One of my favourite conferences of the year is Futurebook and one of my favourite sessions there last year was The Big Ideas Panel, where each speaker gets five minutes to pitch to the delegates some way in which the industry might improve itself.

So I’m honoured to have been invited to pitch an idea to the assembled mass of publishing folk this year. The topic I’ve chosen to address is ethics, a huge subject of controversy online at the moment, as an author is accused of physically assaulting a reviewer, the latest in a list of authors-behaving-badly incidents, now so commonplace that one influential book blogger posts a weekly review of such stories.

Book bloggers and reviewers are running scared and too many people are conflating overwrought author behaviour with self-publishing, though sock-puppet reviews, for example, have been widespread in trade publishing too and ethical issues have been widely debated in the indie author community, since the first writer pressed the “Publish” button on Amazon KDP.

Ethics — and their lack — are personally held and have nothing to do with how one chooses to publish.

Crusaders: Jane Steen and Porter Anderson

Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) member Jane Steen, first blogged about this issue some time ago on ALLi’s Self-Publishing Advice Blog, a post that was picked up by publishing guru, Porter Anderson and analysed, thoughtfully as ever, in his Thought Catalog column:

Steen’s point was that unethical behavior becomes the problem of even the most professional independent authors, who are smeared by association: “Those of us who care seem to be outnumbered by those who don’t,” says Jane. “Often, in fact, the offenders are simply naive—new writers or writers who simply have little business experience and make bad decisions based on emotions and an eagerness to grab a piece of the (perceived) pie. The ‘who dares wins’ attitude of American-style capitalism, which praises entrepreneurship and is still—nearly thirty years on from the Wall Street movie—telling us that greed is good, blinds new authors to the long-term implications of today’s bright idea.”

It occurred to me [Anderson continues] that one reason there may not be more discussion of the author-ethics factor is that there isn’t a standing list of behaviors — good or bad — to serve as a starting point, a touchstone for debate.

I asked Steen if she could put together what, to her, would make sense — not as a hard-and-final set of commandments but as a starting point for consideration. She kindly delivered a rich set of thoughts

Porter, whose sound guidance within the new publishing ecosystem goes way deeper than journalistic commentary, then asked whether ALLi might want to work on creating an actual protocol around Jane’s fine ideas. “Something akin to the Kyoto procedure,” he suggested, “with a code which authors could endorse by signing on, like the Kyoto Protocol for countries, then displaying a badge on their websites to show that they are upholding the tenets of the Protocol and assuring readers that they’re looking at rightly sold and marketed books.”

A quick meeting of the ALLi troops decided that yes, given that unethical behaviour was being falsely conflated with self-publishing by many; and 2) that there was a need to reassure book bloggers, reviewers and readers that they are dealing with books ethically produced and promoted; and 3) that it’s always good to have a proactive alternative to the name-calling, grousing and sniping that has been the only response to the issue of author ethics so far, we would like to do that.

Over the following weeks, working closely with Jane, and with feedback from Jim Giammatteo, ALLi Watchdog, and a number of other publishing analysts and players, the Ethical Author campaign was born.

Author Responsibility

Producing a book, and making it available for download or sale, has become easy but writing well and publishing a good book are as challenging as ever. With freedom comes responsibility and the responsibility of being an author is (or ought to be) awe-inducing, especially in a materialist world, where organised religion has run aground and spiritual leadership has been hijacked by you-can-have-anything-you-want snake-oil sellers. In contemporary culture, writers supply the only philosophy many readers encounter.

Books help to establish social, material and moral standards, they confirm or challenge prejudices, they open or close minds. The influence of a much-read book is wide and deep.

A true writer is cognisant of this responsibility. Embedded in their calling is a call to humility and to service. To serve the creative spirit and those who read our words to the best of our ability. It is not, it should never be, about us.

This appropriate humility and attitude of service is actually widespread in the author community, though you wouldn’t know it to judge by the wailings, outpourings and rants on some corners of the author-blogosphere. By definition, humility will always be drowned out by the loudly-voiced and the badly-behaved.

So the big idea is an invitation to those quiet, getting-on-with-the-job authors — whether they self-publish or trade-publish or both; whether they have written one book, or several, or have yet to publish; whether they earn a little or a lot, are obscure or famous — to read the Code. And if it largely covers it, if this is how he or she does business, to download the badge and make readers and reviewers and the rest of the world aware they are dealing with an “Ethical Author”.

The Code, which you can find here, along with the downloadable badge, is a work in progress and both Jane and I would love to hear your ideas around the issue.

And my personal thanks to Porter and to The Bookseller and Futurebook 2014 for giving ALLi a platform on which to launch the initiative.