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Getting Along with People Who Publish
Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Sunday, September 23, 2012 1:08 AM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 195

One of the saddest tales in publishing is that of the brilliant new writer whose first book or books are eagerly accepted--wow, another hot one--reviewed well, sell well, and who then turns out to be such a pain in the patoot to work with that...within a few years...a promising career goes belly  up.

Nobody expects every writer to be a perfect angel.  But the people who publish books--all of them--have some expectations of writers that a) are reasonable and can be met and b) will have repercussions for the writer if they aren't met.

Neil Gaiman said it very well in his commencement address:  people really care about three things--that you do good work, you do the work on time, that you're easy to get along with.  You can, he said, get by with only two...but I will add that if you try to get by without being easy to get along with, you will have to do very good work, and turn it in on the button.  Because of you annoy the people who are making your manuscript into a book enough, they will be looking for a reason to drop you down a sewer pipe.  

Note that it isn't a matter of right and wrong--it's a matter of rudeness v. courtesy,  willingness to cooperate v. determination to have one's own way on everything,  a professional attitude v. an amateur attitude.  

Does this mean you have to knuckle under to everything and let "them" ruin your precious 24k gold story?  No.  It does mean, however, that you must state your concerns reasonably, as befits an adult talking to another adult.  The people working to publish your book are not your enemies: they want your book to succeed because if it does, it makes them money. 

So if you think the cover is hideous (for instance) and will hurt sales (and some covers do)  then state your dislike in terms of its likely effect on sales...but calmly, and courteously.  "I'm a little concerned that the half-naked lime-green woman being menaced by an orange tentacled alien won't appeal to the natural readership for a cozy mystery featuring a gourmet cook detective."    Better yet, let your agent say that (after you calmly and sensibly explain to your agent what your objection is.) 

If you have the chance to co-author a book with a well-known writer...don't start acting like the book was your idea, and demand to change things the senior co-author set up in previous books.   Don't insist that the detective who's always been short and plump should now be tall and athletic (because you're into fitness), or that the "bad" aliens should be the "good" aliens (because you think the senior author got it wrong two books ago.) 

And do not bad-mouth your publisher or your editor all over the internet (or in print)....they won't like it, and you won't like what happens next.   (The one exception--and even that will get backlash--is when a publisher is in breach of contract,  and you see other writers about to sign with them.  This is a rare circumstance, but can justify warning other writers.  Occasionally a publisher goes rogue.)   But if it's just that a mean old editor made you cut chapter 17 because it didn't  have plot relevance...suck it up and learn from it.   Cover art, editorial cuts, typos still in the book that you're sure you cleaned out...none of those justify embarrassing your publisher.

I saw the results of such "hard to deal with" behavior early in my career, in more than one situation, and heard about others.   One writer was pulled from a collaboration for arguing with the senior author...and was not published again by the publisher of the first book.   Another continued to badmouth a publisher online and oddly enough did not get another contract from that publisher.  Word spreads; editors move from house to house, and if you've ripped a new one for Editor A- at Publisher X, you may find that Editor A- is at an even higher level when you next try Publisher Y.

Since we're all human, and we remember the bad things that happen to us (and who did them) more vividly than most of the small good things, it takes a lot of polite, reasonable, adult behavior to make up for one bad blowup.   Thus it behooves writers to be polite, reasonable, and adult from the start.  

Thank the people who are doing your book for their good work;  everyone likes to be appreciated, and they won't know you like what they've done until you tell them.   Don't complain unless something's really bad (and then do it calmly...and preferably through your agent.)  Don't whine, don't scream, don't impute motive.  Be businesslike.  Be cooperative where you can, and polite about refusing when you can't.   Realize that whatever you say about any publisher or editor online will get to every other publisher or editor in time.  If you're lucky, you learned basic courtesy back in kindergarten; if not...start working on it now. 

Because even if you're a bestseller...someday one of your books will drop in numbers--it happens to us all--and if you're a PITA to deal with, if you're known industry-wide as a selfish, nasty, short-tempered, sarcastic, "difficult" writer (but he's a genius who sells a million copies, so we have to pretend we like him) that's when the team will lick their chops and throw you off the train.  

Don't be that writer.  (Oh, sure, be the one who sells a million copies, if you possibly can.  You knew what I meant!)

Nevena Georgieva
Posted: Wednesday, October 10, 2012 11:46 AM
Joined: 2/9/2012
Posts: 438

Wow, this post is really amazing. Thank you for putting it all in perspective for writers in this way!

LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Wednesday, October 10, 2012 3:26 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662

This is what I keep trying to explain to some of my (cough, cough) younger "teenagers" I've been trying to mentor. It's amazing how many don't understand that writing is as much a business as an art form.

Be courteous, and you will be successful. How hard is that to remember?
Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Sunday, November 4, 2012 1:49 AM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 195

It is hard to convince people (and I would be lying if I said I caught onto this when I was a young and unpublished writer...luckily I aged some before first dealing with an actual publisher.)    There's a romantic mythology about the moral superiority of a creative temperament that just isn't true.  Writers can be stinkers as much as anyone else. 

And for most of us, the actual published work is a cooperative process, not just a writer's own unaided vision.  There needs to be respect among the participants. What I've seen, in 20+ years of being published, is that the writers who were reasonably good to get along with (not perfect, just good enough) had a much easier time of it than the prima donnas. 

Michael R Hagan
Posted: Monday, November 26, 2012 8:10 PM
Joined: 10/14/2012
Posts: 229

Hi Elizabeth
Your post is, as one would expect, the voice of rationality. I fear however that myself, as someone who has, after some modest success in business, spent the last decade finding ever more efficient ways of losing anything that I, through unlikely fortune had ever attained, and now drive a big red van to work, am likely to go too far towards the other pole.
Quite frankly, if a publisher said that they would champion my creation, but first wanted every character re-written, the plot turned upside down, and me to paint myself pink and run naked through the crowded streets of New York, shouting "Aren't I a jolly old plum?" I do believe, I'd be in danger of asking which variety of plum would they prefer!!!

As Groucho said "Those are my principles and, if you don't like them... well, I've got others."

Posted: Monday, December 17, 2012 3:04 PM
Joined: 11/29/2012
Posts: 11

Thank you Elizabeth for starting this discussion.  I find I gain tremendously when listening to people who have 'been there.'

Michael, first let me say that I really enjoyed your post and am still laughing with you about being a jolly old plum!.  In all seriousness, though, I agree with you.  I think I would also perform any change to my manuscript an editor demanded.  The chance to publish, for me, is a greater siren song than any 'literary purity' I may attribute to my novel.

Also, why would I try to tell an editor how to do his or her profession when I know so little about the publishing business.  People who think they can do everyone else's job better than anyone else annoy the hell out of me.  I'll leave that to the hosts of political talk shows.

Posted: Tuesday, May 28, 2013 11:44 AM
How did I miss this discussion? Thank you, Elizabeth!

Atthys Gage
Posted: Saturday, June 1, 2013 11:28 PM
Joined: 6/7/2011
Posts: 467

I missed it too.  

Boy, I wish this was my problem.  
I am so ready to get along with people who publish books.