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Last month tens of thousands of Twitter accounts attacked J.K. Rowling. They tried to get her books pulled from publication. Her books were burned, and people promised to never read one of her books again. This was perhaps the fourth time this has happened to Rowling in the last few years.
There is nothing new under the sun, and book-burning is a time-honored practice of angry mobs. This wasn’t the first time people have burned Harry Potter books.
If you are a published author, cancel culture is not just something you hear about that happens to TV celebrities. It can come for you regardless of your place on the political continuum.
Some authors have even faced backlash for their silence. Staying out of politics is no longer the defense it used to be.
This is a difficult but important topic many authors wonder about. Novel Marketing Podcast listener Jennifer asked:
“I’d love to hear your take on the current “cancel culture.” No longer satisfied with leaving a negative review, some people want to see works banned entirely. This seems to be happening all around, from the blockbuster musical Hamilton to indie authors who cancel publication of their own books and make profuse apologies in the wake of attacks on their content and their character. Are some genres more vulnerable to offending the cancel culture than others? What can authors do to avoid and respond to such vicious attacks?”
Strategy #1: Don’t Be a Jerk
Those who live to cancel others will themselves be canceled. The people using the guillotine at the beginning of the French Revolution were the ones who died by the guillotine halfway through. The cycle continued until Napoleon brought the army into Paris to slaughter the mob by giving them a “whiff of grapeshot.”
The same spirit of revolution is in the air today. Anyone who tells you we are living in unprecedented times hasn’t studied history. There is nothing new under the sun. Savvy authors can learn from history and know how to navigate these all too predictable times.
So, don’t be so quick to cancel others. Sure, getting someone fired might make you feel virtuous, but it won’t change that person’s heart. It won’t cause them to agree with you or like you better. In fact, it will do the opposite.
“Judge not lest you be judged” by the same standard you used to judge others. The more people you cancel, the more enemies you will make, and they will want to cancel you right back. What you reap you will sow.
There’s a lot to be said about living in peace with people you disagree with.
You need not agree on every point in order to be friends with someone. Learning to disagree agreeably is vital for a healthy society. We all want to live in a society where we can live at peace with each other without seeking to harm each other by robbing another person of their freedom, their job, or their life.
Pick Your Target Readers
Part of not being a jerk involves choosing the right readers.
These days, people expect their celebrities to abide by the same moral code they do themselves. The challenge is that there are multiple moral codes, and some are at odds with each other. When you pick a group of target readers, you are also picking a moral system to abide by.
What is true with morality is also true with politics. More and more, readers are expecting the authors they read to share their politics.
Each year Republicans and Democrats read different books. Republicans did not read White Fragility (affiliate link), and Democrats didn’t read The Right Side of History (affiliate link).
And this preference is not just for nonfiction.
There was big drama a few years ago with the Hugo Awards between left-leaning and right-leaning Sci-Fi authors. This clash between authors is an extension of the clash between readers going on at the same time.
So what should you do? Pick a group of readers who live by rules you can live with yourself.
If you are targeting:
- readers in China, don’t say anything bad about the Chinese Communist Party.
- Christians, follow the Christian sexual ethic in your books and in your personal life.
- environmentalists, don’t post a photo of your lion hunt.
- vegans, don’t show a picture of you eating a hamburger.
If you are hiding who you really are because you’re afraid your target readers wouldn’t like you if they knew the true you, then you are targeting the wrong readers. You don’t need to change yourself, you need to change your readers.
If you are secretly guarding your identity as a Christian, Democrat, Republican, or whatever, then writing to your target audience will be difficult.
Choose a target audience who will accept you the way you are.
Don’t Apologize to Trolls
The purpose of an apology is to restore a broken relationship. If there was no relationship to restore, an apology will only harm the person apologizing. It is like apologizing to someone who is abusing you in hopes that your apology will make them stop hurting you. An abuser hurts you because of who they are, not because of anything you do or don’t do. Don’t believe them when they blame you for their bad behavior.
When there is a misunderstanding, many authors make the mistake of apologizing as a way to clarify what they meant. This is a bad idea. Internet trolls misunderstand because they want to misunderstand. Feeding them an apology makes them want to stick around.
Trolls don’t care about you. They are in pain, and they look for ways to inflict pain on others. Once you apologize to them, you signal that they can hurt you, and you invite them to come back and do it again.
There is a whole genre of apology critique videos on YouTube where people break down apology videos and criticize the apologizers for not being sincere enough.
In general, public apologies backfire because there is no relationship to restore.
Go on Vacation
Online firestorms typically don’t last for more than a week. Often, they die down within days. Trolls are always hungry for fresh pain from fresh people. If you ignore the vitriol, most people will forget about the firestorm in a fortnight.
Can you remember who got canceled last year? Last month? These things don’t last. I have been in a firestorm of criticism. It was years ago, and no one thinks about it unless I bring it up.
A push to cancel someone is like flatulence. It’s painful and awkward in the moment, but it doesn’t last.
Pick your Enemies
These days, you are known by what you are against just as much as you’re known by what you’re for. And your enemies are often more loyal than your friends. You can trust an enemy to stay your enemy more than you can trust a friend to stay a friend.
When you pick an enemy, you gain their enemies as allies. An ally is not the same as a friend but it is not nothing.
Boycotts only work if the boycotters are already spending money on your products. If you write a book about how terrible the New York Jets sportsball team is, and Jets fans boycott you, it won’t hurt you because they were never your target audience.
If someone has never bought your books and vows never to buy one, it doesn’t hurt you. You haven’t lost a sale because they weren’t buying your books in the first place. In fact, if they buy a copy of your book to burn it, you gain a sale you wouldn’t have had before. So book burnings boost book sales!
That said, the trend now is not to simply boycott but also to deplatform. Trolls may try to get you kicked off of social media or any website you use to spread the word about your books or earn money.
Deplatforming, the modern version of book burning, is a very real threat, and it can come from outside your community.
Maybe you’re not a jerk. You have an audience who loves your books and your message. But a different audience who disagrees with you may want to harm you by disconnecting you from your adoring audience.
This leads us to our second strategy.
Strategy #2: Own Your Platform
When you sharecrop on someone else’s platform they become your master. They dictate what you can and can’t say on their platform. Some sites, like Patreon.com, even dictate what you do on other platforms. The major social networks can ban (or shadowban) you at any time for any reason, and there is nothing you can do to stop it. If you are shadowbanned, you might not even know you are being punished with obscurity.
Facebook, Twitter, and Google are the landlords and you are the lowly tenant. You have no rights on digital land you don’t own. If you are going to sharecrop, you had better listen to the master, mind the rules, and keep up as those rules change.
Even if you are not breaking any rules, if enough trolls loudly campaign for you to get kicked off, the social networks may comply.
This is why it is so important to own your own platform so you’re not at the mercy of these corporations who don’t know or care about you.
So what should you do?
Own Your Own WordPress.org Website
The world wide web was built by free speech idealists, and the structure of the internet is such that it’s nearly impossible to cancel someone’s website, especially if it’s running a self-hosted WordPress.org website.
WordPress.org is better than WordPress.com because it’s open-source software. No one owns it. No one can stop you from putting it on your own server. WordPress.org is the software that powers WordPress.com, but it runs on your digital land.
It’s like buying a tractor to work your own land and grow your own crops. You didn’t invent the tractor, but once you buy it no one can stop you from using it on your land. You’ll have the same tractor and seeds that a sharecropper uses on WordPress.com, but you’ll own the land yourself.
If your web host kicks you off, there are thousands of other hosts who will be glad to have you as a paying customer. Because of this reality, almost no one gets kicked off a WordPress.org web host because of a demanding mob.
This is one downside of Wix, Squarespace, and Weebly. If they kick you off, there is nowhere to go. You have to start from scratch with your website. You can only have a Wix website on Wix.com. If they delete your website it’s gone.
Not so with WordPress.org. You can easily pick up and move from one host to another, especially if you built the website yourself. If you built the website yourself, you probably already have a backup stored in your inbox that you can easily restore on another web host.
If you’re curious about how to build a website, I have a free course on how to build your own WordPress website.
Own Your Own Podcast
Podcasting is the last Web 1.0 technology. It is based on open standards, and there is no company that controls it. Podcasters have full control over what they create, and listeners have full control over what they listen to. There is no corporate bridge where trolls can hide and seek to deplatform you.
Spotify is trying to change this by taking control over the podcasting space, but until they do, podcasting will remain an open internet bastion of free speech.
The worst thing that can happen to your podcast is that it can get delisted from podcast directories like Apple Podcasts or Podchaser. But even if you are delisted, you are not deplatformed. Your listeners can still subscribe and hear new episodes; they just have to go to your website to find the link.
Own Your Own Blog
Blogs run on the same RSS technology as podcasts. No one can “cancel” your blog as long as it runs on your WordPress.org website. So don’t put your blog on WordPress.com, Blogger, Tumblr, or any of the other free platforms out there. If you are not paying for it, you have no rights.
In fact, if you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer. You are the product that is being sold. The website is selling your attention to the advertisers who are the real customers. Sure the rent is free for the chickens in the slaughterhouse, but that doesn’t mean a slaughterhouse is a safe place for the chickens in the long term.
If you train your readers to hear from you on a certain day on your WordPress.org blog you can have an almost impenetrable connection with them. No one can stop them from going to your blog and no one can stop you from writing new posts. It is pure freedom of the press.
Diversify Your Income
A popular tactic with cancel culture right now is to get someone fired from their day job. If you get all your money from the corporation you work for, that corporation has a lot of control over your personal life.
Many corporations want to control your behavior while you are on the clock and off the clock. They might even fire you for something you did before you worked for the corporation. From a certain perspective, they want to control your entire life, past and present.
Young people are often told to mind their behavior because personal decisions and social media posts can be reason enough for a corporation to reject their job application. So from this perspective, the theoretical corporation you don’t work for yet is already exerting influence and control over you.
If a mob of trolls demands that your company fire you for something you did or said outside of work, many corporations will comply with the trolls. Even if they later discover you did nothing wrong, many companies are more afraid of the trolls than they are loyal to their employees.
The more diversified your income stream, the harder it is to cancel you financially.
One reason I have the courage to talk about cancel culture is that I have diversified income streams. No single company can turn off the spigot.
If trolls tried to cancel me, it would be hard for them because I follow all the recommendations I’ve made above. I have a direct relationship with my listeners on platforms I own, and I earn money through many different income streams.
Diversifying your income is also helpful during hard economic times. If one corporation provides all your revenue, what happens when that company falls on hard times?
Have a Direct Connection With Your Readers
So far, Amazon has not participated much in cancel culture. In general, they don’t cancel or delist books based on the content. But this could change at any time. If it does, you’ll be powerless to stop it.
Even governments are unable to stop it. Governments pay taxes to Amazon in the form of tax breaks and “incentives.” If the governments are not powerful enough to tax Amazon, how can they protect your freedom of speech on Amazon’s platform?
You need the capability to communicate directly with your readers in case Amazon changes course and starts their own version of book-burning. Only authors with strong email lists, blogs, and podcasts will survive.
Another way cancel culture pursues influencers is by getting their advertisers to cancel their advertising contracts. This is why being listener supported is so beneficial. One easy way to get funds directly from your fans is through Patreon.com.
That said, Patreon is a very trigger-happy company when it comes to canceling creators.
I have already purchased the software to recreate a Patreon-type platform here on AuthorMedia.com. And yes, I use WordPress.org to run this website. One of the things I love about WordPress is that I can purchase simple plugins that will recreate the functionality of major websites like Patreon. Preparation makes my business less vulnerable to trolls, mobs, and other minions of cancel culture.
I also have all the email addresses of my patrons. If Patreon should deplatform me, I can email my patrons and ask them to sign up on the new site. Not all of them would move because it’s a hassle, but I hope enough would to keep the podcast alive.
Strategy #3: Stand Your Ground
Believe it or not, the cancel culture troll mob is small. Most people on the internet are not trolls. Most people on the internet don’t even care much about politics. The mob sounds louder than it is because they all shout together.
In reality, the troll mob is made up of a few humans and their army of sock-puppet bot accounts. One person with 1,000 Twitter accounts can sound intimidating, but behind the curtain, one small human is pushing buttons and pulling levers to make a lot of noise.
Trolls feed on fear. If you refuse to give in to fear, they will get hungry and move on. Trolls can’t cancel you without your permission. If you are willing to stand your ground, they will leave to bully someone else.
J.K. Rowling follows most of what I’ve recommended here. While she doesn’t have a podcast, she does have her own WordPress.org website and blog where she can talk directly to her readers without interference.
Rowling refused to apologize and stood her ground. As a result, her readership went up. Almost two months after the firestorm, she held the #1, #2, and #3, top spots for “Most Read Books” on Amazon. She also held the #14 spot for bestselling books on all of Amazon for her 22-year-old book.
If you stand up to the trolls, the regular humans will flock to support you. Rowling seems to see a sales spike every time she gets canceled. You may see the same if you have the courage to stand firm.
Remember, to burn a book, people must first buy the book.
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My son Tommy has recently started trying to eat solid food.
I’m a technology person and I’m watching this tiny human encounter his first new technology for eating.
All his life, eating has only required him to suck. But the new technology allows him to eat baby food from a tiny spoon.
At first he approached the spoon the same way he would have approached a bottle. He sucked on the spoon and ended up with 80% of the food on his face. As he gets used to the spoon, he realizes that the new technology requires him to engage differently than the old technology of the bottle.
Sucking on the spoon gets him a little food, but opening his mouth wide enough for mom or dad to feed him the whole scoop of mashed bananas is a better approach for filling his tummy. On the other hand, opening his mouth wide does not work well for the bottle.
The old method of sucking on the new technology of the spoon still works a little. He tastes new food and gets a few additional nutrients. But when he engages with the new technology in the new way, mealtime is much tidier.
As you look at new technologies available for writers, remember that the old techniques don’t work as well for the new technology. Ask yourself whether you’re applying the new or old way of thinking.
Are you trying to suck on the spoon? Maybe there is a better way.
Thank you for this, Thomas! This is really encouraging information all authors need to hear.
Trolls are just old fashioned bullies using new methods. Most of them don’t have the intellect necessary to make a difference in the world, so they try to destroy the people who do. Like you said, the best way to handle them is to ignore them. Block them and pretend they don’t exist.
Very helpful and encouraging. Thank you.
Incredible content. So true for what’s going on right now! Thank you.
Excellent piece — especially the section on not apologizing to trolls. This is a must-share.
>Strategy #1: Don’t Be a Jerk
I would argue that includes “don’t use your author platform to incite hate and spread bigotry.”
It’s interesting that you used JK Rowling as your example, because what ignited the controversy you highlighted in your blog post were her series of transphobic tweets, at a time when the UK was considering changes to their healthcare legislation that would have affected many British trans people and their access to health care.
Context is important. It wasn’t as though a mob suddenly decided to target an innocent author for no reason. A celebrity tried to use her platform to advance bigoted opinions in an attempt to influence national policy in Great Britain in a way that would cause actual harm to a marginalized segment of the British population.
People pushed back hard because they found her views repugnant, and because the policy changes that Rowling was campaigning for would have hurt their family and friends.
I think a lot of people confuse “free speech,” with “say whatever you want, free of consequences.”
Truth is, no one’s stopping you from letting it all hang out online, but if you’re going to out yourself as a white supremacist, a homophobe, a racist or some other flavor of bigot, be prepared to alienate a large portion of your readership and your peers.
Unless, of course, your author brand is designed to appeal to very particular sub-groups, and you’re deliberating courting controversy as a form of free publicity.
Rowling’s ethics were not actually the point of the article. There are a zillion places you can complain about her; why not take it back to Twitter.
Doesn’t matter if Rowling’s ethics weren’t the point of the article. Using Rowling’s situation and calling the people who speak out against her hateful viewpoints “trolls” was a point in this article, however. Rowling incited hate with her comments, spoke horribly about a marginalized group, and people speaking out against that hate are somehow “trolls?” It’s a horrible example to use to make this point. The author of this article could have chosen any one of the hundreds of others affected by cancel culture and made a much stronger point. Associating Rowling with this point only weakens the article. Any writer worth their salt should be able to see that.
I don’t think comprehension of your point is much of an indicator of one’s worth as a writer. I don’t think it particularly weakens the article, either, as its aim is to give tactics for dealing with cancel culture, not decide who is worthy to be cancelled. You’re saying it offends you, and I’m not saying you’re wrong, but that’s a separate issue. Because the author commented that trolls attacked Rowling – as they did, if you think misogynists and general shit-stirrers didn’t piggyback on the response of those genuinely defending trans rights, you’re not paying attention – it doesn’t follow he’s saying everybody who disagreed with Rowling is a troll.
I agree with the point that there are so many other examples that were more suitable and constructive. Because if Rowling was a decent person, she would have indeed have apologised to the members of the trans community. Secondly, not everyone is the moneymaker that Rowling is. She stands her ground, yes. But she kept the support of her publisher and literary agency, even to the point of other writers leaving that agency. And she was still not dropped. Other authors with less money making potential are in a much more vulnerable position in that respect.
I found the person wanting to spread hate and bigotry.
This article is SO HELPFUL. Thank you for this perspective. These insights and suggestions are golden! And I am pretty sure my website is on WordPress.org as my web person moved it from GoDaddy to SiteGround a few years ago. However I no longer have web designer support, so I’m on my own and I’m not sure how to check if I have WordPress.org or WordPress.com Any insights to know for sure would be greatly appreciated.
All GoDaddy/SiteGround hosted sites are WordPress.org. Any WordPress not hosted *on* WordPress.com is WordPress.org.
Another nudge to move my website from .com to .org. Do you have any tips for doing that without losing the content?
You can export from WordPress.com and import it into WordPress.org. If you Google it, there are a lot of guides on how to switch. I also have a step by step guide on how to setup WordPress.org in the free website course above.
Thanks, Thomas. Always enjoy and feel so enriched by everything you post. Consider it a privilege to learn from your experience.
Very informative. Recently moved installed a new theme on my WordPress.com site, but will think about moving to WordPress.org. And thank you for the excellent tools you consistently offer.