Indie Publishing Has a Creep Problem
It’s time to stop pretending we’re the exception
I was out at a bar, enjoying the inevitable afterparty of an author conference. At a table of about ten people, I chatted with two of my male industry friends for most of the night until it was time for us all to leave. Holding court at this table, but not actively involved in any of my conversations, was a male fixture of indie publishing. One of the more well-known crusaders and advocates. We did not talk directly, and I don’t believe he even knew my name. But at the end of the night, as folks broke off to head back to their hotels and we said our goodbyes, he pulled me in for a hug and kissed me on the neck. Not the cheek. The neck.
It was so unexpected, uncalled for, and inappropriate, that it shocked me into silence (no small feat). Not only was that due to it being entirely uninvited, but there is always the concern of a negative reaction, especially when the transgressor is a respected figure in a field you hope to succeed in.
This situation happened a few years ago, when I was still getting my footing as an author and publisher, and in the months that followed, I didn’t mention it to anyone, but I filed it away, made a note to stay wary of him in the future. A sloppy and unbidden kiss on the neck is not the kind of violation one can do a thing about anyhow; I’ve never witnessed negative consequences find a man for that degree of offense, but I’ve certainly witnessed negative consequences knock out a woman who raised a stink about it.
When I finally thought to mention the encounter to a friend, her response was about what I’d expected. She looked shocked and confused. She asked, “Why would he think that was okay?”
It’s a damn good question. Why would a man think it was okay to kiss a (happily married) woman he doesn’t know who works in the same industry with him right on the neck?
It’s also a question every woman asks herself, but in a warped version, when something like this happens. “Did I do something to invite it?” The answer is almost always no, but society has programmed us since childhood to ask this question first, to rule it out before we’re allowed to feel our anger over a boundary infringement.
This is just one of the many similarly inappropriate instances I’ve experienced firsthand since involving myself in the indie author community. Being called “sweetheart” by men who are paying for my expertise or finding myself in a position where my options are to either laugh at a man’s crude joke about me or look like a killjoy are regular occurrences.
I have relatively tough skin from writing comedy and years of being the token girl in all-male friend groups, and these minor infractions aren’t the end of the world. I don’t let them stop me from pursuing this career, but I still can’t help but think, Wouldn’t it be nice if I didn’t have to deal with this bullshit all the goddamn time? There’s an emotional accumulation to it.
On the desktop of my computer, I keep a file called “Harassment.” Do any male authors find it necessary to keep one of these, I wonder? I assure you that I keep a similar file in my mind as well, and it’s quite full. Not only do I store my own documentation in there, but I also collect the stories I’ve heard from other women, many of which go beyond my own obnoxious and inappropriate experiences, crossing into the realm of genuine sexual assault, verbal abuse, and coercion.
Would you be shocked to hear that groping is a common occurrence at our in-person events? Common. And almost always perpetrated by “respectable” industry men, the ones who like to publicly present themselves as the protectors, the watchdogs. On the rare occasions when the offense is committed by men without significant industry power, by the “nobodies,” it’s not only stopped but held up as an example of how chivalrous our culture is, how protective and vigilant the men in charge really are and how Right and Good it is to keep them in those positions, part of the natural order, if you will. But don’t be fooled. You’re too smart for that.
Wise women know that the self-appointed male protectors of any group, the ones who flaunt and relish the status, who talk about their gallant feats, are the most likely to be predators. They assume the role of Knight in Shining Armor because they don’t want anyone else touching the women under their watch. It’s a hard truth to swallow at first, and accepting it is a painful process that requires having one’s blissful naïveté ripped away, layer by layer, leaving raw skin that takes time to callus over.
Some abuses are more subtle but no less damaging than the groping. The powerful man takes a woman under his wing, promises to uplift her, to boost her signal. Why would he do this? she may wonder at first. And then comes the praise: she’s a promising voice, a hard worker, so she deserves it. And the assurances: he can give her the exposure she needs to launch into the stratosphere, he’s a feminist, a rising tide lifts all ships, etc.
There’s always a price with these men. The real sin is in their claiming there isn’t one. “I just want to see all indies succeed.” Oh really? Is that why you pick so many single women for your selfless altruism? Is that why you select your starry-eyed worshipers as your proteges and underpaid or unpaid labor?
I’m not interested in outing any offender by name or insinuation here. I have no desire to give these creeps an excuse to claim victimhood by “wrongful” accusation, and I am under no illusion that I could change their ways or help them see the light. If you haven’t learned appropriate behavior toward women in our workplace this many years into #metoo, then you’re never going to learn, and I have more important places to focus my energy than your emotional and spiritual education. Frankly, if you’re still a creep to women in 2022, you’re beyond helping. I would absolutely delight in watching your downfall, but I don’t believe that, with the way this industry is structured, anything I might do or say could make that happen. And it’s so, so easy to discredit even the most credible woman. So, I won’t be wasting my breath.
What I know about the creeps and predators, outside of those I’ve encountered myself, I’ve heard through the whisper channels that have always and will always exist among any oppressed group. They are the last-ditch effort to make sure we aren’t crazy, to validate our feelings in toxic environments that are expressly designed to invalidate our experience. And as we slowly emerge from the depths of the pandemic and conferences begin again, so have the whispers of predation.
Let me be clear, I’ve never positioned myself as a touchpoint for stories of this nature. I didn’t post a flyer on some bulletin board asking for women to come forward. I didn’t seek any of this information. My best guess of why I know so much is that I speak with a lot of women and they likely feel safe talking to me about these uncomfortable issues because they know I’ll believe them.
There’s no gain in telling made-up stories in the whisper channels, so I have no reason to believe anyone is lying. And when you sense their fear that they might be called to task in a he-said-she-said scenario with a man who holds far more influence, there’s no doubt that admitting to anything, even in these secure channels, comes with personal risk. There is no incentive for lying. As much as those trying to silence women have pushed that malignant narrative, there’s essentially no social credibility gained from claiming to have been mistreated by industry men. The women I know who haven’t experienced this sort of treatment say so frankly. That’s because they are relieved rather than envious. Duh.
There are about a dozen female authors I chat with in any given week, and maybe a few dozen who I speak with regularly but on a less frequent basis. From this small sampling, the Harassment file in my brain has gathered far too many first-hand accounts of abusive and aggressive behavior by men toward women in the indie author community. I’m not even including in this count the simply awkward conversations or when a man said or did something inappropriate then apologized or when men have held objectively gross, sexist, or misogynistic conversations in the vicinity of women. I’m talking about the groping, the sexually aggressive language, the ridicule, and the sexual coercion.
Naturally, that led me to wonder how many stories I haven’t heard. The indie community has tens of thousands of people in it, after all.
Along with my Harassment folder, I keep a running list of men. This is my shit list. I use it, in part, to validate the experiences of the women in the whisper network. If they give me the name of their perpetrator, I can sometimes tell them, “This is a pattern of behavior for him.” Knowing that allows the woman to stop asking, “Did I do something to invite this?” and understand that she’s encountered a creep, a predator, which then empowers her to keep an eye on other women when they encounter this same man.
And this is something women have been doing for each other for eons. When we’re denied the safety of credibility, we find that security in community.
I see the men on my shit list at every indie author conference. You’ll find them at the open bars, on panels, giving “inspirational” speeches, and in the VIP events. I don’t call them out, but I sure do watch them. And when they clearly set their sights on a woman — and it’s obvious when this happens if you pay attention — I step in. I ruin the mood, compliment the woman, engage her, and extract her if I can. Then I’ll check in with her. Women have always had to look out for one another this way, because, curiously, our self-appointed male “protectors” fail to. Huh.
The problem of the creep is not unique to our industry. I encounter it when I walk down the street, when I want to enjoy a dinner out by myself, at the airport, on Twitter, via email — virtually anywhere I go where my dear husband is not visibly present next to me. This annoyance (to put it mildly) is not unique to me, and none of this should be mistaken as a humblebrag. While we may joke about it to laugh so we don’t cry, I’ve never met a woman who genuinely derives her self-worth from the amount of harassment she receives. The content of the harassment she faces will vary based on age, weight, and race, but the malicious intent is the same, and our ability to go on living happy lives if it disappeared tomorrow is universal.
I know this problem won’t be fixed in my lifetime, if ever, and that certain men will always view women daring to be unclaimed by a man in a public space as an open invite, so allow me to reiterate that I have more enjoyable ways to spend my energy than trying to change the behavior of those assholes. Staring at a blank wall, for instance. Cleaning hair from the shower drain. Inserting an IUD. Removing an IUD.
I write this post with two intentions behind it.
The first is for the women out there who have not yet reached me on the whisper channels, who may not have as many connections in this community as I do, who may not have a single female author’s number in her phone contacts. I need you to know that the strange, creepy, or violating thing that happened to you was not a result of something you did. If you wish to share the story with me privately, I’m willing to hear you, to never tell your name or force your hand in verifying an experience that is almost never verifiable, and if I know of previous situations by the same perpetrator, I’ll let you know. Maybe that’s what you need to start feeling better, and if so, I’m happy to help.
The second reason I’m writing this is because women are sick of bearing this burden alone. It shouldn’t be ours in the first place. We’ve done nothing to deserve it. We shouldn’t have to worry about a man sticking his hand down our shirts at work gatherings. We shouldn’t be the only ones keeping our eyes on the creeps to make sure they don’t find fresh prey. And yet…
So, this is to the men out there who do not wish to be counted as part of the problem: please wake the fuck up. Help us. Don’t assume that your male friend isn’t a creep just because you like him and haven’t witnessed him grab a woman’s ass. Put forth the effort to develop the extra sense every woman must.
When you see a man cornering a woman, step in, join the conversation, check in with her, and give her an excuse to leave. Maybe she does, maybe she doesn’t, but you’ll have provided a safe option either way.
When you see a man trying to diminish a woman on your panel or complimenting her looks or body or doing anything that would seem strange for him to do or say to another man, step in. Call it out bluntly. If you don’t know what to say, what name or term to assign to the violation, simply say, “Hold on. That doesn’t seem appropriate.” I promise you that women will not be angry with you for being overly cautious on this front. Just watch the relief wash over us and you’ll understand.
But didn’t I previously talk shit about men who position themselves as our protectors? Why am I making this so impossibly complicated?
It’s not. It’s simple. Men talking a big game about protecting women are almost always looking to earn the coveted Patriarchy Points. But methinks he doth protest too much, so I don’t care much for those people.
But men who act and intervene at a risk to their own reputation? Those who speak truth to power when they don’t have to and when not doing so would keep them in the good graces of said power? Those are the friends we need. Those are men who make the industry safer, the ones willing to risk something of their own for someone else.
I should say this to my male readers as well: with regards to the women you know well and have developed a respectful relationship with, telling them they look nice when they’ve put in a little effort won’t get you on anyone’s shit list. Giving her a hug when she appears smiling and ready for it doesn’t make you a creep. Buying her a drink or a meal because she helped you out isn’t out of the question. A drink can just be a drink if you let it. You can still be kind and generous and friendly to your female counterparts.
The threat of “false accusations” you’ve heard grumbles about is largely propaganda. And why worry about false accusations when the true accusations almost never lead to meaningful consequence for the aggressor? You’re not in the danger some would have you believe you are. Women are not the threat.
Speaking for myself, I want to hug my friends (of all genders), accept and give compliments freely, and buy and accept drinks as repayment for previous generosity. I just want to do it without worrying that it’s giving the go-ahead for a man to be inappropriate.
For fear that I haven’t been controversial enough, let me say that I’ve never met a man who was worried about #metoo who did not have a legitimate reason to be concerned, who was not guilty of a pattern of egregious behavior toward women. The men who play victim, claim a witch hunt, and decry “cancel culture” tattle hilariously and tremendously on themselves. Look for this behavior as a red flag for your male friends. It may be your first clue to keep an eye on them around the women you care about.
I know many, many good men in this industry. They’re the ones I collaborate with, my repeat clients, and my confidants. To those men (you know who you are), I appreciate you being someone I feel safe around, someone with whom I can speak and joke freely, swap ideas, and enjoy spending time.
Now it’s time to take your responsibility to the next level. Why? Because women must. We’re fighting on two fronts: watching out for ourselves and watching out for each other. It’s a privilege not to have to consider these things when moving through this professional space, a privilege that women do not have but men do.
And what do we do with privilege? We use it for the benefit of those without it.
I don’t fool myself into thinking there is a permanent solution to this creep problem. All I know is that it’s about damn time someone within our industry mentions it.
Before writing this, I asked myself if I was the person to get this conversation started. Admittedly, I’m not afraid to die upon a hill, and if you’ve read any of my comedy, you know I love to shit-stir. Am I trying to fulfill some inner need of mine?
I considered that possibility. Then I wondered how long it would be until someone else said these unpopular things aloud. How many more women in the meantime would be fed the lie that “everyone is so nice” so that if something happened to them, they would keep their mouth shut, believing (perhaps correctly in some cases) that our community valued niceness above truth and honesty.
I couldn’t risk it. I have a bit of a platform now, I’ve experienced these issues firsthand, and what grab-happy indie authors think of me has zero impact on my ability to make a living. I also gain a power-up every time someone calls me a bitch. So here I am.
This is a call for action and discussion about a male-female problem, focused primarily on cis-men as the perpetrator and cis-women as the victims. But I’m certain the power abuses are not limited to this narrow scope. I’ve heard about and witnessed racism in this community myself, even though I’ll never be a victim of it. And I’m sure my friends in the LGBTQ+ community have some chilling stories to tell about our so-called “inviting” industry. Just as I ask men to keep an eye out for inappropriateness toward women, I ask white, straight women to keep an eye out for aggressive behavior toward other races and sexualities. I’m not unaware of this, and I take my responsibility seriously.
However, a single post can’t tackle all of these power abuses effectively (even though they are all interrelated), and the foundation of this one is my personal experience, which is limited to my life as a white cis-woman who has not had to endure mistreatment due to my race or sexual orientation. However, I hope that this post might gain the momentum to start the many, many, many conversations we need to have.
We cannot pretend indie publishing is some utopia where everyone is nice and no innocent people get hurt, and we must learn to turn a suspicious eye toward the people in power who push this type of narrative. It is one of silencing dressed up as inclusion.
And since I’ve spoken, now it’s your turn.
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Claire Taylor has published over 30 humor and mystery books across various pen names. She also provides fiction and career consulting for other writers through her company FFS Media.