Historical novelist Jane Steen recently wrote this piece about the troubling question of ethics in the self-publishing arena. It’s a question that seems to me to get not nearly enough attention, and I’m glad that Steen has finally shone a light into some of self-publishing’s murkier corners. It’s about time.
For the fact is (inevitably, given the loose and rather disjointed nature of self-publishing, and the disparate nature of self-publishers) that in contrast to just about any other industry you care to mention, there is no code of practice, no generally agreed set of ethical standards that self-publishers are required to meet. (Indeed, some might say, reasonably enough, that given the autonomy that self-publishers hold dear, it is neither practical nor desirable for there to be any such thing.) However, that thorny question of ethics is one that is worth exploring.
What distinguishes an ethical self-publisher from an unethical one? And who decides which is which?
The short answer: I don’t know. Self-publishing is still in its infancy; the concrete is still being poured, and no one knows exactly how the finished item is going to look. However, these are issues that we should at least think about. If we did have a code of ethics, what might it look like?
There are certain practices that are generally (but not universally) agreed to be dodgy, such as reviewing your own work, or bribing sock puppets to write glowing 5-star reviews of your books. Indiscriminate spamming is usually condemned, as is the unfortunate tendency of some authors (including traditionally-published ones, let it be said) of responding, often in quite vitriolic terms, to negative reviews. The loathsome, if uncommon, practice of leaving damning 1-star reviews of competitors’ books is reviled by almost everyone.
But then there are the grey areas, the murky areas. Some authors, for example, openly rate their books on sites such as Goodreads. They’re doing so under their own names, so it isn’t deception. Arguably, though, they are giving their books’ overall ratings a slightly unwarranted boost – who, after all, is not going to give their own book a 5-star rating? Is this unethical or not? What about those who vote down negative reviews of their books, or get their friends to do so? Is this an ethically dubious practice, or just a small but effective PR move – accentuating the positive, if you like?
I’d like to stress that I’ve no particular answers to these problems. They seem to me, however, to be the kinds of questions we should be asking ourselves.
If we use ethically dubious practices, we shouldn’t then be surprised if readers turn against us. If indies get their friends to write breathlessly positive reviews, and sell books on the basis of them, they shouldn’t then be surprised if ordinary readers take them to task if their books are badly written or of generally poor quality. More to the point, though, indies who engage in unethical behaviour often wreak havoc not just on their own reputations, but on the reputation of indies as a whole. (See the comments following Steen’s article for an example of a reader who has sworn off indie authors for good.)
There is another question, of course. For years now, some traditional publishers (and traditionally-published authors) have been engaging in slightly underhand tactics to boost their book sales. You might argue that, if even they don’t always keep to the straight and narrow, there’s no reason for us to do so. That seems to me besides the point, for two reasons. One: just because somebody else is doing something, doesn’t mean you should do it. Two (and on a more practical note): traditional publishers don’t have to contend with entrenched negative attitudes, as indies do. We’re starting off at a disadvantage here; the only way we can hope to make up for it is if we aim high and insist that yes, we can be trusted.
Ultimately, indies will never stand a chance of being accepted unless they at least try to be acceptable. We whinge and moan about how we’re put at a disadvantage, but rarely mention that the ultimate responsibility for changing that state of affairs may be ours. If we don’t hold ourselves to high standards, why should anyone – readers or industry gatekeepers – treat us with anything but suspicion?
If we want readers to trust us, shouldn’t we at least try to be trustworthy?