Tuesday, April 26, 2011

How Gossip Can Trash Your Writing Career

Volumes have been written about ways to offend a prospective agent or editor: unprofessional queries, manuscripts printed in purple ink on yellow paper in Gothic font, annoying phone calls, even stalking -- the story of the manuscript pushed under the door of the toilet stall is legendary.These tactics backfire not just because they are obnoxious and immediately communicate that the writer has not a clue about publishing protocol and appropriate behavior. They constitute an abuse of the agent’s or editor’s time (and eyesight).

Editors and agents are, it goes without saying, human beings with hopes and dreams, families and outside problems. They have good days, bad days, and times they use less than perfect judgment. Most of them love their work and want to love ours. Now more than ever, the publishing industry is under tremendous pressure -- implosion might be a more apt description. In addition to their regular duties, most editors find themselves staggering under the burden of more and more non-editorial work, not to mention worrying about how they’re going to buy groceries if the firm goes belly-up. Anything that a writer does that adds to the crap level in an editor’s life must raise the question, “Is this worth the hassle, when there are a dozen equally promising projects that don’t come with strings?”

So, you study the business, you present your manuscript in the prescribed format, manner, and place. You communicate in a timely, appropriate, and courteous manner. You even buy your editor a drink at WorldCon. Things are going great! Maybe you’ve got an offer or a multi-volume contract, a book or five under your belt. Your agent returns your calls; you’re on a first name basis with your editor. What can go wrong? Besides the vagaries of the market, the whims of distributors, and such like?

Picture this: You’re at a major con, at a late night room party with a group of editorial type folk, some of whom are not entirely sober, most of whom are jet-lagged and all are overdue for serious relaxation time. One of them lets slip a hilarious but less-than-flattering reference to an author past/present/slushpile.

A. Whip out your cellphone and text all your friends, because why keep a good joke to yourself?
B. Post What She Said on Twitter, complete with names, dates and places.
C. Make a mental note to email the editor on the next business day, with the hint that you will be more than happy to keep this information secret in exchange for a favor or two.
D. Instantly develop amnesia on the subject. If any reference to the party arises, look sheepish and mumble, “I was so tired, I can’t remember much, but it was a great party.”

Look, editors and agents and suchlike folk are people, genre publishing is a small world, and very little stays secret. Unless there’s a credible threat of physical violence necessitating immediate police intervention, let it go. You won’t score any brownie points by becoming the fount of the latest buzz. On the other hand, you might harm someone, including the person who let slip the tale.

Will it hurt your book’s chances of a sale and decent promotion if you repeat embarrassing details? Is gossip a professional black mark? Nope, your book will rise or fall on its merits, and everyone understands the human temptation to Pass On The Juicy News.

Will your editor think twice before calling you with a secret, rush project? Will you get invited to the next round of let-down-your-hair parties? Perhaps ones at which anthologies or shared-world series are hatched and invitations issued?

How would you feel if you repeated a story that, whether true or not, damaged someone’s reputation, someone you might find yourself wanting to work with in the future? Writers become editors and vice versa, editors change publishing houses, writers become publishers, editors become agents, writers collaborate and form online ventures.

And that writer you heard the story about, the story you expunged from your memory -- he might just turn out to be your best ever writing buddy.

A version of this essay appeared in 2010 as part of the "How To Trash Your Writing Career" series on Book View Cafe.

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