Publishing · Self-publishing

That Thorny Question of Ethics…

Historical novelist Jane Steen recently wrote this piece about the troubling question of ethics in the self-publishing arena. It’s a question that seems to me to get not nearly enough attention, and I’m glad that Steen has finally shone a light into some of self-publishing’s murkier corners. It’s about time.

Image credit: Ad Meskens | Wikimedia Commons
Image credit: Ad Meskens | Wikimedia Commons

For the fact is (inevitably, given the loose and rather disjointed nature of self-publishing, and the disparate nature of self-publishers) that in contrast to just about any other industry you care to mention, there is no code of practice, no generally agreed set of ethical standards that self-publishers are required to meet. (Indeed, some might say, reasonably enough, that given the autonomy that self-publishers hold dear, it is neither practical nor desirable for there to be any such thing.) However, that thorny question of ethics is one that is worth exploring.

What distinguishes an ethical self-publisher from an unethical one? And who decides which is which?

The short answer: I don’t know. Self-publishing is still in its infancy; the concrete is still being poured, and no one knows exactly how the finished item is going to look. However, these are issues that we should at least think about. If we did have a code of ethics, what might it look like?

There are certain practices that are generally (but not universally) agreed to be dodgy, such as reviewing your own work, or bribing sock puppets to write glowing 5-star reviews of your books. Indiscriminate spamming is usually condemned, as is the unfortunate tendency of some authors (including traditionally-published ones, let it be said) of responding, often in quite vitriolic terms, to negative reviews. The loathsome, if uncommon, practice of leaving damning 1-star reviews of competitors’ books is reviled by almost everyone.

As seen on Amazon. Image: public domain | Wikimedia Commons
As seen on Amazon. Image: public domain | Wikimedia Commons

But then there are the grey areas, the murky areas. Some authors, for example, openly rate their books on sites such as Goodreads. They’re doing so under their own names, so it isn’t deception. Arguably, though, they are giving their books’ overall ratings a slightly unwarranted boost – who, after all, is not going to give their own book a 5-star rating? Is this unethical or not? What about those who vote down negative reviews of their books, or get their friends to do so? Is this an ethically dubious practice, or just a small but effective PR move – accentuating the positive, if you like?

I’d like to stress that I’ve no particular answers to these problems. They seem to me, however, to be the kinds of questions we should be asking ourselves.

If we use ethically dubious practices, we shouldn’t then be surprised if readers turn against us. If indies get their friends to write breathlessly positive reviews, and sell books on the basis of them, they shouldn’t then be surprised if ordinary readers take them to task if their books are badly written or of generally poor quality. More to the point, though, indies who engage in unethical behaviour often wreak havoc not just on their own reputations, but on the reputation of indies as a whole. (See the comments following Steen’s article for an example of a reader who has sworn off indie authors for good.)

There is another question, of course. For years now, some traditional publishers (and traditionally-published authors) have been engaging in slightly underhand tactics to boost their book sales. You might argue that, if even they don’t always keep to the straight and narrow, there’s no reason for us to do so. That seems to me besides the point, for two reasons. One: just because somebody else is doing something, doesn’t mean you should do it. Two (and on a more practical note): traditional publishers don’t have to contend with entrenched negative attitudes, as indies do. We’re starting off at a disadvantage here; the only way we can hope to make up for it is if we aim high and insist that yes, we can be trusted.

Ultimately, indies will never stand a chance of being accepted unless they at least try to be acceptable. We whinge and moan about how we’re put at a disadvantage, but rarely mention that the ultimate responsibility for changing that state of affairs may be ours. If we don’t hold ourselves to high standards, why should anyone – readers or industry gatekeepers – treat us with anything but suspicion?

If we want readers to trust us, shouldn’t we at least try to be trustworthy?

8 thoughts on “That Thorny Question of Ethics…

  1. I’ve often mulled over these questions myself, Mari. I remember coming across the same sort of thing
    in a different form as a trade unionist at a local council. When a representative of a trade union group was guilty of corruption, I agreed with the branch secretary that we had to sack this person, as starting off at a disadvantage in public opinion as trade unionists do, we had to be seen to be above suspicion.
    Certainly, many of the practices you mention are questionable, and as you say, traditionally published
    authors have been guilty of them as well as Indie Authors. I suppose all business is corrupt to a certain
    extent; we don’t realise how much so until we get involved in a branch of it and start to understand what is going on…Nice guys finish last, as they say (goes panting past the finish line a year after anyone else).
    There is certainly something wrong with the reviewing system on amazon, for instance. As it is, I gather an unscrupulous person can have several accounts and give a ridiculously good, or unfairly bad, review on a book several times over using all of them. I would have thought that most people would be suspicious of a
    book which has only glowing reviews, though; a bit of contraversy must stimulate interest. On this, too, I’d like to know why numerous badly written traditionally published books have so little negative feedback? I find this suspicous, thinking about it. Oh dear, what a conspracy theorist I am…

    1. Hello Lucinda, and thanks for the comment. It’s important to think about these questions, whether we can agree or not (and indies being indies, we will probably never all agree on any given topic!) You’re probably right that nothing in this world is absolutely pure, and everything and everyone is probably touched by corruption to a degree, whether they like it or not, which is perhaps why ethical questions often have us chasing our own tails…

      1. Well, I do anyway agree with you about a lot of it, Mari. As in that trade union issue I menton, we do have to be seen as having a basic integrity if we are to gain respect. Let’s totter over the finishing line last together…

  2. Thanks for keeping the conversation going, Mari. I don’t know the answers to many of the gray areas either–that’s why there’s such a need for dialogue. One of the biggest issues, in my opinion, is getting retail platforms, especially ebook platforms, to agree to listen to customers when it comes to ethical issues. I think things are going to have to deteriorate a bit more before we get to that point, but I also think we’ll get there fast since spammers and scammers are targeting ebooks as a lucrative revenue stream. (The latest is Kindle Unlimited–since authors get paid when the reader reads 10% of a book, 6-page books are now appearing that hit the magic number when the reader opens the book.)

    And yes, the behavior of traditional book industry players doesn’t help. It’s clear that the book industry is not healthy, and yet more people are reading than ever. So how do we cure our ills? No-one has the answer, but if we ignore the symptoms we’re going to end up with a full-blown disease.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jane, and for visiting my blog! I’d like to thank you again, too, for writing the original article – this is certainly a question that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. I think you’re probably right that things will change when retailers start listening to customers more – and I hope that things won’t have to decline too steeply before that happens!

      Like Aniko, I’m shocked that people are now publishing short ebooks just to get paid – and yet I don’t know why I’m shocked, since it was to be expected. The problem is that the scammers are undermining not just their own reputations, but that of all indies. I think those of us who at least try to be ethical have to take a stand.

  3. I have always been suspicious of indie cliques that seem to exist solely to blindly “like” or “review” the works of others in the group. I accidentally joined one of those early in my author-publisher career, and quickly absented myself. It wasn’t about growing a relationship with other authors, nor was it about providing any insight for readers. It was well into the gray area of ethics, and intended only to bolster ratings.

    If there is a system (such as the reviews at Amazon), someone will figure out how to game it to their advantage. I wonder if it still feels like a good idea to the sock-puppet review buyers to have purchased that initial word of mouth?

    The reason behavior shades into the unethical is people want instant results. They don’t want to work for a decade, slowly building readership. Everyone wants to be the overnight success, and that is not realistic.

    Many thanks for looking at an area that is much less examined than it should be!


    1. Thanks for the comment, Aniko! I suspect you’re right about it being down to people wanting instant results. Years of hard work and obscurity don’t appeal much, understandably enough – but for most of us it’s the only possible path that we can follow if we’re not to behave in unethical ways. Again, I’ve no easy answers, but this is an area of the self-publishing world that really does need to be examined!

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