Applied Ethics for Self Publishers
While these and other ethical theories are concerned with universal human behavior, the concept of applied ethics refers to developing an ethical policy for a specific organization or industry. Applied ethics borrows from various universal ethical theories to develop a code of conduct to address the unique needs of a specific organization. Applied ethics considers the unique problems and concerns of a specific industry or organization, and develops a policy to help members of that organization make the right decisions.
Almost all established industries have a shared set of ethical standards that members are expected to follow. These standards, though often legally non-binding, serve three very important functions.
First, shared standards allow for consistency throughout the industry, providing assurances to consumers. When everyone in an industry agrees to adhere to certain minimum standards, it can increase consumer confidence in the marketplace.
Second, shared standards establish a degree of fairness in the marketplace, because all members of the group are expected to follow the same standards. This removes the temptation to engage in unscrupulous behavior under the pretense that “everyone is doing it.”
Finally, shared standards reduce the risk of government intervention (i.e. “self policing”). Industries that strongly self-police often benefit from less government regulation. The ability to self-regulate reduces legal and administrative costs associated with undue government regulation.
The ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) is an example of self-regulation at work. Established in 1994 by the Entertainment Software Association, The ESRB evolved out of a concern among the video game industry regarding potential government censorship of video game content. Because a huge portion of the video game market is comprised of minors, the industry developed a means of providing easily identifiable information to parents regarding the content of video games.
Though the ESRB has been criticized over the years for being too lax with some violent games, the voluntary system has been effective in meeting the three objectives of a strong ethical standard. The system provides for consistency across the industry, so that parents and consumers have a firm grasp of what sort of content to expect. It ensures that all competitors in the industry are being rated in the same manner and therefore levels the playing field. And to date, it has been successful in curtailing a wide variety of government intervention into the industry.
In June 2011, the United States Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, a case involving the State of California’s attempt to restrict the sale of violent video games to minors. In the 7-2 ruling, the majority specifically cited the ESRB as one of the reasons such restrictions were not necessary.
California also cannot show that the Act’s restrictions meet the alleged substantial need of parents who wish to restrict their children’s access to violent videos. The video-game industry’s voluntary rating system already accomplishes that to a large extent. 
Many independent authors may question the need for an applied ethical standard to self-publishing practices. Most independent publishers are one-person operations, performing all functions of a publisher by themselves. Certainly, one need not have a formal ethics policy for a company with only one employee? What are you going to do, embezzle from yourself? Harass yourself? You know right from wrong. Philosophers be damned.
Over the last twenty years, there has been an intense focus on business ethics. Many of the Unites States’ economical problems that emerged beginning in 2007 originated in widespread ethical lapses in the financial markets. The sub-prime mortgage crisis, for example, was caused by a series of ethical lapses in mortgage fraud, credit manipulation, and excessive loosening of credit requirements. No single incident caused the market collapse. Instead, it was caused by an avalanche of ethical lapses over a period of years.
In fact, most of the major business debacles of the past two decades were not the result of any one major ethical lapse. Almost all of them can be traced back to a culture of lax ethics that allowed little lapses to go unchallenged. This is an important point for any business person to acknowledge. Most of us generally recognize “big” ethical issues, but we tend to trivialize or ignore smaller ones. A person may recognize that robbing a bank is wrong, but may just keep quite if the teller accidentally gives an extra $5 when cashing a check.
But by ignoring or justifying minor ethical lapses, we risk becoming victim to the concept of creeping normalcy. Creeping normalcy states that major changes in behavior that would otherwise be rejected or resisted if attempted all at once can be made to appear normal through smaller steps. The concept is often brought up by privacy advocates, who argue that the acceptance of small privacy violations over time makes us blind to the loss of privacy. It is also a concept used by free speech advocates against censorship attempts.
But creeping normalcy also applies to ethics. By rationalizing the small lapses, we risk moving the bar insofar as what defines a small lapse in the first place. We normalize the initial small lapse to the point that it is no longer considered a lapse, but instead normal behavior. This moves us along the path to accepting what would have been a moderate lapse previously as a minor lapse now.
Suppose you own an Amazon Kindle, and you want the latest book by your favorite author to read on your Kindle. The book, however, is not being sold in ANY digital format. You go to a torrent site and download a copy, rationalizing the download by saying that since you have bought so many of the author’s books in print previously, there is no real harm in downloading one book for free. Though you acknowledge that what you are doing is technically illegal, you justify it because the book is not available in the format that you want and because you have paid for other books by the same author.
But then the author’s NEXT book is not available in digital format either, so you decide to download that one illegally too. At this point, you now blame the author or publisher for not selling the book in a format you want, so that it is their fault you have to resort to piracy.
But now you have visited the torrent site a few times, and you see that some other books you have wanted to read are available for download. You decide to download them, because you think it will be a good way to sample new authors. And if you like the books, you’ll buy future books from that author.
But then the author’s next book comes out, and it is available in digital format. But the publisher is selling it for $9.99. You decide that price is ridiculous, because you can buy the paperback for only a few dollars more. So instead of paying the ridiculously high price, you go back to the torrent site and download that book illegally.
Originally, you justified the illegal download because the book was not available in the format you wanted. Then you justified illegal downloads because you wanted to sample new authors, but planned to buy future books. Now that the book you want is available in digital format, you justify the illegal download because you feel it is overpriced. You’ve just fell victim to creeping normalcy. Your tolerance of the illegal activity expands more and more as you justify and internalize each subsequent action.
And this problem of creeping normalcy is the reason each of us needs a formal ethical policy to help us navigate these sorts of situations.
Developing a strong ethical policy also insulates the self-publisher from the appearance of impropriety. In public relations circles, it is said that the Court of Public Opinion is more damning than the Court of Law. Even if an action is legal, if it is perceived as unethical by the general public it can create damning consequences. Seemingly harmless actions can be viewed as unethical without context. And as is often the case, particularly in the highly opinionated world of social networking that many self-publishers must navigate, lack of context can be damning in even the most harmless of situations.
An example of the appearance of impropriety:
You are a professional freelance artist. An author has commissioned you to create a book cover and given you a proof copy of the book so that you can get a feel for what it is about. While working with the author, she mentions that she is looking for an editor, but she has limited resources and all of the editors she has spoken with want $4 a page. Having read the book, you really enjoy it, and you like the author and want to help her. Your spouse is a professional freelance editor. You ask your spouse to offer to edit the book for $2 a page so that it is within the author’s budget. You tell the author that you know a professional editor that will perform the work within her budget, and she accepts the offer.
All’s well that ends well, right? You did a good deed. The author got a good editor within her budget. And your spouse got some extra work. But the problem is that you forgot to tell the author that the editor was your spouse. It was an honest omission. You had spoke about your spouse before and probably just assumed the author knew who you were talking about.
The problem comes up when the author goes to her favorite writing forum and starts talking about her wonderful new editor. Someone tells the author she is STILL overpaying because “most indie editors only charge $1 a page.” Then someone else makes the connection that the artist and editor are married. Soon, there is a flaming thread going on about how you tricked the author into hiring your overpriced spouse.
You don’t even know where that $1 a page rate is allegedly coming from, because you don’t know any of your spouse’s peers that work that cheap. The original accuser never actually provided any proof of this so-called “average” price, but enough people have decided to pile on to reinforce the opinion as fact. You thought you were doing the author a favor, but now it has blown up in your face.
But what you have fallen victim to is a lack of transparency. Even though it was inadvertent, the fact that you failed to disclose that the editor was your spouse created the appearance of impropriety. Having a business policy that addresses the issue of recommending friends or relatives would have prevented this controversy. You could:
Develop a policy in which you do not recommend friends and family members to your own customers, thus negating the risk of appearing to practice nepotism.
Develop a policy is which you disclose all personal and business dealings to someone when making a recommendation, allowing the individual to make the determination as to whether or not to take your reference into consideration.
Having either as a formal policy insulates you from criticism. In the first case, you never would have recommended your spouse to begin with. In the second, your stated policy is to inform individuals of your personal relationships before making recommendations, so the author would have known in advance the editor was your husband and been able to make a more informed decision.
 United States. Brown v Entertainment Merchants Association. , 2011. Web. 27 Jun 2011. <http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/10pdf/08-1448.pdf>.