It’s probably safe to say that most of us don’t think about ethics on a daily basis — at least not consciously. But every once in a while we see, read or hear something that makes us think that something is not quite “right.” Something about it makes us feel that it’s just wrong. That something might be perfectly legal, but still doesn’t feel right. That’s your own internal ethical compass telling you to look at the issue more closely. The problem is, often when we ought to see something as not quite right, we don’t even notice. Self-publishing comes to mind.
Writers have been self-publishing for many years. Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, Beatrix Potter and Virginia Wolff come immediately to mind, giving self-publishing what should be a kind of positive cache. However, the image of self-publishing has, over the years, diminished in the eyes of many — the media, literary critics and even many readers are among those who often carry a negative prejudice toward self-published works and their authors. This bad reputation is not always unjustified. There are myriad ethical transgressions perpetrated by self-publishers every day. These are the activities and people who give everyone a bad name.
Historical novelist Jane Steen in her article Opinion: Why We Need to Talk About Ethics in Self-publishing suggested we should be concerned about ethics because “we owe it to our readers,” but perhaps even more importantly,”we owe it to ourselves. Our indie career is not just about the books we write—it’s about the person we are.” Improving the image of self-published works is important to their (and the authors’) broader acceptance, and in the end it has to be said, success as an author.
My own personal experience and observations suggest that there are a few key areas that have contributed to negative perceptions and that are ethical minefields for indie authors. They are behaviors to be avoided at all costs.
- Writing 5-star reviews for crappy books. It is beyond irritating to buy a well-reviewed book only to find it riddled with stylistic errors (grammar, punctuation, sentence structure etc.) at a minimum, and be practically unreadable at the worst. Some indie authors write these reviews for others to ensure glowing reviews for their own publications. This is dishonest and therefore unethical. Don’t do it.
- Asking friends and family to write glowing reviews for your books. This is hardly third-party endorsement. These individuals are biased, and will likely want you to succeed so their reviews are not objective. Readers are looking for objective, honest recommendations. This is unethical. Don’t do it.
- Buying reviews. Since the surge in self-published books, a whole industry has grown up for paid book reviews. You can find thousands of review writers more than willing to write and post (for a fee of course) glowing reviews for you. This disingenuous practice can also be used by traditionally published authors. Any way you look at it, it is a dirty practice and should be avoided at all costs. Dishonest. Unethical. Don’t do it.
- Flooding the ebook stores with appallingly poor, ill-conceived ebooks. There is another cottage industry that has grown up around the notion of simply writing ebooks on anything you can think of simply to generate income. This is one of the most insidious ways that the reputation of all self-published authors is dragged through the mud. Unless you are an expert on your subject matter, step away from the computer with that brilliant idea for an ebook. Unethical. Don’t do it.
- Over-inflating your wonderfulness and success. This is so problematic in the self-publishing industry. Every time someone sells themselves to me as “best-selling” or “award-winning,” I get out Mr. Google and have a look. That award should have been from a credible, well-known organization and you had better have had a best-seller on the New York Times (or equivalent) best-seller list or you’re padding. This is dishonest. Unethical. Don’t do it. (If you want to see how even being on these lists can be dishonest, read Here’s How You Buy Your Way Onto The New York Times Bestsellers List)
There have been a number of bloggers who have suggested codes of conduct for self-published authors. They are worth reading and are among the following list of pieces you should read if you care about your reputation as a self-published author.
- The Mystery of the Book Sales Spike http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887323864304578316143623600544
- Opinion: Why We Need to Talk About Ethics in Self-publishing http://www.selfpublishingadvice.org/opinion-ethics/
- Here’s How You Buy Your Way Onto The New York Times Bestsellers List http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffbercovici/2013/02/22/heres-how-you-buy-your-way-onto-the-new-york-times-bestsellers-list/
- Ethical Author http://www.selfpublishingadvice.org/alli-campaigns/ethical-author/
- Ethics in Self-Publishing : An Indie Author’s Manifesto http://martinfhengst.com/publishing-authors-manifesto/
- Code of Ethics for Self Published Authors vs. Hell http://houseoflit.org/?page_id=222
- 8 Issues In Author Ethics http://thoughtcatalog.com/porter-anderson/2014/08/8-issues-in-author-ethics/