Author self-sabotage? Really?

In a word – yes. Really. What’s worse is authors have the smokey gun and no idea they pulled their own trigger and shot their own foot. And agents need to be aware of this because it can impact a potential sale.

I’m talking about your online presence. Anything you say on the internet can never be removed, so you want to make sure that what you say won’t come back to bite you on the quill. I’m currently reading a number of full manuscripts – works I’m fairly excited about. I happened to stumble upon a very big writer’s board where I saw a long thread of comments made by an author of one of those manuscripts, and I am now so turned off because he’s tainted my impression of him.

I saw a side of him that wasn’t very pretty, admirable, or reasonable. Do I want to work with someone like that? Of course I will try my level best to judge this author on his writing merits, which are vast, but I’d be an idiot to ignore his online behavior. Publishing is hard enough and requires a lot of patience and a great sense of humor to get over the rough parts. Will this author sling hash about me if things get rough? I can’t help but wonder.

It’s scary to think that I may reject this author based on comments he made on a popular writer’s board. I should be judging the merits of his writing, right? But an author is the sum of his parts, and it’s not just about the writing.

Agents, take notice!

Agents can do themselves a huge service by talking to their authors. I know of a number of agents who issue very strict instructions regarding their online presence:

  • Authors are never to jump into a discussion to defend their agent – this is where passions run high and conversations can turn ugly. If the agent feels the need to jump in and reply, they will do so with (hopefully) more tact and composure. Besides, defending your agent makes you look like a shill. Let them fight their own battles.
  • Authors are always to conduct their online presence so they are an asset, not a hindrance. If authors feel the need to make comments on writer’s boards (on discussions that don’t involve their agent), they must present themselves in a professional manner.

If your agent doesn’t have this talk with you, then have it with yourself. The idea of “only write what you’re willing to let your mother see” is solid advice because it’s not just your mother who’s watching. Potential publishers are also surfing the web. The idea is that if you’re rejected, it’s because your writing didn’t measure up – not because you behaved like an ass.

10 Responses to Author self-sabotage? Really?

  1. Nicola Morgan says:

    Oooh, very good point, Lynn, very good indeed. In fact, (at last) you got there first and I’ll have to follow you to the blogosphere. Not like me, eh? I’ve been blogging so much recently about author profiles, and it had occurred to me that there IS such a thing as negative publicity. I am bookmarking this post to refer to when I catch up with you. Hooray for you and trigger-finger!

  2. Tracy Lucas says:

    We’ve been debating this concept in general in my writers’ group.

    At which point, exactly, does it benefit to be honest (and maybe a little blue) and familiarize your online readership with your sincere personality?

    And at which point do you vow to never utter a non-shiny word, and only speak in tones of grace about your latest project, your newest book, and your bestest friends?

    Of course, the simple answer is that there IS no “exactly”. You make your choice and stick with it — all with the awareness that the decision might just be stuck to you in return.

    Great topic, and good advice. 🙂

  3. Tracy: you ask a valid question. Let me just say that no one cares if your online presence includes colorful metaphors. We all suffer writer’s angst when writing a new project, and honesty isn’t an indictment.

    I draw the line with authors who jump in on writer’s boards to defend or rip apart their agent/editor/publisher/publicist with blind impunity. These folks are more than capable of defending themselves.

    If you are the victim of a scam or rotten deal – like the Kunati implosion – then keep the derision at bay and stick to the facts (hard to do, I know). Let the story speak for itself because you’re doing this not to vent, but to educate others so they can learn to avoid the pitfalls.

    A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself whether your comments on writer’s boards are argumentative and vitriolic, or are you reasonable?

    It’s not like we do the major creep thing, but we do google author’s names when we’re considering signing them.

  4. Joe says:

    I fully understand that agents and authors, like anyone in a business relationship, rely on each other to present as professional a relationship as possible at all times. And “professional” always includes “courteous”.

    But let’s not kid ourselves: many of those who put serious time into scanning for objective rudeness, also scan for specific religious or political opinions. So the course ultimately charted by this practice, inevitably entails that writers are effectively obliged to muzzle strong or unpopular opinion — which just as inevitably leads some to ask, what’s the point of writing at all.

    Literary agents already stand out from the crowd with their complaints of being pressed for time — and in this harried age, that’s really saying something! So I must say I’m a little surprised to see them have the time, let alone the inclination, to routinely scan comments of strangers on blogs and message boards for potential slights. I am certainly nobody special, but I haven’t had the time for that since junior high.

    This can only push the entire online community of writers toward more vanilla, sugar-coated, noncommittal fluff. No successful person has the time to prune the words of every conceivable potential cause for offense, and the few that do won’t have the inclination, because all the resulting posts will, by necessity, be dull, dull, dull.

    I urge you, please consider the potential long-term effects of your actions upon the environment of your industry.

  5. But let’s not kid ourselves: many of those who put serious time into scanning for objective rudeness, also scan for specific religious or political opinions.
    I’m curious as to how you know this because I have not encountered this. If someone writes a story about magic unicorns that reverse the space/time continuum, do you honestly think an agent or editor cares one whit about their religious or political persuasions?

    To be clear, I’m talking about postings where authors are vitriolic and abusive. That kind of thing follows everyone around – whether you’re an author, public figure, or Average Jane or Joe. The trick is to decide whether your statements will bite you somewhere along the line. Look at the politicians whose careers have been ruined because they lacked tact or common sense [yes, I’m aware politics and common sense is a contradiction in terms].

    Case in point; I happened to stumble across an older online interview of an author who submitted to me. The interview focused on the same controversial topic as the book that I was considering signing. A caller phoned in to take the author to task for his viewpoints. Hey, controversy is good, right? Well, it’s good provided the author’s temper is longer than naval lint.

    In the author’s case, he grew defensive and began hurling insults and invectives. It was painful to listen to because they all piled on the author. The more they dug in, the ruder he became. I dumped the notion of signing him at that very moment. And I don’t apologize for it because I had to consider whether he’d pull the stunt on CNN or the Today Show. Who needs this? A disagreeable, rancorous author isn’t an asset, and they don’t sell books.

    Had I not found this out, I would have been one sorry editor. When it’s my money going into a book, then I think I have the duty to know who I’m dealing with. I do this to preserve what’s left of my sanity and the book’s viability, not to commit acts of censorship.

    Do I care about someone’s politics or religion? Only if they wrote a religious or political book. Otherwise I and my cohorts could give a bloody rip.

  6. Joe says:

    In fairness, I must infer that you possess sufficient wisdom and virtue to remain objective in most circumstances: you stipulate that your dealbreakers are “insults and invectives”, not mere opinions. And you were of course well-justified in scrutinizing the way an author behaved during the interview you describe — there’s absolutely no reasonable expectation of privacy in such a situation.

    I know no one enjoys dealing with jerks. And I understand that playing online detective reduces the risk of doing so. If you consider this practice to be essential, and I find that upsetting, the ultimate blame lies with authors who have behaved childishly in the past.

    I assure you my concerns are sincere, even if they are off the mark, and even if I did perhaps overreact. I’m sorry if I upset you.

  7. If you consider this practice to be essential…the ultimate blame lies with authors who have behaved childishly in the past.
    Joe, I don’t really give any thought to it. It’s simply the price of doing business in a world where every utterance can be used to exalt or sink – and can potentially cost us thousands.

    I never believed you were anything but sincere. It’s easy to overreact to something you don’t understand. Hopefully I’ve been able to communicate effectively enough so that I don’t appear to be Big Brother incarnate, but rather a publisher who is concerned about protecting the reputation of our company and our authors.

  8. Tracy Lucas says:

    Totally agreed with the advice throughout the comment trail, too.

    As an employer, I’d Google any potential new hire immediately upon considering them seriously for any important position. If she likes punk bands and goth poetry, more power to her; but if she shows up in news headlines for fraud at the last company on her resume, it’s a different matter.

    And for a publisher, the next author on the roster equals bread and butter.

    And speaking from personal experience as a publisher myself… even we like to eat from time to time.


  9. Cat Woods says:

    I honestly don’t think this message could be said often enough. Written words are powerful things. Writers need to consider not only abusive language, but also connotations of the words they use. What one says and what another hears may be two totally different things.

    Thanks for yet another reminder of how to behave professionally.

  10. Hi Cat. Thanks for your comments. I also should add that this whole online thing is a two-way street. There are authors who probably have disagreements with things I’ve said on writer’s boards, so it can be a good way of deciding whether that agent or editor is a good fit for you.

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