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Ethics in SF #5: Joe Mahoney

This week Joe Mahoney takes us behind the scenes with a mini essay that addresses the topic of ethics in the marketing of Speculative Fiction.

Ethics in SF: A series of interviews, articles and debates on the Reality Skimming blog, hosted by Lynda Williams, author of the Okal Rel Saga.

Joe Mahoney

Joe Mahoney is a broadcaster with the CBC, an author of short stories, and a member of SF Canada. His Blog, Assorted Nonsense, is online at

Ethics of Self-Promotion in Speculative Fiction

A while back I had the pleasure of meeting Speculative Fiction writer David Brin in Toronto at the World’s Biggest book store, where he was promoting a new collection of short stories. I’m a big fan. His book The Postman is one of my favourites, one of a handful of books I’ve read in a single sitting.

Lucky for me there were few people in the World’s Biggest that day, so I had little competition for Brin’s attention. We had a long, wide ranging conversation about many things, including Kevin Costner’s movie adaptation of The Postman, which is so inferior it may as well be based on a whole other book. Brin told me that the movie nailed just one element of the book, and that was the novel’s heart. Which, happily, was the one thing he would have chosen to get right, if he’d had a choice. (He also told me the production team never spoke to him once during the making of the movie, which is just sad, and no doubt contributed to the movie’s failure...and is an ethical question for another time.)

I purchased a copy of Brin’s short story collection, he signed it for me, and I left the bookstore with a positive feeling for the man. So, mission accomplished for Brin. He’d sold a copy of his book and assured the distinct possibility of future sales, all in a friendly, warm fashion. It was a successful soft sell.

Some time later I attended a science fiction convention, where at one of the convention’s ubiquitous parties I met Brin again. To my surprise, he remembered me, and ushered me aside to a quiet place where we could talk. I wondered what he could possibly want to talk about. It turned out he had just finished his latest project, a graphic novel, and he wanted to show it to me. This time when we parted I thought, gee, that was unfortunate. I had felt like all he wanted to do was promote his work. It felt crass. I was disappointed in the man.

However, I did not persist in this opinion. For one thing it would have been hypocritical of me. I had recently produced an SF radio show, a copy of which I’d sent to Brin. He had been quite generous, not only taking the time to listen to the show but responding with positive comments. For another, Brin seemed genuinely excited about his new graphic novel, hot off the presses. Who could fault a guy for that? And if he was in fact just flogging his work...well, he was only doing what he had to do.

Because there is a fundamental difference between David Brin and me. I have a full time job. I draw an annual salary. I’m not particularly hungry or concerned about my future (although in this economy perhaps I ought to be). When I write, I do so for pleasure, not because I absolutely have to. I am not required to self-promote, whereas a full time writer like Brin makes a living on what he writes. His income is based on selling sufficient copies of his work. It’s a job requirement to continually flog his wares. And it’s not fair for someone in my position to judge him harshly for that.

Or is it?

Is it possible to promote one’s work (or one’s self) too much? Is any amount of self-promotion justified? If no one gets hurt it can’t ever be unethical, right? Except -- what if your self-promotion backfires, turning people off, ultimately hurting yourself? What about writers who are better than you, but not as good at self-promotion? Is it right that you should succeed while they do not?

I’ll leave you to ponder these questions while I go check out Brin’s latest bit of perfectly justified self-promotion. (You can follow him on Twitter too: @DavidBrin1).

Your Turn: Comment with your own reaction to the questions.

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