I’m glad that a lot of the heat around the Nebulas, LMBPN and 20booksto50K has abated (Cora has an extensive round-up of events here http://corabuhlert.com/2019/03/01/the-latest-developments-regarding-the-2018-nebula-award-finalists/ ) Aside from the odd more trollish reaction, many of the authors involved have taken a step back and looked around at the circumstance and dialled back the rhetoric. Even so, the surrounding conflict clearly caused some emotional pain and some harsh words were said that escalated conflict.
I’m not interested in throwing fuel on the fire but I don’t think we can make this a taboo subject either. Craig Martelle who runs 20bboksto50K posted a response to the conflict on the group’s Facebook page. He also has a slightly shorter (it omits an anecdote about golf) on his public page here.
Martelle’s post is very much about his integrity and his positive intent and his code of honour (so to speak, he doesn’t use that term.) A snippet:
“This is a long-term game, and the emotions that people feel right now will recede. I will be able to look back and know that I did nothing wrong. I violated no rules, no terms of service, and no laws. “Craig Martelle Facebook post
All fair enough but missing the point. A lot of the post on this topic have been about what happened from a factual perspective accompanied with some people explaining their own anger on the subject. I thought I’d take a different tack.
Imagine a popular publisher of science fiction. For want of a better name we’ll call it Torblit. For the record I don’t think the following is something either Tor or Orbit would do exactly but as Tor in particular are often cast as the villains in wider fandom, I’ll be lazy and make use of that.
Torblit publishes lots of novels and novellas and short fiction in anthologies and they’ve made a big push into ebooks and Kindle Unlimited etc. They are doing rather well but are hungry to do better. In particular, Torblit see that there’s a vast market in less than traditionally published authors and they want to tap into that. Fair enough, you might say, business is business.
Torblit starts a new business called “Torblit Workshops”. They present this as them giving back to the writing community. It’s a great idea. They run, at cost, writing workshops. They use their existing writing connections to bring indie authors together with more experienced professionals. Sure, the workshops aren’t cheap but they are run at cost and Torblit execs often have to fight their finance department about the unnecessary work involved. “It’s investing in the future!” says the exec in charge and it’s hard to argue with that. The workshops foster new talent — sure not all of that talent ends up writing for Torblit but some do and the ones that don’t help foster a growing market for SF by producing good work. It’s a virtuous circle! Who can argue with that!
Sure, some of the usual naysayers call the Torblit Workshops a ‘cult’ and others may roll their eyes about the gushing praise wannabe authors give about Torblit on the Workshop community page. There’s always some people who are jealous of success.
The community page is well run and carefully moderated. ‘No self-promotion without permission!’ a smart rule! You know how hungry authors can be! Sure, there’s cross promotion within many Torblit books but why not?
Oh and the SWFA? Torblit Workshops quite rightly points out the virtues of membership. If you are serious about being a SF author then the SWFA is an organisation that will help protect your interests.
Look above. There are no obvious serious ethical issues here so far (I mean aside from capitalism in general) beyond a vague sense of a conflict of interest (there’s actually a huge conflict but it’s not obvious).
OK, now add a list of recommended works on the Torblit Workshop community page for Nebula nomination. Add a touch of how indie authors (like most members of the community page) are under represented in the Nebulas. Now add that much of the list is Torblit published works or by authors who have been published in Torblit anthologies.
Ouch! A vague conflict of interest (a company involved in two different aspects of publishing) becomes a deep and apparent conflict of interest NO MATTER WHAT THE INTENTION WAS.
Conflicts of interest are classified into three groups:
Here’s Columbia Universities definition of it.
“A conflict of interest involves the abuse — actual, apparent, or potential — of the trust that people have in professionals. The simplest working definition states: A conflict of interest is a situation in which financial or other personal considerations have the potential to compromise or bias professional judgment and objectivity. An apparent conflict of interest is one in which a reasonable person would think that the professionals judgment is likely to be compromised. A potential conflict of interest involves a situation that may develop into an actual conflict of interest. It is important to note that a conflict of interest exists whether or not decisions are affected by a personal interest; a conflict of interest implies only the potential for bias, not a likelihood.”http://ccnmtl.columbia.edu/projects/rcr/rcr_conflicts/foundation/index.html#1_1
Other institutions and businesses have different definitions. Note that the issue isn’t just whether the list is or is not a slate. There’s other ethical questions about slates. The issue here is were competing roles and interests place people in a position were they are compromised.
Indeed, with this lens, even the (sensible and good) advice from the Torblit Workshop to its members to join the SWFA is a conflict of interest. The workshops aren’t the publisher but the connection with the publisher creates a conflict when coupled with the perceived loyalty gained from workshop members.
Note also that this has ZERO to do with whether anybody is unethical in themselves. Apparent, perceived and actual conflicts of interest are NOT a function of the personal integrity of the individual.
If you’ve ever been in the position as a manager of having to explain to person Z why activity Y is an apparent conflict of interest with their duties then you may have experienced the subsequent reactions:
- “I’d never let that influence my judgement!” – not the point, the conflict exists whether you act on it or not.
- “There’s no specific rule against Y!” -true, the rules from HR tend to only cover the most obvious cases. That doesn’t mean your cases isn’t a conflict.
- “I’ve done nothing wrong!” – great, lets keep it that way.
- “You are attacking my integrity!” – no, I’m protecting your reputation.
- “You are stopping me from helping people!” – you’ll have to find a different way of helping people because this puts you in a vulnerable position.
Back to 20booksto50K and LMBPN
LMBPN isn’t Tor books. It’s got a lot of books out and according to its spokes people it is doing well. Good for it.
20booksto50K isn’t some messianic cult nor are it’s members unthinking minions. Members appreciate the help and advice the group gives.
That one is closely connected to the other, is something of an issue but such is life. I think it is the kind of unintended, done for the best reasons kind of conflict of interest that good people often wander into. In some ways those are the worst kind because when they shift from apparent to potential to actual all of a sudden, nice people suddenly find themselves in positions where people are pointing fingers and implying that they are not good people.
Add in something even vaguely like a slate and some ‘us v them’ rhetoric then I’m astonished this didn’t blow up last year.