It seems I'm getting more e-mail about trade publishing ethics lately, especially in relation to rights and royalties. I rarely quote from questions authors send me, but I can't resist a couple paraphrased quotes from a response one trade publisher sent an author this week:
"there isn't any money in publishing"
"think of it as more of a lifetime achievement and don't expect any financial reward."
I might expect to hear that from a poetry house, but not from a publisher responding to an author whose books have actually sold. But it's not unique, and reading the occasional professional author's list, I've picked up the feeling that many new writers are buying into the "prestige" argument. Rather than looking at writing and publishing as a primary or significant income stream, they see it as a form of credentialing that brings them speaking engagements or professional recognition. That may be the way that academic publishing has worked for a hundred years, but academic presses don't generally have shareholders reaping dividends and executives with stock options.
I'm not going to argue with authors who are happy with their "lifetime achievements" and don't care whether royalties come in at less than the water bill or more than the mortgage. But I don't believe an author should have to become a public performer to scratch out a living, and I certainly don't think it's the duty of a professional writer to subsidize the trade publishing industry. There's an amusing thought. Most trade publishing professionals have nothing but scorn for the subsidy publishing industry (also known as vanity presses) but those same executives and editors cry poor-mouth when working authors ask what happens to the money from sales.
The ethics of the big trade publishers are the terms of the publishing contract. I've known some very nice people in the publishing world who will go beyond those terms if their management will let them, and I've also known some who need a lawyer or a CPA pointed at them to live up to the terms. But I still hear from authors who assume there's a code of conduct in the trade publishing world that puts the truth first, or the integrity of book first, or even the author first. Large trade publishers are in it for the money, they put the dollar first. As individuals, they don't come to work every morning thinking, "money, money, money" but at the end of the day, if they don't earn profits for the corporation, they won't keep their jobs.
In any discussion of business ethics, I need to point out that I've strayed into the occasional grey area, but only when working as an employee for others. There's something about being part of a team and struggling to make a business work that colors the world in terms of "us" and "them" with predictable consequences. In self publishing, I'm comfortable making the sort of decisions that involve risk or loss to the business that I wouldn't always make if I had co-workers and infrastructure obligations depending on the outcome.