Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Unethical Trick or Useful Promotion?

John H. Johnson, publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines, died yesterday at the age of 87.

The following two paragraphs are excerpted from his listing in the Self-Publishing Hall of Fame.

At the age of 24 in 1942, he self-published Negro Digest, using a $500 loan secured by his mother's furniture. In 1945, he launched Ebony magazine with a press run of 25,000 copies. From this meager beginning, he built up a billion-dollar publishing and cosmetics empire. In 1982, he became the first African-American to be featured on Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 richest Americans.

To encourage a distributor to pick up Negro Digest, he asked co-workers to ask for the magazine at newsstands around Chicago. His friends bought most of the copies at these newsstands to convince the dealers that the magazine was in demand. In turn, Johnson bought the copies from his friends and resold the copies they had bought. He continued to use this tactic to open up the markets in New York, Detroit, and Philadelphia as well. Within a year, Negro Digest was selling 50,000 copies a month.

Was he unethical in what he did? Some would say so. But it worked. It made an incredible difference in the life of African-Americans at a time when they couldn't play major league baseball or vote in many states.

But let's look a little closer at the ethics of what he did:

First, he asked his co-workers to ask for the magazine at newsstands. Was this unethical? You could argue it was if the co-workers had no intention to buy the magazine. Perhaps, in the beginning, the co-workers had no such intention. But, chances are, that within a few months they were regular buyers and readers of the Negro Digest. So, ethical or unethical? It really is hard to decide since we have no way to judge his friends' intentions. That the ploy worked was significant in allowing Johnson Publishing to weather the hard times of a start-up with limited resources.

As book authors, we often do something similar when we ask family and friends to ask for the book at bookstores or libraries. Many of us have done that at some time in our careers. Are we being unethical in making such requests? On a rigid scale of ethics, we are being unethical (no question about it) since our family and friends probably have little intention to buy our book at a bookstore or even check it out at a library. Does that make us bad people? No. Do we need an ethical check-up? Probably yes. And, yet, I might still recommend this ploy to some authors. I have in the past, so I am likely to do so again.

Second, Johnson bought back the copies of Negro Digest his friends had bought at the newsstands. And then he resold those copies. Was he unethical in buying back those copies? Yes. It would be hard to argue otherwise, if you subscribe to a strict ethical viewpoint. Now, he resold the copies -- so someone, in the end, actually paid for the copies. So, if you wanted to walk on a slippery ethical slope, you could argue that the copies were bought by readers who actually wanted the magazine. By looking at this larger picture, you could then argue that Johnson acted ethically. Personally, I like to look at this larger picture.

But, then, on the other hand, I would never recommend to authors that they buy back copies of their books from friends who bought them at bookstores. No matter the reason. Whether to get distribution, to build momentum for a bestseller list, or to make bookstores happy. I do see such moves as being unethical. Now, if their friends and family buy the books for themselves, then there is no ethical question. The sales were truly legitimate, even if coaxed or pressured by the author.

Since the many comments on the ethics of the Amazon bestseller campaign last week on this blog, I've been more attuned to ethical questions. It could be easily argued that John Johnson acted unethically. But, somehow, I can't accuse him of that. I don't know quite why. Perhaps it was his underdog status at the time. Perhaps it was because it might have been the only way he could have launched the magazine during those days.

Gosh, I have always loved Robin Hood as well. But he did steal. He did break a major commandment. Can we excuse his action because he gave the money to the poor? When you start asking these questions, you begin to understand why people study ethics in college. And why many students get only more confused as they debate the issues. Actions in a limited context can easily look unethical by anyone's standards. Stealing is bad. It is unethical. It is wrong. So when is it right? Should Robin Hood be a hero?

How about our American patriots? They stood behind trees to shoot and kill the British redcoats. Was that fair? Was that ethical? The British expected men to come out and fight on a fair battlefield. The colonists valued their lives, so they shot the British while hiding behind trees, boulders, and other hiding places. Were the colonists ethical? If yes, then are the terrorist bombers also ethical? If the colonists were unethical, then is our country founded on bad seed?

You can ask all sorts of such confusing questions when discussing ethics. It is easy to accuse another of unethical behavior. It is much harder to hold yourself to such standards when acting in real life. Thus, is the standard Amazon bestseller campaign unethical? I don't think so. BUT, its results can definitely be used in an unethical manner. Personally I think it's wrong to say your book is a bestseller just because it was #1 at Amazon for a few hours. But I do think it's ethical to say it was an Amazon.com bestseller.

Now, I've probably opened up the whole can of worms again. If you'd like to comment on this post, anonymously or as a real person, please hold comments to discussing whether or not John Johnson acted ethically. I'd really like to know what you think.

Personally, looking at the larger picture, I believe he acted ethically. But on a black and white scale of ethics, his actions are definitely in the gray area. I don't think they merit being placed on one extreme or the other.

I believe most of our actions fall in the same gray area. I doubt very many of us act in a black or white manner when it comes to ethics. Our actions are rarely purely good or purely evil. Our goal should be to act ethically at all times. The reality is that we often miss the mark. But most of us are still good people. I would trust most of you who read this blog with my life. That's my ultimate measure of ethics. Can I trust you with my life?
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