top

Opinion: Why We Need to Talk About Ethics in Self-publishing

Historical novelist Jane Steen turns the spotlight on ethical issues  – an aspect of self-publishing that she deems to be as important as quality in gaining wider acceptance of self-published books.

Photo of Jane Steen at her computer

Jane Steen, historical novelist

I’m enthusiastic about the Open Up To Indies campaign, looking forward to the day when it’s commonplace to see indie authors everywhere—bookstores, libraries and award lists.

But 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.

The ALLi Code of Standards deals with marketing ethics in the following way:

“Marketing: In reaching out to readers, I do not bombard, spam or force my writing upon others.”

This brief statement is open to wide interpretation. Paid reviews are just one example. ALLi watchdog Giacomo Giammatteo recently questioned the value of a well-known paid review service, but no-one challenges the legitimacy of purchasing a review in a nationally recognized publication.

Image of a tightrope walker carefully balancing on a high wire

A question of balance (Photo: Kristen Smith at FreeImages.com)

On the other end of the scale, most of us can recognize that a service provider on fiverr.com who offers to publish a review written by the author for $5—and for an extra $20 will vote down any negative reviews of the book—is working against the Terms of Service of review sites, and thus using him is unethical. But in between these two extremes there are many forms of paid or compensated reviewing arrangements that sometimes shade into the unethical, and occasionally illegal, side of marketing.

Responding to reviews, rating or reviewing your own books, collecting and using email addresses, and working within the terms of service of review sites are other areas where self-publishers rarely agree among themselves. The uncertainty that surrounds ethical issues is compounded by the fact that:

  • New self-published authors emerge every day with little experience or knowledge of the publishing world, and often naively and unwittingly find themselves infringing ethical standards.
  • Bad advice, sometimes years old, is still circulating on the internet and being sold in the form of cheap or free ebooks.
  • The traditional publishing industry has been known to employ questionable marketing strategies—for example, the gaming of bestseller lists is an open secret—and some authors think that in order to compete, we also have to learn to play hardball.

So the subject of ethics is tricky. But we need to tackle it because:

We owe it to our readers.

Readers feel cheated when they buy a book on the basis of glowing reviews, ratings, or bestseller lists, and are then let down by book quality. Encouraging indies to adopt high ethical standards will result in increased reader trust for our individual brands, and those readers will play an important part in putting pressure on bookstores and libraries to stock our books.

We owe it to ourselves. Our indie career is not just about the books we write—it’s about the person we are.

We also owe it to each other. The Open Up To Indies campaign will only convince the “gatekeepers”—who are, after all, far more savvy about the book industry than the average reader—to accept self-published books on the same level as traditionally published books if they feel they can trust in our professionalism and passion for quality.

As this organization’s name states, we are an alliance—we are free to act as individuals, but our separate actions have effects that shape our common industry. It’s high time we began discussing ethics as a key element in empowering self-publishers. An expanded Code of Standards would be a worthy goal. Do you agree?

Please feel free to join the discussion via the Comments box below.

Easy Tweet “Why we need to talk about ethics in self-publishing by @janesteen for @IndieAuthorALLi: http://www.allianceindependentauthors.org/opinion-ethics/”

, , , , , , , ,

43 Responses to Opinion: Why We Need to Talk About Ethics in Self-publishing

  1. Belart Wright October 17, 2015 at 4:32 pm #

    Hey Jane,

    Nice article! I think you make some really fascinating points here. Mainly this one: “Encouraging indies to adopt high ethical standards will result in increased reader trust for our individual brands, and those readers will play an important part in putting pressure on bookstores and libraries to stock our books.”

    I agree that we, as indies, need to adopt higher standards. That’s been my motto from the very beginning, even though my bank account often can’t cover those higher standards. Slowly but surely I’m getting my book, Average Joe and the Extraordinaires, up to professional quality. It’s always been professional on the inside since I believe in quality for my readers, but now I can afford a cover to match. I feel that we should strive to match the traditional authors that sit at the top. That way we’ll all be taken seriously and it’ll elevate our craft. There should never be gatekeepers on what we do, but I’d love for people to at least take this more seriously and adopt some higher standards.

    With all I’ve learned with my first book, I can now assure that my subsequent releases will be highly professional releases that can sit on a book shelf next to even the most well known bestsellers, even if no one reads them.

    “to accept self-published books on the same level as traditionally published books if they feel they can trust in our professionalism and passion for quality.”

    Your quote above is essentially how I feel. I think that all the shortcuts that indies decide to take in this industry ultimately hurt them and the rest of us. Books that aren’t professionally edited and formatted make customers think twice about buying more indie books. The books that we give away may be linked to other rushed or haphazardly put together books through the Amazon marketplace and we and other authors are directly linked to these books. I like how open the marketplace is and how anyone can publish, but my hope is that as a whole we adopt better standards, become more open minded, and take this self publishing thing to a whole new level.

    I do have differing opinions on review services and paid reviews in general. I feel that as long as both parties mutually agree that the reviewer will post an honest review based on his/her reading experience that their shouldn’t be a problem. Maybe even have this written in the purchaser/seller terms. I don’t see how a Kirkus reviewer is accepted, but a Fiverr reviewer is not, considering that they are doing essentially the same service. But I do agree that many people are just buying blind 5 star reviews that just read “this is an awesome book, buy it!” Those types of biased reviews are what makes these things unethical. However, the industry’s strict policies on getting reviews are detrimental to new indies. It takes a review to get a sale, but it takes a sale to get a review essentially, which is a strange “which comes first” dilemma.

  2. Linda January 9, 2015 at 5:12 pm #

    Here is my question to indie-pub authors. I am NOT a paid reviewer. I know some indie authors tangentially via blogging, etc. My concern is with a general trend to star-inflate. We hear all the time how just one 3-star review can damage an indie-author’s sales. I surely don’t want to do that to someone I care about. On the other hand, when I have been encouraged to read & review someone’s new release, I cannot ethically hand out blanket 5-star ratings. Very few books are 5-star good. A recent scenario has me coughing through a book written to a genre I simply don’t appreciate.
    1. I could give this book a 3-star review with the caveat that I don’t read this genre and try to highlight the one or two good things I can think of.
    2. Or I can simply not review it.

    Which option would you indie authors prefer?

    • Belart Wright October 17, 2015 at 4:40 pm #

      Hey Linda,

      I see this post is from January, but I hope to help. For my preference, I wouldn’t mind a three star review. To me it shows that you liked aspects about the book, but it just didn’t jump out at you. For two stars or below, I feel as if it’d be a great idea to contact the author to let them know that you didn’t really like the book and ask if he/she would still like the review to be posted. Authors are not entitled to have you do this. As far as I’m concerned, when I give out my book to a reviewer that’s it, it’s in their hands now and I have no say in their opinions of it or how they express their opinions. I also don’t mind getting low scores, but I’m more of an exception in this case. The only thing that annoy me are low goodreads.com scores that simply say, “this book sucks,” or something to that effect.

  3. self publish December 17, 2014 at 9:39 am #

    I don’t know whether it’s just me or if everybody else encountering issues with
    your site. It appears as though some of the text in your posts are running off the screen. Can somebody else please comment and let me know if this is happening to them as well?
    This could be a problem with my browser because I’ve had this happen before.
    Appreciate it

  4. eLPy September 12, 2014 at 2:35 pm #

    I’m glad to have found this discussion, there’s so much to be said…

    One reason some people think readers don’t care is because like Emma said not everyone feels like sharing that they DON’T WANT to read SPA. And I believe that is in large part due to negative responses they do or might receive. I am an SPA and I make a point to read other SPAs, however due to my making a point I know the time it can take to find a decent book. Of course there are many forums, organizations, groups, etc that provide readers with some kind of vetting process to make it easier to find GOOD SP books. Not everyone knows these exist though and again, I agree with Emma, there are A LOT of very visible TB books to tie up ones time for years. If it takes you hours, days, weeks, months to read in the first place, why are you going to spend that precious time reading something mediocre for the sake of supporting Indie? You probably won’t unless you have a personal interest or knowledge, as I do.

    There are A LOT of volatile SPAs who can’t seem to handle anything negative. I’ve participated in Goodreads group discussions in the not too distant past and, WOW, the things I’ve heard authors say. There are plenty of them who argue that they shouldn’t be criticized for lack of or poor editing because they don’t have the money right now to hire an editor. Then there are those who throw a fit when they receive even the smallest bit of criticism, constructive or otherwise. Too many authors think it’s completely acceptable to respond negatively to reviews. Reading is subjective; I’ve read an Indie book that was well-written for the most part but I really didn’t like it as a whole. Come to find out LOADS of people thought it was a great book, it was even highlighted and given special attention on Goodreads. (I still disagree. ;-))

    I think too many people think that as long as they can jump on Kindle Direct Publishing, Nook Press, and a host of other SP sites that they can and should do so without scrutiny. There’s a lot of blatant disregard for quality among SPAs that scares too many people away and should be addressed. Just because you have an idea for a book and the desire to write it doesn’t mean you should hurry up and publish it. Trade published authors, whether small press or otherwise, usually have a team of people behind or in front of them to help minimize the damage. The company’s butt is on the line too so they want to make sure the product is of decent quality, that means professional covers, editing, plot feedback, etc. Even as they may pay for reviews the book passes through the hands of a number of people. A self-published book on the other hand may only pass through those of the author and their family. SPAs are our own quality control until we publish our work.

    On another note, I’m not surprised to hear that the NYTBR pays for reviews, accepts paid reviews, what have you, but I didn’t know this as fact until recently.Is that discouraging? Sure. But that only pushes me away from such reviewers not reading in general or reading trade books. I already know that plenty of “junk” makes it to press, production, TV, movie, publications, etc, etc. For me it’s sort of a moot point. I honestly know more of what I’m getting into when I read a trade-published book rather than self-published. Isn’t it just as bad though to publish your book with all those reviews from your friends and family?

    I’m still stuck on the poor behavior of SPAs. Some self-published authors are pumping out more “junk” in 6 months than trade publishers do in a year and don’t seem to notice at all. The fact that they aren’t selling doesn’t kill the issue, it’s clogging the pipes. Without some discussion of ethics what can we do aside from just letting it be? I don’t blame readers for keeping away from self-publishing, it has a well-earned bad reputation. After all it’s not their job to put in the work to find quality among us, it’s our job to produce quality, accept criticism (to an extent), and make ourselves visible, along with a host of other things. At the end of the day we’re the ones deciding to put ourselves out there, right? Don’t want to hear what people think? Remember to wear underwear when you’re out!

    Writing is harder than it looks, publishing your writing makes it even harder. If you use these facts as a reason to publish low quality and think you should be left alone than I don’t think you should be publishing in the first place.

    …IMHO…

    • Belart Wright October 17, 2015 at 6:22 pm #

      Great points eLPy,

      I’d like to respond to a few of them.
      “I am an SPA and I make a point to read other SPAs, however due to my making a point I know the time it can take to find a decent book.”

      I am the same. When you read other SPA’s you begin to really sympathize with the other readers. There are plenty of indies out there whose products just simply lack quality such as proper editing, proper grammar, coherence. I don’t ding covers too hard, but some covers I’ve seen have made me shake my head. With my first self published book I started with a poor cover, but I made sure that the inside was edited a million and one times by myself, printed then edited several more times, proofread by beta readers, edited by a professional, read over by myself and edited again (basically finalized), and had advanced reviewers check it out. I did all this to assure my book quality optimal and to this day I still go back and read the book to make sure it all holds together. My point being that I wish others held those same standards (though maybe less obsessive than myself. :-))

      “If it takes you hours, days, weeks, months to read in the first place, why are you going to spend that precious time reading something mediocre for the sake of supporting Indie?”

      I’ve definitely read many many indie clunkers that didn’t seem to pass even one round of editing and this is why we have opinions like Emma’s, very valid opinions on our SP industry as a whole. It’s just too much work to have to sift through and find good indie books, especially if you can’t trust the majority of reviews.

      “Of course there are many forums, organizations, groups, etc that provide readers with some kind of vetting process to make it easier to find GOOD SP books.”
      Well, yeah. Their would need to be much more popular group, something close to Oprah level, or hosted by Kindle for most people to join to get knowledge on the good SP books. I don’t really think we need a special category honestly. Don’t get me wrong, it would help us with getting discovered by readers and there is a good market for people that want to support “the little guy”, but many of us can stand on our own without needing to be pegged into an indie corner. I’ve read a few YA indie series this year that were leaps and bounds ahead of the Divergent series in terms of plotting, characterization, and even editing. So I think we’re getting to the point where we can just be books and not indie books. Many of us are already there, but now the general public will start to recognize us as such.

      “There are A LOT of volatile SPAs who can’t seem to handle anything negative. … Then there are those who throw a fit when they receive even the smallest bit of criticism, constructive or otherwise.”
      Too true! I’ve seen an indie author offer a very tame, but very constructive review of another indie author who went off on the person for no reason and seemed to take it as an opportunity to go upvote all the reviewing authors negative reviews (which only happened right after the review). The reviewing author got backed by other reviewers who agreed with the common sense review (even the sample of the book was pretty crappy). The reviewing author took the review down anyway, because they were considerate and didn’t want to leave drama on the other authors page. Not sure I could’ve shown such restraint as the other author was completely in the wrong.

      “I’ve participated in Goodreads group discussions in the not too distant past and, WOW, the things I’ve heard authors say. There are plenty of them who argue that they shouldn’t be criticized for lack of or poor editing because they don’t have the money right now to hire an editor.”

      That’s just too funny. “These readers should consider all the hard work and patience that I lacked in order to make sure this book was worth their hard earned dollars! How dare they care about the quality of things they’ve purchased!” I have no opinions on entitled authors like this, they described themselves perfectly enough.

      “There’s a lot of blatant disregard for quality among SPAs that scares too many people away and should be addressed. Just because you have an idea for a book and the desire to write it doesn’t mean you should hurry up and publish it.”

      I definitely agree! There’s just too much slushpile, indie fiction and nonfiction out there. It does drag us all down because the reputation of our industry is linked to this lack of quality or as I call it, the shortcut route. The shortcut route is simply what you said, a rush to publish, and without all of the pieces that make a quality book.

      “SPAs are our own quality control until we publish our work.”

      This is so very true. And it’s a good thing…and a bad thing. I think it’s overwhelmingly a good thing. I like are industry as a whole, I just want other authors to elevate themselves. It’s beautiful that we don’t have gatekeepers, but we definitely need a popular publication or blog that highlights our industry, something aimed at readers to show the quality achievements of us indies and even has a section to highlight the super unknown or first time published indies. We can’t force quality and ethics like traditional publishers, but we can encourage it :-). I think it’s all something we want. Maybe this group is the best to start something like that.

      “On another note, I’m not surprised to hear that the NYTBR pays for reviews, accepts paid reviews, what have you, but I didn’t know this as fact until recently.”

      It doesn’t surprise me at all. Money flows so freely in those circles that I’m sure it’s even worse than this. What surprises me is the fact that so many people give them a pass for it yet condemn smaller businesses that do the same. I guess that shouldn’t surprise me since those in power get away with so much.

      “I’m still stuck on the poor behavior of SPAs. Some self-published authors are pumping out more “junk” in 6 months than trade publishers do in a year and don’t seem to notice at all. The fact that they aren’t selling doesn’t kill the issue, it’s clogging the pipes”

      Oooh, we’re speaking the same language here eLPy. I agree. I wish I had gotten into the SP racket earlier, like circa 2010 when it was really starting to boom for people just getting into it. Now, it’s so hard to be noticed in the sea of indies. You have to do everything perfectly from the start (which I did not) to take advantage of sales algorithms and such. I think it’s still possible to succeed in the market, but your sales strategy has to be stellar.

      “I don’t blame readers for keeping away from self-publishing, it has a well-earned bad reputation. After all it’s not their job to put in the work to find quality among us, it’s our job to produce quality, accept criticism (to an extent), and make ourselves visible, along with a host of other things.”

      I take this stance too. Ultimately it’s the readers who will weed out the desirable books from the undesirable books. To a degree I also don’t trust the readers, because I’ve seen a ton of shoddy books at the top of the paid sales pile. I’m taking books with horrible editing, poor grammar, incoherent storylines, etc. So a well known group that promotes good quality indie works is where it’s at. Or we can all weather this storm and simply elevate ourselves and those around us to achieve the quality that we’re all capable of despite many of us lacking millions or even thousands (or even hundreds :-/) of dollars readily available to us to fund our goals.

      Sorry for this massive reply eLPy, but I put the blame on you for such a massive post filled with good points.

  5. Fawn Neun August 31, 2014 at 9:50 pm #

    When KIRKUS stops charging indie authors for reviews, it will be an issue. Until then, self pubbed authors must do what they can. The big 5 pay millions for advertising. Self and small press needs to market, too.

  6. Abby August 20, 2014 at 11:27 pm #

    Honestly, Emma’s comments make me sad. They sound an awful lot like discrimination – making a decision about an entire category based on preconceived notions, rather than on individual merits. There are enough authors who have previously published books with the Big 5 and are now making a choice to own their own rights that I can’t understand such a blanket assessment of indie-publishing at this point. (See Eileen Goudge, Allison Winn Scotch, Jon Clinch, etc.) And we will only see more! Fortunately I think most readers are willing to assess books individually and use their own filters for deciding what to read. But I’m glad Emma was brave enough to articulately state her point of view here. I know she represents a sizable group of readers who are still wary of “self-publishing,” The indie community can be an insular place, so we may be in danger of not hearing voices like theirs.

  7. Dan Holloway August 19, 2014 at 2:46 pm #

    Fabulous topic. Ethics means different things to different people, and I think the thing about being indie is that we have the freedom to define our own stance. The notion that there should be an ethical standard people can sign up to through a group like ALLi is an excellent one, but the notion that indies should subscribe to a particular ethical code goes against what it means to be indie. The recent Amazon-Hachette dispute is a great case in point. I spent years speaking in favour of an Amazon boycott (I did boycott them for 2 years, selling only through other outlets) because of their stance on taxes and the way they treat staff. Many of my writer colleagues who criticised me for that very strongly have since been at the fore of the criticism of Amazon for cutting down author royalties. To me that’s a self-centredness I find hugely unethical. To them, it’s a highly ethical response to the question of how authors should be treated. We each have to lay out our own ethical position.

    I guess that’s what I’d say is the bottom line. 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.

    • Jane Steen August 19, 2014 at 5:55 pm #

      “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.”

      + that.

      We’re always going to differ in our opinions. I notice cultural differences, too–writers in the US seem more comfortable with aggressive marketing than UK writers, for example. Kevin’s comment above, that the traditional publishing industry always pays for reviews, is representative of a certain way of thinking over here in the US.

      And I’ll admit that if I could afford it, heck yes I’d pay for a review or advertising in the NYT. But I assume (perhaps naively) that major journals adhere to ethical standards in advertising and reviewing. I’d never pay for provider X on fiverr to write a gushing review disguised as just a regular reader, even though $5 is more my current budget. We’re just not comparing like to like here. We can’t claim we’re just acting like a traditional publisher, because we’re not. This is exactly what I mean in my post when I talk about the bad advice circulating around the internet.

      So yes, we need to talk about the ethical dimensions of self-publishing as an ongoing concern. It’ll be messy, we’ll disagree with each other, and if we can find a way to get reader opinions we might learn a few things we don’t want to know about ourselves. But it’s the way to build trust for self-publishing.

  8. Debbie Youmg August 19, 2014 at 9:51 am #

    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.

  9. clare weiner August 19, 2014 at 8:09 am #

    It’s only since joining the Alliance and learning more about the ‘underbelly’ of publishing/marketing that I heard of paid reviews. I don’t think I would ever do this – it is I suppose equivalent to publishers buying space in bookshop windows isn’t it – personally I don’t like the idea.

    But, the marketing industry is based on pushing stuff out there, whatever stuff it is.

    What I do think is, there are big changes in publishing happening and it’s all in process at present. Indie publishing is still changing just a trade publishing is. We need to think through the whole ethical side, reject sleazy stuff, and find our level in the new publishing scene.

    Trade has for too long called all the shots and authors have been treated as a kind of ‘raw material’: I get annoyed when I see people I know going ‘cap in hand’ to publishers and over a long time re-writing, and re-sending endlessly in hopes … selfpub gives them a break, and if their book is good it has a chance to work its way out to readers: if it’s bad and paid-promoted, it will sink anyway and so will their reputation as a writer. A naive view?!

  10. William Ash August 19, 2014 at 2:36 am #

    Emma, naturally, you would never read anything produced by the Hogarth Press. Since you have never read a self published book, I don’t see how you can even have an opinion. I really don’t think trolling a site for self-published authors is very becoming.

    Jane, I am not holding up James Fey as anything. But he is still writing and making a career out of it. So even your dislike for him has had no effect on him being successful. Neither has it prevented his publisher from continuing to publish books. If that was not enough to sink a career, I don’t know what is. Would you not buy the children’s book Fox in the Rabbit Garden because it is from the same publisher as A Million Little Pieces?

    Personally, I have never heard of the myth that creative people cannot be professional. All the creative people I know are very professional. Honesty is not a profession, it is character trait.

    In the publishing game, you are competing against yourself. No one else can make you look bad.

    • Emma August 19, 2014 at 2:58 am #

      Calling people trolls for disagreeing with you? Complaining that it’s inappropriate to post a comment you dislike, but it’s perfectly becoming to engage in unethical marketing behavior because no one will remember anyway? Typical SPA behavior. And a great example of why I don’t read those books.

      Hint: you don’t have a brand when no one knows who you are because you’re lost in the slush pile.

    • Jane Steen August 19, 2014 at 4:23 am #

      I don’t dislike James Frey, William. To be honest until you mentioned him I’d completely forgotten he existed.

      I think Emma’s typical of the reader who’s heard enough bad things about self-published books to be deterred from reading them. Which, as Tracey says below, means that a large number of excellent books are simply invisible to her. Emma, I hope that one day a self-published author will change your mind.

      And she’s certainly not trolling–she followed a link I posted on Goodreads because I wanted readers to join in the conversation, and she’s expressing an opinion. This may be a site for self-published authors, but we need to stop listening only to each other and start listening to our readers.

  11. Kevin O. McLaughlin August 19, 2014 at 2:24 am #

    I’m going to say on the outset that I agree in principle – for myself – that holding oneself to high ethical standards is a worthwhile thing to do. For ME. Not for you, or ALLi, or the indie cause. It’s important to me to be ethical because it means something to me to be so.

    That said, I really don’t care if YOU (anyone reading this) pays for reviews or not. It REALLY has so little impact on me that it’s relevance is somewhere around the same level as palmistry or tea leaf reading. 😉

    You have to understand: paid reviews is the NORM in the trade publishing industry. Most of the major publishers routinely pay for reviews on Amazon. They don’t go on Fiverr – no, they pay a PR company thousands of dollars to deliver bunches of reviews on release day. Now, they are not paying for 4-5 star reviews, of course… But PR companies who deliver low rated reviews don’t get repeat business, so it’s effectively the same thing.

    Most, if not all of the major publishers are doing this. They’re also paying for reviews in Kirkus, the NYT, and other big venues by purchasing ads there (notice how few books from publishers who DON’T buy ads actually get reviewed in such places).

    Paid reviews are the norm in our industry.

    Get used to the idea. Whether or not you choose to pay for reviews (I choose not to), this is what you are facing. This is what your competitors are doing. This is a normal business practice in this industry, and has been for decades (in one way or another).

    So no, a few indies paying for reviews most certainly does NOT impact the sales of my books. Most readers will never know. Most of those who do find out, won’t care. And frankly, in my ideal world, my books won’t be easy to tell from those of any other small press out there.

    I do believe that acting in an upright manner has its own benefits in your life. I’d urge each indie writer to handle reviews in an ethical manner because it is RIGHT to do so. But those who don’t are hurting only their readers and – most likely – themselves, in the long run.

    • Belart Wright October 17, 2015 at 5:02 pm #

      “You have to understand: paid reviews is the NORM in the trade publishing industry. Most of the major publishers routinely pay for reviews on Amazon. They don’t go on Fiverr – no, they pay a PR company thousands of dollars to deliver bunches of reviews on release day. Now, they are not paying for 4-5 star reviews, of course… But PR companies who deliver low rated reviews don’t get repeat business, so it’s effectively the same thing.”

      Well said Kevin,

      I think too many people overlook this aspect of “respected” businesses. I don’t fault them for doing so, because it’s effective and falls barely on the side of ethical (with reference to your comment about PR firms skewing towards positive reviews). I definitely don’t think indies should be penalized, by removing paid reviews or being labelled as unethical for doing the same practices as trade publishers only on a smaller scale with less money.

      I do however believe that this unethical behavior is harming the rest of us, mainly the little guy/gal who is newly self published. When they have to turn to tactics deemed unethical now, because some indies have abused them. I don’t think paying for reviews is bad, but paying for a ton of 5 star reviews is blatantly fraudulent and unethical. And just as Emma said above, there will be people who just don’t trust indies because of the unethical behavior of many others. Her opinions are valid in many respects.

  12. giacomo Giammatteo August 19, 2014 at 1:41 am #

    Jane, this is an excellent topic for discussion and one I’m passionate about. First, let me address William’s point. As you said, Jane, and I agree, there are many reviewers and bloggers who, “once bitten” by an indie’s wrath, will never again review indie books. It’s unfortunate, but there is a big todo doing on right now with Goodreads, where a reviewer rated a book low and the author took exception, posted a blog, other friends of the reviewer posted negative reviews, now the author has done the same. It’s ridiculous. Goodreads is doing nothing about it. But the damage is done. We’ve got a group of reviewers who are soured on indies.

    Emma, as to the glowing reviews—it’s unfortunate again, but that is what it has come to. People don’t trust a book that is rated highly, thinking the reviews are all bought and paid for. It’s a shame. But it can be the result of a good book!

    As to reviews being paid for. I personally think that if it is a respectable service and they give honest reviews–in other words, if you look through their site and see 3 star and 4 star mixed in with a smattering of 5 star, you probably have a good, honest service. If all you see are 5 star reviews, run!

    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.

    And IMO, never respond to a negative review. I do occasionally respond to positive ones, thanking them for their time.

    This is a BUSINESS. As indie authors, we need to conduct ourselves as professionals. If we don’t produce quality work, expect bad reviews and poor sales. If we don’t produce good, appealing covers, expect fewer sales. If we don’t write great ad copy, with ZERO mistakes, expect to be overlooked. If we spam readers–expect to be treated like spammers. And if we don’t act like professionals, expect the worst of everything.

    • Belart Wright October 17, 2015 at 4:48 pm #

      “As to reviews being paid for. I personally think that if it is a respectable service and they give honest reviews–in other words, if you look through their site and see 3 star and 4 star mixed in with a smattering of 5 star, you probably have a good, honest service. If all you see are 5 star reviews, run! ”

      Hey Giacomo,

      It’s good to see someone else with this opinion. I think it’s a fair one instead of blanket banning all review services. I completely agree.

  13. William Ash August 18, 2014 at 3:06 pm #

    If you can show a a direct link between one author behaving badly influences sales and the perception of another author or group of authors, then you argument has some merit. I think you will find the author caught inflating his/her book will be judged on his/her own merits. And as you pointed out, traditional publisher have done this, yet they are on the whole fine.

    I am not sure looking for problem that may or may not be true is useful. Certainly warn individual authors they are playing a dicey game. But the results are going to effect their career, not others. But even James Fey, author of A Million Little Pieces, survived his fabrication. So, what does it really mean?

    • Jane Steen August 18, 2014 at 10:13 pm #

      Ask book bloggers why they no longer accept self-published work, William. Ask top Goodreads reviewers why the sight of that “Goodreads Author” asterisk is likely to send them scurrying in the opposite direction.

      And with all due respect to James Frey, I’d hate to hold him up as a role model for writers in general. Must we still believe in the myth that creativity and professionalism don’t mix?

      • Jeff Shear August 19, 2014 at 4:28 pm #

        William makes a good point, but I think Jane makes a better point. The Sunday New York Times Book Review is the gold standard in the U.S., but every one of their reviews are paid, not directly, but by sponsorships: full-page adverts from publishers provide tens of thousands of dollars in revenue to the NYTBR, and reviewers are paid well for their services by the Times. There’s general agreement among NYTBR reviewers that a bad review is unnecessary, unless it’s plain that the writer is “mailing it in,” failing to live up to his own standards. The same dollar signs prevail in local publications. My daily paper won’t look at Indie authors. My assumption is that they fear losing advertising. In sum, the standards Jane speaks of raise the bar. In venues like Goodreads — so essential to authors — reputation carries weight, and an ethical sightline might well open more books to more reviewers. Signing on to a standard of ethics may be too crunchy for some, but others might find it an act of good faith, a confidence builder. It should be understood by the public that there are some very serious writers out here kicking the Indie can through the rubble left by the corporatization of publishing.

    • Emma August 18, 2014 at 10:42 pm #

      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, sockpuppets, 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.

      • Kevin O. McLaughlin August 19, 2014 at 2:47 am #

        That’s such a cute comment, Emma. 🙂 The good news is, about a quarter of all novels sold in the US every day were self published; about half of all ebooks sold? Self published. Most of those readers couldn’t even tell that the book was self published. Often, these books are better produced than anything coming out of NYC, and indeed, the major publishers are the ones copying indie writers, who are the ones innovating.

        Also, the biggest offenders in terms of sockpuppet reviews are the “big five” publishers. Nobody pays more than those companies for reviews. Nobody has more paid reviews than they do. So if you want to avoid books with paid reviews, the BEST way to do so is to buy indie. 😉

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. That Thorny Question of Ethics: Part 2 - March 9, 2016

    […] little while ago, author Jane Steen wrote about the much-neglected question of author ethics. Events since then have proved that this vexed issue is one we all need to think about. From one […]

  2. That Thorny Question of Ethics… | Mari Biella - November 15, 2015

    […] novelist Jane Steen recently wrote this piece about the troubling question of ethics in the self-publishing arena. It’s a question that […]

  3. An Article I Found About Ethics | ccg1394 - October 20, 2015

    […] interested in publishing, so I decided to do a little search on publishing ethics. I found this article that talks briefly about ethics and self-publishing, or the lack […]

  4. Why you need to be an ethical author • Jane V. Blanchard - July 19, 2015

    […] In Opinion: Why We Need to Talk About Ethics in Self-publishing, historical fiction writer, Jane Steen says that “we owe it to our readers and to ourselves” to have a code of ethics. She continues, “Our indie career is not just about the books we write—it’s about the person we are.” […]

  5. Valuable Articles for Readers, Writers, and Publishers | Notes from An Alien - June 20, 2015

    […] From The ALLi Blog: Opinion: Why We Need to Talk About Ethics in Self-publishing […]

  6. Ethical issues in self-publishing: Why you should care | Backstory... - March 25, 2015

    […] novelist Jane Steen in her article Opinion: Why We Need to Talk About Ethics in Self-publishing suggested we should be concerned about ethics because “we owe it to our readers,” but perhaps […]

  7. Do Author Ethics Matter? A Guest Post by Jane Steen | - January 26, 2015

    […] of that conversation the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) invited me to contribute a post on ethics to the Self-Publishing Advice blog. I hoped to light a tiny fire to combat all the wrong-headed […]

  8. Why Indie Author Ethics are a Two-Way Street | Self-Publishing Advice - January 9, 2015

    […] member Jane Steen, wrote a post recently dealing with indie author ethics, covering topics like spamming in social media, and the many problems with […]

  9. Looking Back: A recap on ALLi's 2014 | Self-Publishing Advice - December 23, 2014

    […] 2014: saw us launch  Ethical Author – a campaign spearheaded by ALLi Member Jane Steen from a post on this very blog. The campaign, which includes a protocol that can be voluntarily adopted by any author (or […]

  10. That Thorny Question of Ethics: Part 2 | Mari Biella - November 15, 2014

    […] little while ago, author Jane Steen wrote about the much-neglected question of author ethics. Events since then have proved that this vexed issue is one we all need to think about. From one […]

  11. Are You An Ethical Author? | Self-Publishing Advice - November 14, 2014

    […] concerned author member Jane Steen, wrote a guest post about author ethics here on the Self-Publishing Advice Blog a while back, neither she nor ALLi anticipated the reverberations. Most authors are ethical, yet […]

  12. Ethical Author: My Big Idea for Futurebook Conference | Orna Ross - October 31, 2014

    […] Alliance of Independent Authors is proposing an initiative, fired by our member Jane Steen, who first blogged about this some time ago on The Self-Publishing Advice […]

  13. Eight Issues in Author Ethics - Porter Anderson - August 31, 2014

    […] 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.” […]

  14. Author Ethics and Utilitarianism (Or, “Why Authors are Bad People”) | Creativindie - August 30, 2014

    […] I read with inter­est two posts about Author Ethics. This one by Jane Steen on selfpublishingadvice.org argues that while indie authors often lament (and admit […]

  15. 8 Issues In Author Ethics | Thought Catalog - August 29, 2014

    […] 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. […]

  16. 8 Issues In Author Ethics | Thought Catalog - August 29, 2014

    […] 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.” […]

Leave a Reply

UA-34357977-1