Thought Catalog

8 Issues In Author Ethics

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iStockphoto / labsas
iStockphoto / labsas

As Self-Publishing Matures…

Well, I’ve never purchased or read a self-pubbed book and have no plans to do so, in part because they’re generally unedited and of poor quality and in part because you can’t trust the reviews. I think most of us know that if an indie book has all glowing reviews, they’re either paid, sock puppets, review swaps from some other author, or at the very least received through a giveaway. Sorry to be a downer, but to me the credibility of all self-pubbed authors is so shot that I can’t imagine reading such a book unless maybe I knew the author personally. There’s hardly a shortage of trad pubbed books after all.

Those are the words of “Emma.” They were among responses about 10 days ago when the Alliance of Independent Authors (Alli) posted historical-fiction author Jane Steen’s editorial, “Opinion: Why We Need To Talk About Ethics In Self-Publishing.”

Emma’s response may represent the sum of (almost) all frustrations for many self-publishing writers who are trying to raise the bar. It demonstrates a comprehensive expression of what Steen wanted to put across.

Normally, if you ask a group of bookish types what hurdles self-publishers face, the main answer will be a perception of low quality.

Steen, however, says that she sees two, not one, major areas of attention needed in the self-publishing world. At the ALLi site, she wrote:

As a reader/reviewer, I’m well aware that there are still two stumbling blocks to improving public perception of self-publishing. One of those obstacles—quality—is a constant topic of conversation on self-publishing blogs and forums. The other—ethics—is insufficiently discussed. I’m calling on ALLi to make the public discussion of author ethics a high priority as a corollary to the Open Up To Indies campaign.

UK-born and Chicago-based, Steen knows that the old stigma against self-publishing authors can’t be fully lifted until practice, not just product, is seen to have been professionalized.

“Seen to have been” is the correct formulation, by the way. Steen hardly suggests that all self-publishing authors are operating in unethical ways, nor that all self-published material is low quality. However, a perception of these things in self-publishing can be just as damaging as the reality.

This is the point behind a comment from another prominent ALLi author, Debbie Young, who responds to the commenter Emma in a note of her own:

Emma, I wonder whether you may have read a self- published book without recognising it as such? I know I have often done so, not realising the author’s indie status till looking them up online afterwards. This is because a growing number of s-p authors’ books are written and produced to professional standards. It is the others which are not – those that go out unedited, with dreadful homemade covers etc – which unfortunately continue to damage the reputation of the sector as a whole. Self-published books are starting to win major, mainstream prizes, in competition with trade published books, and that, if you’ll excuse the bookish pun, speaks volumes.

And, speaking of “damage to the reputation of the sector as a whole,” one of the commenters on Steen’s ALLi piece is the author Giacomo Giammatteo, who co-wrote with Mick Rooney and (as editor) Orna Ross the organization’s publication Choosing a Self-Publishing Service. In his comment, Giammatteo posits this pretty scary concept:

As to reviewing your own books…OMG! I have seen this, but–to me–it’s appalling. I would never think to review my own work.

It does, in fact, seem almost unthinkable for an author to review her or his own work. As ALLi stalwart Dan Holloway comments “The content of your ethics is up to you, but in today’s world, it’s increasingly hard to justify not thinking about the ethical dimension of what you do.”

“The Content Of Your Ethics”

Steen, it turns out, is quite serious about her concern that ethical behavior among authors isn’t being discussed as fully as is quality output. She followed her editorial at ALLi with a post of her own at her site, Ethics: Self-Publishing’s Elephant In The Room. In setting up her argument this time, she describes how:

Self-publishers have a reputation for being unethical jerks who produce badly written books full of typos and with terrible covers. According to this reputation, you can’t trust any of the good reviews of their books because they’ve been bought or obtained via a reviewing ring.

She then makes it clear that the ALLi community isn’t where to look for the problem:

Certainly I believe that ALLi members are, as a rule, writers who care about the quality of their work and who are too smart to jeopardize their own brand by engaging in obnoxious behavior toward their readers.

As she writes, though, unethical behavior becomes the problem of even the most professional independent authors, who are basically smeared by association:

Those of us who care seem to be outnumbered by those who don’t. Often, in fact, the offenders are simply naive—new writers or writers who simply have little business experience and make bad decisions based on emotions and an eagerness to grab a piece of the (perceived) pie. The “who dares wins” attitude of American-style capitalism, which praises entrepreneurship and is still—nearly thirty years on from the Wall Street movie—telling us that greed is good, blinds new authors to the long-term implications of today’s bright idea.

She concludes her second piece by casting about for how to proceed: “It’s time to speak up.”

So I Put Her On The Spot

Having followed Steen’s columns and the responses to them, it occurred to me that one reason there may not be more discussion of the author-ethics factor is that there isn’t a standing list of behaviors — good or bad — to serve as a starting point, a touchstone for debate.

I asked Steen if she could put together what, to her, would make sense — not as a hard-and-final set of commandments but as a starting point for consideration. She kindly delivered a rich set of thoughts that can, indeed, serve as just that — a starting point, nothing engraved on stone tablets.

Steen gave me a couple of opening comments, including a good answer to the question “Why do we need to talk about ethics?”:

Because as self-published authors we’re facing a real crisis of trust among book bloggers, influential reviewers, bookstores, libraries and savvy readers—all the people we need to build our own brands alongside the well-established trust levels enjoyed by traditional publishing. We can write great books and produce them well, but if our industry is seen as unethical as a whole, self-publishing is always going to look like a second- or third-tier option…In any case, self-published authors should not expect readers to do the job of policing the self-publishing world. We owe it to ourselves and each other to assign as much importance to ethical behavior as we do to our writing craft and our production skills. Even though we are just individuals, once we make the move from writer to publisher we create a relationship with the public that carries a burden of responsibility, and we need to take it seriously.

Her phrasing is good: The list of points she has given me comprises what she calls “areas to be covered by a code of ethics.” In other words, she’s not proposing this list as such a code, but as a developmental guide to creating one. She also clarifies that her use of the term “ethics” doesn’t refer to self-published books’ content but to “the behaviors that authors engage in when they’re writing, producing, and marketing their books.”

I’m lightly editing some of the discussion she has around each point, in hopes that she’ll consider putting her complete set of explanatory comments for each point onto her site or ALLi’s — any and all discussion here in comments is most welcome, too, of course, as ever.

Jane Steen’s 8 Areas To Consider In Author Ethics

Jane Steen
Jane Steen

Just to be clear, I’m quoting Jane Steen now throughout this section, all eight points:

(1) Paid reviews. Some paid reviews are legitimate, and some are not. Work is needed to identify independent review sources that have enough trust among readers, influencers, libraries, bookstores, etc. to be worth the money they’re asking for a review. Independence can be demonstrated by adherence to journalistic ethics and a critical approach to reviewing that covers both the good and the bad in a book and does not hesitate to give an unfavorable opinion. Paid reviewers who offer to post a review written by the author, who do not read the book, or who post reviews lifted from the book’s marketing copy are to be avoided. Authors need more easily accessible guidance on the relationship between paid reviews and the terms of service (TOS) of reader websites, to avoid wasting their money on reviews that are TOS infringements and will eventually be removed.

(2) Reciprocal reviewing arrangements. This is a problem that also affects the traditional publishing world. There are almost no circumstances under which two or more authors can agree to review each other’s books with a degree of honesty that’s fair to the reader. It’s perfectly legitimate for an author to write an honest review of another author’s book if no agreement is present. Literary agencies, author organizations or other author groups should under no circumstances encourage their authors to review each other’s books. Reviewing rings (some paid, some reciprocal arrangements) are rife on reader sites and need to be identified and eliminated.

(3) Imitation and plagiarism. When material is plagiarized, frequently, prompt action by the genuine author and by readers causes the infringer to remove the offending books or reviews; in other cases, it can be tough to prove the necessary degree of imitation, even if the intent to deceive is clear. Given that in cases of plagiarism the infringers clearly know that they are taking advantage of other people’s original work, ethical guidelines would probably not mean much to them; perhaps in this case a legal fund could be set up to help the victims of plagiarism take action.

(4) How authors react to reviews. There’s plenty of advice around the Internet about not reacting to negative reviews by harassing reviewers, and it seems that this problem has diminished a little—but it is far from eliminated. The best rule is to leave readers alone to enjoy your books or not, and get on with writing the next book.

(5) Interacting with readers. Again, a great deal has been written about the best way to interact with readers, but this wisdom needs to be collected into guidelines. My [Jane Steen’s] personal belief is that authors must be present on reader sites as themselves and not interact under the shelter of a pseudonym (that privilege is reserved for readers). If an author happens to have two accounts, as sometimes happens on Goodreads for example, their personal account should clearly link to their author account and explain that they are that person.

(6) Spamming and social media. Another area where much advice has been mooted and just as often ignored. It can be a gray area in discussions between authors. [What appears to me, Jane Steen, to be] the majority of self-published authors on Goodreads engage in spam-type behaviors.

(7) Sock puppet accounts. The creation of accounts under false names to boost author reviews, rankings, ratings, visibility or prestige is generally understood to be unethical—but see above under “interacting with readers.” There’s a certain freedom on the Internet to hide behind pseudonyms or remain anonymous, but it’s almost always possible to trace the real ownership of accounts, and authors would be better off taking public responsibility for anything they write on the Internet. Creating a sock puppet account for the purposes of discrediting or attacking another author is, of course, despicable under any circumstances, if only from the viewpoint of professional etiquette.

(8) Visibility games. By this I mean both Liking or upvoting your own books on review sites and other means of gaming search algorithms or visibility algorithms on social media, retail or review sites. This is a vast gray area on which authors disagree widely, and it would be helpful to take a close look at the effects of such tactics on sales vs. reader perception as spamming behavior. My guess is that the small increase in sales may not be worth the loss of trust.

What Next?

Porter again here (thanks, Jane). 

It’s up to authors, themselves, of course to decide whether they want to create a code of ethics, a list of agreed-on behavior they can sign onto and hold up as a standard in their work.

As Steen says in a closing note to me, any effort of this kind can be ignored by the people who are most at fault.

But the idea of creating concise, actionable standards of conduct could at least clarify for many what behavior is recommended. Such a code could also be the basis for an emblem or seal of compliance, used as a signal to readers. And if signatories aligned themselves with the code in order to get that seal — like ratifying a treaty or protocol — then eventually a natural peer pressure might begin to build.

Steen adds that reader education and empowerment might come into play, as well, if a publicly recognized code were in place. She says to me:

These [unethical] behaviors are not going to be substantially reduced unless we also equip readers with better means for reporting unethical behavior, and—most importantly—convince retailers or intermediaries (Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, indie review sites etc.) that it is in their best interest to react promptly to reader complaints and remove or even ban books, reviewers and authors from their sites in the case of repeated infringements. Readers have been protesting against some known infringements for years without result

It’s good to see the possibility of this kind of effort raised. Steen has done publishing a favor. Time will tell whether the self-publishing community is ready to think seriously about it. For all the good will and sharing of information common to that community, its diversity is lost on no one who spends much time around “the selfpubs,” and that very diversity could make getting consensus on some of these points extremely difficult.

But it’s a start. And the intent and concern behind it are welcome and appreciated by anyone who wants to see general perceptions of and regard for the self-publishing option move forward. TC mark

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