Monday, January 25, 2016

Book Publishing Ethics: Do They Exist?

The world struggles to figure out what kind of moral code it should live by so it’s no surprise to see that the book industry lacks any kind of official ethical standard.  What should it consist of, who should follow it, and what body of power shall promote and enforce it?

I am not aware of a book publishing ethical code, but I do know that bits and pieces of the book industry reportedly adhere to certain standards.  For instance, there are ethical codes of conduct for the public relations industry, so in some way, those who practice the art of book publicity should consider learning and following the ethics of the PR industry. 

The same may be true when it comes to say contract law. The legal profession has ethical codes so an entertainment or intellectual property lawyer or even a publisher’s corporate lawyer, should at the very least, adhere to the standards of one’s profession.

But are there clearly adopted and universal codes for booksellers, book printers, writers, editors, distributors, libraries, and all those who contribute to the book industry ecosystem?  And even where some kind of professional standard may exist for accountants, lawyers, and others, how do we reinterpret expected behaviors for publishing industry situations that are truly unique to it?

What are some situations that have – or could – come up that impact the book publishing industry,  consumers, the media and those that interact with it?  Here are some:

·         What should or shouldn’t be published? Why? Who decides?
·         Who is obligated to write about underserved topics?
·         What standards of research should an author follow?
·         What burdens do publishers have to verify a writer’s book?
·         Are there limits/guidelines as to what stores should charge for a book?
·         Is a store obligated to sell all books?
·         Should books carry advertisements?
·         Must books disclose that some or all content was paid for?
·         Does a company have an obligation to publish a book it purchased the rights to?
·         Should publishers publish only one side to a story?
·         Should outdated books still be made available for sale?
·         Should old books get a PC scrubbing?
·         How can we recruit and promote more ethnic talent within the industry?

Some issues have to do with legal questions, but others may come down to fairness and economics, including what one’s compensation should be, from author to publishing executive.  Other issues may not seem like issues because no one’s complained or thought about them, but nevertheless should be explored.

Many ethical issues for the industry relate to money, access to information, and rights violations.  But plenty may extend to social, political, or religious conflicts as well.

Whatever ethical issues that may or could exist, the question remains:  How do we begin to identify and address them – and then encourage the promotion of such standards within the book publishing industry?  

No one is really policing any of this, but random spotlights by major or even social media will sometimes fall upon specific incidents, such as when an author’s credentials, plagiarism, or content veracity are called out.  But on a regular basis, you won’t find Publishers Weekly, Book Expo, Writers Digest, Authors Guild, ASJA, Library of Congress, IBPA, BISG, ABA, NYPL, AAP, or any other significant institution in the book industry discussing book publishing ethics in any kind of comprehensive, updated, relevant, and transparent way.

In fact, many groups, media outlets, and non-profits would rather shy away from ethical shortcomings in their field of specialty or the book publishing industry as a whole.  No one wants to air dirty laundry and too many have too much to lose to question things out loud.  That said, some will speak up about isolated issues of importance, but no one is tackling all of the issues confronting all of the industry.

That needs to change.

Maybe the first steps to addressing this are as follows:

1.  We need to catalog all of the major ethical issues that currently afflict the industry from all sectors, including publishers, consumers, authors, unpublished writers, publicists, lawyers, marketers, librarians, editors, printers, and all that play a role in books.

2.  We need to bring together those in the industry to examine these issues and to begin to make solutions or come to terms with recommended guidelines of behavior.

3.  We need everyone in the industry to begin to follow the ethical standards of the book industry, not just those of their specific profession.

4.  We should repeatedly review, update, evaluate, alter, add, or delete portions of such standards on an annual or regular basis.

5.  We need an enforcing body that can educate others and to be available to mediate conflict resolution on such matters if necessary.

Everyone in book publishing goes about doing their job or serving their function, looking to do it as best as possible.  What do we use as our guiding standard – is it the law, money, fear, or some other thing?  Or do some of us not give any consideration to any standards of any kind?

Most major industries have some kind of public code of conduct, ethics, and moral standards.  Until book publishing adopts one that covers everyone and all situations, we all act with the risk of doing blatantly bad things or ignoring the obligation to do really good things.  The industry, by virtue of publishing books, does a lot of great things for society, but it needs to be held accountable for what it does, doesn’t do, and how it does what it does.

Need a starting place?  Try this as an example:

this group needs ethical standards that pertains to interactions with literary agents, publicists, publishers, media, consumers, fellow authors, etc.

Issues may include:
·         Plagiarism
·         Source acknowledgement
·         Admitting to errors in content
·         Knowingly omitting relevant information from a book
·         Paying sources and not saying so
·         Protecting one’s confidentiality
      Not bribing reviewers
·         Showing up for scheduled presentations and media appearances
·         Dispensing advice or views with care
·         Treating others with respect, honesty, and dignity
·         Disclosing conflicts of interest

Obviously book publishing ethics must take a lot of things into consideration, including:

·         Rights
·         Responsibilities
·         Obligations
·         The needs of others
·         The role we each play in the bigger publishing industry
·         The role the book publishing industry plays in the world

The book publishing industry should consider:
·         How it splits the pot of money that comes in
·         How it services the poor, the minority community, and those with otherwise have little say in the world
·         How its books impact society
·         How what it doesn’t publish, on purpose or by unawareness, impacts society
·         Methods used to recruit, train, and reward its employees
·         How it should help with literacy and education
·         How books influence the conversations society has about politics, wealth, health, and all significant areas of life
·         What it’s doing to improve the quality of books
·         What it’s doing to publish a diverse group of books, and how well it also balances a need for profit with an obligation to serve the needs and desires of readers.

As I mentioned earlier, no industry group or publication lays out a detailed ethics code or set of moral standards for the entire book industry, but some have developed short or condensed ethics codes for a narrow slice of the book world.  For instance, Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) issued this pledge:

1.      “To uphold the highest standards of our industry, to create works of lasting financial and/or cultural value, and to pursue editorial design, and production excellence.

2.      To respect the rights of authors and other creators and stakeholders, to observe all copyright laws and conventions, and to never knowingly publish plagiarized work.

3.      To reward authors and contributors for their work, to be honest in our financial dealings, to write contracts in understandable language, to resolve all disputes promptly and fairly, and to foster equal opportunity in our workplaces.

4.      To not mislead readers or buyers with false promises, inflated sales data, or manipulated reviews.
5.      To recycle and reuse and to follow green practices.”

Such pledges are better than nothing but they fall short of what is needed here. In a general sense, we want to call upon people treating each other with courtesy, respect, dignity, and honesty.  We expect people to conduct business on the highest professional level.  We want people to be insulated against fraud, unfair practices, or discreditable actions.  We expect people not to engage in any action or practice that takes advantage of or exploits the lack of information, expertise, or power of anyone.  We don’t want anyone to unfairly limit or restrain access of the marketplace.

But how is all of that specifically applied to across-the-board situations that the book industry will inevitably confront?

Ethics are what we say they should be – and what we do to honor them.  What should be the ethics of the book publishing industry?

2016 Book Marketing & Book Publicity Toolkit

Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2016

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.