Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Ethics: self-publishing's elephant in the room

Image credit: Banksy art exhibit "Barely Legal" in Los Angeles, 16 September 2006.
Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Instead of posting on my usual Monday slot, I waited a while to see the outcome of this post I wrote for the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi). The short version is that I believe self-publishers need to talk about ethics as often as they talk about the quality of their writing, editing, and production standards.

Self-publishing has a terrible reputation

For many influencers on the publishing scene—book bloggers, for example, or high-profile reviewers on sites like Goodreads—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. If you do decide to read a self-published book and have the presumption to leave a less than glowing review, well—watch out because the author’s going to harrass you! You don’t want to accept a friend request from a self-published author either, because the next thing you know they’ll be spamming you with BUY MY BOOK messages. And they’ll vote their own books onto the lists you’ve created, and crash their way into groups just so they can promote their books there.

And yet most self-publishers care about ethics...

I hope, if you’re a self-published author, you’ll be yelling “I DON’T DO THAT!” by this point. Because an awful lot of us don’t behave that way. 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.

But 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.

So what do we do about the problem?

I wrote my blog post for ALLi as an opinion piece, a temperature-taking exercise. I got pretty much the result I expected—some pushback from authors with a highly individualist approach to self-publishing, but on the whole agreement that ethics are important.

So then what?

Well, I suppose I got a few people to acknowledge that there’s an elephant in the room, and that’s a start. But the trouble with ethics is that it’s a very LARGE elephant—a problem so vast and risky to tackle that most of us stand around for a while scratching our heads and looking at the thing, before deciding to get back to our own work and worry about our own ethics rather than other people’s. That, I think, is why there’s plenty of talk in self-publishing circles about printing options and editing and storycraft and assisted self-publishing and marketing and social media and graphic design and formatting and any number of other concerns, but very little about what we can do, as self-publishers, to improve the overall image of self-publishing as an endeavor.

Traditional publishing is the BMW showroom to our used-car lot

The traditional publishing industry sorted these things out long ago. Publishers learned how to affect reader choices and even opinions by carefully thought out marketing ploys that control everything from where a book is placed in a store to its position on bestseller lists. An industry grew up around publishing’s needs: there are publicists, distribution agreements, genre magazines, conferences, advertising options and review opportunities galore, and those entering the publishing world (including authors, through their agents) are trained in how to interact with these resources to produce the best result. The system’s been dented in recent years by the upheavals in the publishing world, including those caused by the boom in self-publishing, but it’s been around for a long time and isn’t going to disappear overnight.

But these options are not generally open to self-publishers. Publicists won’t handle us even if we can afford them; bookstores and libraries often don’t want to know; magazines, conferences and review journals are geared toward the traditional path and probably still will be for the next five years or so until enough despairing midlist authors have jumped ship and self-publishing is the norm for most writers. We don’t have the opportunities, and even if an opportunity is open to us, we often don’t have the budget.

Hence the rise of the cheap and shady option. The reviewing ring, the voting consortium, the sock puppet account, the people on fiverr who’ll vote your books onto a list or post a review you wrote yourself. The second- or third-tier ecosystem that bears about the same relationship to traditional publishing’s marketing options as a tacky used-car lot does to a BMW showroom.

And that has pretty much the same reputation as Uncle Joe's Great Cars.

I need you to help me carry this conversation forward

The only way we’re going to rise above the image projected by that ecosystem and those who use it is to stop ignoring self-publishing’s elephant in the room—ethics—and start writing about it. If you have a blog or website, or are a regular contributor to a publishing forum of any kind, I have a request for you:

Write about ethics. If a response to my words is forming in your mind as you read this, don’t just leave a comment and pass on. Give what I’ve said some thought, and make your views available to your readers in some way. If you’re a speaker on the conference circuit, plan a workshop on ethics. If you have a podcast, talk about ethical issues.

I've told you guys that I don't want to be a crusader for any one cause. But when there's an elephant in the room and it's messing up the carpet, I can at least try to light a fire under it. If enough of us fan the flames, perhaps we can get the beast moving.

We've already seen the consequences of keeping quiet, and they stink

The alternative is to keep quiet, as authors generally do. One of the commenters in one of the conversations I’ve been having about my blog post said (I’m paraphrasing) that self-publishers don’t talk about ethics and that makes her think it’s because they themselves are not behaving ethically. So what have you got to lose by listing the behaviors that you refuse to indulge in? Mentioning your distaste for fake reviews? Talking about the latest plagiarism scandal? Take the risk of approaching the elephant in the room and acknowledging its presence. We may not make much impact right now, but the price of keeping quiet so far has been the tarnishing of the best opportunity writers have ever had to build a career doing what they love. It’s time we spoke up.