“Why” Is a Question of Ethics: On Koehler Books’ Defense of Autism Uncensored

[TWs at links for distressing descriptions of behavior toward an autistic child and/or for distressing behavior/language aimed at specific book reviewers.]

According to its publisher, Whitney Ellenby’s Autism Uncensored hits bookstores 15 April 2018. But Ellenby and the book have already garnered some major criticism: for Ellenby’s recent op-ed in the Washington Post, for the book itself, and for the way Ellenby, her husband. and/or the publisher have reportedly treated less-than-glowing reviews of advance copies.

For instance: Kaelan Rhywiol’s review and livetweet are linked in this post, in which Rhywiol also describes the email altercation she had with Ellenby and Ellenby’s husband as a result of those reviews. Kaia Sonderby also livetweeted a critical review.

I have seen at least three people on Twitter state that they emailed Koehler Books about Autism Uncensored, only to receive replies from Ellenby and/or her husband directly, rather than from the publisher. It appeared in each case that Koehler had forwarded the emails to the author. (I have not actually seen these emails, the forward data, or the replies.)

Koehler Books did reply publicly on 11 March, however, in this blog post [above TWs apply], titled “Why Koehler Books is Publishing Whitney Ellenby’s Autism Uncensored.” The blog post is an excellent object lesson in the ways in which “Why?” is deeply a question of ethics – and how, as authors, our publisher’s ethics both effect and affect public perceptions of our own.

Full Disclosure:

  1. Under my not-pen-name, I am a partner and developmental editor at Autonomous Press, which also published my first novel.
  2. I have not read Autism Uncensored, and I do not intend for any of my comments here to reflect an opinion of the book. I do wish to comment on statements made by the publisher in the publisher’s public 11 March blog post, linked above, and on the description of the book on Amazon.com, which is typically provided to Amazon by the publisher.

The above-linked blog post is long, so I’ll quote only the items I wish to address specifically. You can find those items in context at the link above.

“The Same Reason Any Publisher Would”

Koehler Books’s response to the Ellenby controversy opens with an announcement that the publisher will be releasing Autism Uncensored on 15 April, followed by this sentence:

We agreed to publish Ellenby’s book for the same reason any publisher would:

Autism Uncensored received considerable backlash from actually-autistic advance reviewers. Autonomous Press has a specific track record of publishing works on autism by actually-autistic authors, and the press trusts the opinions of actually-autistic reviewers, many of whom specialize in covering works on autism.

Consequently, I was immediately skeptical that “any” publisher would in fact share Koehler Books’s reasons for publishing Autism Uncensored.

But I’m in the class “any publisher,” so let’s see.

1. The author had written an excellent book, well crafted and with a strong, logical narrative voice.

If we’re defining “excellent” as “well crafted and with a strong, logical narrative voice,” then yes. I too prefer to publish excellent books.

2. The writing was clean and the craft excellent.

I’m not seeing how this differs materially from point 1. Differentiate or delete.

3. The author was writing about her personal experience from a strong advocate position, a position of expertise based on her personal testimony.

Were the book about how to advocate for one’s autistic child, I might consider “personal testimony” a source point in the writer’s favor. Depending on the depth and nature of that advocacy and the quality of the “personal testimony” describing it, I might also consider that advocacy and its testimonal expression a source of “expertise.”

To date, however, I have not seen this book marketed as an advocacy manual. Amazon lists it under various SpEd categories, and the Amazon product description portrays it as a “true, at-time account,” implying a memoir. I do not consider “personal testimony” to be per-se synonymous with “advocacy” in memoir, nor do I consider the “personal testimony” of a memoir to convey any sort of “expertise” in itself.

In fact, given the inherently personal nature of memoir, I question whether concepts like “advocacy” or “expertise” even apply to the genre, and if so, whether a parent trying to talk about a condition her child has can ever rightly be categorized as either advocacy or expertise.

I hesitate to agree that “any publisher” would publish an advocacy manual but list and market it as a SpEd-related memoir. Potential questions of liability aside, it seems like a poor way to reach your target audience and thus maximize sales.

4. The author wrote the book to share her story in the hopes of helping other parents of autistic children who are dealing with extremely difficult issues of control, and who desperately want to give their children the best possible life. Ellenby offers her views and experience dealing with the unorthodox methods she specifically adapted to Zack so he could live a full life.

I’mma stop you right there, Koehler Books.

“Any publisher” absolutely would not publish a book “to share [the author’s] story in the hopes of helping other parents of autistic children….”, for the simple reason that publishing parent memoirs does not fall under the purview of every publisher.

Seriously: Are we to believe that even Chooseco publishes autism parent memoirs now?

5. The author clearly states in the Prologue that she understands that her methods are unorthodox, experimental, and even controversial; that she in no way endorses them for others to follow; that her book is not a prescription. She offers them as part of her own individual narrative, along with her unique perspectives about autism in hope of helping some parents with autistic children, because she has seen how much the methods she has employed with her own son, Zack, have helped him to realize his own civil rights, and live a more complete life.

Assuming arguendo that this entire point is true, it is not a reason “any publisher” would publish this book. It may be a reason Koehler Books agreed to publish this book, and I have no comment on that: Koehler Books can decide to publish just about anything Koehler Books wants. Again: Many publishers are not in the business of publishing parent memoirs.

I have to question the perspective of a publisher that claims the reason it accepts a certain manuscript is the reason any other publisher would do the same. You’re killing my willing suspension of disbelief here, Koehler Books.

6. The author has an excellent following of readers and is well connected in the autism community.

I agree that some publishers would consider this a selling point. But “any publisher” won’t. Some simply won’t care; a handful will consider a following in the “autism community” a strike against the author.

Any author who “is well connected in the autism community” will have to work three times as hard to convince me that their manuscript is worth publishing, for instance. Because I have seen the “autism community” from the perspective of the authors I publish and the readers that buy our books, and the view isn’t flattering.

7. Her marketing and promotional plans were and are excellent. She gets it.

Sure, I love an author who understands marketing and promotion.

To Summarize: Of seven reasons Koehler gives that “any publisher” would have published Ellenby’s book, two look realistic, one is redundant, three are false, and one rests on an apparent marketing error, which I’m going to categorize as “mostly false” on the grounds that a reasonably prudent publisher would not categorize a book as a SpEd-related memoir, then insist its ethos is based on its value as an advocacy handbook.

The list is followed by this comment:

From a publishing perspective, we saw all green lights to get behind Ellenby’s book.

I have no reason whatsoever to disbelieve this statement. The above list might not reflect why any publisher would publish this book, but I do believe it accurately reflects why Koehler Books choose to publish this book.

It also raises my ethical hackles.

“Why Not?” Is Also a Question of Ethics

Publishers in the U.S. are free to choose pretty much any mandate they like. They can target pretty much any audience they like. So naturally, there’s a press out there for just about any kind of writing authors want to do.

13-volume history of Betamax? There’s a press for that.
Raccoon porn? There’s a press for that.
Parent memoir rehashing tired & terrible autism tropes? There’s even a press for that.

But while we’re trading in cliches: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Throughout Koehler Books’ open blog post, there’s a noticeable lack of questioning why a publisher should perhaps not publish a memoir of the type described by Autism Uncensored’s Amazon description. For instance:

  • Did every child in this book get a chance to consent meaningfully to how they are depicted? I’m aware that legally, parents in the U.S. can exploit their kids in any number of ways. Ethically, parenting demands not only protecting kids but also helping them practice making reasoned choices. Choices like “hey, do you want this horrible moment from when you were four published for the whole world to read?”
  • How does this book interact with current popular depictions of autism, autistic people, and non-autistic parents of autistic children? There’s a hint of this in the Amazon description, but it runs so completely counter to the actual state of autism literature that I have to believe it’s based on the author and/or publisher having not done their homework. The Amazon description portrays a book that plays straight into the most harmful tropes about autism that have circulated for seventy years. It’s feeding a social movement that we already know has killed autistic children and adults. Again, it’s legal to publish stuff like this in many instances – but not ethical.
  • Who is going to regret it if we publish this book? This is related to the consent question, but it also implicates the fact that adults, with our access to resources and fully-formed pre-frontal cortices, have an ethical responsibility to think ahead, to spot the potential worst outcomes, and to ask honest questions of everyone involved regarding whether they’re prepared for those outcomes. For many of the authors I work with, this bar is low, but for parents writing about their children’s difficulties, that bar can and should be extremely high.

In other words: Why SHOULDN’T we publish this book?

Failure to ask this question rigorously is, I believe, the number-one reason Koehler Books finds itself in the position to have to publish defensive blog posts. For two reasons:

  1. Had it asked those questions, Koehler Books might not have published Autism Uncensored in the first place, and
  2. By failing to ask them, Koehler Books has positioned itself as a publisher who doesn’t do that kind of ethical heavy lifting when choosing manuscripts.

Point 2 helps to explain the remainder of the Koehler blog post, following the last paragraph from which I quoted. Nothing in the rest of the post answers the title question. The publisher’s founder’s CV is irrelevant to Ellenby’s content, the First Amendment does not apply to private criticism of publishing companies, and the rest is a rant about bullying of the sort one can find on any social media site. None of it is on-point, and all of it reads like the kind of thing a writer only finds necessary to say if he or she feels cornered.

Perhaps Koehler Books should feel cornered right now. Perhaps some time in the corner will help them think about all the whys they didn’t ask.

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