Author Ethics: A Practical Guide

Introduction

In 2004, I self published my first full length book, September and Other Stories.  I immediately began to contact some review sites in order to obtain reviews.  Some never responded.  Some responded with a “we’re sorry but we’re backlogged” excuse.  One, however, responded very firmly that “I no longer review ANY self published books.”

It seemed like a curiously worded rejection, but reviewers have a right to review what they want so I let it go.  Since the site also offered advertising, I queried about the cost of placing a banner ad.  The response was even more firm. “Look, I don’t do business with self publishers.”

Being new to the industry, I thought I must have done something wrong and upset the site owner.  That hadn’t been my intention, so I sent her an apology for whatever it was that I did.  A couple of days later, she sent me an email apologizing for overreacting.  This led to a startling conversation.

The reason she had stopped reviewing self published books was because she was terrified of self publishing authors.  She had received several threatening and harassing responses to perceived negative reviews of self published books.  The most recent incident and the one that convince her to stop reviewing self published books altogether, was a man who threatened to find her and rape her daughter.  She was in the process of getting a restraining order, because the man had called her house to let her know that he knew where she lived.

I wish I could say over the years this was an isolated incident.

Bad behavior is not unique to self-publishing authors.  I think most horror readers remember Anne Rice’s rather public meltdown on Amazon.com regarding negative reviews of Blood Canticle[1].  John Lott used the fake persona of Mary Rosh to anonymously defend his own work and post reviews of his book More Guns, Less Crime[2].  In April 2011, Dilbert creator Scott Adams admitted to engaging in sock puppetry to defend his work[3].  These incidents grab our attention because of the celebrity status of those involved, but also because such public displays are thought rare.

But the media doesn’t report on public meltdowns of self publishing authors.  Nor do bloggers spend their hours unraveling the elaborate astroturfing schemes of self publishers.  Yet there is a general acceptance of the belief that such unethical behavior is far more common among self publishers than it is traditionally published authors.  And not only is it more common, but more extreme.

It is not my opinion that self-publishing authors are less ethical than traditionally published authors. Nor should anything in this collection of essays be construed as an implication of such.  Poor behavior is not limited to how someone is published.  The primary issue is the unfiltered nature of self-publishing as a whole.  The issue is less a distinction between the ethical character of the two groups than it is a reflection of the different circumstances faced.

Traditionally published authors are isolated from a great deal of the marketing and selling of their books.  While they are called upon to participate in book tours and other promotional opportunities, they are generally not directly involved in the direct selling of the work.  Publishers send out books for review.  Publishers contact the book stores and libraries to sell the books.  Publishers send out media kits to the press to generate publicity.  And in cases where the author does have some responsibility or desire to actively promote, these activities are handled by an agent or publicist.

Self-publishers, on the other hand, are directly responsible for all of these things themselves.  Few if any have the resources to pay agents or publicists to conduct these activities for them, and therefore they are on the front line of their own book’s promotional efforts.  In addition, many self-publishers rely heavily on social media for their marketing efforts.  Sites like Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, Librarything, and others have become major marketing tools for self publishing authors.

Further, traditionally published authors and self publishers are marketed to two completely different groups.  Traditional publishers focus their marketing efforts on institutional purchases.  Simon and Schuster is not chasing 1,000,000 individual book buyers.  They are chasing book retailers willing to buy thousands of copies at once.  Major publishing houses often have dedicated sales representatives that deal with major chains to negotiate bulk purchases.  Small presses focus their efforts on maximizing their distribution channels.  These types of sales negotiations are impersonal, pragmatic, and focus on volume and price consideration.

Self publishers, in contrast, are chasing individual sales.  WalMart isn’t going to entertain the idea of buying a Print-On-Demand book with a 20% discount and no returnability, after all.  And even if they do, they want the author to give them 60 to 90 days to pay.  Few self publishers have the resources available to provide a box store or major chain with a few thousand copies of a book and then wait for months to get compensated.  Therefore, they are much more focused on reaching individual customers to generate word-of-mouth advertising.

This focus on generating individual sales from customers instead of bulk purchases from retailers changes the dynamic of book marketing and increasing the risk of falling into unethical and inappropriate behavior.  By dealing directly with the buying public, self-publishers expose themselves to criticism, ridicule, and negativity traditionally published authors are isolated from.

The nature of the business-to-business dynamic between publishers and retailers prevents or neutralizes situations that can become inflammatory.  Even if the Book Buyer from Barnes and Noble tells a publisher “Look, this author sucks and I’m not stocking the book,” the publisher isn’t going to relay that information to the author.  A publicist is not going to tell an author that the reason why a book reviewer declined to write a review was that he thought the book was a train-wreck.  And an agent isn’t going to inform an author that the reason why a radio show host declined to conduct an interview was that he felt the author was less exciting than watching grass wilt.

Customers are another matter.  And therein is the issue.

The more direct contact one has with the buying public, the more opportunities arise for emotions to take over.  The more one becomes dependent on social networking, the more likely you will come in contact with vocal critics.  It is here the line between personal feelings and business sense becomes blurred, and it is here that the line between ethical and unethical practices is often crossed.

It is not my intention to imply that these essays will hold all the answers.  In fact, the research presented here is preliminary and incomplete simply because of the nature of the industry.  These essays should serve as a starting point for discussion.  The goal of this project is to raise awareness regarding how these issues impact all authors.  It is up to each author to determine where they go from there.


[1] Huff, Dana. “Oh, Anne….” Blogcritics. 11/04/2004. Web. 27 Apr 2011. <http://blogcritics.org/books/article/oh-anne/>.

[2]  Sanchez, Julian. “The Mystery of Mary Rosh.” Reason.com. 05/01/2003. Web. 27 Apr 2011. <http://reason.com/archives/2003/05/01/the-mystery-of-mary-rosh>.

[3] Chen, Adrian. “Dilbert Creator Pretends to Be His Own Biggest Fan on Messageboards.” Gawker.com. 04/15/2011. Web. 27 Apr 2011. http://gawker.com/#!5792583/dilbert-creator-pretends-to-be-his-own-biggest-fan-on-message-boards.

Links to Research Notes

Appendix I

Appendix II

Appendix III

Essay Links

Part One

Defining Ethics

Applied Ethics for Authors

Forming an Ethical Policy for Authors

Part Two: Temptations

Rose-Tinted Glasses: The Perils of Expectations
Pride Cometh Before the Fall: The Perils of Entitlement
The Grassy Knoll and the Publishing Industry: The Perils of Fear
Inflated Book Reviews: Temptation’s Impact on Ethics

Part Three: How Readers See it

Author/Reader Interactions
The Battlefront at Amazon.com

Author Wall of Shame: Authors Behaving Badly

Fake Book Promoting Unethical Ways to “Promote” Your Book On Amazon

BookPlex: Why Honesty, Real Honesty, is the Best Policy

Author Wall of Shame: John Locke

Authors Behaving Badly: Jordin Williams

Bards and Sages Editorial and Research Assistants for this Project

Cassandra Ganzak, Lead Assistant
Casey Blackwell
Jennifer Griffin

3 thoughts on “Author Ethics: A Practical Guide

  1. Hi, Julie!

    Great blog, great info! I’m wondering which genre would you put a “humor/comedy/quirky/off-beat” novel into???

    I didn’t see any of these on your above list and just wanted to get some clarification for myself, as this is the type of upcoming novel I will be launching in January, 2012.

    Thanks so much, and I look forward to hearing back from you.

    Best wishes!

    Author David Brown

  2. Thank you so much for writing this and making it so accessible. I’m fairly new to self-publishing, but from what I’ve seen so far, I very much agree that a conversation about ethics in the self-publishing community is long overdue. A conversation about quality control would be useful, too. I’m really glad that the POD option is now available, and I don’t regret going that route. However, I do think that there are some very negative public perceptions of POD/self-published authors, and understandably so. It’s a shame, really, because there are some very high-quality self-published books out there, and a number of self-published authors who act with integrity, but I think that often gets lost in the sea of sketchy ethics and sloppy work.

  3. My personal experience with reviewers and sites that review books are similar, but nothing that extreme. When I was first published, there was the stigma of being self published and POD. However, the feed back I received was that reviewers and stores are hesitant to take on a POD due to the fact that they are not only self published, they are also self edited – a subject the author of this article has gone over in the past.

    I do a lot of signings and conventions with other self published authors, David Corwell, Jonathan Miller and Kirt Hickman to name a few, these gentlemen are very perofessional and respectful to everyone. So i feel that these “rude authors” are in the minority and like anything else in life, shed a bad light on the rest of us.

    One of the first “rules” I learned about being an author is to have a thick skin, to take rejectiona and criticism as a commentary on the novel/story, not on myself.

    Last week I was at a Sci-Fi convention and a person who bought my first novel spoke to me and gave me a “negative” review – while he enjoyed the story he did not like the editing work. I thanked him and explained I was new in the business and took the editor assigned to me by the company. This person was inexperienced and did a less than adequate job. The Publisher also put a 48 hour window on approving the changes to meet a dead line. To my own fault, I felt rushed and blindly approved the “changes”. After this experience I decided to self publish and have three editors and a proofreader I work with to help me better craft my changes and focus on quality, rather than deadlines.

    I have learned alot about the business from Julie Ann Dawson and frequently read her articles to learn more abnout the publishing business and keep up with the lastest iun the POD business.

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