A Tip For Aspiring Writers: Don't Be A Dick

Sunday, January 17, 2010, 8:47 PM

There's a publishing industry fact that blogging agents and editors have been telling us all along, and in all my six months in print I have learned this to be true: Publishing is a very, very small business. Everybody knows each other. And everybody talks to each other. If a junior editorial assistant at Harper Collins knows that Famous Author X has gas problems, you can be sure that a senior editor at Random House knows it too.

If you behave in such a way as to make a literary agent think you are rude, arrogant, stupid, or even mentally unstable, that reputation will spread and you will never shake it. In other words, if you act like a dick, people will treat you like a dick. The easy answer? Don't be a dick.

As some of you may have seen, there has been a furore in recent days as a Frustrated Writer publicly vented their spleen, decrying the role of the literary agent now and in the future. That was foolish enough, given that agents are treasured beyond all else by most published writers, me included. This particular Frustrated Writer took it a step further, though, by personally attacking a well-established and respected agent in a lengthy blog post. This was just a day or two after this same Frustrated Writer had a go at a blogging editor whom I consider a personal friend. Previously, this same frustrated writer had posted another thinly-veiled attack on another respected agent.

You see where this is going?

Frustrated Writer has now publicly attacked three well-liked and respected publishing professionals. Now, I don't imagine these three professionals are gossips, but they don't need to be. Several other professionals have weighed into the mosh pit in defence of their colleagues. Because their colleagues are well-liked and respected, those other professionals will be very pissed off on their behalf. And they will all talk about it to other colleagues, and so on and so on throughout the industry. What's more, they will all remember for a very long time.

So what do you think the chances are of Frustrated Writer even getting a sniff of an offer of representation or a contract? Approximately nil, I'd say. They could write a novel that combines all the commercial appeal of the Da Vinci Code with the artistic value of Crime and Punishment, and they would never sell it.

And it's not just because they offended some well-liked and respected publishing professionals. It's also because all publishing professionals choose the authors they want to work with based not just on the quality of writing, but on how that author behaves. If an author is rude, arrogant, stupid, and/or showing signs of mental instability on a public blog, it's a pretty safe bet they're going exhibit those traits in their working relationships too. And who wants to work with somebody like that?

Incidentally, I'm not going to post a link to Frustrated Writer's diatribes because (a) I don't want to fuel their attention-seeking fire, (b) I don't want Frustrated Writer following the trail back here and stinking up my blog with their hateful crap, and (c) there's a good chance you've already seen it.

Yesterday, I posted the following question on Twitter: Is there anything more pathetic than a bitter wannabe writer who blames the "gatekeepers" for their lack of publication?

It didn't stay up very long because my good friend Betsy pointed out that it could sound more than a little snotty coming from someone who's been as fortunate as I have over the last two years. And Betsy was absolutely right, it was a very glib comment, so I removed it. I've reposted it here because I want to expand on it a little.

I've been incredibly lucky in my writing career so far. I got my share of rejections, and I have one-and-three-quarter novels stored away that'll never see daylight. But I didn't struggle for years and years, manuscript after manuscript, rejection slip after rejection slip. I know some excellent writers who have. I also know some writers who have been published, by major houses no less, but have found themseles used, abused, chewed up and spat out again with their novels never having been given a fair chance. I even know some writers who blog publicly about those experiences, don't sugar-coat it, and point out the flaws in what everybody knows is a far-from-perfect industry. But they don't get personal, they don't indulge in bitter rants, and they don't come off as borderline psychotic fools by announcing that their work is simply too artistically challenging for bottom-line obsessed publishers.

In other words, they don't act like dicks. So that's my tip for all aspiring writers in 2010. As well as all the usual write lots, rewrite more, get critique, keep trying and so on and so on, that's my current top tip for success: Don't be a dick.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

showing signs of mental instability on a public blog,

There goes my writing career....

10:01 PM  
Blogger Sage Ravenwood said...

I think I'm safe. Other than sounding off about the obscurity and inane spamming that goes under Anonymous in comments, I've been actually kind of nice these days - (Just don't peak in on my real life - winks).

Honestly though, as in anything in life, if you want to be treated with respect you have to carry yourself with a measure of respect. (Hugs)Indigo

12:07 AM  
Blogger Gary Corby said...

I've been watching this little disaster with utter astonishment.

Really the only thing to do with such people is ignore them to death.

1:27 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

A great bit of advice that you'd think would be common sense, but alas...

Of course, I'm only agreeing with you because I'm aiming to further my own career in the hope that you and any other author/publishing professional might throw me a bone. As opposed to the fact that I actually agree with you.


1:32 AM  
Blogger Stacy said...

This particular train wreck wasn't funny. The whole thing made me slightly nauseous.

I hope people stop giving him the attention he so desperately craves.

8:04 AM  
Blogger Jamie Eyberg said...

I am writing this piece of advice down and posting it above my desk lest I forget.

1:57 PM  
Blogger ssas said...

I've had a lot of private discussions around appropriate professional behavior. I think writers THINK they're supposed to be off a bit. Ok, well, we are. But the industry is teensy (hmm, maybe that's why we're not all making more money) and gossipy. That's not just writing, but humankind.

The internet, btw, is a very small place, too. Whatever you write there stays Forever. God forbid I ever get famous. There'll be massive fodder for tabloids.

These folks come and go, at least one every year or so. It is best to ignore them.

2:36 PM  
Blogger jjdebenedictis said...

Companies are starting to institute "No Jerks Allowed" policies, which means they fire people who toxify the workplace with their personality and behaviour, regardless of that person's skills or experience.

The logic is that it costs a company more in the long run to hire and train qualified replacements for all the people who quit because they hated their job thanks to the jerk(s).

One of the perks of being your own boss--as agents generally are-- is instituting your own "No Jerks Allowed" policy before you 'hire' a writer.

6:08 PM  
Blogger Cate Gardner said...

What Aerin said... :D

6:12 PM  
Blogger moonrat said...

you're nice.

4:52 AM  
Blogger Sandra Cormier said...

Huzzah! Huzzah!

I waded in for a bit, found the waters to be rather stinky, and waded out. In the beginning, I was actually concerned for the jerk.

Now, I don't give a rat's ass (sorry, Moonie) if he drops off the face of the earth.

Guess who'll notice if he does? No one.

2:52 AM  
Blogger Merry Monteleone said...

It was kind of like watching a train wreck. The same little weasle went after an unpubbed writer most of us know and love a few months ago - I found it oddly funny that the actual writer (to my knowledge) never saw his little hole in the blogosphere.

He kept upping his ante at various agent blogs (he's insulted more than three, Neville, he's been at it for a while, it just never got this much attention before).

I stayed largely out of the fray over the weekend, but I found myself oddly drawn there and disgusted with myself for reading through all the comments... and then I came back again anyway.

I'm adding to your resolution:

Don't Be a Dick. Don't waste precious writing time arguing with/getting annoyed by dicks, either.

btw - I wouldn't have taken offense to that tweet.

6:45 PM  
Blogger Merry Monteleone said...

umn... if you're wondering why I called you by your last name instead of your first, it's because I'm a flippin' idiot and my fingers move faster than my brain.

Sorry about that - excuse me while I slap my forehead.

6:56 PM  
Blogger Mary said...

I missed the whole thing! But it’s always a waste to expend energy on negative expression. The only reputation tarnished is that of the person blowing their fuse.

Congrats on GOB being optioned for film!

8:31 PM  
Blogger Gary Corby said...

Ghosts of Belfast is optioned for film? Nobody tells me anything.


9:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll post anonymously as well, to prevent The Dork from making a connection.

Looks like you beat me to the punch by two weeks on your post topic! Sigh, the story of my life :)

Like Sandra, I felt sorry for the worm. I've always been a big advocate for the underdog, and I thought with a little understanding, he might get over himself.

Um, no. After three days of insults and cussing and narcissistic ramblings, I gave up.

He's right about one thing: the Internet gives him a voice. But if an idiot yells into cyberspace, and no one is there to hear...hehehe

9:51 PM  
Blogger Sandra Cormier said...

Psssst. He's closing his blog. *whispers, 'yay!'*

1:25 AM  
Blogger cindy said...

does *everyone* know about my gas problem? ha! ;*)

stuart, couldn't have said it better myself. my advice to aspiring to be published writers would be 1. stay positive 2. always stay professional

12:35 AM  
Blogger Karen L. Simpson said...

Thank you so much for this. I just had to tell a writer in my group the fact that publishing is a small, small world. He is burning bridges he shouldn't be burning. Of course, he basicly told me I was full of crap. Ah well, it going to be interesting watching him struggle to get published.

1:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Neville.

I'm a consumer of books. I buy the books that these publishers produce and I want the writers that I read to be a "dick" should the situation arise.

If you folks let the small world of publishing buffalo you? How will you ever compete with the "sure thing" vanity books that are being produced by the dozens. You know what I'm talking about. A pop culture figure, politician or actor, and their agent decide that writing the story of their life or their opinion would be a good career move. Since they have built in publicity and fan base it's welcomed with open arms and enters the NYT best seller list in the top 20. Perhaps even in the top 5. Meanwhile, a good story may languish in the imfamous stacks of stories by unknown authors. If you folks sit there afraid to so much as peep displeasure? How will you get the already dwindling resources available in the publishing world? How will you ever get out of that dark stack and into the light of day?

While I realise that professional decorum is important in any business venture, that doesn't mean you should sit there like milk toast and "suck it up".

Please, I love to read. Do not tell me that you must sit like lambs.

Strong words do not equal being a "dick".

Mr. Neville. As an Irishman you of all people should know how cruel and how unfair "shunning" can be. Especially if it's because of a disagreement. All it really does is turn the spirit of freewill into the bleating of sheep.

I'll sign this "Anonymous" but be sure that I'm not your antagonist here. I'm just a reader of books whose growing worried about the quality of literature in the future.

12:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In other words?

You got through and got your novel published. Good to hear but I wonder how many other novels will never see the light of day because they weren't lucky or they didn't have a publicity machine/fanbase to see that their work was published. Considering the utilization of publishing dollars or pounds to that pop culture phenom, this is more than a "life isn't fair issue."

It's a fair question.

12:17 AM  
Blogger Stuart Neville said...

To the Anonymous commenters above (I'm not sure if you're the same person or not...)

This isn't about allowing yourself to be bullied by the publishing business, or having to "sit like lambs". Any author who is not strong-willed enough to pursue their vision will not fare much better than those who are arrogant and/or delusional.

This is about behaving in a professional manner when dealing with professional people. It's important to remember that although the author is the creative force behind a book, there is a small army of people who work to get that book in front of readers, from the agent at one end of the chain, to the bookseller all the way at the other. Every single one of them is working on the author's behalf, and believe me, they work hard. It's in the author's best interest to treat all of those people with the respect they deserve.

My post is aimed at those few, but very vocal, writers who seem to feel some sort of entitlement to publication, and then get angry when it doesn't happen. That anger turns to bitterness, which turns to public rants against the "gatekeepers".

While celebrity memoirs do seem to suck in a disproportionate share of publishing budgets, they also generate a similarly disproportionate share of profits. Those profits get pumped back into the publishing houses and pay the (admittedly meagre) advances and marketing spends for new authors. It's a pretty simple equation: no celebrity memoirs, no new fiction. Publishing houses can't run on goodwill and artistic integrity, there are no patrons with fat wallets to prop them up.

Anyway, in summary, I stand by my original point: no one owes an author a publishing contract, and any writer who appears delusional or difficult to work with is greatly reducing their chances of ever being offered one. I got incredibly lucky, I've said so over and over again, but luck is only a part of it. Acting like a serious and professional writer when I got my break was equally important.

11:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for responding to my comment. I realize that you're busy so I appreciate the time you took to reply. I think that we both would agree that out goals are the same. We both hope for a vibrant writing community where artists get the resources they need to nurture their talents and then the "fruit" of that work is published.

I do have a question or two but will save them for later. Look forward to reading your blog.



1:12 AM  
Blogger Dr. Mohamed said...

Seems like good advice for life in general.

4:11 PM  

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