Posted in Ethics, Self-Publishing

Ethical issues in self-publishing: Why you should care

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 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” because improving the image of self-published works is essential to broader acceptance and in the end, it has to be said, success as an author. 

My personal experience and observations suggest that a few key areas have contributed to negative perceptions and are ethical minefields for indie authors. They are behaviours 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 just plain awful 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 a third-party endorsement. These individuals are biased and 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. Traditionally published authors can also use this disingenuous practice. 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 merely to generate income. This practice 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. 
  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-sellers 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 several 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.

Some Resources for You

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/

Posted in Ethics, Publishing, Self-Publishing

Barter, buy or blackmail: The ethics of book reviews

five star 2It matters not whether one of the “big” publishers puts out your book, whether your great-aunt with a penchant for publishing edits and distributes it for you from the trunk of her car, or you publish it electronically all by yourself, if you want people to read your book, you’ll probably want book reviews.

Book reviews, and the concomitant moaning that goes on in writers’ circles about reviewers, has a long and storied history. According to Jane Hu, the term book review first appeared in 1861, but the notion of the review or “criticism” (after all, those who write reviews of books or movies have traditionally been referred to as “critics”) goes back as far as 1661 in Paris.[1]

As Sarah Fay, writing in The Atlantic has said, throughout history book review writers, “seem to delight in publishing manifestos that outline the book review’s shortcomings and inadequacies.”[2] She went on to suggest that book reviews have been criticized as reeking of “mediocrity, elitism, nepotism or all three,” and further that they lack intelligence.  In the current Wild, Wild West world of digital publishing, it has never been truer.  And although as Hu says, “Most often, dissatisfaction with the state of book reviewing has come not from the readers who are the reviewers’ intended audience, but from writers who have felt their work mishandled, unjustly ignored, or cruelly misunderstood,”[3] this too has changed.  Discontent with the reviews is now springing from readers – like me.

Although traditional book reviewers – those who through history largely worked for magazines and newspapers – have been criticized for their overall general meanness, today’s book reviewers seem to have the opposite problem.  According to Amazon, the majority of book reviews are in the four-and-a-half to five out of five range.  How is it possible that so many books are truly worthy of five stars?  Well, they’re not.

Earlier this month, Amazon filed a law suit against four web sites that they believe are producing fraudulent book reviews.  According to a report in Entrepreneur, “The suit alleges that fabricated 4- and 5-star product appraisals dilute Amazon’s brand and negatively impact sellers on its site who don’t subvert the system by paying for fraudulent reviews.”[4]  It is this notion of the fraudulent (read: paid-for) book review that incenses me the most.five star 1

The companies in question just might be ones with whom you have dealt, but I hope not.  It seems that Amazon and its readership are no longer going to stand still and accept that so many books can possibly be as good as they appear to be. But the lack of integrity demonstrated by buying book reviews is only one of the loathsome ways that writers these days (self and traditionally published, mind you) are procuring deceitful reviews.

A writer recently related a story about being approached to do a review.  When the honest review was completed, the writer was informed in no uncertain terms, that anything less than a five-star report would result in one-star reports being posted for her books.  Clearly, no honest review could be forthcoming.

Then there are the writers who approach you with the offer to provide your book with a terrific review – in exchange for one for their books.  Honest?  I think not.

Who suffers in all of this wrong-minded marketing?  The readers.  I can hear writers out there now telling me that readers will, in the end make the decisions.  The problem with that line of thinking is that it smacks of a very utilitarian approach to ethics (i.e. the end justifies the means – in this case, very clearly, they are saying that lying up front is okay if they make a sale.  I beg to disagree), and it fails to recognize that readers will already have purchased god-awful books, spending hard-earned money on crap that could have been avoided if honesty had been forthcoming.

Although I recognize that great reviews are terrific for marketing books, why are so many people afraid of honest reviews?  The reason is probably related to the fact that most people don’t write as well as they think they do (if you haven’t been exposed to this truth, read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well immediately), aren’t interested in hearing negative criticism, or don’t care.  The latter care only that you buy their book and quality be damned.  Maybe readers aren’t going to take it anymore.  Bravo Amazon.

[1] Jane Hu. 2012.  A Short History Of Book Reviewing’s Long Decline. The Awl online. http://www.theawl.com/2012/06/book-reviewings-long-decline

[2] Sarah Fay. 2012. Book Reviews: A Tortured History.  The Atlantic online. http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/04/book-reviews-a-tortured-history/256301/

[3] Jane Hu.

[4] Kim Lachance Shandrow.  April 10, 2015. Amazon Sues Alleged Sellers of Bogus 5-Star Product Reviews. Entrepreneur. http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/244950

Posted in Book Reviews

When is a book review not a book review?

It seems simple enough. You write a book, someone reads it, likes it (or not), writes a review, and other potential readers interpret the review for themselves, deciding whether or not to read your book based on their own criteria. One of the most important factors readers might use to interpret a review is the identity – and therefore perceived credibility – of the review writer.

For example, for some readers there might be a big difference between a review written by the New York Times and one penned by Oprah (or at least endorsed by her). Or between the writer’s spouse and someone who doesn’t know that writer personally. That may be the line we cross into territory where a review is not really a review – it is an advertisement. And these are not the only kinds of ‘advertisements’ masquerading as book reviews.

There can hardly be a writer or ‘wanabe’ writer around these days who is unaware of the current book review scams visited upon readers.

In August of 2012 The New York Times published an article titled: “The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy.” Author David Streitfeld reported on what appeared to be a newly established business model: writing book reviews for cash. He tells the story of Todd Rutherford’s gettingbookreviews.com, a business based on writing online book reviews – paid for by the writer. One of the service packages he offered was for him to write 20 online book reviews for $499. What could be better? Twenty reviews proclaiming a book to be worthy of 5 stars, the work of a literary genius. In my view, what would be better would be some honesty.

And Rutherford was merely one among myriad businesses that have been springing up all over the place to provide exactly the same service to writers desperate for sales. Quite often, the entrepreneurs offering this service are themselves wannabe writers.

But what happens when a reader finds out the truth of the review? Maybe the book is a good one; but maybe it isn’t. Readers searching for new, indie writers will soon become jaded from being burned. Buying book reviews hurts everyone.

So if a book review is not a book review when it is written for money, what about when it’s written by your spouse (or mother, or sister etc.)?

The Amazon review by a certain party whose last name is the same as mine was not penned by a relative.
The Amazon review by a certain party whose last name is the same as mine was not penned by a relative.

I was mortified when I went onto Amazon.com to see that one of the reviews (and a 5-star one at that) of one of my historical novels Grace Note was penned by someone whose last name is PARSONS. I’m quite certain that anyone looking at that would make the reasonable assumption that it was written by one of my relatives. It wasn’t. I’m just glad the reviewer liked it! The bottom line, however, is that a review by one of your nearest and dearest isn’t really a review either.

So…and here is the one where I’m going to get myself into trouble… what if the review is written by a member of your co-dependency group. These are those writing groups, usually virtual, or Twitter communities, wherein everyone gushes about everyone else’s books mostly so that when yours is published everyone will do the same. I have to admit that this really bothers me. It puts me off buying the promoted books, which is a shame for the writers. However, I just don’t trust these reviews.

I follow a number of otherwise interesting indie authors who also review books on Twitter, but I find that the reviews are always 5-star ones, or very close to it. I’m presuming that they only tweet their 5-star ones (surely there are books they dislike?), but I’d like to be directed to one that might be a 4 or even a 3 ½ star review so that I can make up my own mind. When everything is ‘awesome’, then nothing is ‘awesome.’

Let’s get back to some truth in advertising among writers and publishers. Please.