Self-publishing, at least to any author who takes it even remotely seriously, has always
raised a host of questions. Where and how to
distribute? What price, if any, to charge? Is KDP Select exclusivity a good
thing or not? How can I best construct a well-edited, well-formatted,
professionally-produced book, given my limited funds? How can I market my book,
if I can bear to do so at all?
|The Quickening by Mari Biella|
These are all questions that we all ask ourselves, of course, and it’s essential that we do so. One thing that has received altogether less attention, though, is the question of author ethics.
It’s a question that needs addressing, as two recent news items have proved. One author openly admitted stalking someone who gave her a bad review (in an account that was duly published by a national broadsheet, no less); another allegedly assaulted a woman who wrote a lukewarm review of his book. Nor is this solely an issue amongst self-publishers, as one of these authors was published by a major imprint. However, both stories have no doubt reinforced the stereotype of badly-behaved authors: authors who simultaneously expect readers to buy and read their books yet hold those same readers in more-or-less obvious contempt.
Criticism, of course, hurts. A writer invests a considerable amount of love, time and effort in his or her books, and to have them dismissed in a couple of lines and a one-star rating is painful. As Isaac Asimov said, writers fall into two camps: “Those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review.” That a writer might get upset about uncomplimentary reviews is unsurprising, and nothing new. What is new is that the internet removes both the sense of spatial and temporal distance that might allow for a “cooling-down” period, and simultaneously provides abundant fuel for the fire of obsession.
|Something that authors dread...|
Overreacting to bad reviews is not the only form of bad authorial behaviour. There have been cases of authors assuming false online identities to boost their sales or attack their rivals, of engaging in intrusive or downright deceptive marketing techniques, and of generally being rude, disruptive and unprofessional. Readers, understandably, react negatively: Amazon customers openly discuss BBAs (badly-behaved authors) on forums, and some corners of the internet seem to exist solely to expose dodgy authorial practices. What is most interesting about all of this, perhaps, is how skewed the author-reader relationship can sometimes become, with both sides (who you might think would enjoy a largely symbiotic relationship) seeing the other as actual or potential enemies.
As I said, this is not solely, or even primarily, a self-publishing issue. All authors, whatever route they take to publication, have the potential to be BBAs. And perhaps it’s time that well-behaved authors took a stand.
For this reason, I was delighted to learn about the Alliance of Independent Authors’ Ethical Author Campaign. Although spearheaded by the Alliance, you don’t have to be either an ALLi member or an independent author to join. The code (which can be viewed here) consists not of an externally-imposed set of regulations, but is instead envisaged as an agreement between equals.
When I wrote a post on my own blog praising the scheme, I was surprised that, amongst the generally positive response, there were one or two dissenting voices. One commenter pointed out – rightly, no doubt – that unethical authors could simply download and display the badge and then continue as before. This is entirely possible, of course: after all, there are no sanctions, so what’s to stop them? Another objected to the use of the term “ethical”, which he felt was arrogant and possibly insincere. The decision not to make use of sock puppets or stalk unimpressed reviewers was, he felt, a question of judgement, not ethics.
He had a point, perhaps. However, I don’t think there’s anything necessarily self-important, precious or disingenuous about stating that one is an ethical author if what you are referring to – as in this instance – is a certain set of standards, which anyone can read, and which anyone can measure your behaviour against. By adhering to the Code and displaying the ethical author badge, I’m not affecting moral superiority or claiming to be outstandingly ethical in general. I’m publicly stating my commitment to behave in line with certain standards, and to be judged in accordance with how well I abide by them. It is, perhaps, a little like the Fairtrade symbol: a public pledge to meet very specific and largely measurable criteria.
Opinions vary, of course. I think that ALLi’s initiative – while no doubt open to both questions and abuse – is a step in the right direction. For a while now, many authors (and in particular self-publishers) have had their reputations tarnished by the behaviour of a few. It’s time that this stopped; and it’s also time, perhaps, for us to be the change we want to see.
What do people think?