Let’s Talk Ethics

You’d think ethics wouldn’t be a big deal as a writer.  You write a book, you publish it (trade or self), and then you either get sales or you don’t.

Or at least that’s what I used to think.  Boy howdy was I wrong.

I was recently reading a detailed discussion of a service that allows you to offer a book for free and get 10,000 downloads of your book on Amazon.  Guaranteed.

Now, 10,000 downloads is pretty much enough to shoot you to the top of the bestseller list.  (Or at least it is right now when there aren’t too many people offering or using a service like this.  That’s the thing with deals like this, they eventually move the goalpost when they get overused.)

But, let’s assume it works.  You pay $350, you get into the Top 100 Free list.

Sounds great, right?

Except there’s that little ethical issue.  Who downloaded those books?  Did people download your book because they have a genuine interest in reading it?  Or were people in some way paid or incentivized to download it?

And does it matter to you?

If getting onto that list then leads real readers to your book and gives you the visibility to attract an actual reader base, does it matter that those 10,000 people who initially downloaded the book weren’t genuinely interested in it?

See, that’s the problem with this whole on-line purchasing/too many choices/herd mentality.

It’s very, very easy to manipulate people.  Because there’s so much choice, people look for shortcuts to find quality offerings.  Things like Top 100 lists.

They assume that if enough other people have vetted a product that that makes it legitimate.

Going back to my experience with the stock market, pump and dump schemes rely on this same “someone else must’ve checked it out” idea.  A firm hardsells a stock to its customers, others see activity in the stock and assume that means something is happening (it doesn’t) so they jump on the bandwagon and buy too and when the price has increased enough (with cheap stocks it isn’t all that hard to get the price to double or triple) the person who started the feeding frenzy sells their shares and gets out and everything collapses because it was all just hokum.

So, let’s bring this back to this great offer.  You pay for downloads.  You attract real readers.  They download your book, too.  Maybe they even buy one of your other books.

And then?

Well, did you write a good book or a bad one?

If you wrote a good book, that probably starts the ball rolling and you continue to see success.

If you wrote a bad one, then the sales dry up and people start to avoid you like the plague.

And if enough bad books end up on those top seller lists?  They lose their value.  People stop trusting them.  They go back to word of mouth from people they know and trust.  The whole scheme falls apart and all those late to the party get nothing out of it.

The scammers move on to the next play and the value of the Top 100 lists is lost.  (And it takes a long, long time to recover that lost credibility.)

The same type of issue popped up a few years ago with purchased reviews.  Pay $X for people to download your book and review it.  (Positively, of course.)

And, for some authors, that made them millions.  I forget the guy’s name, but he did very well by starting that way.

As I understand it, he also had a good book that then attracted further readers.  He just bought reviews to start the ball rolling.  I say “just” bought reviews, but I, given my background, could never condone knowingly doing something like that.

It happens all the time.  And it’s easy to argue that “everyone else is doing it and if you don’t do it you’ll never be able to compete.”  But that’s not a game I want to play.

I want to be able to wake up and look at myself in the mirror on a daily basis and believe that I’ve been as honest with people as is reasonable.  And, yes, that may cost me millions of dollars over my lifetime.

Because this little dilemma is not limited to the life of a published author.  There are ALWAYS ethical choices to be made.  Tell your boss you screwed up or don’t?  Tell the cashier they gave you incorrect change or pocket it?  Tell that person you’re dating about that little jail incident or don’t?

The problem with ethical choices is that often the “wrong” choice is the profitable choice.  Sometimes for many years.  Sometimes making the unethical choice is the only way someone gets to play the game at all.

You tell that person that you spent a year in jail and they dump you.  You hide it from them, they marry you and have your children, and, when they do find out ten years later, well, it’s a little too late to dump you by then.  Right?

Or wrong?  Maybe that lie shatters everything they thought they knew about you.

So, the question becomes how long will it take until you’re caught?

And will the time you spent on top be worth all the recriminations and judgement when you’re found out?

For a lot of people, yes.  That’s why this shit happens over and over and over again.

Usually the truth comes out in the end.  But for some people what they got in the meantime is worth the consequences.

Me?  Maybe I’m a chicken.  Maybe my daddy raised me to be too straight and narrow.  Or maybe I don’t want hollow victories.  Maybe money isn’t enough to justify manipulating others.  Maybe I don’t want to win if that win is always tainted by what I know I did to get there.

It’s a choice each of us makes.  And it’s a HARD choice sometimes.

Well, at least for some of us…

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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