Should you name and shame in publishing?

As writers, especially when active on social media, we regularly hear of stories of poor behaviour in the publishing world — abuse of copyright, vanity publishing rip-offs, accusations of plagiarism, terrible rates, and so on.

These often serve as a warning — stay away! — and are shared among us.

But if it is you who has learned of something of concern that is not yet widely known, possibly through personal experience, what should you do with the information?

These days, few would keep at least basic details to themselves. I know I would probably vent on social media. Perhaps you would too.

But how much detail would you give?

Would you name and shame?

I briefly commented in a Twitter thread by travel writer Phoebe Smith, in which she described a grim dealing with a publisher offering diabolical terms for a book deal, from which she eventually walked away. She was generous to recount the experience, which was widely shared among writers, some of whom urged her to ‘name and shame’ the offending party.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable or unfair to make this request, per se, but neither do I think it’s unreasonable or unfair to flatly refuse it, with no reason given.

If this happens to you, it is your decision and your right to share or not share what you want (bearing in mind any confidentiality agreement you may have made). As it happens, Smith didn’t, but did give her reasons, which you can read at the foot of her thread.

The purpose of naming and shaming is, I guess, to heap opprobrium onto the target and guilt-trip them into improving their T&Cs. In truth, even if this tactic worked on some, I doubt it would change my mind about working with them, personally. I mean: wouldn’t you want to merely stick with those in the business who respect writers enough to offer them a decent deal?

An Act with Consequences …
For your act as a ‘namer and shamer’ to work well, your post has to be shared widely and go viral, and if that happens, then your name goes viral as well. Perhaps this will have a positive knock-on effect (boost of profile and sale of books?) but it can also create a bit of a storm you may not be prepared for.

Would you be ready for that? For the notifications, at the very least? You can mute them, but it may nevertheless feel overwhelming, and you may be asked for a lot of advice or additional information. These things can last a day or more, and you can easily ‘lose’ that time handing the response (or stressing over it) — time that could be valuable writing time.

But there’s more than that, of course. Might your regular clients or employers see the ‘fuss’ created? If your name is associated with a particular publisher or publication, might it cause a problem for them, even though you will have acted on your personal account and used the ‘views personal’ disclaimer in your bio?

Might your action deter another publisher from approaching you and wanting to work with you? It might — especially if they are new and not able to offer terms as favourable as the big guys and feel nervous that you might ‘name and shame’ them too.

These are important points to consider, I feel, before going ‘public’.

In not naming and shaming, Smith still successfully managed to warn surely thousands of writers that such a publishing outfit was out there. She wrote a good thread, and writing Twitter did its thing. Even if we don’t know who they are, we will have learned or been reminded that there are questionable operators in the wild. I would hope she informed e.g. The Society of Authors of their names, so that tabs can be kept on them by those with influence and power. It’s a course of action I would probably advise: letting organisations such as the NUJ, Writers’ Guild, Writing Magazine and others in the industry know, as appropriate, or even individual writers who you feel may be approached.

And if you’re wondering whether I have ever ‘named and shamed’, well … Sort of. I do call out organisers of writing competitions with unfair terms and conditions, typically requesting the assignment of copyright on all competition entries. Plenty of other writers do something similar with regard to copyright-grabbing contracts, including the ‘womag writer‘ circle of mainly female short fiction writers, some of whom are involved in Writing Chat on Twitter every Wednesday at 8pm. I feel it’s important we all continue to do this sort of thing, although I admit it is far easier and less riskier to do so when the information is already in the public domain, as competition T&Cs so often are, online, and tougher when not.

What about you? Do you call out bad behaviour or unfair contracts in publishing? What possible ‘solutions’ might there be to improve matters for all of us?

Always interested in your thoughts.

Comments 4

  • Personally I don’t think it’s so much a case of shaming as letting others know. I (that womag writer mentioned above) am very much against giving up all rights of my work. I don’t feel it’s right for me to say others must also refuse to do this, but I do feel obliged to point out the dangers and make people aware of when they might unintentionally give up rights – such as competitions which demand this simply for entering.

    • I did edit out a bit in the post which wondered whether we should call it something other than ‘naming and shaming’, funnily enough 🙂
      I think the rights thing is possibly slightly different than some of the other issues in publishing (like book contracts with appalling clauses) but nevertheless I still think it’s a bit of a risk for any writer to highlight or share information that some publishers may want to be kept under-the-radar or un-highlighted, and commend anyone who does ‘point out the dangers / make people aware’ when they have little if anything to gain personally from it.

  • A great post. Earlier this year, I drew attention to free to enter story comp run by a womag, that took the rights to every single entries.
    I suspect that the mag thought most would skim over the T&C’s.
    When I pointed it out, people thought I was mistaken, as most thought that this mag wouldn’t do that.
    All the mag said was: ‘It’s the standard competition T&C’s’.
    I don’t think they liked me putting it into focus but I this felt needed sharing. I admit that me sharing it probably deterred lots of womag writers entering the comp – me included.
    As the mag take the legal rights to all entries, there’s nothing stopping the staff writers re-drafting entries and publishing them under pen names – that’s be quite a good cost- cutting exercise.
    The mag probably won’t do that but it’s a pretty neat way of getting a lot of work for free.
    But if they did – how are we going to discover that they have done it?
    Now, by sharing this info, if that means this mag flatly refuse to consider my work in the future, then so be it.
    But it was their T&C’s and they would not consider changing them to more relaxed terms. Interestingly, one of T&C’s was not to bring (the mag) into disrepute.
    Why did they feel the need to include that?

    • I think the ‘disrepute’ thing sounds vague and unconvincing unless they gave examples as to what constitutes that in the T&Cs? In truth, I don’t think they’d have to rewrite stories if they take all rights – they can do what they want with them, including running them as they are and selling them on. Good for you for refusing, and for warning. The more we do this, the less likely publishers are to do it, and the more they realise it will hit them in their pockets.

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