There’s nothing inherently dishonest about publishing your own work. Some of the most notable Christian authors of all time started that way, including Dennis Rainey, Larry Burkett, and R.T. Kendall. In many cases, publishing was a natural outgrowth of their conference ministries; often, they had to self-publish because commercial publishers just didn’t see the potential of their work. But these authors were willing to sacrifice their time and money to spread the message God had given them.

With the rise of modern printing and ebook technologies, it’s easier and more economical for authors to produce their own books. Nearly four hundred thousand new books are published each year in the United States–many of them self-published. And therein lies the challenge: How can an author get a new book recognized in the clamor of so many new publications every year?

Producing a new book has never been easier, but marketing that book has never been more difficult. Here lies the root of an ethical dilemma that now plagues Christian self-publishing.

Reputable Christian publishers have now started subsidiaries to provide editorial, design, and marketing services to authors who want to publish their own books. An author can buy a package of these services for a few thousand dollars. There’s an implied promise that big-name publishers’ professional staffers who produce commercially successful books will do the same for the self-published author. (Seldom true.) There’s also a promise–sometimes explicitly stated–that self-published authors’ work will be touted by the same sales team and placed in the same highly visible locations that made best-selling authors’ books so successful. (Almost never true.)

Subsidy publishing (or, in the brutal phrase of publishing veterans, “vanity publishing”) panders to the naivete of new authors. It sells hope at a handsome price. The enterprise is profitable for grand old houses sponsoring it, but rarely delivers the kind of results aspiring authors expect.

And there’s more. Some publicists have launched so-called “publishing houses” that are simply packages of trade advertising, planted reviews, and massive giveaways designed to inflate sales figures and secure a spot on well-known best-seller lists. Now and then, the strategy works. It creates the “buzz” that generates genuine sales. More often, it taps the author’s bank account, enriches the publicist, and does little to put the book into hands of interested readers.

Merriam-Webster defines integrity as “the quality of being honest and fair.” No one can deny that today’s self-publishing promoters are profitable, but few of them ply their trade with integrity. Authors, beware.