Ethical Authors – Helping Self-publishing to Shed its Shady Image – Mari Biella

Self-publishing, at least to any author who takes it even remotely seriously, has always
The Quickening by Mari Biella
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?

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?


Jan Needle said…
possible problem of the ethical author badge is that if you don't go for it, people will think you're unethical. not too dissimilar from the prizes problem. if a book doesn't win a prize it must be less good than one that does. try reading a fair few booker winners to see how much you agree with that idea...
Lee said…
There's a difference, though, Jan: prizes are chosen by other people; the badge is self-imposed.

I tend - unfairly or not - to be sceptical about those who need to proclaim their probity. It certainly doesn't work well in politics. And since most people are not likely to follow the link to the code, I suspect a lot of readers are simply going to laugh: 'Oho, this bloke is ethical, is he? What is he, an activist? a vegetarian? With a green badge, no less!'
Bill Kirton said…
Yes, as you acknowledge, Mari, it's open to abuse and unscrupulous people will use it cynically in distinctly unethical ways. Nonetheless, I agree with you that it doesn't hurt to state one's principles and live by them to prove they're genuinely held.
Dennis Hamley said…
You're right, Lee, that's exactly how all too many people are going to react. Personally, I don't care. They are who they are, poor, sweaty, frustrated souls. I am who I am and I don't mind letting people know.
Jan Needle said…
wasn't it tony blair who told us 'i'm a pretty straight sorta guy.' sez it all for me.
I've read about this but I won't be going along with it. In fact I would go so far as to say I might be tempted to avoid anyone displaying an 'ethical author' badge! I'm deeply suspicious of such things and like Dennis, I don't care who they are or whether they behave badly as long as I like the work they produce. Some of the best poets and novelists I have known over the years have been very badly behaved in all kinds of ways. I once had to introduce two elderly poets reading on the same platform at a poetry festival. They clearly loathed each other and showed it, so much so that I thought I might have to referee a boxing match at some point. Our very own Hugh MacDiarmid was legendary in his ability to start feuds. I can only begin to imagine what he would have done with the internet available to him! Didn't stop him from being a very fine poet though.
Lydia Bennet said…
I've looked at the code now. first I agree that those who don't display it might look bad and those who do might be cynical sock-puppeteers. Secondly, I'm not happy with all of those things in the Code. they could be interpreted in ways which might make it very hard to stick to them even while acting ethically. For example, many of us use false names on Amazon for privacy reasons, not pen names - and we might well criticise another author's books, as a reader, as we have every right to. They might be a stranger to us and a best seller, we surely don't have to be 'transparent' and find a way to contact them and let them know we are giving them an honest but less than ecstatic review. . We don't all know each other. also if one is attacked, the first clauses make it pretty hard to defend oneself. If someone clocks me over the head with a bottle, or accuses me of plagiarism or some such, damn right I'll 'complain' online and in the media! I tend to overthink things like this but wouldn't want to sign up to something which proves to be unrealistic in some parts. people who think it will help their sales will display the badge, without even reading the code, as it's not enforceable. most of this bad behaviour and sock puppeteering has been by trad pub authors anyway, some millionaires. so I take your point Mari, but I'm not convinced by this at first look.
Dennis Hamley said…
Catherine, there is a marvellous scene in Jan Mark's only novel for adults, Zeno Was Here, where two poets who loathe each other are performing at the same reading.
They have a habit of doing it, Dennis! Must look for the novel.
Nick Green said…
All my authorial ideas are already ethical, organic and free range. In fact, these days they tend to be so free range that I can't bloody catch 'em.
Lee said…
Catherine, spot on about good work/bad behaviour. But this touches on a somewhat different but related issue which recently made me uncomfortable: the decision by many SF/F fans not to purchase or read books by Marion Zimmer Bradley after her daughter accused her of abuse.
glitter noir said…
No easy answers to this one. Fewer people these days will be watching Bill Cosby reruns. But how many TV perfect fathers have turned out to be less than saintly? I'm with Catherine about not wanting to wear any badge. But I want to avoid becoming cavalier about really rotten behavior, excusing it as something that's part and parcel of writing. I'll keep reading books by rummies, lechers and bad-tempered sons of bitches--but not by award scavengers or sock puppeteers.
Mari Biella said…
Thanks for the thought-provoking replies, everyone - it's interesting to hear what people think about this. You make a good point, Jan, and I'd hate to think that we would ever get to a point where an author might be prejudged to be unethical simply because they hadn't adopted a certain code or downloaded a badge.

I think the important distinction here is that, if you do sign up to the code, you are not claiming to be outstandingly moral in general terms. (I certainly don't think I am, and am not claiming to be.) It's simply a commitment to respect certain standards as an author. I certainly understand and appreciate people's concerns about the initiative, but I like to think it might be a step in the right direction. And it's got people talking, which is a good thing! :-)
Mari, you're right - it's always good to talk about these things. But something else just occurred to me when I was thinking about this today. I doubt if any traditional publisher, even a small one, will use this badge. It's an 'ethical author' badge, not an ethical publisher badge. When I write I'm an author. When I publish, I wear a different, and much more businesslike hat. Personally, I don't care whether a book is trad or indie published - I buy something if it looks interesting, or if I've downloaded a sample and enjoyed it. Amazon doesn't distinguish, doesn't herd self published books into a different part of their site (although I know some traditionalists would like it if that were the case!) I publish under the 'Wordarts' label and I doubt if the casual reader knows or cares that some of my books are indie and some are trad published by two other small publishers. But it would bother me that this 'ethical' badge would definitely flag some of these books up as being self published. It seems to me as though using it means that people are looking for an alternative means of validation and I'm not sure about that at all. It makes me uncomfortable.

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