Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Competition, Character, Ethics and Self-Publishing

My "real job" is that of high school history teacher and basketball coach. It would be an accurate assessment to say I have a competitive personality. I spend a lot of time thinking about competition, the nature of competition and the value of competition. I have also seen a lot of the negative aspects of competition during my career as a player and coach.

One of my favorite adages is about competition and simply states, "Competition does not build character. Competition reveals it." How does this truism fit with competitive interscholastic athletics and the so-called value of sports in schools? If an individual does not know his or her true character, how can the individual recognize, admit and correct character flaws? Quite simply, competition is a filter that can help us remove the undesirable and unwanted aspects of our character.

One of the best "tools" I was taught as a player and shared with all of my players is the simple idea of making the right choice before you are confronted with the need to make a decision. It is much easier to say "no" to a bad choice under pressure if the choice to say "no" has already been made. If you are aware of a character flaw that will make you susceptible to making the wrong choice, it is very helpful to be aware of that flaw. It now becomes more important to make the correct choice in advance and is often easier to do so as a result of foreknowledge of the character flaw.

What does the aforementioned have to do with self-publishing? I spend a great deal of my time trying to learn as much as possible about self-publishing, how the industry works, the technical aspects of the industry, who the leaders are and how to make my tiny self-publishing empire profitable. Another of the truisms I was taught by my college coach is if you have a gift or knowledge, if you keep it to yourself, you will lose it. If you share it or give it away, you will have it forever. Thus, the desire on my part to write this blog and share what I learn to others who have a similar desire to learn about self-publishing.

One of the things I have learned, and truly wish there was more information available, is a code of ethics exists in the field of self-publishing. Copyright laws are a legal basis for much of what is acceptable in publishing. You cannot steal the work of others, nor can you commit libel,  not  pay your bills, cheat customers or not honor contracts.

I don't confuse legality with ethics though. Ethics, in my world view, has more to do with making morally correct choices than the law can or ever will. Competition, the desire to have your book do well, to make more money, to garner more recognition than other books or to surpass a standard you have set for yourself, can reveal a character flaw.

What has prompted this essay today? I was rereading old e-mails while cleaning out my inbox and I came across a series of e-mails between industry leader Aaron Shepard and myself. The topic was over marketing practices and what was ethical and unethical in utilizing the many features available on Amazon for authors to market and promote books. As a neophyte in the industry, I discovered to my horror I had engaged in a marketing practice that was questionable. I had done so at the "advice" of another individual who has status as an expert in Amazon book marketing. In my desire to get my fledgling self-publishing empire off the ground, I had made a questionable decision.

After spending hours of deleting even more hours of work on my part, I am still not sure if I have completely cleaned up my error. Simply put, I had written book reviews of the many history and coaching books I had read and collected over the years and inserted a product link back to one of my books. 

Competition it would seem, had revealed a flaw in my young character as a self-publisher. I tried to rectify it and I certainly have not engaged in the questionable practice since discovering the error of my ways.

Since the helpful e-mail discussion between the two of us, Mr. Shepard has since included a section on this very topic in his updated version of Aiming at Amazon. Mr. Shepard points out, and correctly so, that many otherwise ethical people will do things on the internet they would never do otherwise.

Since public credibility is important to every self-publisher in the industry, it is incumbent on each author to engage in the highest level of ethical decision making possible. The more ethical as a group we all behave as we compete with one another in the industry, the more trust we will have in the eyes of our readers, who are after all, also our customers. Trust is one of the key factors in a customers decision to make a purchase.

I am certainly not pointing fingers at anyone and certainly do not claim to be perfect, but I have written this blog post in hopes that whoever reads it will stop and think a bit about the entire process of ethical decision making. None of us are perfect, nor can we hope to be, but we can do our best to make the right decisions, in advance and when confronted with a choice.


  1. I agree with you, Kevin. I did the same thing at the beginning, because I reas Brendt Sampson's book, and that was his advice. I advocated something similar in my self-poublishing "how-to" book and I will remove it if I ever do an second edition. I don't think that it is unethical to insert a link to your own book in a review, but it has the tendency to look tacky, and I've had legitimate book reviews marked as "unhelpful" because of it. Some readers even left comments like, "this is tacky" after the review, which shows how well such a practice is accepted by the buying public, ie-- it's not.

  2. I think the ethical issue per se is one of trust. What was my motivation to write the review? To hawk my book or to provide a legitimate review?

    While the field of self-publishing is becoming more accepted, it still has a ways to go and it is up to every self-publishing author to help each other and the industry improve its public image.

    Was it a horrible ethical violation? No. But tacky, in hindsight, yes. Did it help me sell any books? Probably not. Did it help self-publishing as an industry? Again, probably not.

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. I see nothing unethical or even tacky with a reviewer linking to a book _if_ it's in a related field. It should be a sign of credibility and authority, much like a "PhD" or "MBA" after a name.

    Additionally, it could be argued that a reviewer is providing a service to the reading public, and may be entitled to a low-key plug for her own book as "payment."

    And, if the linked book is in a related field, the reviewer may be providing a useful service by pointing out a source of additional relevant information.

    OTOH, if someone writes a review of a book about decorative potato slicing, he should not provide a link to his book on squirrel catching.

    I will now insert my name and a few plugs:

    Michael N. Marcus
    -- http://www.BookMakingBlog.blogspot.com
    -- http://www.Self-Pub.info
    -- Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series: http://www.silversandsbooks.com/booksaboutpublishing.html
    -- "Stories I'd Tell My Children (but maybe not until they're adults)," http://www.amazon.com/dp/0981661750

  4. I think we all which book told you to include a link back to your book. I did the same thing when I was new to the business. Like you, I had to clean up a huge mess I had made on Amazon.

    Michael makes a good point that you should only provide a link to your book in a review if it is relevant. My books on Spanish grammar would serve no purpose in a review of a book on self-publishing.

    I, however, have decided to play it safe and not include any links to my books. I don't even mention them in reviews on Amazon. I do provide links to my books, and many others, on my blog.

    Brandon Simpson

  5. Thanks for sharing your experiences on this subject. As a newly self-published author, I know the only one promoting my book right now is me. But, that creates temptations. You've just saved me from having to "undo" what I was thinking of doing.

    James Viser