The Ethics of Self-Publishing

Writers have been self-publishing for eons. Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, Beatrix Potter and Virginia Wolff—who partnered with her husband to form her own publishing company—come immediately to mind, giving self-publishing what should be a kind of positive caché. However, over the years, the image of self-publishing has, diminished in the eyes of many―the media, literary critics and even many readers are among those who often carry a negative prejudice toward self-published works and their authors. This bad reputation is not always unjustified. There are myriad ethical transgressions perpetrated by self-publishers every day. These are the activities and people who give everyone a bad name.

Historical novelist Jane Steen in her article, “Opinion: Why We Need to Talk About Ethics in Self-publishing,” suggested we should be concerned about ethics because “we owe it to our readers,” but perhaps even more importantly, “We owe it to ourselves. Our indie career is not just about the books we write. It’s about the person we are”[1] because improving the image of self-published works is essential to broader acceptance and, in the end, it has to be said, success as an author. 

My experience and observations suggest that a few key areas have contributed to negative perceptions and are ethical minefields for indie authors. Several of the issues relate specifically to book reviews.

Have you ever read five-star reviews of a book online only to find the book is nothing like the reviews had suggested? It is poorly written, poorly edited, and not worth your time or money. It is beyond irritating to buy a well-reviewed book only to find it riddled with stylistic errors (grammar, punctuation, sentence structure etc.) at a minimum and just plain awful at the worst. Some indie authors write these reviews for other indie authors to ensure glowing reviews for their own publications. This practice is dishonest and, therefore, unethical and is one of the most prominent reasons self-published works are considered sub-par.

It is equally ethically problematic when self-published authors ask family or friends to write flattering book reviews. It is reasonable to expect that a book review posted on
Amazon or any other online bookstore represents a form of objective third-party endorsement. Friends and family members, however, are biased one way or another and likely want you to succeed, so their reviews are not objective. This disingenuous practice is also unethical.

The third ethical problem with book reviews is the purchased review. Since the surge in self-published books, an entire industry has emerged. Writers can find thousands of review writers more than willing to write and post (for a fee, of course) glowing reviews. Indeed, this is not an ethical problem for only self-published authors. Traditionally published authors also use this disingenuous practice. Paying for a book review ensures a four to five-star review regardless of the book’s quality. That’s what the author is paying for. This is another dishonest practice that tarnishes the reputation of reputable self-publishers.

Another ethically dubious practice that is an increasingly common problem is flooding ebook stores with appallingly poor, ill-conceived ebooks. It seems everywhere an aspiring author looks, someone is telling him or her to write as many ebooks as possible as fast as possible to generate income. This practice is one of the most insidious ways the reputation of all self-published authors is dragged through the mud.

Finally, and this might be one of the most dishonest and poorly understood (by the general reading public at least) practices is this: the self-publisher’s overinflation of his or her talent and success. Every time someone sells themselves to me as “best-selling” or “award-winning,” I get out Mr. Google and have a look. In my view, this award should have been from a credible, well-known organization, and that bestseller should not be in a sub-genre of a sub-sub-genre on Amazon, the organization that puts bestseller icons on books even if they hit number one in a category so small that contains only five books.

It’s probably clear that most of the ethical problems self-publishers face are problems associated with book marketing. When money is involved, it’s tempting to put aside issues that seem small and unimportant in the short term. The problem with ignoring minor ethical issues is that they tend to coalesce and grow into big ones—ones that eventually ruin reputations.

Perhaps it’s time for a code of conduct for self-publishers—but that would only be useful if readers knew which writers adhered to it.

[An earlier version of this post appeared on]

[1] Why We Need to Talk About Ethics in Self-publishing


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s