Ethical issues in self-publishing: Why you should care

j0321197It’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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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29 thoughts on “Ethical issues in self-publishing: Why you should care

    1. Hello David. I’m not surprised that you’re in agreement! Like you, I do wish that our colleagues in this self-publishing journey would take notice of these kinds of issues. Hope the writing is going well!

  1. Jane Steen

    Hi Patricia – I’m happy to see you’re carrying the ethics discussion forward. This is the first time I’ve seen someone suggest that writing a poorly executed book is unethical, but I know the kind of writer you mean. Or should I say “writer?” I follow a lot of productivity/income generation blogs (because there are some great ideas for indie writers in there) and hear them talking about how they write a book in a week and DIY their cover….AAAAAGH.

    And I just opened a “book” on my Kindle that promised great advice on book marketing only to find it was just basically a list of links…now I have to go see if I actually paid money for that thing. If I did, I’ll be taking careful note of the author’s name to make sure I never buy anything by them again. Because they had one shot to make a good impression on me, and they blew it.

    1. Hi Jane…I’ve been researching, writing and teaching about ethics in communication-related areas for many years and I find I’m usually preaching to the choir! The notion of clogging the channels of public communication with excessive, erroneous and annoying material has long been of concern to communicators of various stripes and does constitute an ethical issue. As for the quality of self-published books: I do contend that reckless ignorance of quality issues is harmful to the field and other writers and as such — causing harm is a fundamental ethical breach — is unethical. I had a recent experience myself of buying a book that was a waste of the $5 I spent. If I’m true to my principles, I ought to write an honest review of it on Amazon. I think I will. Thanks for stopping by the blog.

  2. Hello! What do you think of self-published authors giving away their book on Amazon for free for a short window (e.g., 48 hours), getting a whole whack of people to thus download, creating a surge in “sales,” then claiming, “Amazon bestseller status?” Smart marketing or smoke and mirrors?
    Chat Conversation End

    1. Jane Steen

      From the Ethical Author Code: “I do not promote my books by making false statements about, for example, their position on bestseller lists, or consent to anyone else promoting them for me in a misleading manner.” Gaming the Amazon system does not a bestseller make. Although, of course, the Amazon algorithms have now been changed so that it’s much harder to claim free downloads as sales, and that little trick is not used nearly as much. And it’s not just the province of self-publishers–Big 5 publishing soon caught on about using the free/very low price tactic to drive a book up in the rankings.

      Of course the “big” bestseller lists (such as the New York Times) are gamed in pretty much the same way: authors/publishers hire a publicist to ensure enough media exposure to sell a large number of books in a short time. Indies will do a similar thing by joining together for mega-promos, pricing the book bundle so attractively that you just can’t help but buy…

      Basically, all bestseller lists are suspect because they’ve been gamed ever since they began. Whether that’s smart marketing or smoke and mirrors depends on where you’re standing, but personally I think the truth-in-advertising authorities should pay a lot more attention to how books are sold. A few hefty fines would discourage people better than any amount of writing about ethics.

      1. Jane, I couldn’t agree more: all bestseller lists are fraught. One of the links I’ve provided for further reading in the post describes this in some detail. I’m wondering, though, if we might not be at a point where we can begin to “out” people who essentially lie about the “bestselling” status of their books?

    2. Smoke and mirrors, Alison. We have to ask ourselves what we believe peole aqre inferring when they see that a book is a “bestseller.” First, they believe that people have actually bought it. Something can’t be sold if it hasn’t been bought. It hasn’t got “sales” if no one has bought it. So, it isn’t a seller of any kind. Second, all this does is degrade what the notion fo a bestseller means. This isn’t to say that doing so might not introduce a lot of people to the writer. That makes it good marketing. What makes it unethical marketing is to use the moniker “bestseller” going forward. It’s disingenuous. Sure, writers can give away books if they don’t mind working for nothing (the pay-off might be worth it in the end), but then one should not lie about its popularity. This continues to degrade what it means to be a bestseller (I realize that the “real” bestseller lists are just as fraught — I’ve included a link to one of the articles describing this).

    1. Thank-you, Jenny. It’s a topic that’s been dear to my heart for many years. There’s an old saying that “a rising tide raises all ships.” In the case of ethical breaches by self-publishing authors, the reverse has been true: “A receding tide is lowering everyone in the eyes of the public.” I truly believe that self-publishing has evolve to the point where we need to engage in these kinds of discussions. The moral discussions never keep pace with the technological innovations — in publishing, medicine, communication etc. We’re not alone in this.

  3. Spot on in every regard!

    These wannabes don’t even know the requirement to become a bestseller. They think they can just slap that on their website to make it so.

    It used to be writers could learn from rejection letters. Today a writer receives three rejections and promptly does an end around and self-publishes. One no longer has to learn the craft of writing.

    I participated in a forum a couple years ago and learned that the new publishing model is to simply upload your first draft to a website and let your readers tell you what’s wrong with it. Then revise and repeat the process until Random House comes calling. When I questioned this, I was told I was old school and afraid of the competition. Well, I’m not afraid of competition from hacks; however, with 400,000 new titles published last year, most self-published, it makes it very difficult for the cream to rise to the top. I’m with an independent press and trying to make my way in this muddy business. I for one won’t even bother to read a self-published titles unless it comes highly recommended from a source I trust.

    1. Thank-you for weighing in on this, Conrad. You are so right about writers learning from rejection letters. These days it seems that no one can stand to be rejected. However, just like actors and dancers, writers, if they are serious, do need to learn to deal with rejection. Running to self-publishing without learning the craft is truly and “end run.” I am sick to death of books and blog posts that suggest there is an “easy way to a bestseller” or if you just follow these “simple” rules, you’ll be a successful (read: financially successful) writer. There is no easy fix. I’m with you. I learned my craft over twenty years publishing with traditional publishers — submission-rejection-resubmission etc. My own foray into self-publishing now is a fun way to polish a different set of skills without losing my writing chops. I’m on a crusade to improve the quality and ethics of self-publishers. Hmm…I foresee a daunting task!

      1. The self-publishers I know try very hard to provide a quality product, and in fact, most of the 8,000 member author group do. A group that’s existed for several years. Quality is something most try to emphasize, and we have a document very like yours as part of the Charter. You can only lead a horse to water, though, you can’t make him drink.

      2. Valerie, this is true of the ethics debate in any field. That said, I think that raising the issue is important to raise the standards for everyone. Thanks for weighing in.

  4. Paul Burns

    The article reminds me of a mental health hospital that put up a poster warning of the consequences of assault on staff. Why focus n on staff as the victims when patients were also being assaulted and sometimes by staff?

    I want to see ethics throughout publishing. That would include an end to log-rolling (authors in effect trading favourable reviews) and misleading quotes on book jackets.

    1. I must say I quite agree that we need to be concerned about a whole host of ethical transgressions by both indie authors and legacy publishers — and by traditionally published authors themselves outside of what their publishers do. There are so many permutations and combinatison these days of types of publishing that an examination of the creative ways people push the moral envelope certainly is warranted. I’m planning on writing about the ethics of the publishers themselves as opposed to the authors in future posts. Thanks for stopping by!

    1. I agree it seems difficult, Mort, but I think that if those of us who are concerned work to improve the behavior, we just might have a chance to improve the reputation of everyone. Thanks for stopping by the blog.

    1. An interesting question because it relates to how we define a “book”, the intent of the writer, and whether “slapping” a cover on means that he or she doesn’t care. It’s easy to imagine that a potential reader expects a book to be substantial on the one hand, however if the description of the “book” indicates that it’s that short, then there has been full disclosure and the reader decides that he or she is willing to pay. That’s ethical. If the writer hides the length, then that’s an ethical problem.

      Then there is the issue of quality. If the short piece is very high value for the reader, then the cost may be justified and the length in and of itself isn’t the issue. I’m reminded of a little “book” that sits on my book shelf and that I’ve recommended to students for many years. It is called “On Bullshit” and it is written by Harry Frankfurt, professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton. It was originally a journal article — yes an article. It was so good, that Princeton University Press asked if they could publish it as a hardcover book. It is tiny. It is one journal article. It costs much more than 99 cents. And it is worth every penny.

      So, as in many ethics questions, there is no absolute yes or no. There are myriad factors to consider. It’s drawing a black line through a gray area!

    1. Vanessa, thanks for stopping by the blog. I’m happy that you found the post useful. Not a lot has been written about this topic, but I suspect there will be more to come!

  5. Reblogged this on Misha Herwin and commented:
    This says it all. Being independent should mean that you can stick by your principles and not get sucked into the whole marketing thing. Easier said than done however when Amazon ratings matter so much.

    1. It’s an important consideration in every field — with self-publishing mushrooming, these ethical issues seem to have taken a back seat. Happy to see many of us now thinking about them. Thanks for stopping by the blog.

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