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.

 

Ethics

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 megustaescribir.com — 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.

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