Jane Steen, a member of the Facebook group, 10 Minute Novelists, shares with us today about good practices and ethical behavior for writers. This is an important issue for everyone who has published either traditionally or independently. Please read and consider carefully Jane’s thoughtful suggestions on ethics for authors.
A short history of how I came to draft the Ethical Author Code
It started with a Facebook conversation between authors. Someone suggested a visibility tactic that involved, I think, upvoting your own book on a site. I can’t remember the specifics. But I do remember writing, “I don’t think that’s ethical.”
Up to that point, I hadn’t seen the word “ethics” used much in online places frequented by writers. Which isn’t to say that people weren’t being ethical.
Most authors behave ethically as a result of innate honesty or from a good upbringing. Many have a grounding in business ethics gained from years in the workplace.
And yet we all know there are rotten apples in the barrel. As an avid reader and reviewer who spends far too much time on Goodreads, I’m perhaps more aware than most authors of the damage unethical behavior does.
The activities of an unscrupulous minority have harmed the reputation of authors as a group, and self-published authors in particular. Book bloggers and top reviewers—the very people whom authors most wish to befriend—are extremely sensitive to breaches of ethics and etiquette, and their standards are high.
Very high. I’ve learned to see through their eyes, and I knew that readers perceived the tactic proposed in that Facebook conversation as spammy and unethical. So I spoke up.
A lively discussion ensued and I defended my position. I explained why authors owe it to themselves, to each other and, above all, to their readers to hold themselves to an ethical standard. As a result 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 marketing advice I was seeing in writer groups and, worse, the growing animosity shown by authors to readers who dared to criticize their books.
I hadn’t anticipated the amount of attention my post would get on Twitter. I hadn’t expected the sudden eruption of YA novelist Kathleen Hale into book blogger infamy with her gleeful doxxing*—on a major website—of a reviewer who’d given her novel one star on Goodreads. I hadn’t foreseen the British case of a novelist who slugged his reviewer on the back of the head with a wine bottle, leaving her with concussion and stitches.
Within a month of my original blog post I’d been asked to draft an Ethical Author Code—which, let me tell you, is easier said than done. But with the help of the ALLi leadership and others, the Code went up on the ALLi website in time for the FutureBook conference in London. There ALLi’s Orna Ross announced it as a Big Idea that might help shape the future of the publishing industry. Blimey.
The Ethical Author Code isn’t just for self-publishers, by the way.
It’s for “any writer who has published a long-form work of fiction or non-fiction, either via a trade publisher or self-publishing platform.”
Because personal responsibility doesn’t stop when you sign a publishing contract.
The four major objections to the idea of an Ethical Author Code
As you can imagine, I’ve participated in a few discussions about ethics since then. I think I’ve identified the four major areas of pushback against the notion of an Ethical Author Code. Each point has its variants, but they go roughly like this:
- How can we enforce the Code? And if we can’t enforce it, what’s the point of having it?
- Why do we need a code or badge to show people we’re ethical? Shouldn’t they judge us by our actions?
- This has all been done before, and failed. Stop flogging a dead horse.
- Big Publishing employs all kinds of unethical business practices, and nobody objects to those. Why should individual authors be held to a standard that the corporations don’t keep?
These all seem like pretty compelling arguments for sitting on our hands and doing nothing. In this individualistic world, people are uncomfortable with the idea of being told what to do, and it’s that sense of discomfort that runs through all the objections I’ve encountered.
I’m here to argue that we authors are the ones who hold the power to mend the breaks the book world has suffered as a result of the unethical behavior of a minority. And I believe we can do it with as much flexibility and freedom as we all feel we need, given how different every author’s experience of publishing is these days.
I want to take the negatives of each of these objections and turn them around. I’d like to empower authors to encourage each other to a high standard of professional behavior, in the same way that we encourage each other to improve our writing craft and output.
1. A code of ethics isn’t about enforcement—it’s about personal responsibility
The point of having an Ethical Author Code isn’t to create some kind of ethics police. I’m not—never have been—interested in criticizing what other people do, and I don’t think you should be either. If you come across unethical behavior that infringes the terms of service of the website where it occurs, by all means report it or flag it or do whatever’s necessary, and then get on with your day. Finding a procedural way to deal with unethical behavior is vastly preferable to expressing your outrage on your blog or on social media, even if you’re offended because the host site doesn’t seem to be dealing with your complaint fast enough. (Believe me, if enough people complain, they will eventually take action).
The Ethical Author Code isn’t about other people—it’s about you. It’s about your commitment to being a true professional, one who employs ethics and etiquette as part of her author’s toolbox. I’ve been hugely encouraged to see authors referring to the Code when asking others for their opinion about a marketing ploy they’re thinking of using. It means they’re concerned about the long-term consequences of their actions. It’s that kind of long-term thinking that distinguishes the author who’ll go on to have a long and successful career as a beloved member of the book-loving community. Isn’t that what we all aspire to?
One variant of the unenforceability argument is the claim that if authors are to adopt an ethical code, so should, say, reviewers. How come they’re allowed to be vulgar and abrasive and offensive in their reviews, and we’re just supposed to turn the other cheek? Well, this is an area where we just have to take it on trust: taking responsibility for ourselves, rather than existing in a permanent state of outrage about other people, is the best policy for the long term. Somebody’s got to be the grownup, and since we’re the ones asking people to pay us to write, that’s us. Again, it’s about you, dear author, taking the decision to be the most professional You that you can be.
2. Think of the Code as a rallying point
I’ve noticed something about writers. They’re not joiners. Or maybe they’ve joined writers’ groups in the past and haven’t been comfortable with what they’ve found there. And if you’re already acting ethically, why should you have to tell people that? Won’t making a public declaration that you’re ethical make people suspect the opposite?
If that’s your objection, I’d ask you to think again. You already belong to a large group of people known to the public as Authors. The reading public make surprisingly few distinctions between the traditionally published and self-published, the avant-garde and the conservative, the professional and the sloppy. Authors—as a group—have a public image, and it’s not always a particularly professional one. What other people do is affecting you right now—it’s affecting your sales and your readers. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard avid readers say that they’re mostly reading books by authors who are no longer living and can’t throw a hissy fit about a negative review. Readers are no longer restricted to the books available in the library or the local bookstore—thanks to online shopping and e-readers, they have access to just about every book ever written.
And yet people are wired (somehow) to look up to writers in their communities. Perhaps it’s a halo effect that dates back to the days when our ancestors sat around a communal fire, breathlessly listening to the storyteller acting out tales of history and imagination. Perhaps there’s a sort of inbuilt assumption that those of us born with the gift of expressing ideas in fiction or otherwise are leaders, worthy of respect.
Go back to the Code and read it carefully. If you agree with its provisions—and if you’re like most authors, I’m sure you do—then think of making a public commitment to it as a rallying point, a way of showing your readers that you’re putting them first. It’ll take the efforts of a large number of authors over time to make an impact on the reading world, but I think we can do it.
3. A good idea should never be buried
I’m sure someone’s raised the notion of a code of ethics for authors before. All good ideas are perennial—each generation simply shapes them to fit their particular environment. And yet before writing the Code, I did an internet search on author ethics, and found—nothing. Whatever happened in the past didn’t stick around long enough, or didn’t quite have the right qualities to succeed. Or the timing wasn’t right. Ideas are like inventions—they need the right environment to flourish, and I believe we’ve got that environment now. Traditionally published authors know they have options they didn’t have before. Many self-publishers have grown from slightly unpolished beginners to consummate professionals. We’re closer to our readers than ever before, and promoting ethical behavior is a great way to show them we care about that relationship.
4. We’re leaders, not followers
The publishing world is changing fast. The largest publishers, of course, are the slowest to change, and that’s understandable. Over the years they developed a whole bunch of marketing tactics that worked because the market was much more concentrated in certain places (e.g. bookstores, print journals with review sections, bestseller lists.) They’re clinging to that older model because it still works up to a point.
It’s odd, though, that individual authors want to imitate those tactics, since they don’t have anything like the budget or the marketing staff the big publishers have. They often end up trying second-tier versions that veer close to unethical and often come across as spammy and offputting to savvy readers. Authors who are quietly achieving success in the new market conditions don’t use these tactics. The formula for long-term success is clear: write well, publish often, build your fanbase through the smart use of social media, and curate your backlist. There are a great many authors out there earning a living without even bothering about bestseller lists or co-op placements. They know that there aren’t any shortcuts—they work hard for what they get, they understand the business and they’re professional.
If you’re going to follow anyone, follow those authors. At the same time, the big publishing companies are coming under fire for some of those tried-and-trusted techniques. It’s possible that in ten years’ time many of those hallowed marketing strategies will be history. Using the practices of publishing corporations as an excuse to engage in unethical behavior is like building a house on quicksand–a poor long-term strategy for success.
I—and ALLi, which has been so instrumental in fanning the flames of the very small fire I lit back in August—see the Ethical Author Code as a win-win situation.
We’re looking for as many individual authors, readers, bloggers, writers’ organizations and publishing industry corporations as possible to express their agreement that ethics and etiquette are valuable tools for long-term success. As we near the end of the Gold Rush era of self-publishing and the traditional publishing world continues to change, I think we’ll find that the most successful authors are those who’ve learned to operate as highly professional creative entrepreneurs. And they don’t work in a vacuum—most successful authors are also well plugged into groups and organizations where they can motivate and support each other. They’re talking about best business practices, comparing notes on publishers, agents and service companies, and sharing tips for success. They’re starting to see publishers—large and small—as potential partners rather than as employers.
Above all, they’re aware of the responsibility that they shoulder when they expect readers to pay them to write books. The Ethical Author Code is, I hope, just the beginning of a discussion of the right way to do business. I’m hoping that in the not too distant future, books on business ethics and etiquette for authors will be on our shelves right next to the books on writing craft, or advice on book covers and marketing. In this maturing disrupted market, the keys to success will be quality and excellence in every aspect of a writer’s professional life. I’d love it if you could help me get the conversation going about the piece of the puzzle that’s been missing up till now.
Jane Steen is an historical fiction writer and lives in the Chicago area.
*doxxing or doxing is the online disclosure of information someone else would rather have kept private, such as her real name, address, phone number and so on.