“Hah, faked you!”

February 29, 2012

My brother used to chuck this out at me, along with the accompanying waggy finger in my face whenever he pulled a fast one on me. I was about six when he told me that I could grow rocks…y’know, like plants. All I had to do is bury a rock, water it, and the next day I’d have a pile of newborn rocks. Totally believing him because, after all, he was ten, I found a cool rock, buried it in the dirt, and dutifully watered it.

I barely slept that night because I was so excited to see how many new rocks would be born because of my efforts. I raced out early the next morning to find a huge pile of glistening rocks. Excitedly hopping on one foot, then the other, it was all I could talk about over breakfast until my sister – who was a god-like creature because at fifteen, she knew EVERYTHING – rolled her eyes and belted out the truth.

There is no such thing as growing rocks.

My brother had lied like a cheap rug, and made me feel like a Class-A Idiot. Predictably, he grabbed his stomach and laughed his fool head off, wagging his finger and yelling, “Hah, faked you!” Asshat.

But I see signs of this in publishing, and I’m not alone in this. Agent Kristin Nelson doesn’t like the great fake-out any more than I do because it’s just a rotten thing to do. I’m talking about the authors who, in an attempt to get their pages read asap, tell the agent or editor they have an offer on the table. Because there is a hint of an expiration date on a manuscript, we drop what we’re doing and quickly read it in order to see if we want it and can blackmail convince the author they’d much rather sign with us.

In most cases, I read a few pages and wish the authors luck in their new endeavors because, like Kristin, I’m suspicious they’re telling a hot one with the “I’ve been offered a contract.” In short, the writing simply isn’t there.

Not too long ago, an author did this “I gotta offer on the table,” so I hurriedly read the pages and loved it. I asked for the full. He wrote back to say he didn’t really have an offer, but was trying to find out if he had a good story or not. My enthusiasm convinced him he was on the right track. Thankyouverymuch, I’ll get back to writing now. And hey, remember my name because I’ll query you when I’m finished.

Slow. Burn.

Oh yes, I will remember his name.

So why do we allow ourselves to get suckered? Because there are times when it’s for real, and the author does have an offer on the table. I had an author write me for advice regarding an offer she’d received. We got to talking, and I asked what her story was about. One thing led to another, and I signed her because she writes like the wind has a fabulous story.

There is a lot of magic that happens in publishing and is the main reason I love this insane business so much. There is nothing cooler than watching a story you’ve massaged and worked on for months on end finally hit the stands. It’s like watching your kid go off to college, except there are no tears and achy heart.

Every day, something amazing happens with one or several of our authors, and I can only sit back and bless the Cosmic Muffin for our good fortune. For those those who waggle a finger and taunt, “Hah, faked you!”, I can guarantee they will be paid back in kind because the Cosmic Muffin loves karma and keeps a very big score card.

Embellishment – sphincter pucker for publishers

July 28, 2011

With the continued revelations of writers suffering from James Frey Disease, nonfiction publishers perform their daily ritual of puckering their sphincters – especially when they read an article that questions yet another author’s faulty memory. I’m being nice. Nicer than I’d feel if one of those authors were mine. Actually this sort of thing makes me want to sew voodoo dolls and raid the local JoAnn’s Fabric of all their straight pins.

This latest kerfluffle involves Luis Carlos Montalvan and his book, Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him. This is the type of book that invades my dreams and wishie lists of a dream book, and it’s agonizing to find out that his story is being questioned by those who served with him.

This is the main fear I have when I review query letters. James Frey (and yes, it still bugs me that he’s been given so much credibility) and Greg Mortenson of Three Cups of Tea fame have ruined my sense of trust. Instead of accepting experiences at face value, I’m forced to measure my ability to vet any given story. That inability could prevent me from accepting a book of real worth.

On the other hand, maybe it’s good those who dance around the truth have been exposed. If lying is the new paradigm, perhaps it’s best my rose-colored glasses were ripped from my face. After all, if it’s good enough for our politicians, it must be good enough for us. This is a trickle-down idea I can live without. I mourn the loss of honesty and a moral compass.

And I find it particularly shocking when much is made of someone’s honesty – like the guy who returns a wallet, still filled with $20,000…like honesty is as novel an idea as mixing Twinkies and bananas.

Lying is expensive – not necessarily to the one perpetuating the lie (hello James Frey) – but to the publisher, who is left holding the bag. People scoff and believe that a publisher can shoulder this kind of financial hit if they decide to remove the book or offer refunds. But I can promise you that when this stuff happens, people lose their jobs. So while Frey and Mortenson go about their days without a care, someone is taking the hit for their folly.

Lying is intentional. Someone is actively trying to pull one over on you, and hoping you’re dumb enough or trusting enough to pull it off. I wish society condemned lying, but it seems that these are passed off as “transgressions” or “remembering wrong.” Remembering wrong? Have we become so blasé about the truth that we’re willing to forgive and forget? If so, stop the world and let me get off.

If there was no profit or advantage in lying, it would cease to exist. As a publisher, I’ve had my eyes ripped open and I’m more careful about vetting than I ever have been. There have been any number of queries I’ve received where it was painfully obvious the author had no filter for lying, and I could reject them as easily as I can down one of the beagle’s margaritas. But it stinks to reject someone because I know there are big claims they’re making that I can’t ferret out without hiring a detective or researcher.

So to the three people I rejected the other day, I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I didn’t have the guts to admit that I was rejecting you because I couldn’t believe you without rock-solid proof. No one appreciates having their integrity questioned, and I’m sorry you were the blowback of the Freys, Mortensons, and Montalvans of the world. I hate that I’ve had to become cynical and suspicious in order to protect all that we’ve worked to build. And my heart goes out to the publishers whose authors have cheated them.

Until society takes the profit out of lying, I’ll continue to keep my sphincter muscles in good working order.

How do you feel about those authors who have been caught lying?

Some things really aren’t a good idea

July 11, 2011

Agents and editors have seen every kind of query letter under the sun, so not much gets past us. Like the time a woman tried convincing me she’d won a Pulitzer. Wanna guess how it took to look up and verify? It took the beagle a half hour – one minute to uncover the lie, and 29 minutes laughing.

This was not a good idea.

— Your query letter claims that you’re hugely popular in social media, yet your provided blog link shows that you only post once a month and have zero comments.

This is not a good idea.

— You state that your blog establishes your platform, yet all the blog posts discuss your query experiences – and your book is about divorce and starting over.

This is not a good idea.

— Your query letter provides a link to your blog, and I go over to take a peek and see a screen capture of MY rejection letter to you that I sent only two months ago.

This is REALLY not a good idea and I will curse you and your future children. And reject you faster than the beagle can suck down a margarita.

NOTE: Never, never, never do a screen cap of someone’s email, or quote directly from it. It’s a huge intrusion, copyright infringement, and definitely not a way to make friends and influence others. And no, it doesn’t matter if you removed my email address and contact information. It’s rude.

— You tell me that you won a PEN Award.

Like Ms. PulitzerPants, this is ridiculously easy to verify. This is not a good idea.

— You tell me that you have a contract offer from a “big” publisher, but you’re still “looking around.”

This is not a good idea. Case in point: A woman made this claim about a publisher whose editorial director I happened to know. So I asked her about it. My friend wrote back; “Never heard of her.”

— You claim that your agent is XYZ.

Unless you really do have an agent, this is not a good idea because I’ll check. And I’ll also wonder why they aren’t querying me instead of you.

— You tell me your book (previously published) sold thousands of copies.

This is not a good idea because I’ll check. To date, no one has ever been able to prove to me their book enjoyed the sales they claimed to have.

The moral of this story is you will be found out if you try to make yourself bigger and better than you are. My advice: don’t try it. Just be yourself and have faith in your writing because at the end of the day, it’s all you have.

“I once caught a fish this big…

April 19, 2011

…to which the teller of the fish story goes on to elaborate how the fish was the size of a VW bus, yet after a five hour struggle he reeled it in without help. In truth, the fish was the size of a sardine and he barely broke a sweat, but who’s going to discount the story?

And that’s the rub. Someone ALWAYS knows the truth and can either remain quiet or “out” you. It depends on the risk of blowback.

Which appears to be the case with NY Times bestseller author Greg Mortenson, who told a whopper of a fish story with his “memoir” Three Cups of Tea. Seems that 60 Minutes decided to check the veracity of his story. Lo and behold…it was a lie. So Mortenson pulled a James Frey. Lovely. And while he has raked in barrels of money to build schools in Afghanistan (which appear to be a bit of a stretch as well), his publisher is having some serious sphincter pucker. They’re probably holding emergency meetings right now, wondering whether to pull the book off the shelves and figuring out what their response will be.

They’ve already issued a few statements to the effect that they’ll be looking into the allegations. And of course, they’re having to fend off the cries of, “Editor, vet thyself!”

Yah, sure. It’s easier said than done. Vetting a story takes a lot of money and time. And unless the publisher has an unlimited budget, it simply can’t be done. How does one track down all the people who were involved in this story? Villagers? Taliban? People need to be realistic about what a publisher can realistically pull off. That’s why contracts stipulate that it’s the author’s responsibility to ensure the story they’re telling is true.

Greg Mortenson knowingly lied. And made a fortune doing it.

I detest liars with every fiber of my being because someone always gets hurt. A publisher produces a book in good faith only to get burned. This hits close to home because we specialize in publishing authors’ personal journeys. Over the years I’ve had some real whopper queries cross my desk and I always reject them because I know I can’t verify the story. They’re simply too fantastical to believe at first blush. Maybe I’m too cynical, but I have a reputation to consider, and I can’t afford to be caught up in something I can’t authenticate because the first thing I’d have to do is recall the books. Pardon my French, but screw that!

Getting caught in a lie is so pathetic – except if you’re a politician, and they do it as a natural course of business and have no shame. Sadly, that lack of shame has leeched over into society. And it’s not just in lying about their stories. People also stretch the truth with their bios. I remember the woman who queried me and listed herself as a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Anyone want to guess how quickly one can find that out? About two seconds. I wrote her a scathing letter telling her that not only did she have the IQ of a camel in order to lie about something so easily verified, but that I would make sure to tell all my agent and editor friends about her as well.

And that’s my opinion of Greg Mortenson – not that he gives a rip. He’s made his millions and will slurk off to some hidey hole where he belongs. Or he’ll brazenly continue the lie like a politician. Who knows? But I feel for his publisher.

Seems good faith is in short supply these days. I don’t welcome or embrace the decay.

Does lying bother you as much as it bothers me?

Sold!…or oversold

May 4, 2010

I know I’ve written about this before a while back, but it bears repeating: DO NOT OVERSELL YOURSELF. You only make yourself look foolish.

If you don’t have a platform, admit it.

If you tell me that you give lectures all over the world, then I will expect to see a whoppin’ internet presence that backs that up. If I google you and see absolutely nothing other than your brand new website and equally pristine blog, then my little radar starts pinging because most speakers have active websites with a list of where they’ve spoken and their upcoming schedule.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, one cannot break wind anymore without someone reporting it on the internet, so it’s natural to assume your national and international lectures will leave some sort of internet footprint.

And this lack of an internet presence will make me suspicious about your claims that you’ll have “huge” back-of-the-room sales.

Just because you’re not some Hollywood hooha who had a ghostwriter bang out a new kid book or sloppy, indulgent memoir doesn’t mean that you don’t have a worthwhile project, so don’t go to the lengths of trying to blow smoke up my Vickie Secrets. I’m gonna check you out so, one way or ‘nuther, your cover will be blown. And won’t you feel quite the ninny?

If your subject is good, has a compelling plot, and a definable audience, then sell yourself on those merits. ‘Cos if an editor signs you, you’re going to have that day of reckoning. Trust me – you do not want to make your editor angry. Ve haf vays off making you bleed…

Lying – just…don’t

October 20, 2009

So “balloon boy” was all a hoax, I see. Nothing more than a publicity stunt. The kid hid while hundreds of law enforcement officials went on a kidhunt that covered many square miles all because they thought was was inside the family’s balloon. The end story is that the parents wanted to get on a reality show and enlisted the aid of their kids to perpetuate the lie. Good grief. Of course people are furious, and Mom and Dad will probably have to auction off their house to pay their upcoming legal fees. Serves them right in my opinion.

My synapses stop firing when I think about the lengths people will go to for their place in the sun. Are people all that desperate for notoriety? The story reminded me of a phone conversation I had with an author a couple years ago:

“I didn’t lie! I was just a little economical with the truth.” Her protests were so loud, I had to hold the phone away from my ear, which sent the beagle into a fit of giggles. She loves to watch me squirm.

Economical with the truth. Gah. She sounds like she carries the DNA to be a politician. She was incensed that I doubted her story, which was almost pure fabrication after I conducted a small fact-finding tour.  I was incensed that I had to take time out of my job to uncover it. The author was so desperate to be published that she didn’t see the harm in a “little white lie.” Well, that “little white lie” could have potentially bankrupted me. Does the world really need another James Frey, for godsakes?

I’ve uncovered other fabrications – one woman tried to tell me she was a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Know how easy it is to look that up? I had another author try to tell me she was the secret lover of a very famous actor. It was no small amount of irony that I happened to know one of the actor’s granddaughters, and no one knew who she was. That’s some secret. Isn’t this how those “I carried Elvis’ love child” headliners make it to those rag mags? Why bother with proof when you have titillation on your side?

Ok, these are the obvious nutters. Others are better at camouflaging their little lies in amongst the bushes so it’s harder to uncover. Maybe they pad their promotion plan, or their bio. Why should I care about those small “transgressions”? Because like everything else in life, there exists a domino effect.

We give your promo plan and bio to the hands of our sales teams, which put it in the hands of the genre buyers. Purchase orders are often based on the strengths of the book and those external elements. If you really don’t have those media contacts that you claimed to  and you really sit home and make homemade Twinkies, this makes our national sales efforts that much harder because you’re not out there doing any events. That Fox News coverage you talked about in your promo plan will never happen. That means fewer people will know that your book exists, so those large purchase orders that sent your book out across the country may very well come rushing back to our warehouses in the form of returns. That just colors me all shades of pissed off. And your butt on the sidewalk. So much for dominoes, eh?

But I guess lying is akin to desperate people in desperate times. Except that publishing a book is hardly desperate. The world will keep turning and the stars will still shine if a book isn’t published. I won’t bother going into the immorality of lying or how the Cosmic Muffin takes away those lovely Karma Points from your balance sheet – it’s just wasted space on those who are “economical with the truth.” I’ll just say that it makes my teeth itch and I’ll hate you forever.

I know it’s tempting to pad your bio or your promotion plan – or your memoir – or promise Big  Name forewords for your book. I had an author’s agent tell me a famous actor had written the foreword of her client’s book because they were old friends. Sounded plausible at the time. Upon request to see the foreword along with the pages, the agent told me,”Ooops. Turns out Mr. Famous agreed to write it.” Hmm. By this time, I’m looking askance at the agent. Did she not vet her own client? After a bit of merry-go-rounding, it turned out that the author had “hoped” to get a mere blurb from said famous actor – whom he didn’t know at all. It was a house of cards that came tumbling down over the agent’s and author’s heads.

I’ve seen authors whose books are stuck in the gaping maw of those publishers who “gave them the chance they deserved” talk about changing their name and the title of the book so they can pitch it to agents and other publishers – even though they still have a valid contract!

Now this is just all kinds of creepy, and I thank the stars and moon that those who pull a bonehead stunt like this are usually lousy writers. What these dimwits don’t realize is let’s say they succeed in fooling another publisher and their “new” book is pubbed. If the previous publisher [who still has a valid contract, mind you] finds out, they will most definitely go after the author and their new publisher. See what I mean? Domino effect.

I have to wonder at what point does one stop and consider the stupidity of pulling the wool over someone’s eyes? Trust me, there is no fury as the editor scorned, and sooner or later, we usually find out. Secrets and lies are very hard to contain because there is always someone willing to expose a liar. And the bigger the infraction, the uglier the disembowelment.

Lying…just don’t. You simply cannot whitewash a lie. You can call it an exaggeration, a stretch, a representation (total WTF), a misunderstanding, BUT IT IS STILL – AND ALWAYS WILL BE – A LIE. You can’t help having an unimpressive  bio, and making it up won’t put a smile on your editor’s face once she finds out that your job as a CEO of a major janitorial company really turns out to be a “representation” of the fact that you clean toilets for the local elementary school. I’ve seen contracts ditched for things like this.

Never, never, ever underestimate the investigative powers of your editor – whether she’s a small fry like me, or an editor at Ballentine.

As “balloon boy’s” parents are about to find out, lying casts a wide net. It can costs thousands to millions of dollars and ruins lives and careers. Are you absolutely sure it’s worth the risk?

So to answer my question of whether some are that desperate for notoriety, I guess I’d have to say yes. Sad, isn’t it?

Be Honest or Stretch the Truth?

March 28, 2008

“Dear Benevolent Editor,

I’m a published author and have two books with PRINT-O-RAMA PRESS, and I’m looking to branch out. My books, Frying Eggs on the Sidewalk: the naturalist cooker’s guide and Lint In My Navel enjoyed fantastic sales in Barnes and Noble, BAM, and Borders…”

I see this a lot in queries. Authors who have published before talk about their maaahvelous sales in hopes I’ll be convinced of their brilliance. The only thing that convinces me of a writer’s brilliance is the writing and the plot. Great sales of a previous title are important because it tells me that your work sells and that you’re establishing a readership. It’s icing on the cake. And I love icing. A lot.

Writers are a smart bunch, and they know we like icing. Here in lies the temptation to go to the dark side and pad bios. This is the day of James Frey and Oprah buffoonery, so, just like I check out agents, I check out authors as well to make sure bios aren’t a fictionalized wish list. Hey, even my dreams are filled with me selling enough books to buy Hawaii.

If your book about knitting toilet paper doilies was printed by Publish America, don’t tell me Random House bought them as an imprint. Yes, someone actually tried this. If it hadn’t been so pathetic, I’m sure I’d have laughed up a lung.

If you tell me you sold gazillions, I’ll find out with a stroke of my pearly little fingers. If you tell me that you’re a marketing guru from ‘way back, I’ll ask a ton of questions to verify this. I had an author tell me that he had blurbs from four Very Big Authors. When it came right down to it, all he really had was their email address. Sheesh. I had another tell me they’d won a Pulitzer. Now that’s just plain insane, and I truly hope she’s been fit for a designer straightjacket and is eating checkers.

Look at it this way; if you lie to me, what kind of a relationship are you setting up with me in the future? There’s always the risk of slipping up between fantasy and truth. Trust me; I’m just like your mom. I have eyes in the back of my head, and I know if you’ve eaten those fresh-baked cookies I burned for dessert, and I’ll know if you padded your sales or your vanity publisher suddenly morphed into one of the Big Six.

Do what my mom always recommends; when in doubt, don’t.

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