Author Ethics and Utilitarianism (Or, “Why Authors are Bad People”)

Author Ethics and Utilitarianism (Or, “Why Authors are Bad People”)

tencommandTonight I read with interest two posts about Author Ethics. This one by Jane Steen on argues that while indie authors often lament (and admit to be challenged by) quality issues, the equally important issue of Author Ethics is ignored.

The concept of “Author Ethics” refers mainly to bullshit book reviews; a controversial topic that I love discussing, even though nobody agrees with me. But in this ThoughtCatalog article Steen gets interviewed more intimately. What ethical issues are actually involved in the self-publishing industry? These 8:

  1. Paid Reviews
  2. Reciprocal reviewing arrangements
  3. Imitation and plagiarism
  4. How authors react to reviews
  5. Interacting with readers
  6. Spamming and Social Media
  7. Sock puppet account

Fair points… and the topic could die there or be mimicked on a dozen other sites affirming simply “authors should be better people!” But how much does ethics really matter to authors? Why should authors be ethical? (In other words, why do we assume that authors need to use ethical business practices, in a way that we wouldn’t assume of Wall Street Brokers?) Can or should these rules be broken sometimes? Is there a danger of a Self-Publishing Religion popping up with zealots following a strict Moral Law?

Since I know a little something about ethical theory (dual major philosophy and theology on the island of Malta, followed by over 8 years of graduate work in literature with a focus on Paradise Lost, Badiou and Zizek) AND because my own views on appropriate author ethics are brazenly unpopular, I thought I would play devil’s advocate.

A New Philosophy of Self-Publishing Ethics

My own ethics are Machiavellian: I don’t believe passionately that people should always do certain things in certain situations (and no matter what they choose to do, their moral precepts were probably determined by upbringing and background, not some universal, absolute Truth). In fact I think that can be extremely dangerous, and lead people to violence.

I try not to care about anything enough that it would ever get in the way of my relationships with other people.

I don’t want to be angry, or hurt, or frustrated by what I or other people believe. But I do think you need to act in ways that make it easier to achieve the goals you set for yourself, and most people’s unchecked behavior contradicts their professed aims or values.

I was watching a movie the other day, which quotes some famous person (I can’t remember who – a US president I think) as saying, “You can’t always do the right thing, but you should always appear to be doing the right thing.”

In other words, the perception others have of you is more important than what’s actually going on.

Don’t worry, I’m not advocating cheating or shady tactics, but the reason for developing a Self-Publishing Ethics is not because it’s right but because it’s beneficial to all, and it will actually sell more books if done properly.

At the same time I do not believe that, if we had to make a choice between selling more books and being a good person, we would be morally compelled to become another failed writer.

Utilitarianist Publishing

Utilitarianism is a theory in normative ethics holding that the proper course of action is the one that maximizes utility, usually defined as maximizing total benefit. What this means is, that it is better to maximize total benefit for as many people as possible, than it is to help only a few people.

AKA, it’s better to do the right thing for the wrong reasons than to do the wrong thing for the right reasons, and the “right thing” is defined as “the greatest good.”

Now that we’ve got that background in place, let’s take a look at some examples, before diving into exactly what I believe to be both morally permittable, universally beneficial, and career-commendable – even though indie authors usually make a big deal about it, because a lot of people are doing it wrong.

Take a look at the headline for this post: “Why Authors are Bad People.” Now that you’ve read this far, you may realize that the title is misleading. I’m not really calling authors bad people at all, only discussing publishing virtues. I intentionally wrote a misleading headline that I knew would get a gut-wrenching, knee-jerking reaction.

I think this is an interesting and very important article: there is something wrong with the way authors are behaving online. It needs to be addressed. We need to talk about it more. But in order to do that, I needed to get you, and thousands of other people, to click on the link and start reading. If I had chosen a more honest and precise title, it would have gotten far fewer traffic.

Another example: I’ve always had a strong suspicion that J.K. Rowling’s success is due largely to the Christian uproar over her first book, which was expressed in a MASSIVE email forwarding campaign (I wrote my MA thesis about this, which became a major non-fiction book, which makes me basically the World Expert on religious reactions to Harry Potter). But I’ve come to realize that it could also have been a brilliantly executed marketing strategy – it’s the kind of thing that very savvy book marketers have been doing for the last few years to get on the NYT bestsellers list. Let’s assume that this is true: that somebody engineered the controversy by writing an angry email forward, anticipating and playing off of Christian grumbles to the already popular witch and magic industry, and tied it all together in the perfect storm of internet ire. These were the days of massive email forwards (remember them? That was before we could just Like, Share or Retweet).

Tie it into a controversial topic, then put it in front of people and let them fight about it. Brilliant marketing.

The media picked it up and now JK Rowling is a shining beacon of author success. But that doesn’t mean her success is predicated by a lie – the entire Harry Potter series is brilliant, epic and life-changing. Its inclusive politics and liberal ethics have directly influenced the behavior of about a billion people. Even if that first email campaign was sparked deliberately, it was necessary to catch the world’s fickle and flighty attention and focus it on this great work of literature.

Move beyond the black and white, into the Shades of Gray

So let’s start with these rules:

1. Little gray area stuff doesn’t really matter if the value your book provides will be celebrated by more people than those that are turned off by your tactics.

2. You need to think about how your actions actually impact future books sales, not just for you, but for everyone (because if people stop buying books online, you’re probably screwed as well.)

3. A lot of the things you are doing because you’re desperate to sell more books are actually bad for book sales (so why are you doing them)?

4. Just because some people are doing some things very badly, doesn’t mean those things shouldn’t be done.


Now let’s quickly revisit the “8 offenders.”

Paid Reviews

Thousands of indie authors are paying hundreds of dollars to Kirkus or Foreword reviews. I still don’t understand how it can be OK to pay that much money (and to charge that much money) for book reviews, but not be OK to charge much, much less money for book reviews from other sources. The idea is that those expensive reviews are reputable and trustworthy – but if you’re paying for them it’s unlikely they will be that negative. The criticism is almost certainly toned down by the cash transaction.


#1 Those trusted, expensive reviews don’t usually sell any more books than casual, cheap reviews

#2 Those cheap, rave reviews don’t sell books either because nobody believes them

#3 Neither of those reviews really say much about the book

#4 Misleading readers will not sell more books, it will end your career.


Note the emphasis on misleading – reviews that mislead readers are disingenuous and will do more harm than good. If people read your positive reviews, and their high expectations are disappointed, they will leave negative reviews. The more they are disappointed, the more negative and angry they will feel – and they will be sure to warn other readers away with a scathing criticism.

Everything on your Amazon page should be set up to pull in the exact kind of reader that is going to love your book. If you pull in the wrong reader, or use fake positive reviews for a terrible book, your book is going to fail irrevocably, because you’re setting yourself up to attract negative reviews that will kill your book sales forever.

In a moral maxim that doesn’t quite fit here: what goes around comes around. Serves you right. But this isn’t a moral or ethical discussion, this is merely the pragmatics of smart business.

Honestly it’s annoying when people do things poorly, but it doesn’t impact or hurt me personally, I just feel sorry that no one taught them how to market their books better.

And I don’t think it hurts other authors either. Well, OK…. all those fake positive reviews make readers skeptical of all positive reviews, which makes it difficult to figure out which books are good and which aren’t. And that kind of sucks for everybody. But the issue, again, isn’t about paid book reviews at all, it’s about misleading books reviews. But this should also apply to your friends and family. Obviously you can’t ask them to write a review, because their loving relationship with you would cloud their inner critic. So those reviews are biased and misleading. And if you want to go even further, you could argue that readers who enjoy a particular genre shouldn’t review books in that genre because, likewise, their feelings will get in the way of the cold clear judgement needed for honest appraisal.

But that’s ridiculous, right?

The question “How can we trust reviews if some are misleading?” is empty rhetoric: there will always be books that other people enjoyed, that I hate.

There will always be books that other people hated, that I loved. People get good and bad reviews for lots of reasons.

Going back to Utilitarianism, I often tell authors it’s OK to buy cheap reviews on as long as you ask them to be honest and balanced (not gushing). I even tell them they shouldn’t buy 5 star reviews, but request 3 star reviews because people will actually trust them. A balanced 3 star review will go much further at selling the book than 10 5 star reviews that nobody reads. Also, those 10 5 star reviews, if they are attracting but misleading specific people, will result in a flood of negative 1 star reviews. From then on, the only review people will trust is that lone 3 star review.

If it’s OK to pay Kirkus and Foreword, it’s OK to pay some other stranger on the internet for book reviews. The moral precept doesn’t reverse depending on the amount of cash involved. In the beginning, if you don’t have any reviews at all, people won’t buy your book. If your book is brilliant and will change their lives, having a few fake/paid reviews to attract the right kind of reader and get them to buy the book is not Satanic; you’re doing them a favor.

Plus, I don’t see it as buying a review, I see it as compensating people for spending the time to read a book they wouldn’t have done otherwise. I would pay them to read it and review it, on the condition that they can review it honestly and post whatever they want – if they hated it, they should say so, and why.

Incidentally, I don’t actually pay for reviews. I’ve built up a platform, and I encourage my followers to review my books by offering big incentives, or contests. Some of them review my books because I’ve given away years of helpful content, and they like me. Those are both in morally-gray areas (is offering prizes different from paying? Is getting people to like you before they read your book like flirting with your professor for a better grade?)

If you pay for honest reviews, they will be white lies that benefit everybody. Readers won’t feel tricked or betrayed if they truly enjoyed the book and weren’t mislead (paid or fake reviews don’t have to be bullshit. They can be spot-on and truthful, well written to properly manage reader expectation in a way that cultivates enjoyment). If you are morally indignant in principle, then you obviously don’t care enough about your readers to do what it takes to reach them; or you have faith that a good book will somehow get discovered even if nobody is reading it.

This is a chicken and egg problem, but there are no chickens or eggs. Setting the table and waiting for one or the other to magically appear probably won’t work.

Besides, ten paid reviews are just to get the ball rolling. Then you have to put it in front of people, and if you put it in front of enough people, the Truth Will Out regardless. Those initial paid reviews got people in the door, your job is to delight them with your content. If your paid reviews are misleading, you’ll soon find out. But if done properly, you’ll start to get genuine, authentic reviews that are pretty similar to the ones you paid for, and in fact even better. (If your readers agree with the paid reviews that got them to read the book, will their positive reactions to the book suddenly shift if they discover the reviews they trusted weren’t natural? Why would this be?)

To recap: I don’t recommend positive five star reviews at all. I don’t really recommend paying for reviews at all. I don’t recommend asking friends or family or begging for reviews on Facebook (unless done effectively and well). But if you want people to buy your books, you need to get reviews up on your Amazon page before you do any marketing! The way to do that is to remove buyer resistance (free price works best) and then get it in front of target readers (with Facebook ads).

If you give away enough free copies, you’ll get all the reviews you need to start, and you won’t need to buy any. But as a last resort, I don’t think it’s absolutely, irredeemably, morally corrupt.


Reciprocal Reviewing Arrangements

The same arguments apply to Reciprocal Reviewing Arrangements: author blurbs are traded all the time and have been in the publishing industry for hundreds of years. Are they only acceptable when the authors are famous or traditionally published? (Most of those are inflated piles of crap too, but they still sell books and publishers keep using them).

Indie authors need all the help they can get, and who better to review indie books than other indie authors? I firmly believe authors in the same genre should be partnering together and helping each other out by sharing readers. Yes it’s true that authors of low-quality indie books will probably review other authors of low-quality indie books – but remember that’s only a bad thing if it’s misleading readers. It’s not necessarily bad or dishonest if it is merely helping readers find other books they are going to like.

In fact that’s why I set up

I’d rather have authors trading blurbs than just asking for favors from everybody else. And if you’re about to cite Amazon prohibitions, let me clarify that you can add such blurbs under “editorial reviews.” And don’t make Amazon out to be the champion of virtue: Amazon does what’s best for Amazon. They are coming down hard on fake reviews and revising their rules because they know they will lose their customers if everybody stops believing in reviews in general.

And yes, tons of people are doing shitty things with reviews on Amazon, leading to disappointed readers. But that doesn’t make paid or reciprocal reviews universally, ispo facto evil.

But then there’s the bad stuff….

Imitation and plagiarism

All art and literature is imitation. We are still writing fiction based on a 3000 year old story arch. With tens of thousands of people writing fan-fiction and genre-fiction, there’s bound to be tons of influence and imitation. With everybody using tons of stock photography are bound to be book covers that use the some photos or look really similar because they used the same colors or fonts.

Readers aren’t really bothered by this. They expect genre books to be all a little similar. It’s the authors who get really pissed off when they think someone stole their book cover or story idea. But it’s usually not deliberate, and even if it is, it’s unlikely to hurt your own book sales.

Plagiarism is a horse of another color. It’s all bad. Although, as Tucker Max said recently about Eckhart Tolle, and I’m paraphrasing heavily from memory, “It’s all just fucking Buddhism. That guy just took classic Buddhist scripture and dumbed it down for regular people, and he’s sold millions or copies, and his books have changed people’s lives.”

How authors react to reviews

Don’t have temper tantrums and freak out when you get a bad review. Not because it’s morally impermissible, but because it’s emotionally childish and stupid.

Don’t comment (at least not in anger). I would write something like “sorry you didn’t like it – can I refund you the cost of the book directly?” I’ve also gotten get rid of negative reviews by contacting the poster directly and being nice and charming. But if they are off-base and not doing any harm, I just let them go. The best one star reviews may actually improve sales, which is why I started For the record, it’s not a real site and we don’t actually sell any book reviews; I just built it to make a point.

You can encourage reviews, and you do need to be pro-active. Some people tell you not to solicit book reviews, at all, from anyone because then they won’t be honest and authentic. But I don’t see why authors are expected to be purists and saints. In day to day life, people generally do whatever is best for themselves, while ignoring the needs of everybody in the world outside their immediate family.

There is nothing glorious about being a moral purist who isn’t selling any books. I would much rather sell a million books, and gain a huge platform and a bunch of money, so I can make a big impact on the world and help a lot of people, than fail to do so because I refused to bend on my moral principles.

If you have a good book, don’t let it sit there not selling because it doesn’t have any reviews (and nobody is buying and reviewing it) because you don’t want to break the stone tablets of publishing. Nobody else is going to discover and champion your book for you. YOU are responsible for getting it in front of the right readers and convincing them to buy it so they can enjoy it.

If the reviews properly manage reader expectation, they will be happy they bought it and you will succeed. If the reviews don’t, people will be disappointed and your sales and reviews will tank.

Interacting with readers

The thing that bugs me most is the authors who don’t care about, or even want to chat with their readers. They want people to buy their books, read them and review them, but don’t want to actually have to communicate with them. You don’t have to be a people-person to care about other people. The way to sell books is not to sell books. Marketing is about providing valuable content and making friends. If you don’t want to do that, stick with advertising only.

Spamming and Social Media

Social media is not the place to sell your book. If people are following you and know who you are, thank them by not shoving your book down their throats all the time. How often should you Tweet or promote your book on social media? 3~5 times, during the book launch. Then cut that shit out, and share useful, interesting or entertaining stuff as you write your next book. Write amazing articles that get people to your website so that they will be your book. Don’t market to your followers! Instead, use advertising to reach those people who aren’t already your followers.

Sock puppet accounts

I’m firmly with Jane Steen on this one: there’s absolutely no reason to have fake accounts so you can do devious and weird stuff online. You shouldn’t be in bulletin boards recommending or defending your book wearing dark glasses and a fake mustache. That’s some sick shit. Cut it out, stop wasting time, go write more books.

The 10 Commandments of Indie Publishing

I helped Mark Coker develop his Indie Author Manifesto a few months ago, I think I should lay out a “10 Commandments of Indie Publishing.” I’ll make a poster and maybe even publish a short e-book.

What do you think the rules should be?

Comment below with “Thou Shalt Not….”

I know my views are unorthodox, so I expect to get some heat from this article, but I’ll defer to popular opinion if we all agree some things are verboten.


  • MysticCowboy Posted

    I don’t know what to do. Here is a blog article that actually has some substance and makes me think. I don’t agree with everything, – surprise, surprise – but you made me stop and consider things. Great job.

    • Derek Murphy Posted

      Ha – thanks. 🙂 I’m getting sick of articles that are written just for book marketing purpose but don’t have any actual effort or substance behind them (my post is over 2000words, a lot of people recommend staying under 500 words – which is not always good advice). I’m pretty good at laying out a case for something; even if you disagree, which is why I like to defend ideas that other people are up in arms against. (My PhD thesis will be about the “evil” villains in literature and how they were really just trying to get the same things other people take for granted).

  • Bridget McKenna Posted

    Thanks for making me think, and nod my head, and think some more. I find your approach deeply ethical in keeping with the terms you laid out at the beginning. Food for thought that indie author-publishers would do well to taste.

  • Myka Reede Posted

    OK, here’s one: Thou shalt not end your book with a cliffhanger without warning me in your blurb write-up.

    It comes back to not misleading your readers and managing expectations. But if your book is 2 or more to finish your story, then fine – I’ll grant you that artistic license PROVIDED you tell me ahead of time. There is an author-reader contract whether the author wants to acknowledge it or not. With indie authors especially, I now wait to read their reviews to see if there’s a cliffhanger before I buy. It’s a shame I can’t trust the author to tell me.

    • Derek Murphy Posted

      That’s really interesting, I wouldn’t have thought of thought one. It’s probably becoming more common as indies split up their novels into serials (those should be rewritten so there’s a satisfactory conclusion, rather than simple an abrupt ending).

  • Derek Murphy Posted

    Thanks Amy; the way I set up BlurbTrade, is that authors can request a trade and send each other the manuscripts, but they can also gracefully bow out by saying they are too busy or it’s not a good fit for them.

  • Derek Murphy Posted

    Absolutely! If you get more than one, it means your marketing, cover or sales copy is appealing to people who aren’t going to like the book. However, something to consider is that you are probably earning money even from the people who didn’t like it (so, you could market it to avoid that, or you could intentionally make it ambiguous, sell more books, and also get a lot more traffic, because people are more likely to talk about something they hated than something they liked. It’s not a good long term strategy for building an author platform, but if you just have one book and you want it to get a lot of press, it may work well for you to play up the controversy and put it in front of people you know won’t like it).

    • Deirdre Saoirse Moen Posted

      Controversy won’t be my problem with the next one. Trust me on that.

  • saulofhearts Posted

    A related case, which the Harry Potter example reminded me of: When Sufjan Stevens released his “Illinois” and “Michigan” albums, he pitched them as the beginning of an epic quest to write an album about all 50 states. It was a compelling story, and played a big role in getting people’s attention (including mine), though he later admitted it was a publicity stunt and he has no intention of actually completely all those albums. Slightly dishonest, perhaps, but I don’t think anyone would fault him for it; a lot of people liked the albums, and may not have heard of them otherwise!

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