Avoiding Unintended Consequences of Your Self-Publishing Life

author, you are firedI saw a recent article with the headline The Atlanta fire chief who wrote the homophobic book has been fired. When I read this, I thought it might be a good time for a post about some of the unintended consequences that can occur from your self-publishing life, if you don’t use a little forethought when publishing.

Clearly this fire chief wrote the book and intended to keep his job after writing it. However, things went awry because his job considered his content to be in violation of their standards for employees. While I don’t want to debate whether forethought could have prevented the situation that resulted here, I think the case serves as a reminder that the things we write can have unintended consequences if we’re not careful.

Before you get your hackles raised, I’m not saying to cower in fear and self-censor to the point that you write nothing. That would be ridiculous and very anti-creative. However, I do think that if you earn your living doing something other than selling books, you should be careful of how your books might impact that steady income.

Frankly, one sect of self-published authors does this regularly. I’m talking erotica writers, who often write under a pen name. While erotica is perfectly legal, the content is still shunned because it’s not appropriate for all age groups, and even many in the adult audience find it unbecoming. Therefore, a person who is a school teacher would likely want to write erotica under a pen name. The pen name provides mild anonymity, offering distance between an author’s writing life and an author’s “this job pays my bills” life. It should be noted that pseudonyms do not provide complete anonymity; an ex could rat you out, as well as the copyright office, if you’ve registered your work there. So, if you want to publish a hate-filled, racist manifesto and you’re the chief diversity officer at your company and need your job, don’t do it, even under a pseudonym. (OK, actually, go ahead and do it, as a big part of me really would like to see you get fired.)

Moving back to the main theme here of unintended consequences, the key thing is: it’s important for you to evaluate your situation and give it a gut check. Then, just to be sure, check out if your company has a written code of conduct or employee standards and make sure you’re not going to run afoul of that with what you’re writing (like the Atlanta Fire chief). If so, you need to evaluate if you can do something so the book doesn’t violate it, or whether writing it under a pseudonym would be a decent solution.

What if you’re not employed at the moment, but you’re looking for work? Could your book life affect that? I’ve heard of writers who use a pseudonym because they are unemployed and actively seeking work. When some employers Google applicants and learn they are writers, they — rightly or wrongly — assume that person will be spending the days dreaming and writing rather than actively doing the job the employer is paying the person to do.

In addition to the things that can impact your other work, there’s also the potential of being sued over something you write. This is more likely for nonfiction writers, though. If your book libels someone (writes false things about them), you could be open to a lawsuit. If you write a self-help book and offer advice that could actually harm people, then you could be open to liability. What advice could harm people? Well, let’s say you lost 50 pounds in six months and you’ve penned a tome called The Lighter Fluid Diet, where you recommend downing two tablespoons of lighter fluid each day. That might cause you some issues. While that’s an obvious one, there are other things that might be less apparent on first glance. Give your advice some thought before you decide to hit publish.

Memoir writers have to be particularly careful because they could get sued for invasion of privacy by publishing the private lives of other people, in so much as those people were interacting with them. While public acts are up for discussion (a divorce, or an incident recorded in a public record or newspaper), mentioning that you were profoundly changed by helping your cousin recover from an alcohol addiction is a violation of your cousin’s privacy and might get you sued. Anything you’re concerned about should be run by an attorney. Often times, the local writers’ guild or arts council can recommend a good attorney to talk to about your concerns. (Check out the Indies Unlimited Legal Resource page here.)

While issues can arise in your publishing journey that cause you to hit the pause button, that doesn’t mean you have to stop. Many times the issue of concern can be worked by simply rewriting a passage or two, removing libelous content, using a pseudonym, or seeking permission from a relative whose personal experience is integral to your own memoir. The key is to not let something come back to bite you later that you could have avoided with just a little forethought and planning.

[Update: The fired fire chief has now filed a federal law suit against the City of Atlanta.]

Author: RJ Crayton

RJ Crayton is a former journalist turned novelist. By day, she writes thrillers with a touch of romance. By night, she practices the art of ninja mom. To learn more about her or her books, visit her website or her Author Central page.

35 thoughts on “Avoiding Unintended Consequences of Your Self-Publishing Life”

  1. This certainly is a perspective I haven’t had in the forefront of my thoughts. Thank you for bringing it to our attention, as it would be ever so easy to slip up and the nightmare s begin. I agree that running it by an attorney would ease one’s mind and define the barriers.

    1. I think just having the idea in your mind will help authors navigate situations that could be sticky, but don’t have to be with a little planning. Glad to bring the notion to people’s attention.

  2. Yikes. Good post and timely.

    Personally I believe that if personal beliefs and philosophy collide with the bona fide mission and policies of an employer that person ought to be let go. How can a homophobe, a misogynist, or a racist perform the duties of a police officer without prejudice.

    1. Well, Yvonne, I’m torn on this. In one sense, you’ll likely get better service from someone who doesn’t despise you because they’re racist or homophobic or sexist or whatever other “ist” there is that they are.

      However, I saw an article recently about a lesbian couple were turned away by the woman they’d selected as their newborn’s pediatrician. They’d met with her prior to the birth, but at some point between that meeting and the birth, the pediatrician had “searched her heart” and decided she wouldn’t be a good doctor for that couple.

      That’s when you start to say, wait a minute. Because what if this woman was a neurosurgeon or a cancer specialist? The best in her field. Could she really leave patients to die because she didn’t feel comfortable treating them. And sorry, you can’t. People who are racist and sexist and whatever ist should be under the distinct impression that they are in the minority and that they have to do their jobs regardless of their personal feelings. They have to fight fires and save lives. It should be very clear what is appropriate and acceptable and what is not. And while it would be nice to say that people who are hostile shouldn’t be in these jobs, I think it would be nicer to say that people who are really good at their jobs should feel the pressure from their peers and society to do their jobs well for all people. Perhaps that doesn’t work in practice. Perhaps they can’t keep their hatred in check, but I do find it disappointing to say that people should be denied top-quality service because a person is racist. The thing about the pediatrician that also is irritating is that exposure can implement a decent change in certain people. Had this pediatrician given it a shot, would she have come to feel differently about the lesbian couple and their lifestyle? I don’t know. If she didn’t and she treated them poorly because of it, then that’s obviously a severe problem, as well. So, this is why this one is so tough.

      1. Just chiming in to say I totally agree with RJ on this one. And I loved this best of all, because it made me laugh — but it’s also exactly how I feel: “(OK, actually, go ahead and do it, as a big part of me really would like to see you get fired.)”

        1. You say “they have to do their jobs regardless of their personal feelings” and you’re right – but the reality is that’s not the way it actually works. So if someone has a true prejudice and I am the one he is prejudiced against I can’t trust him to put that aside when I need him. Just look at all the inequities in how people of colour, or of a certain religion are treated by the law.

          1. You’re right, too, Yvonne. No one wants to be mistreated by someone who was supposed to help them because that person was prejudiced. I just don’t know how to get rid of the really bad eggs, while still keeping people for whom there is hope. I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But the harm that can occur when someone is hateful and vindictive when doing their job may outweigh all other concerns.

      2. It seems to me that the pediatrician should have focused on the mother and ignored her relationship.
        Good points about paying attention to unintended consequences. Although it has not previously been a problem for me, I’m now going to include this in my own editing process as a formal element.

  3. Excellent points R.J. This was something I had to keep in the back of my mind at all times while writing “The Spark”. Even though it’s a novel set in a fictionalized Fire Department, the real one for whom I work, has very stringent conflict of interest and conduct rules. It wasn’t just a matter of avoiding controversial content or “changing the names to protect the innocent”.

    The back cover bio and all my other promotional material never mention my employer by name. They simply refer to me a veteran firefighter. I was very careful about that in interviews too. I even had the author photo taken with a truck and helmet belonging to the volunteer FD where I live rather than at work.

    Above all, though I have been known to sneak a peak at IU from time to time, I never do any writing at work, lest I be charged with “time theft”. It’s also way too busy and noisy to write in the station.

    I gave written notification to management when I finished the first draft and again when I approached publication. Despite all of this, I was still hauled in front of the Fire Chief and all four Deputies to face the inquisition when the book came out. It was a bit nerve wracking but it all worked out and one of the Deputies confided privately that he quite liked the book.

    Like it or not, we live in an era where business and institutions are hypersensitive about their public image.

    Oh, and the Atalanta Fire Chief and me aside, most Firefighters are actually nice people.

    Oh and don’t drink lighter fluid. Please.

      1. Al, who you gonna listen to: the warnings on the lighter fluid label, a firefighter, or some author who’s uploaded to Amazon? Choose wisely, my friend. Choose wisely. 🙂

    1. John, sounds like you took a thoughtful approach to this and looked at your department’s policy, which is great. I think it’s important for people to do that. While it might sell a couple of extra books to list your fire department’s name, it’s a foolish thing to do if it gets your fired from that department. And some people wouldn’t even think of that as an issue, so I’m glad you brought it up. Another great aspect to look at when dealing with your day job and your writing job.

  4. Good post, RJ.

    There was a big to-do last year that has some of the elements of one of your possible scenarios. Going from memory, there was an author in Utah who wrote “Christian Fiction” I think it might have been aimed specifically at the LDS (Mormon) market. The author was informed (I think by multiple bloggers) that an ARC was being circulated to bloggers by a different author that to these bloggers appeared to be the same book with sections rewritten to spice it up (I think to the point of being erotica). Needless to say, she wasn’t happy. She was able to track down who it was, an elementary school teacher (also in Utah) who was using a pen name. I’m not sure everything has shaken out yet (there was a kickstarter to raise money for a lawsuit, etc), but one of the repercussions was the teacher was fired from her job, not for the plagiarism, which has yet to be proven from a legal standpoint, but because writing the erotica was deemed to have violated some kind of morals clause in her contract. I’ve heard of at least one other teacher who was fired (I think in California) for the same reason, at least partially.

    1. Wow, Al. That’s a scary situation for a teacher to be in. People are very particular about teachers, so I feel for them if they’re interested in writing erotica. A pseudonym is probably the best bet for teachers.

      However, the plagiarism is more concerning than the erotica. Someone who would plagiarize really shouldn’t be teaching (if she did in fact plagiarize).

  5. Interesting point about publishing while job hunting, RJ. I would have thought that a prospective employer would appreciate the indie author’s dedication to learning new skills. Although I suppose they might be concerned that the author would quit the day job in a heartbeat once they became a bestseller, because that happens so frequently (yeah, right).

    1. Well, as infrequently as it happens, it’s probably a good bet that the writer would quit his or her job. I know I would. Wait, my other job, at the moment, is parenting. I don’t think I’m allowed to quit. 🙂

  6. This post provides sound advice, RJ.
    I work for a luxury retailer and we have very specific rules regarding such things. I love both of my jobs, writing and selling, and am determined to meld them together. We need to be logical. Who would want their child’s teacher to be an author of erotica? Not me.

    1. I think you’re right. The key is to be logical about it. Teachers have to look at their code of conduct and morals clause. They’re held to a higher standard about these things. I think most people don’t care if their kids’ teachers write erotica or not. They just don’t want their kids to Google the teacher’s name and find erotica. So, it’s important if you’re doing that, to give yourself some layers of separation, like a pseudonym. While that’s not 100 percent effective, I think that’s better than going at it with just the real name. But, again, the teacher needs to read the code of conduct to determine what it is that causes problems. John, mentioned with the fire department, they don’t want their name used in connection with projects. For a school is it just the use of the teacher’s name and/or her likeness that causes problems? I’ve heard of teachers who were fired for being in pornography as well as being strippers (so they’re quite identifiable because it’s their face). But, if it’s just a name and likeness issue, a pseudonym would likely get around that as it’s not your real name and you wouldn’t have to include any images of yourself. However, if it is the very act of writing erotica that is problematic, then the teacher would have to weigh his or her options.

  7. Excellent points, RJ. Since I work a few hours a week for a community college, in PR, yet, if I ever wanted to publish a story about someone shooting up the place (no desire to do this, at the moment), I’d probably have to do that under a pseudonym. Common sense rules, I guess.

    1. Excellent example, Laurie. School shootings are the things I’m sure all people who work in education think about at some point (especially after the horrific Connecticut shooting). However, as an employee, writing about a shooting on your own campus would cause a lot of fear and concern. Is this a not-too-veiled threat? Or is this just a writer who does what writers do: imagine horrific what-if situations? And given how unprotected schools are, it’s not worth having your employer, students or parents looking too closely at you in this respect. So, that’s another one where people have to really think about it. It may not be fair, but it’s something that must cross a person’s mind if that’s their situation.

  8. A few years back there was a teacher who wrote erotica books on the side under a pen name. Then someone somehow linked her to her and reported her to her school, which called her up to be academically reviewed. Her students became aware of her sideline…

  9. Great post, RJ, but I didn’t know if you were aware that work can be copyrighted under a pseudonym. According to the U.S. Copyright Office:

    “If you write under a pseudonym and do not want to have your identity revealed in the Copyright Office’s records, give your pseudonym and identify it as such on your application. You can leave blank the space for the name of the author. If an author’s name is given, it will become part of the Office’s online public records, which are accessible by Internet. The information cannot later be removed from the public records. You must identify your citizenship or domicile.

    “In no case should you omit the name of the copyright claimant. You can use a pseudonym for the claimant name. But be aware that if a copyright is held under a fictitious name, business dealings involving the copyrighted property may raise questions about its ownership.”

    If someone writes under a pseudonym, I suggest getting a business license and tax ID number for that name. Not only does that help with the ownership question, but it enables the writer to be paid as the pseudonym. For instance, I can accept payment as Maggie Rascal without disclosing my real name if I so choose.

    1. Good information M.P. Thanks for posting. If you file a business license for a fictitious name, I assume that’s also a public record somewhere. So, even a fictitious name has some traceability. But it’s probably harder to track down. But very good copyright tip, as I hadn’t realized that.

      1. Not sure of the details, but I seem to remember that Stephen King was “outed” by a bookstore employee who searched the Library of Congress and discovered through publisher’s records that Richard Bachman was indeed King, as the man had suspected.

  10. I can only imagine what would happen if I was still in the classroom and the “right” parent read my short stories. They’re not even that racy to me, but people come down on teachers for everything imaginable. Apparently, teachers aren’t human beings too, but I digress…

  11. Common sense advice and tips, RJ. Once we’re published authors, writers need to remember that we’re “out in public.” No sense running around naked and shocking everyone, right? Better to wear the appropriate clothes for the appropriate situation. Sometimes that means donning a pseudonym…

  12. Interesting string of thoughts…apparently teachers are free to write erotica, while fire chiefs cannot express disapproval of sexual conduct. Amazing in a country that recognizes a foundational right of religious belief, and freedoms of speech and the press.

    If any people need to stand up for these freedoms, they are those posting here. As Voltaire believed, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

    The Charlie Hebdo attack was an extreme expression of censorship, meant to chill free thought and its promulgation by people claiming offense. Perhaps some here were outraged. Soft censorship and demands for political correctness are no less a desecration – the goal is exactly the same.

    To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, “”We must hang together, writers and publishers…else, we shall most assuredly hang separately.”

    1. Brian,

      We have a fundamental right to freedom of speech in America. We have the right to say what we want (generally) without fear of the government coming to arrest or murder us. But, that’s all our constitutional right to free speech guarantees us. It does not guarantee us that we won’t be fired from our job or that we won’t get sued. And that’s all I’m reiterating. If you don’t need your job, then go off and say whatever you want. Write a racists tirade, the next Mein Kampf, a homophobic manifesto, whatever. It’s your prerogative.

      But speech does have consequences, and authors should be prepared for them, so they don’t feel blindsided. Censorship is when people don’t speak for fear of life or liberty (as in death or prison); or are prevented from speaking through threats of death or jail.

      Fear of a job loss for your writing is not the same as losing life or liberty. Jobs are often private entities and you can be fired for doing all sorts of things on the job that you have a right to do when not on the job. So, I don’t think suggesting people look at their writing within that context is a type of censorship we should worry about. It’s a self-censorship for preservation of what the authors enjoy (a job). We often self censor in conversation or relationships to keep the peace and make life run more smoothly.

      When writers look at the potential consequences of the work, the writers can choose to ignore the potential negative consequences because they believe it is important and that their words are more valuable than the consequences. Often, it takes these people with strong convictions to make changes. But that’s a choice they make, and a choice they are free to make without worry that they’ll be tossed in jail or killed because they make it.

  13. Whenever I publish a story on my blog reiterating some event in my life, I always change the names of the people who were part of it. I do that merely to protect…myself. (Notice I didn’t say “the innocent”.) I’m certain if some of those people read it by chance, they’ll recognize themselves.

    But everyone must be careful about recounting any episodes of their working lives in a public venue. That, of course, includes social media. It would be different, say, if that Atlanta fire chief had written his book after he’d retired, which is something a lot of people do. But presenting his personal views while in still such a prominent position can have an adverse effect on business relationships. I strongly support free speech and believe we need more books than guns, which naturally pisses off the 2nd Amendment aficionados. But, if I worked under someone who doesn’t like me because of some unchangeable attribute, that can cause problems. People have the right to their opinions, but people also have the right to live and work in peace.

    1. Good points, Alejandro. Recounting your life online can be problematic, depending on how it’s done. Oddly enough, one of the most popular sects of blogging is Mommy blogging, and they get to talk as much as they want about things in their lives involving their children, as they’re the legal guardians (and get to decide consent). That’s not a criticism, but an observation; they’re a little more free because the people they’re talking about aren’t going to sue. But, they’re also (most times) pretty cognizant of the impacts their words can have on their children and write accordingly.

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