July 14, 2014

Gag Orders in Publishing: What We're Not Allowed to Say

Believe it or not, despite the wealth of articles, blog posts, inside scoops, and the like, there are many things those of us in publishing aren't allowed to discuss in detail or disclose at all.  Contract details and internal documents or strategies, for instance, are kept under wraps, especially in traditional publishing, but that is true for any business, and pretty much any job.

Regardless of the route an author takes, however, we as a group are repeatedly, vehemently warned against discussing any topic* that can be seen as polarizing or political.
*Unless a book is specifically about a polarizing topic, and then that one topic is considered acceptable for that one author. 
It is as though our convictions are expected to disappear unless they further our publicity attempts. For those who may not be aware, this is because we are desperately afraid of alienating readers.

This makes a certain kind of sense, on the surface. We as authors are our own business. We are not just the manufacturing department (writing), or the quality assurance department (editing), or the marketing department. We are also the public face of our company, the president and CEO, and readers, like other consumers, may want to "vote" with their dollars.  When Nabisco came out in support of the gay community with their rainbow Oreo image, there was enormous backlash from those who disagreed. When Chick-Fil-A's COO came out against gay marriage, many vowed never to purchase their product again. Understandably, authors whose books have nothing to do with political or polarizing issues would want to avoid that kind of backlash. We have a difficult enough time selling books!

Should that mean, though, that we no longer stand for anything other than our books? 

In a recent conversation I had with author Alexander Mazin, he told me that he feels a responsibility to guide his readers / the public on important matters. He has a platform, a voice, a following, and he feels responsible for the message he provides them. 

Is the difference then that he is a respected and established author, and this advice not to speak out is generally targeted toward aspiring ones? Or, is the difference that he lives and writes in Russia? And what does that mean when authors in an oppressive country feel the obligation to speak up, while authors living in a "free" country, one which prides itself on the idea of free speech, are bluntly told not to express personal opinions on important issues?

Notably, there is overwhelming support for authors to include issues which are polarizing in their books: from interracial couples (which, yes, are still a contentious topic), to diversity in sexuality, or the experience of a character considering abortion (and many more). Both publishers and readers ask to see those stories.  So why are we allowed — even encouraged — to explore these deeply controversial subjects in our writing, but silenced in our platforms?

To be honest, this scares me. I can unashamedly admit that I want to be a successful author, but I question where we currently draw the line. Should authors actively hide details like their sexuality and their religious beliefs, as well as their political views? Or should we merely never talk about them, for fear of being defined by only that one detail, and of therefore losing readers, in a manner all too reminiscent of "don't ask, don't tell"?

I've written in the past about how political agendas should not be the focus of our books, though it seems our writing may be the only chance we have to express our genuine opinions to our readers. But have we really come to the point where political opinions have to be couched within our books, even in the USA? Oppressed authors, for example those writing under the Soviet regime, have a long history of masterfully hiding political messages within their work, but it is horrifying to think that that may be where we're headed, or worse, where we already are — although in our case, we are censored not by a government committee, but by the much more effective consumer dollar.

Our convictions, whether political or religious, are integral to who we are. Yet in a world where readers claim to want to know their authors, to build relationships with them through social media, we must hide those convictions, those bits and pieces which could potentially discourage someone from giving our work a chance. Perhaps worse, we as a group pretend to (or do?) find this to be an acceptable cost of doing business, or maybe, of losing ourselves in becoming a business.

    Still, which pieces of yourself are you willing to hide for the sake of your career?


  1. Thank you for giving me the link to this post! You hit my frustration exactly on the head. Even in person, I generally don't broach polarizing topics with those I know aren't on my side - because I've learned from experience that I'm not going to change their minds & they're certainly not going to change mine, so all we end up is angry at each other - BUT when topics come up and I feel strongly about them, it's nearly impossible for me to not at least let it be known where I stand. So it's hard for me to zip it online ... although I must admit that the gag has probably saved me a lot of time & aggravation. .

    1. I broach difficult topics in person if the situation allows it. Even if the two people don't come to an agreement, as long as both are open to a respectful discussion, both can learn something. And I wish we could do the same online.

      But everything nowadays is polarizing, and even making statements like "I am Jewish" could easily lose me readers. One of the publishers I decided not to work with (you know which, Nicki) had a clause in their contract saying authors aren't allowed to make any statements which could "create a negative impression." I mean, in whose eyes? It would literally mean never being allowed to express an opinion of any kind on the internet, since someone somewhere could be offended.