Monday, August 29, 2011

Sweet Sacrifice: Ethics and E-Publishing

I'm not one to socialize, especially these days. But after a blow up this weekend on Facebook that surprisingly sucked me in, I thought I'd pose a question to the readers of this blog. It goes something like this: What is acceptable conduct in e-publishing, and what should be considered unethical?

With more and more authors doing their own book covers these days, problems are bound to occur because we're all drawing upon the same pile of stock imagery. Here's the dilemma in a nutshell: two ladies fell in love with the same photo, and decided to use it as the focal point of their composition. Had they not known each other, it’s a moot point. One person using a stock image doesn’t preclude the other from using it. That’s the risk that comes with using stock; authors are free to rip off your idea at will, and it happens all the time. Just go to the Kindle store and look at all the similar works with nearly identical covers.

But what if these two people do know each other, and even worse, are friends? To avoid any hard feelings, let's say their names are Sally and Brenda (not their real names). After digging through the stock archives for days, Sally stumbles across the perfect image, incorporates it into her design, and slaps it on her e-book. After showing it to her friend Brenda, she also falls in love with it, and decides to use it as well. Brenda changes a few elements, but says nothing about it until just before releasing her own book, and lucks out when her friend Sally does not see it on her blog. So far, so good.

Trouble is, Sally eventually does see it, on the morning of Brenda’s release no less, and nearly spits out her coffee. The resemblance is striking; feelings of betrayal and disgust surface, and are almost too much to bear. "I thought she was my friend." She wipes away the tears.

Legally, no laws have been broken, and although it may cost Sally and Brenda their friendship, both are welcome to rip off each other’s ideas as often as they like. Fair game.

But what if that friend also happens to be your publicist? That's right, the one in charge of running your blog tour. The one promoting you and hoping for a little self-promotion in return. Can you begin to imagine the conflict of interest that this represents? Forget about Hurricane Irene, that's what descended upon the writers' group this weekend. Apparently her publicist gushed over the cover several times, so in a way it wasn't surprising when the love interest from Sally’s cover emerged on Brenda’s.

And that's where I draw the line.

It's not OK for a promoter to create a book cover using identical stock imagery as their client, unless there is an agreement in place beforehand (or unless they want to commit professional suicide as my friend aptly put it). If you don't want the same thing done to you, then don't do it to someone else, especially those close to you. Since there is already a business relationship in place, the publicist should not engage in any practice that marginalizes their client.

"Borrowing" ideas can still land one in legal trouble, though. The base image that anchors the cover is only the starting point. Over the course of designing a cover, the image will most likely be cropped, have filters applied to it, have the brightness and contrast tweaked, etc. Any author is free to crop the image in the same fashion, apply the same filters, and so on; but if they're going to play this game, they had better know what they're doing. They still must build upon the original photo; they cannot use the enhanced image that another author has already tweaked if they have access to it. Otherwise, they will leave themselves open to a world of hurt, and not to mention, bad publicity.

As the story goes, Brenda eventually did change her cover, which could have been avoided if she had simply communicated with her client. Perhaps Sally would have agreed to let her use it, perhaps not. Either way, Brenda would have been better off if she had talked to her. Sadly, I know them both, and think that deep down inside Brenda means well. It's just too bad it all came to this.

One thing that can't be ignored is the gold rush mentality that is sweeping through the industry. Amateurs and professionals alike are churning out as much content as they can that is often poorly conceived, edited, or may very well "borrow" far more than just the face of an author's book. Unfortunately I think we're in for more of this, not less.

I truly hope fellow authors think before they act, because it’s their reputation at stake. Potential customers will fall off like the plague if a work is plagiarized or of low quality. And don't think for a moment that all of those fake 5-star reviews from your friends will help one bit (just ask Jacqueline Howett). Customers are savvy, and can spot a bogus review from miles away.

Ok, I've said my piece, now it's your turn. Please don't ask for the real names of the people involved; I will not disclose them.


  1. You'd have to have been living under a rock to not know who is involved!!
    While I TOTALLY understand the feelings of betrayal, disloyalty, anger, and unbelievably hurt feelings, at the end of the day it is the cover. And while I myself am a self confessed cover whore it is the story INSIDE the book that counts. Dont get me wrong if I was *ahem* 'Sally' I would be royally pissed off too and quite rightly so. As I understand it though, covers aren't privy to copyright laws.
    I have both 'Sallys' and 'Brendas' books on my e-reader and so I'm going to judge these books on their content NOT the covers.

  2. It concerns me that if one is willing to do this type of thing to their friends, they're likely to cut corners in other areas, including the content of the book which readers prize above all else. Thanks for adding your comments.

  3. While I applaud you for bringing the question of ethics to the forefront of the argument, an irate author publicly going on a tirade isn't good for sales either.
    While they are (or were) friends they are also in business and they do say never mix business with pleasure.
    Just to clarify: I have NOT read either of these authors works nor do I personally know either author. I'm just reacting to it as I saw it play out online. I'm not biased either way and prefer to just enjoy the books.

  4. Like you, I found the whole thing bizarre. As a self-published author, you have to stand up for yourself, and I can't say that I wouldn't have reacted the same way. This incident aside, I'd actually recommend reading both authors, since both are talented.

    One thing I did not mention is that this "Sally" person has a son with a disability, so it makes it look even worse when viewed in that context. My son has a learning disability called "development delay," so no doubt I can relate to some of hardship that she goes through on a daily basis.

    But if everyone's unscrupulous, why not take samples of other author's works, and include them as your own? Ever heard of a Harvard student named Kaavya Viswanathan? That's what's in store for us.

  5. I'm curious how this is impacting sales. Personally I admire her for sticking up for herself, but that's just me.

  6. ALWAYS stick up for yourself I say and props to her for doing so.
    I did read a few comments though referring to 'Sally' as a shall we say female dog for calling 'Brenda' out on her facebook page about it, and that in conjunction with the cover thing may or may not have an effect on sales for both of them. (who knows they may now increase!!!)
    At the end of the day it is what it is and they both have to live with the consequences of their own actions and who are we to judge.
    If I find a good book I'll read it regardless of any hoopla :)
    I shall now seize and desist from spamming up your comments!!!!!