The Black Hat Riddle Bewares Writing

There are serious problems in publishing right now with black hat authors. Nobody is talking about it either, because the cost of speaking out is simply too great. Scammers are increasingly litigious. Dirty tricks abound. White hat writers are suffering in other ways too as readers come to mistrust any name unknown to them, and the only entity with enough power to enforce any kind of justice doesn’t like going on patrol. But maybe there is something else we can do.

My first introduction to the concept of black hats and white hats was not via cowboy movies – I am not American and my own cultural milieu was less focused on that… frontier – but from Philosophy classes as a college student. Particularly what is known as the Hat Riddle (or the Prisoner Hat Riddle).

There are many variations, but in the version I heard, four cowboys – two wearing black hats and two wearing white hats – are captured by banditos who decide to have a little fun with them. They bury the cowboys up to their necks in sand so they can’t move or even turn their heads. The banditos swap their hats around so each cowboy doesn’t know which color hat they are wearing. And then they are asked to guess… and if they get it wrong, they die.

The cowboys are arranged in the manner displayed in the picture at the top of this blog post. No one can see their own hat, of course. The first man, wearing a black hat, is behind a wall and can see none of his companions.

The next in line, on the other side of the wall and wearing a white hat, can only see the two men in front of him and their respective hat colors. The third man, wearing a black hat, can only see the cowboy in front of him. And then the final cowboy can see none of his friends or their hat colors, or indeed his own.

The cowboys have ten minutes to figure it out, or they will be executed. Communication between them is not permitted, and if they attempt it, they will be shot. But if any of the cowboys guesses the color of his own hat correctly, he will save them all.

After just one minute in the searing hypothetical heat, one of the cowboys calls out the color of his hat. Correctly. The riddle is this – and it’s not a trick question – which one of them calls out, and why is he 100% sure of the color of his hat?

The answer – and the logic – is in the comments, and it requires a bit of lateral thinking. Just like the problem we are all facing in the Kindle Store today.

Black Hat Silence

People have noticed that I’ve become increasingly vague when talking about those in our community wearing black hats. I haven’t blogged about the topic since last October. I occasionally try and give out warnings on Facebook and Twitter, but often people are frustrated by vague warnings and want all the particulars – and I just can’t give them. I won’t get into the particular details of why, but let’s just say that the personal cost of speaking out on these topics is far greater than anybody knows.

However, perhaps there is something else I can do, something we can all do, to fight those who cheat and swindle their way to the top. We don’t necessarily have to confront the black hats directly – perhaps we can lift up all those with white hats instead.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could create a network of authors with similar values? I mean those who don’t engage in unethical behavior to game the charts. Those who actually care about the quality of the books they publish, and don’t use any tricks to cheat readers or retailers or bestseller charts.

Good people, if you want shorthand.

What if there was a way that good people could promote each other? Instead of tearing down the scammers and slimeballs, we could just… leapfrog them. Don’t invite them to our promos. Shut them out of our networks. Instead, only loop in those who respect the craft, the work, the business, and each other.

I’ve been thinking about this all weekend, while at a conference in America. It was a wonderful event with some really superb sessions which got the brain whirring. I won’t drop any names here as I rather deliberately don’t want to associate anyone with the views I’m expressing in case they attract any heat, but you can see me raving on Twitter about the event and all the things which impressed me.

During the many long discussions I had with fellow authors and industry people last week, a recurring topic was where the industry was headed, of course. Again, not associating anyone else with my opinion – I want to be clear on that – but my personal view is that the problems posed by unethical individuals and entities and groups are growing, not abating, and that there is real danger here because we are talking about it less. Publicly, at least.

Scamming and cheating hasn’t stopped just because fewer people are speaking about it – in many ways it is worse than ever, but the dangers of highlighting it today are such that many voices have retreated from the discussion. I’m not criticizing anyone who that applies to; it also applies to me, quite frankly. There are so many things going on right now that I would love to be explicit about, because there are really dangerous currents going on under the surface, and some particularly nasty people operating, worse than those that have come before, engaging in even more insidious practices.

And the community can’t police itself like it used to.

I don’t know how all this will pan out. To really combat all this stuff, you would need the world’s biggest retailer to actually care what is happening to its store. You would need some superpowered version of the watchdogs of before, with endless legal funds and reserves of energy – a full time staff with a panel of technical experts who understood how all the ad platforms and algorithms worked, so they could grapple with the incredibly complex scams that are operating right now. And you would need institutional support to handle the cyber-security (and actual security) implications of taking on people who routinely employ clickfarms and bots and hackers, people who think nothing of issuing legal threats (or other kinds of threats).

Which is not going to happen, of course. This isn’t to criticize any entities or individuals that have sacrificed a lot over the last few years, and decades, to protect authors from various scams. I think they deserve a tremendous amount of gratitude from the community.

But the simple fact is that the scams have now exponentially exploded in technical complexity, and those wearing black hats are much more ruthless; they have deeper pockets, more to protect.

Creative Solutions for Black Hat Authors

So, what do we do? Nothing? I’m not prepared to go there yet. There are still little bits of activism we can all engage in, if this is something we truly care about. We can still bend the ear of retailers in private, about certain things they are doing… or not doing – and not accept the usual corporate blandishments. We can join one of the organizations that does actually fight for authors. And maybe we can lift up the good people and use what little power we have to exclude the bad people a little more.

You don’t have to do any or all of these things. I’m not an organization person, for example, although I do amplify their campaigns when I can. But is lifting up good people and steering clear of bad people something else we can all consider?

I’ve turned down more than a few opportunities in the last 12 months, when I decided to draw a line in the sand. I’ve turned down attractive speaking gigs when I saw who was on the slate. I’ve withdrawn from lucrative promos when I saw who else was on board and what practices might be deployed. And I’ve started telling organizers why I was withdrawing too, instead of citing scheduling conflicts, or whatever I used to do.

It’s not easy, and it certainly doesn’t make you popular. I’m not looking for any prizes here, just showing how you can – maybe – use whatever power you have to get people thinking about what kind of industry we want to have. What kind of behaviors we want to reward.

Events and promos are starting to realize that I won’t participate if certain people are involved, or if certain practices are engaged in. And this doesn’t make me unique or different – authors have been doing this for a long time and have made far bigger sacrifices. I’ve just started being explicit. At least in private.

These are things you can do too. I’m not saying you have to agree with everything I say, or share my specific values, or even particularly like me. But you can – I respectfully suggest – make a small step towards having the kind of industry you want by taking a similar stance.

Or at least thinking about it.

Maybe it doesn’t suit. Perhaps I’m in a more privileged position here and have the luxury of turning things down. That’s a fair criticism, and I’ll accept that. But consider the following, if you can.

What about doing something positive for the people who do enshrine your values? What about only choosing authors to list-swap with who are good people who truly care about the books which carry their name?

What about only inviting people into your box set who are nice people who don’t cross the line when it comes to reaching readers and making money? I know it’s tempting to invite the person with the 40,000-strong mailing list, or massive Facebook presence, or whatever. I know, because I’ve succumbed to that temptation before. I’ve participated in things which I regret, promoted with people I wished I hadn’t, gone to events where, in hindsight, I wished I had pushed back on certain practices, or at least called them out privately.

I also know that other people have been doing this kind of thing for a long time. I’m not claiming any of this is new, or that this makes me in any way special; I’m just trying to get more people to think about doing the same thing. Because I think the industry needs to change course. And maybe we – collectively – have the power to help ourselves if no one else is going to help us.

We all have mailing lists and Facebook Likes and passionate readers. We can combine our networks to lift up the right people. And we can avoid succumbing to the temptation to include that questionable person because they’ll make us a ton more money.

I waited until my recent promo was over so there could be no accusations of some kind of self-serving weaselry, but I think a concrete example is useful.

Because I was going to a con last weekend and giving a couple of talks on marketing, I wanted some live examples of cross-promotion. I had been meaning to do a group promo with a bunch of fellow authors for a while and decided to pull something together quickly in time for the weekend. It was also the only window where certain people could participate; I had strong feelings about the kind of person I wanted to include.

I personally wanted authors who were strong on craft and ethical in their approach to marketing. I wanted good people. Books and authors who I could comfortably stand behind, and not worry how they were pushing the promo.

Now, the list of writers I included isn’t proscriptive, of course. I’m not saying these are the only ethical people in the business and everyone else is a black hat author – just in case anyone misinterprets this. I plan to do more promos of one kind of another, and I want to cross-promote with as many good people as possible, people who care about their books, and their fellow authors. Ethical people.

I think there’s a hole in the market here. The community really responded to this approach in huge numbers. I don’t have the final tally, but my estimate is that this promo shifted at least 15,000 books. And the only spend was around $600 of affiliate income rolled back into ads, with a little extra from me. We had no retailer support – there was no time to pull anything like that together – no discount sites, no advance buzz, no elaborate social media campaigns. Just our respective lists and platforms and networks.

And a ton of sharing from participants and writers in general (thank you, btw). There was no buy-in for participants, and no hassle. A genuine win for everyone.

All this got me thinking: wouldn’t it be great if we could do this all the time? I don’t mean cross-promote, that’s old hat, but exclusively focus on lifting up good people and skipping over those who engage in tawdry practices.

We might not be able to end scammers and ban black hats, we might not be able to confront the sleazy internet marketer types directly, but maybe we could stop inviting them to our parties? Maybe we could stop exposing our audiences to these people?

This is but a simple request: think about it. Maybe it’s worth a try.

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time he spends outside. He writes fiction under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.