A week or so ago, I removed all my books from Amazon. This post was both the genesis of that act and something that arose from it.
When I was a student in the early 90s it went without saying we didn’t buy Cape bananas. And people of my generation still wince when people hand out Nestle goods.
I’ve just filled out a survey on the future of publishing as the industry sees it. Lots of fascinating scenarios about the development of smart technology, the increase consumer demand for interactivity, an increasingly doughnut-ish business model. But something was missing.
So let’s tie those thoughts up. The food industry has long since demonstrated that consumers demand ethical transparency and leadership and are prepared to walk with their feet when they don’t get it. From Organic to Fairtrade, propping up unacceptable regimes to the treatment of animals to a transparent chain from field to shelf, consumers demand ethical leadership from business. More recently, our collective purses have been turned against the fashion industry, demanding it clean its act up – from the use of sweatshops to promoting body dysmorphia.
Furthermore, a parallel strand has emerged in consumer consciousness – a perception that local is good, independent trumps corporate. There are many reasons for this, and I have to say I find them both good (reduction of food miles, transparent supply chains, more direct payment of the grass roots producer) to the not so good (celebrating fabulous local produce is great, converting that to a sense of geographic superiority very much not so).
The strands are coming together now. From here we can see, on the one hand the publishing industry’s head in the sand attitude to ethics. On the other, we make out on the horizon the independent parts of the publishing industry, from local bookstores through to self-publishers.
To complete the circle, I want to make the following two points – independent does not equate to ethical; and self-publishers should be leading the way in ethical differentiation.
Just as in other areas (take the “demise of the high street”), there’s a tendency to equate independent and ethical per se. But that’s not always the case. Small businesses are exempt from many of the laws that protect workers in bigger organisations, and whilst business owners are free to bring working conditions up to scratch, frequently they don’t. It’s important for consumers to decide what they mean when they demand ethical retail, and it’s important for businesses to make clear just where they stand when they claim to provide it. And self-publishers, who are as free from the dictates of centrally-driven policy in this respect as they are when it comes to plot structure, can lead the way in the latter and carve an invaluable niche for themselves, for customers, and for the wider world. And yet we don’t often do enough (with notable exceptions – the number of writers from all genres who came out in protest when Smashwords started removing certain types of erotica to meet Paypal’s moralising demands was both wonderfully heartening, and enough to prompt Smashwords to negotiate a U-turn from Paypal).
So, enough of the rhetoric and the context and on to what really matters. What would an ethical self-publisher look like? And on a wider scale, what does ethical publishing mean? What can we bring to consumers so they can get behind us with confidence? Well, that will mean different things to different people. I spoke to a careers advisor recently saying I wanted a job within an ethical organisation – she said straightaway “what does ethical mean to you?” and she’s right, it means different things to different people. Which is why it’s important not to make assumptions, and why the stall one of us sets out shouldn’t be taken as definitive. But I do believe there’s a really important chance for us as self-publishers to set out *a* stall, to lead the way on the issue of ethical publishing, to do there what we do with genre-bending and prove the existence of public desire.
I want to outline some basic areas that could come under the ethical umbrella, where we have the choice to make a difference in what we offer. And whilst it’s possible to confine ourselves to one or a few of these areas, I want to plead in the strongest possible terms that the key to a truly ethical business is consistency, having your values written through you like writing in a stick of rock. As a perceptive commenter said when I was discussing this on Facebook, if you don’t do that “it’s just PR.” So this isn’t meant as either a pick and choose buffet or exhaustive, but as a set of general principles that are 1. Fairly easy to turn into specific practices if you apply yourself and 2. Designed to get you thinking about your own.
And I’m certainly not claiming to be an ethical self-publisher yet. What I can say is that it’s been on the back burner too long and is now on the front burner – hence the books coming down from Amazon as a starting point. I’m starting to make them available as pdfs that are available as free downloads but for which I am hoping people who enjoy them and are able to do so will pay something through Paypal (to firstname.lastname@example.org) that reflects what they think of the value of my writing.
(click the image or HERE to download the free pdf of my new book i cannot bring myself to look at walls in case you have graffitied them with love poetry and then consider making a donation if you can affrod it and think it's any good)
- Of people. This goes back to those businesses that pay pittances, or source from places where working practices are such you wouldn’t want them public. And it’s one of the key areas for publishers who are dealing with writers. But also for self-publishers. We in turn deal with others – who produce our covers or do our editing. I’ve known self-publishers who speak out stridently against writers who give their work away for free and then advise others where to find cover artists who are prepared to work for nothing.
- of the environment - from the basic carbon footprint of the final product to the sourcing of non-toxic inks, this is something we can act on. Those of us who do a lot digitally like to think yippee about our carbon footprint, but of course it’s not that simple and before we claim the upper hand we need to go into some serious detail about the real footprint of the electronics industry, and other issues, such as just where the metals used in e-reading devices come from.
When I talked to writers, this was far and away the most important issue. Which isn’t surprising – publishers have a very bad record when it comes to clear contracts, clarity on rights issues, and easily understandable royalty statements. But transparency is one of those first level principles that colours everything else we do. How we apply the principle is something we each need to think about as self-publishers, but I would suggest it’s the one principle we really can’t get away from.
Social impact and inclusion
This is one of the biggest for me, possibly because I often feel it’s one that gets most neglected. It includes everything dealing only with those businesses who share certain principles (and keeping things in house where this is not possible rather than compromising) to thinking about access to technology when you produce digital works. It’s the former of these that made me pull my books from Amazon – I can’t in good conscience claim to be a socialist and yet do the overwhelming majority of my creative dissemination through a business that seeks to minimise its tax burden.
Offsetting, education, and empowerment
Digital publishing is democratising and empowering but an increasingly digital world can widen as well as narrow divides where there is no access to technology or, often as important, to the non-physical resource (education and spare time) to use it - I am very much drawn to the idea, therefore, of writers hiving off digital from physical and directing income from it directly to projects that lessen the digital divide either directly, such as by providing laptops in schools or wifi in remote areas; or indirectly - such as educating people how to use technology or providing basic humanitarian needs such as clean water so as to increase the time people have for using technology and communicating their voice.
Not just environmental but artistic. Ultimately I like the idea of nurturing voices in the long term by providing authors with a salary for a minimum period so they can develop - but that's a long long way in the future. This also means that I am not (a common misconception) against writers and artists being paid. Far from it – my objection is to price barriers being put between those who cannot afford it and art, and thus creating a world in which culture and knowledge are for only that portion with the means to afford it. Which possibly means writers and artists being paid more indirectly. The model I am starting to use at the moment is free pdf downloads, with people able – and encouraged if they can afford it – to pay once they have finished the book based on how much they value the thought of my being able to carry on producing art. Which means some could contribute a few pence, others hundreds of pounds, and the vast majority probably nothing.I've recently had some fascinating conversations with people who advocate some much more elaborate models - more on those to follow.
So, over to you - what does ethical self-publishing mean to you as a reader/writer, and what can you do to lead the way?