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Friday, May 14, 2010

Self-publishing Lies and Myths: Deception and Unethical Practices

I've railed against this idea before in smaller form, but I wanted to address this particular self-publishing issue directly. A whole lot of self-publishers and the people that support them have been advocating the practice of creating individual "imprints" to market one's book. Sue Collier recently blogged about this very concept, albeit rather briefly, in response to another blogger's rejection of self-publishing. While I agree with Collier that self-publishing is a better route for non-fiction than fiction, I take issue with the "imprint" model that so many self-publishers have now begun to use, and for good reason:
In addition, if you self-publish properly—start up your own imprint, purchase your own block of ISBNs, and have the book well edited and well designed—as opposed to going the subsidy route (often incorrectly called “self-publishing”), reviewers should have no idea you are self-published. Your book is simply a title from a new independent publisher. And there is no stigma there.
The problem with this very idea is actually its goal: "reviewers should have no idea you are self-published." That, obviously, extends to consumers of all stripes, and the practice is woefully unethical. The idea that a self-published author should go the extra step to essentially trick the consumer on the foundational level into thinking that a particular book was published by a real publisher is nothing short of deceptive. Why?

Of all of the self-published authors I have seen doing this, none of them are open about the fact that they are self-published. They play the "I'm published just like *insert NYT bestelling author here*" role, despite having done nothing remotely similar. Some of them even lie when confronted about it, so desperate to keep up appearances that they won't even admit the lie when all the facts are laid out in front of them (I'm looking at you zombie lady, whose "publisher" has a website made by her husband and thinks I'm too stupid to put two and two together).

The problem with pretending to be traditionally published is that it is disingenuous. People who do this are not traditionally published. Yes, they might have produced a good piece of fiction in a nice exterior package, but they did not submit the manuscript to a publisher or an agent or go through any of the numerous processes involved in traditional publishing. Nobody sat with the manuscript and decided it deserved to be in print. Consumers are not always aware of the processes, but they do know that there is a difference between traditionally published and self-published, even if they don't always get those differences correct. Most consumers would avoid a self-published book, perhaps to the detriment of an author who actually produced something of value. But that's part of the game.

Misrepresenting what you are is quite literally a deceptive act. I would liken this to putting a science fiction book in a romance novel package. When a customer buys that book, they expect a romance novel, not a science fiction one. It's one thing to create a nice product, but it's another to pretend that that product is something it is not. I would even go as far as to say this is no different than lying directly to the consumer, and consumers really don't like to be lied to (as we've seen before with authors who have lied, such as that fellow that Oprah endorsed, and Sarah Palin--although, perhaps people liked Palin's lies due to the hilarity they created). As far as unethical business practices go, this is one step from the top of my list--right below flat-out lying by self-publishers to authors about self-publishing and by companies who do the same. Publishers publish other people; self-publishers publish themselves. It's a simple distinction.

The solution to this practice is perhaps not as radical as one might think after reading all of the above. Creating an imprint is entirely plausible, if done right. I think the best way to do it without reaching into the unethical/deceptive spaces is to create an imprint that is your name. Consumers are smart enough to put two and two together. But, I doubt anyone will buy into that solution. There's so much fear over the legitimate stigma attached to self-publishing that, for some, being deceptive and lying is much easier than trying to battle for respectability--stealing it is quicker and less painful.

What this has all taught me is to be very cautious about the books I buy. If I've never heard of a publisher, I look them up, and dig. I do this because I don't appreciate being lied to or deceived. Ever. It's a pain in my backside, but I'm not willing to throw my money on something unless I know who the publisher is and that said publisher is legitimate. Self-publishing can make purchases of books a risk to the consumer, and I know a lot of people, right now and in the past, who don't like to risk their money. And nobody wants to risk their money on something that was presented to them as a lie.

Thoughts? Let me know in the comments.

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  1. The whole practice of "reviewers should have no idea you are self-published" smacks of bottom-feeding, scam artist thinkery.

    First of all - if you're going to do your own imprint, then, for better or worse, you're a "publisher" and if you are a publisher, you should be concentrating on the bottom line (profit) - which most likely means you'll be bouncing your own submissions. (I'd venture to guess the odds are 90 to 10 that the reason you've chosen to become your own publisher is the mounting pile of rejection slips. Sitting in that 'must make a profit' seat sure changes perspective, don't it?)

    The main point I wanted to make is this: does Sue Collier think that reviewers are idiots? When I review something, I check to see who the publisher is - and I do even MORE checking when it is an unfamiliar imprint. MORE checking, not less. This more checking usually brings me to the (poorly conceived) imprint web site that features the (poorly conceived) faked blurbs and marketing hype, clip-art covers and (poorly conceived) links to other 'fake' imprints that are desperately trying to transmit legitimacy to me.
    There is none. No legitimacy that is. These supposed marketing ploys are as transparent as someone hopping a turnstyle in an empty subway station. No one (except perhaps for other vanity press - excuse me - self-published hypesters) is fooled.
    And you know what else? Attempting to fool me in this manner just really pisses me off. I have a no self-published (fiction) reviews policy and when someone tries to circumvent it, I get so mad I'm tempted to forego the policy so I can tell everyone how awful and desperate the book and the author are. (Translation - engaging in this kind of asshattery can only guarantee you a bad review.)

  2. Crotchety: You and I both find this to be a detestable practice, then. I get just as pissed off as you do by it, even more so when I confront such people about it and am then lied to.

    To be fair, though, I wouldn't agree that the majority of these folks were rejected. I think self-publishing has marketed itself so well in the last few years, largely through lies and misrepresentation about itself and traditional publishing, that many people are heading there as the first stage instead of doing actual market research.

    Other than that, we're on the same page. I don't take SPed books either. Maybe we should start a Self-published Book Challenge where we're sent SPed books that people think are good, we read them, and if we get enough good ones, we'll admit defeat...if not, well, then we'll just post some really nasty reviews all over the Internet.

  3. Well, I did stick the "fiction" designation in there. I've self-published non-fiction for niche markets and have done so successfully (if we base success on sales and reviews). But I didn't start my own imprint to do so, and I certainly didn't put fake blurbs on the back (my favorite SP book did just that - took real author's comments out of context and published them as review recommendation blurbs...)

    I'll probably remain completely old school: if you have not been published through a third-party vetting system (editors/publishing houses), all you are doing is playing with yourself in public.

    I believe that the distinction needs to be there and should remain there. I believe that there may be ('may' is stressed) some good works produced and even success in the vanity press world, but it is a different world than traditional publishing and should not be placed alongside traditional publishing. (Like, the desparate self-publisher who now wants to appear on panels at cons: ummm - no. Go get a table in the dealers room.)

    What self-pubbing comes down to in my mind is - line cheaters. That's all that it is, someone pushing into line ahead of all of the folks who have been patiently waiting, or the guy that sneaks 20 items into line at the express check out. I may have to put up with it, but I don't have to like it and I certainly am not going to believe that person enjoys high morale standards in anything else they do.

    I also think it illustrates the loss of 'pride' going on in our societies. Most of us (used to be) capable of recognizing that the gold star on the refrigerator door had meaning and signifigance within our own households, but wasn't something that rose to the level of justifying a national broadcast. These days, folks will write and publish a book about it and then wonder why they aren't on Oprah's picks list. It's this sense of entitlement culture seeping over into the arts.

    I'm entitled to be a famous author. Yeah, well, years ago having that thought was at least mitigated by an inability to act on it. These days, not so much. (Think about the toddler mentality at work here: I want to be an author, no one buys my stuff, I'll print it myself - yay! I'm an author. Six year olds. Our society is inhabited and influenced by a bunch of siz year olds who have not learned the difference between desire and ability, and probably never will.)

    Could easily go off on a rant about enabling technologies at this point, but I'll satisfy myself with one last question:

    Was it really progress when cash registers no longer required the operator to be able to read and do simple math? Or did it simply kick the can of our issues with illiteracy further on down the road?

    When will we see the first self-published novel by someone who literally can't read and write? Or have we already seen it?

  4. I've actually never seen fake blurbs. That's a new kind of low. Well, almost a new kind of low. We've seen faked images by that Stanek guy where he photoshopped himself next to Brian Jacques...but fake blurbs. Wow. I shouldn't be surprised by that.

    I think my biggest problem with self-publishing as an industry is that is proponents are completely unwilling to do three things:
    1. Actively condemn those who engage in unethical practices, such as creating imprints and lying to consumers, faking blurbs, and so on. They refuse to do this. They'll rail against the scam publishers like AuthorHouse and so on, but they won't nail their own people.

    2. Be honest about the realities of self-publishing (the harsh ones).

    3. Be honest about the realities of traditional publishing. They like to lie. A lot.

    4. Create some sort of system that acts as a gatekeeper for the consumer so they can know which books are "of quality" and which are absolute drivel. I've suggested it to some of them. They refuse to see it as both viable and important to making self-publishing more respectable.

    I do agree with you that some aspect of entitlement exists in the SP world. I don't think it's as prevalent as you argue, but it's there for sure.

    As for the illiterate SPed book: we've already seen it and I have already reviewed it.

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  6. Great post! We work with a lot of self-published authors and I have to say we have never dealt with anyone who has tried to hide the fact that they are self-published.

    There are many reasons authors choose to be self-published; some we've worked with have never submitted their book to traditional publishers because they sought to control the entire process - including the book's release date - something that they could not achieve through traditional publishing.

    We have also worked with many authors who have created their own imprints and self published their book(s). This can work particularly well for nonfiction authors who are experts in their topic, and their imprint is yet another way they can brand themselves.

    You are completely right about transparency, however, and any author or publisher who isn't up front about who they are deserves to be outed.

  7. You're the first person who works with SPed authors to ever admit that. The problem is that most self-publishers are not upfront about it. You have to dig, or feel like a jerk when you have to ask.

  8. You've misunderstood my comment. I've never told authors to lie about the fact they are self-published or even to hide the fact. Never! They should absolutely say they've self-published if they are asked. But there is nothing dishonest about making sure your book looks and reads like it is a traditionally published book--meaning it is well edited and well produced. That is my point: It should not scream SELF-PUBLISHED! as do the books that are put together (usually poorly) by the so-called "self-publishing" services companies.

    My thinking--and the point I was trying to make in my original blog post--is that if a book is so well done, it shouldn't even occur to reviewers to wonder if it is self-published. Reviewers who wonder about the publisher and do some digging will find out if the publisher has done just this title...and well, so what? Again, I’m not a proponent of hiding the fact that you are self-published...just doing a book well so that is not the first thing that is noticed about it.

    And no, I do not think reviewers are idiots. I think they appreciate a well-written, well-designed book. The author more than the publisher is what should matter...and in books that are done well, it's what will attract reviewer attention.

    I would also like to point out that many, many authors who self-publish do so because they want to--not because they've been rejected by trads. We primarily work with professionals who are using the books for promoting themselves. For them, it makes much more sense to control the production process as well as the length of time from manuscript to finished book--and pocket all of the profits. Penny also makes good points about author branding via their own imprint.

  9. "They should absolutely say they've self-published if they are asked."

    I shouldn't have to ask someone if the book is self-published. It should be clearly stated somewhere on the book. There's nothing wrong with making a book look good. There is something wrong with making that book appear in every way to have been traditionally published. Making a book look nice and making a book look like something it isn't are two very different things; one is completely acceptable and one is ethically problematic.

  10. WHAT?! Okay--I can't even take this entire exchange seriously anymore. This is the most ridiculous, inane, misguided comment about self-publishing I have ever seen. And I'm just going to quit now before I say something that would be less than professional.

  11. Sue: Right, because challenging your believe that lying to customers is okay is misguided. That makes a lot of sense.

    And you've already said something that is less than professional with your last comment.

  12. Anonymous2:17 PM

    I'm not sure how creating an imprint is somehow unethical. It's just a business name. It's not different that Suzy's Handmade Hats coming up with a more sophisticated name so she can sell and compete against hats that are being mass produced by larger companies. Her hats might be just as good, even better. She's going to have a hard time being taken seriously though unless she comes up with a professional and polished marketing plan...and "imprint" so to speak. A logo, a name...

  13. Anon: It has to do with customer expectations for the product. This is why so few product analogies work for books. Folks try to compare books to movies, books to music, music to movies, or random non-media-based things to books, and none of those analogies work.

    That said, the problem with creating a personal imprint is in how you present yourself: you are intentionally using a system of representation which speaks to a different form of legitimacy, which requires, as its symbolic undercurrent, a certain degree of misrepresentation and manipulation of audience expectation.

    Couple this with the fact that some SPers who create imprints will sometimes lie to people like me about being SPed and you have some serious problems. If I ask you if you're self-publishing, whether as a reader, reviewer, bookstore owner, or what have you, and you lie to me, you are presenting an even greater ethical problem. Creating the imprint on its own is always already a form of masking: that is that the creation of something which presents a face of authenticity (derived from traditional publishing models) presumes to change the way one views one's product, without legitimizing the promise that the product is what it says it is.

    Or, to put it in a less obtuse language (I'm in weird academic mode...sorry): buying into the traditional publishing model to sell your book means you have to say "I am X" visually, which is never what you actually are.

    That's not to say that SPing is evil or wrong or that you shouldn't do it (I'm of the opinion now that you can and many should, with the right reasons), just to point out the problem of representation on the level of audience.

    I'll shut up now...