Ethics and Professionalism and Blogging

Can I write a blog post about a conference I didn’t attend? Watch me.

The first Book Blogger Conference, a one day gig, happened a few weeks ago in New York, just after BookExpoAmerica. I want to start by saying how impressive it is to me that some book bloggers would get together and do what they did.

On the agenda, there were two speakers, in addition to a number of panels. One of those was Ron Hogan, who spoke on Ethics and Professionalism in Blogging. I was really interested in his talk, so I watched the video. I offer a summary and commentary below. Let me say for the record that I love the fact that this talk was invited, that the organizers made room on a crowded schedule for ethics, and that Hogan had a number of things to say that are interesting, important, and worth hearing. I offer disagreements and critical remarks below, because that’s how I engage with things that interest me. That’s what philosophers do. It’s not an indication of lack of respect or appreciation: quite the opposite. If the talk sucked, I wouldn’t bother with this post. I have better things to do, and so do you.

Moving on … according to his bio, Hogan

helped create the literary Internet by launching Beatrice.com in 1995. In 2010, after writing about the business side of publishing as a senior editor for GalleyCat for several years, he briefly served as the director of e-marketing strategy for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

I confess that I had never heard of Hogan prior to checking out the BBC agenda. In case any of you are in a similar boat, this piece is a nice introduction to his interests, skills, and achievements.

Anyway, here is a summary of the talk, with commentary. I did my best to be accurate, but I may have gotten something wrong. If I need to be corrected, feel free to do so.

Hogan starts out by distinguishing what professional literary critics do from what the book bloggers in the audience do:

Of course you don’t live up to the standards it sets for itself because you are doing something completely different and there are so many other ways to talk about a book than an analytical review. And many of you are doing that. You show enthusiasm. You do interviews. You contextualize things through biographical reflection. You do personal reflection, getting very specific about what a book means to you, rather than an attempt an objective analysis of it.

[It's probably true that a lot of bloggers don't strive for objectivity, but I think they achieve it, or come as close to it as any pro. Otherwise, how do we explain the common practice of declining to review certain books, i.e. books written by friends or crit partners, or books for which a reviewer has served a beta reader? How do we explain disclaimers within reviews to the effect that "this is not a type of book I normally read", etc.? To my mind, all of those are objectivity-enhancing practices.

It's true, absolutely, that book bloggers are more likely to talk about personal experiences with a book -- the way it felt to read it, especially. But to my mind, this doesn't detract from the potential of objectivity. It's also something pros do, albeit in a less explicit way. When Larry Doyle reviews Elliot Alagash: A Novel by Simon Rich in the NYTRB, calls it "funny" and recounts the "nasty pleasures" it provides, does anyone think he is measuring the novel against an objective (i.e. has-nothing-to-do-with-Larry-Doyle's-subjective-preferences) standard of "humor" and "pleasure"? Or, to take another random example, when the LRB's Nicholas Spice says of Phillip Roth's Everyman, that it is "disagreeable", or that its formal intricacy is "the most interesting thing about it", I have to ask "disagreeable and interesting to whom"?

Doyle and Spice compare the subjects of their reviews with other books in the author's oeuvre, and with similar books published before or since. So maybe it's their knowledge of their subject that sets them apart? Um, no. In my websurfing, good genre fiction bloggers do the exact same thing ("This Nora Roberts is a bit steamier than her usual"; "I think we have seen this hero before in an earlier Julia Quinn novel; "With this book, J. R. Ward has moved from romance into urban fantasy" etc.). There are differences, but I think they are mainly stylistic, and of degree rather than kind. I also think they have more to do with the self-image and goals of the reviewer than content of the reviews.

Hogan began his talk by saying that the "war between the bloggers and professional reviewers is over, and that the bloggers won." But I wonder how it's a "win" if they are not even playing the same game?]

Hogan then defines what “professional” means for this group:

“Professional” for most of you is not about drawing a paycheck or commission or freelance sort of thing. That’s not what professionalism is to you. It is about living up to a certain standard of excellence or a certain standard of performance.

[I appreciate, from personal experience, how hard it is to talk to a diverse group of people. There is no way anyone could address all of the different interests of the audience in one talk. But I just want to point out -- and I am not saying that Hogan, of all people, doesn't know this --  that many book bloggers are, or hope to be, professionals in the sense of earning money and making a living: some are aspiring authors, editors, publishers, or marketers, and some are aspiring to -- and do -- earn a living directly from their blogs.  So, I think it's worth noting that many of these "amateur" bloggers have complex and intricate relations with commercial interests -- which serve their own economic interests --  from taking ARCs to serving as stops on publicity tours to joining with bookstores to ad revenue, Amazon vine, you name it. Finally, even those who book blog "for fun" are often contributing in some way to their family's finances, even if it's just saving money on purchased books. No, not a profession, but not somehow outside our economic system either. If you can hear the grinding of a feminist axe, you have good ears. I'm a little sensitive about this because economic history is littered with descriptions of the public sphere that describe anything women do as non-public, non-commercial, non-political, etc.]

Hogan then adapts Seth Godin’s techniques for making yourself indispensable to your employer. Godin, also a new name to me, and again from his bio, is the “author of the most popular marketing blog in the world”, and “of the bestselling marketing books of the last decade”.

[I confess I was skeptical right away. How do we get from professionalism to marketing? Hogan has just told us that book bloggers aren't interested in professionalism in the usual (paycheck earning) sense, but rather in the sense of a standard of excellence. So it feels like a bit of a nonsequitur to hand the talk over to a guy known for helping people sell things, especially themselves.]

Hogan relies mainly on Godin’s book, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? (Review here). He says,

I am going to jump off from the specific qualities that he talks about and tinker a bit with the qualities that he raises … and we’ll talk about them in our kind of environment.

So, here are the 7 qualities for making yourself indispensable to your employer or — in the case at hand — your blogging audience:

1. Providing a unique interface between members of the organization — what is it that binds you and your readers? What is the passion that you share? The book and authors that you love, and the ways that you love them. Each of you must identify that quality for yourself, for your blog, and for your audience in your own unique way.

2. Delivering a unique creativity — what makes your blog stand out?

3. Managing a situation or organization of deep complexity — there are so many books published, no one can cover it all. “What are you zoomed in on and bringing to people’s attention?”

4. Leading customers — “Where are you pointing your readers? …  You have a mission or point, whatever that is. What is it? What will result from the conversation you are starting?”

5. Inspiring staff — you are inspiring readers simply by being out there. What are you inspiring them to do? It is an ongoing movement. Where is it headed?

6. Possessing Deep Domain Knowledge — Do you know the territory? — You are an expert of some kind, even if it is only in the field of “books I love.”

7. Possessing a unique talent — What perspective do you bring? What do you have to say about those books that will draw people back to your site day after day?

So those are sort of the professional standards, and professionalism meaning standard of performance, the kinds of things that you might want to try to live up to as you are sitting there at the keyboard. Not necessarily in a very conscious way, but simply as things that would inform your actions on a very organic level.

[Contrary to my initial skepticism, I liked the adaptation Godin's qualities to blogging, and Hogan's questions were thought provoking for me, especially #5. On the other hand, I'm not seeing the connection between these 7 qualities and "professionalism". Godin's idea was to provide ways for employees to make themselves  indispensable so they don't lose their jobs. When I think of a "standard of excellence" for book bloggers, I think of different things. Qualities like honesty, diplomacy, sanguinity, and reliability, for example, and specific comprehension, communication, writing, and technological skills. But maybe that's just me.]

Hogan moves from here to the next segment of his talk:

So the ethical part of the conversation is that just as you shouldn’t accept somebody else’s standard of professionalism willy nilly, you shouldn’t necessarily allow book critics or professional journalists to impose their standard of ethics on you because their standard of ethics is not necessarily applicable to what you do. It’s applicable to what they do, and it’s created specifically to respond to their circumstances … but it’s not your set of circumstances and, you know, frankly, why would you need to declare a code of ethics?

Hogan says that bloggers don’t need a code of ethics because either you are trustworthy or you aren’t and no code of ethics will change that reality. You shouldn’t have to say that you are trustworthy — you should just be trustworthy. Citing Godin, Hogan notes that codes of ethics evolved when commerce developed to the point that business associates did not necessarily know each other, and they needed a standardized sign of trustworthiness. Hogan says that we don’t need a code of ethics to trust bloggers we love because we have let them into our hearts already.

[I agree with Hogan here, in principle (heh) as I will explain below, but I have no idea what he meant when he said that last line. I think there are lots of good reasons to develop a code of ethics that go unexplored here. It's more about the effect of the process on the self-understanding of the people to whom the code applies, than about getting readers/customers/clients to trust you. The bigger problem, to my mind, with developing a code of ethics for book bloggers is that it is such a diverse group, with different aims and audiences, that it would be hard to come up with anything not unhelpfully general and superficial.]

Hogan then moves on to define what “ethics” means to him:

Ethics to me are not about the principles that you lay out but about the questions that you are asking from the starting point.

[I like this very much.]

Noting that principles have exceptions, Hogan suggests moral particularism, where it’s

not about the codified principles but rules of thumb by talking about the situation and seeing where people are coming from from a variety of different perspectives and sort of laying out some guidelines but not hard and fast ‘you must do this or you are an unethical person’ sort of rules.’

[Here Hogan is wading into philosophical ethics, with not very satisfying results, to me at least. It's a long way from "principles have exceptions" to "moral particularism" (most principlists recognize the need for context sensitivity and for exceptions), and a long way from "moral particularism" to "we don't need principles" (most particularists think we do), but the bigger problem is that I don't think this detour did any work for him in the talk. That is, the debate between particularism and its opponents is really a metaethical debate about the structure of moral judgment, and isn't really helpful in discerning which moral judgments are right or which ones have a better claim on us. My own rule of thumb is to avoid direct discussion of arguments in ethical theory whenever possible when giving ethics talks, unless there is absolutely no other way to make my point.]

Hogan proceeds to demonstrate this ethical approach by discussing two issues:

1. Do you talk about how you got your books, i.e., the FTC thing.

We get a summary of the issue. Hogan says that disclosure is not something we have to do, but we can choose to do it for any number of personal reasons. Not doing it is a personal choice. So again “it’s not a hard and fast rule one way or the other. It’s this is right for me, this is right for you.”

[I detected no ethics in this discussion whatsoever. In fact, the implicit claim is more or less that disclosure is a matter of personal preference, not a matter of ethics. By definition, an ethical matter is one for which you have to provide public reasons of some form more compelling than "this is what I want to do". It is fine with me if someone doesn't think disclosure is an ethical issue -- that's a legitimate position to take. But let's be clear on what we are doing.]

2. Do you ask people to write for your blog for free?  Hogan makes a reference to the keynote speaker, who said she didn’t like blog tours. His next example is the Huffington Post, which doesn’t pay its writers, yet makes loads of money off of their content.  Hogan notes that this presents a potentially exploitative situation. But

I don’t have an answer for you that would fit every set of circumstances. And I don’t think anybody does. It’s an ethical decision that each of us has to make of our own accord. … You have to look within your heart and ask yourself, ‘is this what I want to accomplish in terms of all those kinds of qualities I talked about before of your professionalism?’ The choices that you make ethically, are they steering you toward the standards that you set for yourself as a blogger and as a writer and as a communicator. And are you doing that in a way that is helpful to everybody rather than harmful to anybody?

[While I see the HuffPo point, I actually had a hard time understanding what the ethical issue is here with book bloggers. Anyway, we get a glimmer of a substantive ethical approach in the last line, a sort of consequentialism (i.e. take the action has the best consequences for everybody affected, however "best (goodest)" is defined. Here, best seems to mean "helpfulness".) But just a glimmer. You know what would have been great here? To move beyond "context counts" to talking about one specific case and working through it. I can understand choosing not to tell other people what they should and should not do, but then how about talking about, as he said earlier, the ethical realm in which he is truly expert --  Beatrice.com?  I would have loved to hear what his standards are for his blog/s, and how his standards dictate a certain response to the disclosure issue, and how that has worked out for him and for those affected by it. Because I can think of a lot of ways to meet the "professional" standards of 1-7 that are pretty darn unethical. So being more specific here could have shown how 1-7 can work as ethical standards, or at least how those professional standards might intersect with ethical concerns to generate a satisfying resolution in a particular case.]

I gather that Hogan, like any good speaker, left a lot of time for Q&A, and I would have loved to hear if some of his points were fleshed out during the less formal part of the presentation. As this talk shows, professionalism, marketing, ethics, community, and reviewing intersect in complex and new ways for book bloggers, and I’m glad knowledgeable people in the book blogosphere are taking the time and creating the space to reflect on these issues.

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