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Watchdog: The Two-Way Ethics Of Authors And Service Providers

Watchdog: The Two-Way Ethics of Authors and Service Providers

Photo of Giacomo and his dog

ALLi Watchdog and his dog



Continuing the conversation begun in ALLi's Ethical Author campaign towards the end of 2014, ALLi Watchdog Giacomo Giammaetteo draws attention to the importance of indie authors behaving ethically towards service providers.

Ethical Behavior Is Not An Option

I’ve seen a lot of talk—complaining actually—about the ethics of traditional publishers, vanity presses, and even some of the self-publishing providers. And a lot of this is true. In fact, I’m sure more than a few of you have seen some of my rants against many companies (including Amazon) for the way they treat indie authors. But I’m not here to talk about them.

Today, I want to talk about…

Indie Author Ethics

ALLiEthicalAuthor_Badge-largeIn my job as watchdog for ALLi, I am charged with looking into providers of self-publishing services and making sure they have the authors’ interests at heart. Of course they have to make a profit, but we strive for a win/win relationship. And despite what many people think, that kind of relationship is attainable.

ALLi recognizes the best of these companies when we can—companies like Smashwords, Draft2Digital, IngramSpark, CreateSpace, and many more.

Companies who partner with ALLi must adhere to a code of ethics, and the many watchdogs at ALLi help to ensure that providers who take advantage of authors don’t slip through the cracks. It’s our right as consumers and authors to expect to be treated fairly.

But Ethics Is a Two-Way Street

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

I’m not here to cover the ground Jane already wrote about so wonderfully. I’m here to address a different kind of ethics. Just as we should expect to be treated fairly by the service providers we use—they should also be treated the same way by us.

What do I mean? I’ll explain.

During the past few months, I have tried spending additional time in social media groups, self-publishing forums, etc., in order to get a better idea of where the most help was needed in terms of education and technical expertise re: all self-publishing services. It has been eye opening in many ways, not the least of which is the shock of how some indie authors think when it comes to dealing with our providers.

Point Number One

Unauthorized Use of ISBNs

On three occasions I observed discussions about ISBNs. I know this is a bone of contention for many indies, and lots of you (me included) think that ISBNs cost far too much. But the discussions centered around getting free ISBNs from places like Smashwords or Draft2Digital and then using them with other providers who charge for the ISBNs (like Bookbaby). One well-known author went so far as to suggest using CreateSpace’s free ISBNs for digital books. Not only is this in violation of Bowker’s terms of service regarding ISBN use, it is also in direct violation of CreateSpace’s terms of service.

When I pointed out that this was unethical, no one seemed to mind. I have discovered that quite a few authors seem to feel this way. They don’t mind doing the wrong thing unless they fear reprisal.

This is appalling to me. Here we have service providers giving us ISBNs, and indie authors are taking advantage of that to save a few bucks.

I will have another post dealing exclusively with ISBNs soon.

Point Number Two


This is by far the worst of the two problems. There isn’t a group, forum, board, or get together of more than a few indies where misinformation isn’t being spread like a bad virus. And this does far more harm than stealing an ISBN. Spreading misinformation is as harmful as a lie.

Just because you heard a company has bad customer service doesn’t mean it does.

How many times have you heard someone proclaim something to be true, only to find out later that it’s not true.

When we spread bad info on a company we’re hurting their reputation.

Imagine This

Take a minute and imagine that people were giving your book one-star reviews, and they were doing it with bad information, citing facts that weren’t in your book.

How would you feel?

Now put yourself in the service provider’s shoes and imagine how they feel when they see things in forums, on Twitter, Facebook, G+, etc.

Who Am I Talking About?

I’m talking about a lot of companies. Smashwords has come up more often than most, but that’s probably because they’ve been around so long in the indie world. But also IngramSpark, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and many others. People often spout “facts” that aren’t facts.

During one long night of searching boards and groups, I corrected no less than 15 conversations. In two of them, they were complaining about Smashwords’ file conversion and they didn’t even know that Smashwords accepted epubs now. (It’s been almost 2 years!)

Another “expert” over at the Kindle Boards said if you publish with CreateSpace you can’t use Ingram. Yet another said Smashwords takes 1–2 weeks to get your book uploaded to Barnes & Noble or Apple. And the list goes on.

Some of the things that were said might have been true years, or even months, ago, but they aren’t now. And therein lies the problem. It would be like a person bashing you because of something they didn’t like in your first book, when you have just published your fifth.

When we spread misinformation, it’s not fair to the provider and it’s not fair to other authors who are seeking real information.

We whine about not being treated like professionals, and then we go and do things like this. I know it’s not all of us. It’s not even close to a majority, but it’s a lot more than a few, and it doesn’t take many to make us all look bad.

What To Do About It?

Even if you think what you’re saying is true—even if it was true a year ago or six months ago—it might not be true now. So unless you make it a habit of keeping up with what has changed at the company/companies, please qualify any statements.


“IngramSpark offers discount options of 40% or 55%. You’ll have to provide your own ISBN, though, and their shipping is expensive.”

Even if you made a statement like this six months ago, you’d be wrong today. IngramSpark began offering ISBNs a few months ago, and they added a 30% option for discounts. Saying their shipping is expensive doesn’t take into account that their international shipping is far less expensive and faster. All of these things make a huge difference. So before you offer advice—even in good faith—make sure the advice you’re providing is based on current information, not something you heard or something you experienced a while ago.

By spreading misinformation you could be keeping another author from making an informed decision.

A Short List To Remember

  • Before taking action on anything, think about whether it’s right. (Just like your mother told you.)
  • Before giving advice, or providing information, do everything you can to make sure it is good information—in other words, factual.
  • If you’re not certain that what you’re about to say is fact, either hold off and check your sources, or say you’re not sure…“I’m not positive about this, but I think…”
  • If you see someone promoting a shady idea, or proposing something that goes against our code at the Alliance–speak up. Loudly.

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If you found this post helpful, please share it.

“Setting ethical standards for #authors using #selfpub service providers by @murdertakestime for @IndieAuthorALLi: https://selfpublishingadvice.org/watchdog-ethics/”


Author: Giacomo Giammatteo

Giacomo Giammatteo is the author of gritty crime dramas about murder, mystery, and family. He also writes non-fiction books including the "No Mistakes" Careers series.
He lives in Texas where he and his wife have an animal sanctuary with 45 loving “friends.” His website is at www.giacomogiammatteo.com.


This Post Has 19 Comments
  1. Hey Giacomo,

    Thanks for the article, it was an interesting read. I have to say that I can’t blame people for spreading information that’s been updated in only a few months time, since at a point it was relevant and authors typically have a billion and five other things to worry about than knowing what these companies are constantly updating. That said I do find your advice to be reasonable:

    Before taking action on anything, think about whether it’s right. (Just like your mother told you.)
    Before giving advice, or providing information, do everything you can to make sure it is good information—in other words, factual.
    If you’re not certain that what you’re about to say is fact, either hold off and check your sources, or say you’re not sure…“I’m not positive about this, but I think…”
    If you see someone promoting a shady idea, or proposing something that goes against our code at the Alliance–speak up. Loudly.

    I think all people should do this anyway and that the people receiving the advice should do their due diligence and research anything they’ve been advised on. It’ll make for a much more informed community.

  2. Great post, Jim.

    Unfortunately I fear you cannot ‘teach’ ethics, as evidenced by your comments about people who know it’s wrong to re-use an ISBN but go ahead and do it anyway. I have a friend who has been publishing since 2011 and gets really annoyed by people who consistently buy her titles and then return them for a refund after five days, once they’ve read them. People are either ethical or not. But we can teach professionalism – which is almost but not quite the same thing.

    1. Hi, David. I think you’re right–you can’t teach ethics in that sense, but setting a good example isn’t bad. And the other part of the post-the misinformation part-we can definitely help spread the word about.

      As to the returns from Amazon…I’ve heard this from a lot of authors. I tend to look at this a little differently. First, I doubt that Amazon is going to let the same people continue to return items time and again. Second, I don’t think there is a way to know “who” is returning the books, so judging whether the people kept them 5 days and returned them would be difficult, i think. And last, I believe that no matter what business you’re in, there will be a certain percentage of people that you simply can’t please. It has to be accepted.

      My return rate on Amazon is very low, far less than 1%. I think a return rate in the 1-3% range might not be out of line, but if someone is experiencing a return rate above 2% or so, I would start to question the reason why.

      It’s a crazy business we’re in.

  3. Jim, thanks for the concrete examples. Cheating a publishing platform out of a few bucks may seem like a good idea in the short term, but it’s a lousy long-term strategy. What happens when, say, CreateSpace decides to check for stray ISBNs in five years’ time? Supposing you’ve successfully built up a series and then find Book 1 is permanently banned from Amazon due to the TOS violation? Don’t forget that the self-publishing scene is maturing and the loopholes WILL be plugged. Act ethically now and you’ll never have to worry.

    And as for old/misinformation…that’s precisely one of the reasons why I suggested providing some ethical guidelines. I agree with Jim, if you see an ALLi member (or any author) suggesting something unethical or inaccurate, point them at the Ethical Author Code or our other ALLi tools for success.

  4. Dated / inaccurate information can be shared inadvertently not maliciously by tweeting a blog post which may be old and now inaccurate. It is down to the recipient to check out information before acting on it. The internet and self-publishing are fast moving – everyone knows that so consumers beware …

    1. James, I completely agree about the inadvertent aspect, although I don’t think tweeting the sharing of a blog post falls under the same umbrella as the point I was trying to make.

      And while I agree that it is the recipient who bears the burden of final fact checking, the kind of problem I’m referring to often happens when new authors come to groups/forums seeking help and advice. Most of us are learning the business the best way we can, and it’s difficult to venture into new territory and learn new things. None of us need the additional challenge of vetting misinformation.

      I’m saying the “advice givers” need to share some of the fact-checking burden with those seeking the advice.

      As to those inadvertent blog posts…I’m not too concerned about them. I’m more worried about the person in a FB group telling a new author that they can’t or shouldn’t do something a certain way, or that “company X” has terrible customer service, or that “distributor A pays more than B” (when in fact they don’t).

      If we all share some of this burden, it will make it a better place for authors.

      1. A simple solution to the time and reliability issue is to say something to let the reader know the information was true a few months ago or a year ago — or any span of time ago. Let there be a heads up for the reader.

  5. “One well-known author went so far as to suggest using CreateSpace’s free ISBNs for digital books. Not only is this in violation of Bowker’s terms of service regarding ISBN use, it is also in direct violation of CreateSpace’s terms of service.”

    Given Amazon themselves abuse the system by using print ISBNs for their own imprint ebooks, while telling indies ebooks aren’t needed, it’s hardly surprising this sort of thing happens.

  6. You’re right, Jim. This does happen more often than it should. However I feel that many who do this do it out of ignorance rather than malice. I think it behooves every author to check things out for themselves and not rely on others to direct their publishing experience.

    1. Jean, I agree that the majority of comments stem from ignorance, or simply the inability to keep up with the changing face of publishing; however, if you spend enough time on some of the other forums and blog spots you’ll see a fair share of pure maliciousness also. I think most reasonable people can ignore those opinions the same way readers ignore obviously malicious one-star reviews, but it’s the other authors who might see it as a genuine condemnation that bothers me. Not to mention how it must make the vendors feel.

      I didn’t delve deeply into another aspect of the topic, but will in future posts–and that is when bestsellers who are looked up to are giving out misinformation. Authors automatically assume that info is good, when often it isn’t.

  7. Great post, Jim, and a timely reminder that authors can be the biggest sinners when it comes to spreading misinformation. I can forgive folk if they are passing out of date advice (due to the rapid changes in the publishing service industry) but authors passing on *advice* as to how another author should publish or what publisher/service provider should be used – when the advice is blatantly bias – is equally unethical.

  8. I, too, have run across negative misinformation on various threads and discussions. It’s even possible that I have, on rare occasions, been at fault for not making sure my facts were up to date. Thank you for a timely reminder.

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