Posted in Self-Publishing

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.

Posted in Publishing, Self-Publishing

When self-published work is derided: Often it’s justified

publishing word cloudCaitlin Dewey who runs the Washington Post’s Intersect Blog online wrote the following on October 2, 2014, “In the past 90 days, some 84 people have self-published Ebola e-books on Amazon, almost half of them in the past month alone…”[1]  She goes on to say that many of these books have highly-rated reviews on Amazon and yet, “…many of the books — almost all of them, in fact — contain information that’s either wildly misleading or flat-out wrong…”[2]

This is the best evidence I have yet seen on why the self-publishing world is so often deserves the criticism it regularly receives from the traditional literary media and publishers. There are no gate-keepers.  At the most benign end of the outcome spectrum all you have is drivel; at the most malignant, it can cause wide-spread misinformation if not panic, as could potentially happen in the case of Ebola.

I’ve written before about my happy and not-so-happy encounters with self-published books. A novel might simply be poorly written, derivative twaddle that otherwise does not harm other than wasting your time and clogging up the channels of entertainment.  Non-fiction, on the other hand, without benefit of editing, can disseminate all manner of harmful or simply wrong information.  So, why do I self-publish?

There are probably two reasons: first, I am sometimes impatient. Perhaps I am often impatient.  The traditional publishing process takes a long time.  Sometimes a really long time.  Second, and I am being more honest here than I have seen of other self-published novelists, my writing may not be up to the standards that the publishers I have approached in the past are looking for.  I have a track record as a well-published non-fiction writer, but I am a relative newcomer to fiction.  So, does that mean I shouldn’t publish my own novels?

Of course not. I can and I probably will continue to do so. Indeed, I’m also likely to publish a non-fiction piece or two in the future.  That being said, I have no call – nor do any other self-published writers – to either feel hard-done-by when the indie publishing industry is criticized, or to pester traditional reviewers.

If you are a self-publisher or contemplating this route, and you haven’t read Ron Charles’s recent piece No, I don’t want to read your self-published book, you should.  Charles, by the way, is the editor of The Washington Post’s Book World.  In it he refers to another piece you should read: An open letter to the self-published author feeling dissed penned by Roger Sutton the editor of a book review magazine.  Charles asked Sutton what inspired his open letter rant.  Evidently its genesis was in an email exchange with a self-published author who was feeling affronted by Sutton’s refusal to review self-published books.  When Sutton suggested to Charles that “…people are more interested in writing self-published books than in reading them…”[3] I thought, I could not agree more.  And we need to stop deluding ourselves.

[It is heartening to note, however, that Sutton’s derision of the self-published book has evolved over the past few years.  In his view, self-published children’s books today are still terrible; but he admits that “self-publishing for adults these days is demonstrating considerably greater skill and sense of audience than it used to, especially when it comes to niche topics and genre fiction.”[4]  Yay!]

The bottom line is that we should continue to write and even publish if we want to, keeping in mind that not all of our work contains as many bon mots as we think.  But we do need to stop feeling so maligned by the traditional reviewers and publishers: they are not the problem.  The plethora of unedited, poorly written self-published books is.

Of course there are many self-published authors who are probably as good as or even better than many taken on by traditional publishers. Sadly, it is more often the case that this is not true.  As a community of indie authors, what we really need to do is everything in our power to ensure the quality of our work.  Here are my suggestions:

  1. Write any kind of drivel that you want; publish only your best.
  2. Work diligently to improve you writing at every opportunity.
  3. Support other high-quality indie writers.
  4. Be honest when giving feedback or reviewing the self-published work of others.
  5. Stop feeling that the world of the indie writer is somehow in a war with traditional publishing.

What would you add to the list?