Thoughts on #cockygate and Internet Mentality

As writers, there are things we know we shouldn’t do. Don’t comment on reviews. Don’t even read reviews. Don’t engage with the haters. But did you ever think “don’t trademark a common word in your genre and threaten other authors with it” would be on that list?

I hesitated before writing this post. I never want to be political or controversial here (unless it relates to my feelings of a particular book… and even then, I don’t do author/book bashing). But there have been some things happening, and I think it may be time to say a few words about it. So here it is. #cockygate: a Cautionary Tale.

For those of you not on Twitter or following along in the romance publishing industry (an industry a bit outside my current ideal genres for both reading and writing… hey, I’m a fantasy girl!), there is a bit of a scandal going on regarding the filing of a trademark. This isn’t anything secret or new; in fact it’s up all over the internet, so I will give you a rundown: romance author Faleena Hopkins filed a trademark of the work “cocky” at the beginning of May, and a crapstorm of crazy followed. There were cease & desist letters sent to authors with the word “cocky” in their titles, furious tweets and rants about the logistics and legality of the trademark, and every possible kind of reaction you could expect. If you want to see the gore, the hashtags I’ve noticed are #cockygate and #byefaleena. But brace yourselves.

I’ll be the first to admit, when I heard about it, my initial reaction was 1) incredulity and 2) outrage. I mean, how can one author be that “cocky” (I’m sorry for the pun, but it’s right there!) to think she can own a word like that, to take it away from anyone else who wants to use it? Beyond that, I was seeing tweets about how reviewers’ reviews were being deleted for using the word “cocky.” And I was a little offended when she actually said that she was building a brand while other authors had one book… um, what does she think being an author is??? (PS: your NAME is your brand, and everything you publish builds it) But I wanted to know what was really going on. I wanted to know the truth. I wanted to know the motivation. Was it really as bad as I was hearing? What was going on? Who was this person? So, I went hunting for information. First, a Vox article summed it up (albeit in a pretty biased manner), a few people sent me articles, I found a video summary, then I looked to Faleena Hopkins on her blog and in a video she herself posted (if you really want to watch her almost-two-hour rant, I’m sure you can find it).

Here’s what I found (as unbiased as I can make it sound): C&D letters were sent to indie authors who had to rebrand and replace a bunch of their promotional book materials; the trademark was filed because Faleena believed people were using her “cocky” titles to copycat her work (thus boosting their own sales and confusing readers); Faleena felt that trademarking was how she had to protect her books/readers; it might be an overreaching of trademark, and many authors feel offended and attacked; Faleena now has a ton of hate and bad publicity (like, she basically destroyed her author brand); she made things a million times worse every time she tried to respond to the response she was getting; there are a lot of hurt feelings.

So here’s the thing. I don’t know what the truth is. I don’t know if she truly felt she was protecting her readers or if she is just trying to calm the crapstorm now. Personally, I don’t agree with filing the trademark, and I believe she did irreparable harm to herself and fellow authors. And personally, even though she sounds like maybe she regrets it, I think that may only be because she destroyed her career. I mean, her video kind of says a lot (too much for her own good), and even in her blog post “to her past self,” she is still pointing fingers and naming names for people she believes are at fault more than she is. She is trying to call herself a victim for circumstances she created.

We are never going to know the truth for sure. But I think there is still an important lesson to be learned in all of this. First and foremost, as an author, we must pay attention to our public presences. We are professionals, and it is critical that we act like it. That includes not alienating our peers and potential partners in this business. We need allies. We are allies. And I think this is why so many people were offended… she crossed the line of solidarity. When we spend so much of our time alone, we need partners who understand, who are sympathetic, who can build us up and make us better. In my experience, authors and writers are some of the most helpful people I’ve ever met. Some of the most supportive. So when something like this happens, it is personally insulting.

And if you’re a writer thinking of doing something huge and drastic and career-altering, take some time (and maybe talk to a few people) to think through what the fallout may be. Not all publicity is good publicity, and it’s so easy these days, in the age of the internet, to do irreparable harm to your reputation (if you want to read about how this #cockygate thing is bad branding, read this article a friend sent me). The internet mentality, that idea that if we’re behind a screen we’re safe from the consequences of our actions, can mean we do stupid things.

And when we do screw up? I think people would be a lot more lenient if we just apologize and let it go. The internet is a harsh mistress. We need to be willing to not only stand up for ourselves but also (and this is more difficult) admit when we’re wrong and do what we can to make amends.

So before you hit “publish” on that scathing blog post, before you respond to that one-star review, before you publish a two-hour video showing you to be an arrogant, hateful person (even if that isn’t true), just stop. Set it aside. Look at it later. Better yet, have a trusted friend read it and help you decide if it’s really a good idea. Don’t engage with the bad reviews. Don’t respond to hate. Don’t publish anything or talk publicly when you’re worked up, angry, or upset. That only leads to heartache and regret. Make yourself someone worthy of your audience’s respect. How you present your public face can sink your career… or make it rise to the top.

I’m not going to tell you what to believe here. I’m not going to tell you how to feel about it. I will kindly ask, however, that as authors, we do everything we can to stay professional and stay allies. We should all be in this together.