The Week That Was: Ethics Are Not Just for Authors


ALLiEthicalAuthor_Badge-largeThe Ethical Author code was launched just over a week ago at The Bookseller’s FutureBook Conference by Orna Ross, founder and director of The Alliance of Independent Authors. Ross introduced the new initiative during a special Big Ideas panel presentation and discussion. The Ethical Author code is something any author can sign up to regardless of what route the author pursues to publish. It is essentially a personal commitment by the author to adopt a code of ethical practice when conducting business and interacting with reviewers, readers and fellow authors. You can find out a lot more on the Ethical Author code by visiting this page on the ALLi website. Here is one snippet from Ross speaking at the FutureBook Conference.

As publishers, we serve the writing. And as authors, we serve the reader. Ethical Author is a programme for the reader, directed at authors, and perhaps to you, too, as publishers.


Ethics & Balance

What struck me most over the past week or so is how much the theme of ethics has come up here on The Independent Publishing Magazine, but also elsewhere for those covering all areas of the publishing industry. On November 18th The Bookseller highlighted the launch of a campaign by Amazon Anonymous to encourage people to boycott Amazon during the Christmas shopping period. The Amazon Anonymous group has been campaigning for some time over the employment rates paid by Amazon to some of its warehouse workers and also the amount of tax it pays to governments. Essentially the online retailer’s employment ethics are under scrutiny. The Bookseller piece resulted in a frank and at times testy exchange between Editor Philip Jones, David Gaughran, Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler. Gaughran had initially challenged The Bookseller (and other publishing media bodies) for being anti-Amazon and not exercising journalistic balance. Yes, the same criticism could be aimed at the New York Times for its abundant bias coverage of Amazon, so much so that even Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor of the paper, delivered a stunning rebuke of reporter David Streitfeld’s pieces. But the NYT is a populist newspaper, and I expect just a little more objectivity from a magazine aimed at the publishing trade.


Hachette, Amazon & Authors United

Hachette Book Group and Amazon reached an amicable deal two weeks ago, which both parties expressed happiness with, but Douglas Preston of Authors United is keen to remind any media body who will listen to him that his cheerleading War on Amazon is not over. He and the Authors United signatories of a petition intend to pursue their campaign to urge the US Justice Department to investigate Amazon on antitrust grounds. So, further questions about the ethics at play when it comes to Amazon. The Bookseller reported the latest news about Authors United’s campaign last Thursday, including copious quotes from a letter Preston wrote to authors who signed the petition. So often when I read pieces by news outlets covering the publishing trade and particularly the Amazon and Hachette dispute, much of the back-story is often omitted, primarily the fact that big publishers were found to have colluded together to keep e-book prices high by the United States Department of Justice.



As part of Porter Anderson’s Friday FutureBook Chat, hosted on Twitter, Anderson asked an important question to kick off Friday’s debate:

One of the issues with ethics is that we don’t identify or react on ethical issues unless they impact on us personally or through business. People don’t respond to reports of poor ethical practices or feel inclined to act until they are directly affected.

It’s easy to sing the praises and virtues of an author, a reviewer, a publisher, a publishing service or a retailer, but it’s not until the moment you feel harmed that you feel the need to have your voice heard.

There are millions of starving people in the world, but that doesn’t mean we all feel affected by it or feel proactively motivated to do something about it unless an event or experience connects with our emotions. Then, and only then, do we act.

I commend Amazon Anonymous for actively campaigning to raise awareness about low employment rates. I just don’t understand why they — and others — focus on Amazon when many global companies pay below minimum wages or evade paying their fair rate of taxes by exploiting loopholes in law. The publishing industry has a history of outsourcing printing to companies in the Far East and we don’t often question the rates of pay for factory workers in these regions.

I commend Douglas Preston for his impassioned defence of authors and his publisher Hachette (even when he claims not to be bias). I just believe his views on publishers, retailers and how large businesses work are ill-informed and not representative of many authors he seems to think he speaks for. Until Preston accepts that books are primarily products to most distributors and retailers, I don’t think anything is going to change his viewpoint.


Author Solutions & Penguin

On Wednesday Author Solutions announced that MeGustaEscribir, a Spanish language writers’ network which began in 2008 from Random House’s then-Spanish publishing division, is being relaunched on November 25th as a self-publishing platform and it will be powered by Author Solutions. Notice the linked press release above: it doesn’t state Author Solutions launches… It states, Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial Launches Spanish Supported Self-Publishing Platform — powered by Author Solutions. This isn’t the first time Author Solutions has dipped its toes into the Spanish language self-publishing services market. In 2010 it launched Palibrio, but MeGustaEscribir — since Pearson bought Author Solutions in July 2012 and secreted it into the Penguin Book Group and appointed former Penguin International President (New Delhi), Andrew Phillips — is a clear indication of Penguin’s integration of Author Solutions into its traditional business. But more to the point, it’s a clear sign that Penguin Random House (PRH) intends to exploit the opportunities in self-publishing services across Asia and other non-USA markets. Since the purchase of Author Solutions, PRH has turned its emblematic penguin into a partridge and launched three Author Solutions-powered self-publishing imprints with Partridge India, Partridge Singapore, Partridge Africa, and Partridge in a Pear-Tree. Okay, so I made that last one up, but I think you get my point!

David Gaughran announced the news about MeGustaEscribir on his blog, Let’s Get Digital, remarking (my bold):

MeGustaEscribir goes one step beyond, firmly embracing an unethical practice which had been consigned to the dustbin of publishing history: reading fees.

Heavily touted on the MeGustaEscribir site is the Recognition Program – where customers will be recommended for review by an editor from Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial (that link is in Spanish, but Google Translate does a mostly reasonable job of getting the gist across).

Here’s the really shocking part. Consideration by a Penguin Random House editor is contingent on writers undergoing an Editorial Evaluation Report by MeGustaEscribir. The only publishing packages which contain this Evaluation Report are priced at 2,899 Euro (approx $3,600) and 3,999 Euro (approx $4,970).

Author Solutions always amazes me with new and shittier ways to screw writers, but I’m genuinely surprised that Penguin Random House is pimping out its own editors to gouge thousands of dollars in reading fees from newbie writers.

Gaughran feels we have reached a particular ethical low with this one. It reminded me of the W. Clement Stone quote:

Be careful the environment you choose for it will shape you; be careful the friends you choose for you will become like them.

For several years self-publishing advocates and trusted industry watchdogs have warned and highlighted the appalling, predatory and deceptive services and practices of Author Solutions’ imprints — its own and those it runs for traditional publishers. The company is already the subject of a proposed class action lawsuit taken by three authors currently in the hands of the New York Courts. Penguin, named as a co-defendant originally in the case, had all charges against it dismissed earlier this year. Judge Denise Cote believed Penguin had no case to answer. Many of us acting as watchdogs in the publishing community — perhaps foolishly — hoped and even believed that Penguin would go some way to improving the practices of Author Solutions. If anything, releasing Penguin from the lawsuit was nothing more than a green light for business as usual.


Nook Press

When Nook Press announced a new POD (print-on-demand) option for authors this month (and a series of publishing packages), amid suspicions some of the packaged services bore similarities with the services offered by Author Solutions, Nook Media (and owners Barnes & Noble) chose not to respond to speculation Author Solutions was the third-party company powering the services. One of the most important things any company needs to do beyond providing good products and services is to be transparent and prove it can and does behave ethically. When your company is linked to another company with less than pristine ethical record, it tends to be a good idea to directly refute talk of any connections with it. That is, if the connection doesn’t actually exist. So far, all that can be heard is the sound of tumbleweeds.


Doing the right thing!

The ethical thing to do in light of the speculation would be for Nook Media or Barnes & Noble to publicly state if there is a third-party agreement with Author Solutions.

Ethics only have value when they are embraced and practiced, rather than just proclaimed, whether you are a publisher or an author.

The ALLi Ethical Author initiative is not only about displaying or wearing a badge of honour, but about demonstrating and promoting those ethics industry-wide.

The role of any news organisation — whether its focus is the publishing industry or general news — is not just about reporting the news. It means verifying it, testing it and investigating it. To do that, it means a media organisation cannot drive reportage of singular issues underpinned solely by editorial opinion.

In a week when the theme of ethics ran through so many publishing news stories, yet again it was authors who stepped up to the plate to remind the industry as a whole that it has a fundamental role to play. Without knowing what its code of ethics is or should be, we may as well all be pissing up against a wall.



  1. Dan Holloway said:

    “One of the issues with ethics is that we don’t identify or react on ethical issues unless they impact on us personally or through business. People don’t respond to reports of poor ethical practices or feel inclined to act until they are directly affected.”

    Really? Personally, I would say if we only identify ethics when we are personally affected then it’s not ethics we’re identifying. Ethical principles are strong only when they do not act to benefit us, and strongest of all when they act to our detriment. Perhaps that may be part of the problem – maybe this code doesn’t go far enough. I would have liked a reference, for example, not just to financial probity but a guarantee from all authors who seek a fair commercial rate for their work that they pay a fair commercial rate for the work of others (the plagiarism pledge is somewhat weak as well).
    In all, though, I think it’s a very good set of operating principles, one I don’t think anyone would struggle to get behind. And that may, as I say, be the problem. It may be too conciliatory. A rallying cry that is to gain real attention needs to be taking a stand. But unless we finger specific practices that are known to be rife and saying, “not here” then we can’t really take a stand. There are allusions to the fact that things might be wrong in these pledges, but headline-grabbing would require “this happens all the time. I’m saying enough. Not with me it won’t” – and there’s none of that. And perhaps, in the interests of a wide movement like ALLi, that’s a good thing.
    What I think we should be trumpeting more is the header of the whole piece “putting the reader first” – if you remember back to my London Book Fair talk, that was the central tenet. And it *is* controversial, because most self-publishing writers I know put writers first. And they shouldn’t. So maybe we can grab headlines in a good way. Maybe this can be about more than marketing. Maybe it can be about always putting the reader first, even when it is at our own expense. There’s a kernel of that here, and that really is something to be applauded

  2. Birgitte Rasine said:

    “Until Preston accepts that books are primarily products to most distributors and retailers, I don’t think anything is going to change his viewpoint.”

    From the standpoint of distributors and retailers, yes, books are products just like any other offerings of theirs are products. But for authors (and editors, many publishers, and dare I say, readers), books are much, much more than that, and that I believe is Preston’s point. A book is often the culmination of years of work and possibly centuries’ worth of thinking. Books are the expression of a writer’s soul the way paintings express the soul of a painter or songs the soul of a musician. The end product is easily commoditized: books, paintings, music. But that does not negate the fact that these works are still works of art. (Yes, “art” might be a matter of subjective opinion but that’s another conversation!)

    I’ve followed the debate on both sides of the Hachette-Amazon fence. What strikes me is that there is a fence at all. Why not accept the fact that a book can be a literary work, a work of art, and a product at the same time? Is not my decision as a reader to purchase a specific book evocative of my appreciation of the art of writing just as it reflects other aspects of my role and purpose within the publishing ecosystem? In my opinion any party that discounts any given angle of this richer, more complex definition of a “book” stands to miss an important part of the total conversation.

    • Mick Rooney said:

      Thanks Birgitte for the thoughtful comment. I do understand Preston’s point about books being a part of our culture and works of art, and I’m not knocking him for reminding us all of that. But beauty and purpose is in the eye of the beholder. Not every reader buys a book to appreciate the art of writing – in fact, more often, it’s for the purpose of gaining information or insight. From the moment a writer’s work is shared, it becomes less a piece of art – for art’s sake – and more a reproduced and traded commodity. In essence, that’s what publishing *does* to a book. It evaluates, reproduces and delivers the manuscript to a wider audience in a more appealing and packaged form. I’m always uncomfortable with the comparison of published books to say paintings, because I think the experience is quite different. We identify with an original painting as a physical representation of the artist’s views and ideas, like looking through a window at a scene outside. We are conscious of the glass, but it doesn’t get in the way of our experience. A book is a simulation of the writer’s original manuscript, has passed through many hands, and it’s like having someone verbally describe the scene outside the window. We then recreate the scene and experience of the writer.

      I think where I disagree with Preston is his idea or belief that publishers – not books – are the cornerstone of literary culture. And that without publishers, the whole eco-system would collapse. That’s a concept I might have agreed with 50 or 60 years ago, but not now. Publishers are now more facilitators and arbitrators (middlemen if you like), than cultivators. The truth is over the past few decades publishers have shipped the most crucial aspects of what made them publishers in the traditional sense externally – to agents, to retailers and distributors. What publishers actually do now, practically, is what any author or book packager can administer and manage on their own.

      Granted, we still do have small and independent presses who adhere to the older ideals of what we understand publishers to be, but they are quickly getting squeezed, just like independent booksellers.

      • Birgitte Rasine said:


        What you say about books and subjectivity is absolutely true—and non fiction is quite different from fiction in that regard. It’s one reason why I’ve made sure that my most personal works are not changed by multiple editors, but instead remain true to their original essence and meaning. And why I’ve published those works through my company’s own imprint.

        As you, I would also respectfully disagree that publishers are the cornerstone of literary culture. Assuming an author can learn or effectively delegate the tasks of design, layout, editing, production, printing and other aspects of publishing, in fact s/he becomes the publisher. The publishing ecosystem is not collapsing, nor will it. It’s evolving. And like change tends to do, it can scare and threaten—or we can welcome that change with open arms, and very open eyes.

  3. David Gaughran said:

    This. Exactly this.

    “I commend Amazon Anonymous for actively campaigning to raise awareness about low employment rates. I just don’t understand why they — and others — focus on Amazon when many global companies pay below minimum wages or evade paying their fair rate of taxes by exploiting loopholes in law. The publishing industry has a history of outsourcing printing to companies in the Far East and we don’t often question the rates of pay for factory workers in these regions.”

    If Amazon Anonymous was campaigning for an increase in the minimum wage, I would sign it in two seconds flat. The strange thing about all this is that Amazon pays it’s warehouse workers relatively well (key word there is “relatively”). Comparable jobs often pay quite a bit less, and we shouldn’t ignore the fact that Amazon is providing employment in some economically disadvantaged parts of the country during a major recession.

    And it’s also hypocritical of this protest (and those giving it uncritical coverage) not to note that publishing has its own pay issues – and those jobs are usually based in London, with the attendant crazy rents and high living costs.

    I think they all should be paid more, but targeting Amazon is weird… unless there is another agenda here.

    • Mick Rooney said:

      … and we haven’t even touched upon the shit-can of worms when it comes to internships, so often the flag of career opportunity waved by London and New York-based publishing houses, and so many self-publishing service companies. “Start your career in publishing. We’ll pay your lunch money and you will feel so good about yourself when you tell your friends you helped format and edit the latest New York Times bestselling e-book, even though you got paid nothing and hadn’t a clue what you were doing.”

      *Tales From the New York Publishing Water Cooler* but I guess that’s another day, and another post!