and like her, I suspect more than a few in the community are in a place of being “angry and extremely sad at the loss of that trust.”
Do I think bloggers shouldn’t also be authors? No. However, I do think they need to be up front about it with their readers. For instance, longtime readers at AAR probably know that former reviewers Marianne Stillings and Megan Frampton, among others, went on to publish books. They actually wrote about the experience here on the site. We’ve reviewed them since, but we do have a policy in place whereby if a reviewer publishes books, then we don’t review that author for at least 3 years(used to be 2 years) and after that time, only reviewers who never worked at AAR with the author in question do any reviewing.
I say this not to toot our own horn, but just to give an example. Balancing the interests of author, reviewer and reader is difficult and this is just one way of doing it. I’m sure other sites have dealt with the same issue and have their own protections in place. The larger effect of what has been happening with Jane Litte/Jen Frederick didn’t occur because of any one act. As you can see from the examples, it was a lot of little decisions that brought things to the point where, taken together, the cumulative effect just does not look right.
The Author Loops Issue
Probably the most controversial of these decisions would be that of Jane/Jen to participate on confidential author loops. These loops are understood to be author-only spaces. And when Jen Frederick started participating, authors thought they were dealing with author Jen Frederick. They had no idea they were also dealing with blogger Jane Litte.
I first learned of Jane/Jen’s presence on the author loops via The Passive Voice and in the article posted by the anonymous author, a sense of betrayal comes through clearly.
Folks on those loops had a certain expectation regarding with whom they thought they were dealing. I’ve never been on the loops, but from the descriptions given by authors I’ve spoken with at conferences, one gets the distinct sense that they are spaces for writers to blow off steam, share news and encourage each other. In short, they can speak freely in a way that they probably wouldn’t if they knew reviewers, publishers or the public was reading along.
Because of this, the idea that Jane/Jen held herself out only as Jen Frederick on author loops and let authors take her at face value just doesn’t sit right with me. When I try to put myself in the shoes of the authors, I can understand the anger and sadness I’ve been reading around the web. This comment from Bree is a particularly heartbreaking example of what’s been floating around out there.
And then there’s the other unintended consequence of all this that Courtney Milan outlines in detail at Comment #210 over at Smart Bitches. That’s right. By playing author Jen Frederick over on the author loops, it appears that other people’s communications may possibly become open for review by the parties to the Ellora’s Cave lawsuit in ways never intended by anyone posting there. I am not a defamation/libel attorney, so I don’t want to play libel expert on the internet, but I do find Milan’s analysis sobering reading.
One Last Issue
So yes, I definitely have a problem with how Jane/Jen handled matters. And there’s one last thing that bugs me that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere – Doesn’t the timing on Jane/Jen’s announcement seem awfully convenient?
I do know that civil lawsuits can drag on for quite some time. The discovery process alone sometimes months. In her Big Reveal, Jane states that she is making the decision to disclose her Jen Frederick penname because of the Ellora’s Cave lawsuit. Fair enough. I haven’t seen the discovery-related documents exchanged by the parties to the lawsuit, but I could see where this might happen. However, I can’t help wondering why she chose now as disclosure time.
I’m not a huge believer in coincidences. And doesn’t it seem like a mighty convenient accident of fate that Jane/Jen would feel compelled to make her authorship disclosure right before her back to back April and May Jen Frederick book releases? I’m certainly not privy to any factual knowledge there, but yeah, something doesn’t smell quite right to me either.
Oh and since I’ve been speaking of full disclosure: All About Romance isn’t my only writing gig ever. At my old job, I wrote a couple of articles on scintillating topics such as ethical issues the arise when representing a client with diminished capacity. As I already told a fellow blogger privately, I can promise you that you won’t see those ever promoted on AAR, not even as sleep aids.
– Lynn Spencer
Author’s Note: Also in the interests of full disclosure, for those who are not already aware, Dabney Grinnan of this site was a past reviewer at Dear Author from January 2012 through September 2013. However, she did not co-write this piece nor has she provided any information about Dear Author.