The self-publication of my Do Ask, Do Tell and subsequent books or monographs, maintaining the associated websites, and developing possible film treatment proposals have all provided quite an adventure and odyssey for me. Yes, as I got into my fifties, I saw writing as a likely second career for me and I recognized that technology could provide opportunities not practical in earlier generations. In time, I began to recognize a plethora of potential legal and ethical issues as I developed my writings but continued to work in a salaried job at the same time. I have provided some textbook-style treatment of these problems on my web site (hppub.com) but for this book sequel I want to cover the material with a chronological personal account.
It is true that I have self-published on political and social matters in which I am not a “recognized” authority in the customary sense of academic degrees and “professional” career. But on such issues as the military (the draft and the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy) and “family values” I am certainly a practical expert on the subtle and complicated ways that they affect gays and lesbians. I found it more productive to publish my own insights on these problems rather than just send money to political action groups and follow their marching orders.
But the process of challenging the military ban opened a pandora’s box that progressively examined the processes of public commercial speech on controversial areas. I gambled that my editorial content, published and displayed passively on the Internet and e-commerce sites, would sell itself and sell me, without my having had to develop credentials by competing adversarily in some narrow public policy area. At the same time, I eschewed publicly visible “advancement” in corporate information technology, feeling that pursuing it would misrepresent who I am. I could not hide behind pseudonyms; I wanted my public reputation connected to my ideas.
I first “got published” in 1974 by a tiny gay newspaper in New Brunswick, New Jersey (The Gay Old Times). In 1977 I typewrote an essay on freedom and responsibility that would get published by the Arizona newage group Understanding in 1978.
During the 1980s I sometimes got newspaper letters published or read on television stations regarding the way the gay press tried to represent gay “victims” of AIDS. I created some controversy in Dallas by trying, on my own, to establish a bridge with religious groups on the AIDS issues.
When President Clinton (even before his election) resurrected the military gay ban as a political issue in 1992 and 1993 (actually the issue had been bootstrapped by Keith Meinhold’s television interview in May 1992 and then Joe Steffan’s sensational book, Honor Bound), I awoke from a certain psychological stagnation. The arguments in use resonated with what had happened to me in college during those Cold War days. I wrote a series of four letters to the conservative Washington Times and all of these miniatures were published.
In the early days of debate, I saw the ban in (conservative) terms of personal privacy violation and exclusion, and I honestly believed and argued that some form of moderate “don’t ask don’t tell” was the only acceptable resolution. I was able to access someone with ties to the White House in a series of meetings, along with research (such as my own submarine visit) that led to a series of various letters to Congress and the White House. All this time, my public exposure was relatively limited. Yet, I sought opportunities to publish in various other gay and mainstream periodicals.
In 1994, I started getting published in the newsletter, The Quill, for Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty. In 1995, I took over as editor (for four years). I also appeared frequently in the Colorado Springs Ground Zero News (an ironic title now) as it published my “White House Letter,” and Forward Observer (for gay veterans). None of these opportunities paid. Given the parade of public-issue oriented books in the early and mid-1990s, I began to feel that I could offer a unique perspective if I wrote a large book of my own. By late summer of 1994, when it was becoming clear that the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy would fail in practice, I had decided to write a book to be called Do Ask Do Tell. By the time I had moved into a larger apartment in August 1995, I was working steadily on it but went through three other organizations of my material until I settled on the autobiographical but topical six-chapter form, “like a symphony.”
I contacted a literary agent in New York. He provided a critical reading of the project. At first, his reaction was quite promising, but then other military people who had fought the ban were starting to encounter resistance at publishers, as there were already several books on the ban in the market (competing, as they said in rejection letters, for “coffee table space”). But my book would be broader, to provide a broader argument for gay rights as a subset of individual rights.
I was motivated by the inadequacy of the way gay issues were usually argued publicly, presenting gays as a victim class and tending to appeal to the lowest common denominator for short term political gains. In time, I began to explore the self-publishing options. I found that I could negotiate very good prices for proofreading, typesetting, and printing (book manufacturing) from persons or vendors (that normally offer extremely varied prices, especially with printing) who seemed to believe that a project like this ought to be done.
even by the mid 1990s, was a much more reasonable option financially than subsidy publishing, where the author
pays a publishing company to take full responsibility for manufacturing and
distributing the book (or a variation, vanity
publishing for limited distribution within a particular community). Formally,
the only legal step that I needed was to form a proprietorship, register the
assumed name with local government (then, Fairfax County, Virginia), including
particularly getting a sales tax license, and obtain an ISBN publisher’s number
and series of book suffixes from R.R. Bowker, the ISBN Agency. I officially took possession of my first
printing and mailed the required copies to the Library of Congress on
During this period, I had been working as a computer programmer for a company in the Washington metro area that specialized in selling life insurance to military officers as one of its major and identifying lines of business. Common sense might suggest that this situation could present a conflict of interest. If my writings and books attracted publicity, they could provide embarrassment for the “fraternal” employer, and to depending upon a customer set that one feels compelled to criticize publicly seems like a breach of ethics. Furthermore, the potential availability to me of data from this targeted customer set, even though not actually used (and in fact it never was), might create the appearance of a violation of the privacy of these customers.
However, in early 1995 the company was bought by a larger company in Minneapolis, and this merger could dilute the importance of the military customer base or provide job opportunities (after the merger) without loss of seniority and without involvement with the military customer base. I discussed this matter with an attorney associated with the ban (Paul Thomasson’s attorney) in May 1996 and then informed the company. There followed some due diligence meetings with human resources and memos, and I arranged a transfer to Minneapolis to take place in September 1997. I drove out and moved Labor Day weekend, quite a memorable journey now. In suburban Chicago, a cop stopped me for speeding but let me go when he saw the book on the back seat!
Shortly after arriving in Minneapolis I became active with the Libertarian Party of Minnesota. A graduating senior from Hamline University (joking, “Public speaking is easy”) arranged for me to speak at his school. The speech would be broadcast several times on a local cable station. Later I would speak at the University of Minnesota and at a local Unitarian group.
The initial PQN (print quantity needed) printing was about 350 (small because of the size of the book, about 180,000 words) and I was able to sell it out by the fall of 1999. Maybe about 60 copies were given away but the others were actually sold. I found a distributor in Minneapolis, the Bookmen (recently purchased by Ingram), who was willing to buy about 30 of them and they were all sold. A major gay bookstore chain bought 15 and most of these were sold. I submitted the books to Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble, and sometimes got email orders directly.
Admittedly there were some technical issues with the book. A reading of the Chicago Manual of Style (from the University of Chicago Press) shows that commercial book publishing requires some scale to achieve a high standard of manufacturing quality, including typesetting, copyediting and removing all possible errors as well as consistency to intricate style rules. Information technology has greatly reduced these costs for large publishers, who feel considerable bottom line pressure (from Wall Street) to cut costs. As a result, there has been a tendency for more errors and typos to creep even into books from large trade publishers.
I was of course far from immune from this, and one problem that I had in early 1997 as I prepared the document for submission was considerable last minute changes by me to the content, as such topics as gay marriage, the military ban and the Communications Decency Act constantly generated more news. So there are more typos (most of them microscopic, like leaving off the “d” in “and”) than I would feel proud of. One particular gaffe that got missed was stating that the Bill of Rights is 160 years old; the correct number was 210! On many copies, after I received them, I pasted a plastic overlay with the number ‘210’ onto the back cover.
By 2000, I was still receiving orders. For a second edition I turned to the new concept of on-demand printing, and an e-publishing company to keep the book in print economically. Of course, this gave me another chance to fix the typos. I was working with an example of what the industry calls a cooperative publisher. I had also self-published a brief supplement, Our Fundamental Rights, at the end of 1998. On-demand printing systems reduce inventory and can provide an effective vehicle for new authors to introduce their ideas to the market and make themselves known, although it is often difficult to attain high sales volumes or sales ranks on e-commerce sites with on-demand alone. Some self-published books, especially those that target very specific audiences or particularly regional subject matter, do well in print runs but they should always be printed by book manufacturers rather than other kinds of printers. Recently, some universities have been offering their best Ph. D. dissertations for sale in commercial bookseller markets, and this situation could be described as academic cooperative publishing.
During these two or three years, I would attend other discussions about self-publishing. Self-published and cooperatively published books range in content, from fiction (especially gay fiction), to self-help or inspirational books, to cookbooks and how-to books. Some self-publishers arrange a pool of investors on their own, and these may be family members or relatives (and some promoters of self-publishing encouraging hitting up relatives for gung-ho support). Most quit their day jobs and expect the sales volume to provide enough for them to live on, but I did not. Some “self-published” books really are more representative of corporate publishing, as when a restaurant publishes a cookbook of its favorite recipes. Insurance and financial service companies often assemble self-help materials that would be very sellable in the commercial book world but choose to distribute these books only through agents.
I have heard the opinion that “self-publishing doesn’t count.” Book reviewers sometimes report seeing self-published personal memoirs that were better left circulated among families or private communities but not original enough to interest the general public, and sometimes of poor production quality. A few self-published books, when marketed well, have become best sellers, and a number of literary authors (like Walt Whitman) were largely self-published. Self-publishing, after all, is all about creating one’s own product and selling it—the fundamental “theorem” of capitalism, perhaps, a process that ought to be accepted in a economy that now needs some more original “real wealth” if it is to start performing again.
To some extent, one wonders if assembling a pool of investors counts as self-publishing, but it does so in that (following practices better known in independent film) there are disclosure rules and various legally expected practices having to do with the involvement of investors in actual production of the intellectual property. The subtle point is, perhaps, that if one really can tap into OPM (other people’s money), that resource increases the author’s credibility, just as being published by an outside third party (a genuine trade publisher) and investing nothing of one’s own funds adds credibility. Of course, public financial success is another way to establish accountability.
Of course, I did the opposite. Since my costs were very low and I was still working, I did not need immediate results from my little business. In Minneapolis, I would rent a secure high-rise apartment two blocks from work to save commuting costs and, particularly, time.
A friend that I had met in the workplace was running an ISP with shared collocated rack space at a collocation provider in Maryland, so I signed up with him with a very inexpensive and, as it turned out, reliable web hosting service. My original purpose was to update the book contents with running footnote files. Quickly, I found that I could attract readers by posting the entire book content on the site for convenient browsing. Soon the search engines found and indexed my materials. This turned out to be a very efficient form of passive advertising (without telemarketing, mailing lists or spam). Some persons did order the book directly after finding it this way. More often, book buyers for public libraries would order the book from various sections of the country.
At this point, we come to the issue of ethics in reverse. Most problems in the press regarding conflict of interest deal with accountants or financial advisors who are given incentives to be less than objective in their professional services. Here, the problems center around the rather obscure intellectual property law concept of “right of publicity,” an idea very sensitive in the entertainment world but rather ignored elsewhere. If I write material that I consider important, then I have to consider how I use may name in public in other work. In self-publishing, debate abstraction can become problematical, as readers who know the author will instantiate specific allegations anyway. The hallmark of typical adversarial debate is that if you bring up a counter-argument even as a supposition it invites a specific peril.
The first clue of problems came in 1998 when Congress proposed and then actually passed the Child Online Protection Act. More details are available in another essay in this booklet. I signed up with Electronic Frontier Foundation as a plaintiff. The overall paradigm that would soon affect my thinking in other areas was that, to promote myself, I was taking undue advantage of new technology in an unsupervised fashion to draw attention to myself and, particularly, place adult and controversial materials (though not pornographic) within the reach of children or, as arguments would develop, within the reach of customers or stakeholders or other persons or entities (like employers) associated with me. On the other hand, the Internet, for most entrepreneurs, suggested a “numbers game” paradigm. Micro unit-costed unsolicited mass marketing to enough prospects will generate enough business to make money.
Of course, I could fine-tune my motive easily. Conventional political debate tends to be adversarial with various political pressure groups (however well-meaning) soliciting funds from the public (and asking for form letters to lawmakers) to present their often oversimplified views about issues such as gay rights, minorities, discrimination or hate crimes. Intellectual honesty does not come from such a process, however tied it may be to how most people perceive a representative democracy’s functions.
For example, one can envision a political compromise that embraces ENDA and hate crimes legislation for gays but that denies gays in the military, gay marriage and gay adoptions. Such a compromise skirts the difficult moral question of gays “carrying their weight” in a cultural system. But for an individual writer to get into this skirts danger.
In time, other potential problems would surface. In early 1999 there occurred at least one arrest where a software professional had used his own website to manipulate the stock price of his employer. Later in 1999, there were reports of incidents where hospital or child welfare employees were fired for off-duty participation in pornographic websites that were potentially available to the employer’s stakeholders. Also, there were incidents where individuals anonymously posted derogatory comments from home about their employers on investor trash boards (as on Yahoo!), and were fired when their employers were able to subpoena their names from these ISP’s. Finally, there were are few legal cases, such as one involving a book (an “assassination manual”) published by Paladin Press and another involving NAMBLA, as to whether publishers or even ISP’s could be held to civil liability when unstable individuals commit crimes based on material that these companies have published or facilitated.
Of course, the media has always focused upon computer conduct within the workplace, the legal fact that employees do not have privacy, and that employers may monitor emails and web activity on their servers. But it is clear that in the age of the Internet that off-duty activities have a greater potential to affect employers than was the case previously.
At this point, it is well to note that there had been some level of possible risk from my activities for some time, even if they had gone unnoticed. For example, the book contained many short quotes from other sources. Under the doctrine of copyright “fair use,” explicit permission probably was not needed (the fair use doctrine is weaker in for-profit publishing), although it would have required only one aggrieved party to bring a suit and challenge the fair use assumption. Under current law, any printer or distributor or bookstore could have been held liable, although few people in the book business seem to take this remote possibility of trouble seriously.
Another possibility could have been that the website keeps alive the names of individuals (particularly those associated with gays in the military or other gay issues) who might rather let the issue pass (as it would if their names appeared only in print). I have actually had one request to remove one person’s name (and that person is obscure) from the website. Still another, at least in theory, is privacy law violation, if a person owning his own business has access to customer lists such as USPS NCOA materials (and might have a publicly known incentive to misuse them).
Furthermore, a self-owned business and associated web domain brings up the possibility of trademark problems, particularly since web domains are available world wide and a business owner like myself may not know about a similarly named business that existed before the days of the Internet. A home-business owner with a sudden global reach will probably not be willing to incur the time and expense of registering his assumed business name in every state and country. There have already been a few cases like this, and this issue doesn’t get mentioned much in books about self-publishing. One could propose that self-publishing domains should be named after the individual author and not “fool” the public by imitating corporate names; such a concept is being implement by ICANN with the new “.biz” top-leve-domain suffix.
There was another proposal to trademark the book title phrase “Do Ask Do Tell” for t-shirts and promotional materials but this application was abandoned. (The same word-mark can be used for different categories of products and books may be trademarked only when in a series.)
Even another concern could be zoning. Generally in the telecommuting age writers have been left alone but in New Jersey freelance writers have been pursued and fined, on the theory that they are cheating or denying property owners commercial rent. Many other businesses (such as food preparation) do have strict commercial zoning requirements so writing is just off the radar screen
Finally, small business computer users have a responsibility to master security technology, such as with the proper use of firewalls and anti-virus tools, or they may endanger other interests downstream. The U.S. Patriot Act of 2002 provides stiff civil and even criminal penalties for web server operators (some of whom may have home servers) who allow their sites to be used as “zombies” to attack other corporate of government infrastructures. Conceivably, a controversial writer could attract the attention of heckling terrorists, and provide a measure of risk to those associated with him, and cause him to be perceived as nuisance. My own site, in a passage discussing possible terrorist motives, has been hacked once.
For employers, as already noted, there could be two concerns. One might be that someone who is starting a writing career while still working in a professional capacity might be tempted to misuse information that he learned in the workplace to make a political argument. This opportunity could invite possible compromise of confidential information about other stakeholders, or at least the “appearance” of compromise. This circumstance might sound hard to judge; if a person has a home-based business but access to names and addresses, does that mean that the public (or a regulatory agency) would presume that the person has an incentive to misuse his access to make mailing lists? I can say that I have never used confidential data for my own purposes.
For employers, the second concern would mainly be that my reputation could prove distracting to other associates or stakeholders. In discussing such matters that follow from my “conservative” approach to gay rights, issues such as the tension in the workplace between those with families to support and singletons like me, I would run the risk of dragging in people who know or work with me. Therefore, I feel, if I want to continue self-publishing politically controversial material while still working, I should follow certain rules, which are covered in the attached appendix.
The most important rules are that I not have direct reports, not make discretionary decisions that directly affect stakeholders, and that I not speak publicly for the employer (or have my named used conspicuously on a company website or correspondence, as is often done particularly with smaller companies). However, this code of ethics does present some career issues. I would be less valuable to an employer if I was not available for promotion if needed or to represent the company’s interests publicly. I would be contained within the opportunities of short-term practical “geek” contracts, and this is becoming increasingly difficult as technology changes so rapidly that maintaining sufficient expertise to make a living working just “behind the throne” is becoming more difficult.
Again, employers have been evasive about the issue of intrusion into “sharp-edged” outside activities and tend to follow a “don’t ask, don’t tell” paradigm. But some employers have no-moonlighting policies (and it is arguable whether these policies would refer to working at home with self-owned businesses), and many more have non-compete clauses that can be enforced even after termination. Some do try to force employees to sign intellectual property ownership agreements with so-called “grab” clauses. (Note, however, that federal copyright law concerning work-for-hire specifically says that employees own work that they do at home with their own resources, even when they are salaried by an employer.) Given that the Internet can make anyone a celebrity, will employers gradually decide that this is an area of an associate’s life that they should own, or will they make it standard policy to review this part of a person’s work as part of typical professional employment screening process?
This brings up a major point about how people typically advance in the workplace: by advancing and selling the ideas of others. Non-profit pressure groups take this idea and telescope it, asking constituencies to mass email or fax pre-written letters to politicians about some very specific issue that affects their constituencies. I am particularly unwilling to take a job that is predicated on publicly advancing the ideas of others, or of withdrawing my own writings from public availability and leaving the debate to “the establishment.” This behavior contradicts the temperament of the artist or creative writer who wants to sell his own ideas. Even so, there is tension and controversy within the literary world between creative writing and work for hire.
Some writers look at writing as a self-defining profession, invoking services that can be marketed guerilla-style to others. This occupation can take on various forms, such as grant writing, where there can be controversy over whether the writing is simply providing technical skill or is supposed to be publicly involved in the fund-raising. The National Writers Union (which sounds to the novice like an oxymoron, a union of freelancers, but more about that when we talk about film) has advocated the idea of a minimum charge of a dollar per word and re-use rights.
All right, there is tension between writers who work strictly for hire and those (like myself) who start out by offering their work, particularly fiction, poetry or editorial content at below-market prices while having income from other sources (especially working in a salaried capacity but intending a second career after “retirement”). Many writers do a mixture of both, but they may feel that they must become established professionally (say as journalists or in academics) before trying to sell their own material. Some older writers believe that they must gain recognition first by getting published with material “that other people want,” even to the point of manufacturing formula genre fiction.
This brings up the question, again, about the legitimacy of self-publishing. Should a work have public recognition only when it is funded a third party or when it generates enough revenue to support the author without other income through work? That seems to be how some writers feel. Of course, to get there the writers would have to pay their dues as journalists or by publicly advocating the work of others before they advocate their own views and ideas, and it is that notion that is so disturbing to me.
And the insurance industry seems to take this position. The National Writers Union has tried to offer low-cost group media perils insurance to freelance writers. In 2001, it ran into a roadblock when the underwriting syndicate refused to insure some writers, including me. Actually, the insurance form asked about the amount of third-party legal supervision, which would seem to exclude self-published writers without a lot of resources but NWU insisted that the insurance could be available for self-published writers as well as writing collectives.
In my case, I thought that my involvement in the COPA litigation (that is, putatively “adult” materials) or the age of my books might have caused the declination. But the underwriter wrote back in an email to me, in bald-faced fashion: “They cited the controversial nature of your writings as the reason for the declination.” In other words, “f__ you, we don’t approve of what you are trying to do, and you know it.” Later, NWU discovered that particularly writers of gay and lesbian materials were singled out for declination. Right now, NWU does not have a media perils policy (it may have one soon), and admittedly there is some tension among the writers that the controversy stirred by some could affect the livelihoods of everyone.
Could this spill into the regular workplace? Independent contractors generally must carry their own professional liability insurance but this is usually sold without media perils coverage. Suppliers of contract W-2 employees usually provide this insurance. If one of these contract employees also writes freelance without insurance on his own, could this provide a risk for the “Kelly girl” employer? Probably not, because the law generally recognizes that a person own his own intellectual property if he creates it with his own resources. (Although work-for-hire provisions in federal copyright law are very explicit about this protection, with software in the object-oriented area it is clear that there can be ambiguities.)
However, the litigious nature of our system may eventually make some employers squeamish and this problem underscores the need for tort reform to punish frivolous lawsuits. Another interesting point concerns umbrella insurance, often available from auto or casualty companies. This is not supposed to cover business liability, yet the coverage is excluded for “professional athletes and entertainers.” But in the age of the Internet and broadband, who is regarded as an “entertainer?” (Even I get special attention when I eat at Bryant Lake Bowl!)
This brings to the next logical area for writers: film and video. Independent film, traditionally the area for more original and “visionary” content, is in some-sense like self-publishing, although usually venture capitalists and investors do not have a lot of contact with artistic or production decisions (they usually do know about casting choices before they invest). Selling screenplays to mainstream movie production companies is even more difficult than selling novels, as the movies use a system of agents who are even more turf-protective than in the book world.
some studios are beginning to develop initiatives to attract truly original
material, and have developed software tools to help evaluate screenplays and
treatments. Film festivals (especially Sundance,
There is in film-writing an especially double-edged controversy over “creativity.” People compete fiercely for screenwriting contracts and then relish hidden opportunities to shine when writing scripts according to very detailed directions, especially for television or commercials. There is a continuum been writing to complete another person’s concept to writing one’s own content and then trying to sell it. However, even in commercials there are sometimes opportunities to present conceptual content, as in the Dell ad where Steven comically outlines the various modes of salesmanship (from groveling to logic) in raising money.
The recent string of corporate scandals, particularly those having to do with conflicts of interest among investment banking, consulting, accounting and auditing activities, raise at least a knee-jerk question for self-publishers. Should “Chinese walls” exist between authorship, publication and distribution in order to guarantee professionalism and provide supervision to those like myself who provide information to the public for present recognition and future financial or career gains? Self-publishing websites boldly encourage new authors to self-publish inexpensively now, whereas (as of this writing) groups like the Authors’ Guild restrict membership mainly to writers able to gain advances against royalties from established commercial (and university) publishers (including periodicals). (It does offer associate memberships for pending contracts with trade publishers. Nevertheless, the Authors’ Guild has not yet, as of this writing in mid 2002, offered group media perils insurance either. [It does offer group health insurance, see authorsguild.org]) Would the Guild be open to considering self-published or cooperatively published books as qualifying if publicly audited sales volume or operational profits met prescribed targets within a specified time period after publication? Even so, public recognition does and effectiveness in stimulating debate does not always correlate to money.
There are significant differences between the potential collusions in publishing and film-making as compared to other businesses. Self-published authors often use their own money and when they do use investors these outside sources often do screen them carefully. Furthermore, the breakdown in corporate America seems to be largely a total failure in the self-regulatory and auditing processes that supposedly had been set up to provide supervision. When external entities can control what is published or broadcast, there is not only a compromise to free speech but there are also opportunities for corruption as with the Payola scandals in the music industry back in the 1950s. Some left-wing sources maintain that unregulated mergers among ISP’s and cable companies will eventually squash personal and small-business websites and self-publishing.
One could postulate that self-publishing should justify itself with financial results, if made publicly available. Along those lines, one wonders if the companies offering self-publishing or cooperative publishing services will be profitable enough to continue offering their opportunities indefinitely, or if they will have to become more selective in what they publish (even given that print-on-demand erases inventories). Likewise, will e-commerce sites keep indefinitely database entries for items that do not sell? On the other hand, some e-commerce sites have been criticized for “undermining” authors and publishers by auctioning used books, but even the auctions keep the books listed. To date, the Library of Congress and Books In Print have listed self-published books without restriction, although print-on-demand is listed by Books in Print only on CD-rom for purchase by libraries. However, apparently some major book distributors are no longer accepting self-published books, at least from “one book” publishers. Although many self-published and cooperatively published are of well done (and although many trade royalty publishers are putting more responsibilities back onto authors, maintaining the notorious indemnification clauses in their publishing contracts while reducing their willingness to provide writers legal help and supervision), the public may be mislead when it sees a book on an e-commerce site and has no idea how it was published, or when it sees “.com” as a domain name and cannot tell if there is a real going concern business behind the site.
Indeed, I may, with my writings, have competed with organizations (in the gay and libertarian areas) that I support, and have complicated their messages—but the complicated arguments about these social issues need to be exhibited completely. Or, I may simply be sidestepping committed support and participating because of competition for my own time and resources. For me to be credible, I normally cannot allow myself to speak publicly on behalf of another organization or to represent the organization with my own name and identity.
The ethical issues possibly associated with self-publishing derive from the lack of societal experience with a new and inexpensive medium for self-promotion (as Clive Barker calls it in his sensational novel Sacrament, or, to put it baldly, drawing attention to oneself with “truth”). Various paradigms of how people perceive right and wrong in this area can evolve, but already it seems that the potential for good (new speech) is great and that, given the relatively small financial investments involved, the potential for harm (turf erosion, unwanted publicity and possibly incidental exposure to children) is much less than for other developments associated with the Internet, such as conflicts of interest in the brokerage and financial services industries, scams, and child pornography.
Some people, of course, are put off by the idea of public “self-promotion” even if this has been encouraged by the go-go attitudes of the past decade. From a personal perspective, self-publishing and the resulting publicity have given me considerable practical social respectability in a gay community for which aging otherwise presents difficult problems of often feeling unwelcome around younger people; this observation makes the moral questions particularly pungent.
So the whole issue of self-publishing and perhaps self-promotion pits two trends against one another: entrepreneurialism and innovation on the one hand, and professionalism and paying your dues on the other. As tested recently in the Seattle area when a public housing participant was jailed for refusing to remove privileged information from his own website, the self-publishing explosion will raise the question as to whether there really does exist a “fundamental right to publish” apart from clearly established rights for private speech, expressive association, and of freedom of the press. It is time that the reading and writing public take note of this “investiture” controversy, and hopefully the public will reverse the course of its past squeamishness about politically incorrect speech and weigh the democratic importance of free speech heavily as unforeseen complications develop. Self-publishing of controversial materials does result in a self-embedded tattoo and brings up, in the minds of some people, some ethical gray zones, but it’s time to recognize these.
Scale and repetition, usually necessary in business for operational profits, run counter to the intellectual originality so tied to free speech and so important to our democratic political traditions. Yet to be taken seriously any speaker ought to be accountable for what he or she published, ought to establish authenticity, and ought to live up to his or her own teachings. But probably the ultimate judge of the ethics of a new writer like me in this uncertain area has to be common sense. Only the pattern and consistency of ethical conduct over time can give a writer’s customers confidence that the writer will not abuse trust.