Be Professional, Writer.

I was listening to an editor friend describe the dramas (no names mentioned – this person is a consummate professional) he’s been having with ‘diva’ writers during the creation of a small-press speculative fiction anthology and how he would think twice before ‘subjecting’ himself to some of those individuals again and the conversation inspired me to write this general post about the importance of professionalism and being a reasonable human being if you want to last in this industry.

Disclaimer – In no way should this post be taken to suggest that writers should shut-up and set aside their rights in order to get ahead in this industry. Writers can and should demand that any agreements made with their publisher or agent be met (e.g. copyright licensing, return of copyright ownership, agreed payment and so on) and that they be treated with respect. This post is just a reminder to wannabe writers (myself included) that they too have responsibilities and expectations to meet if they want to go far in this industry.

Agree to do what you say you will.

This not only good business, but common courtesy. If you say you will have your biography to your anthology editor or your comments in on any edits they’ve made by a certain time, then DO! The same goes for having a book due. If you tell your publisher that you will have the third book in the series written by such-and-such date, then you should really endeavour to meet this commitment and, if you can’t (if disaster happened in the interim), let your publisher know well in advance so he can begin damage-control and rearranging book release schedules and promotions and whatnot to fit the change in plan.

If at all possible, submit your work or fulfill your contract/agreement in less than the time allowed – provided doing so is not achieved through a drop in quality. Publishing is all about deadlines and time is money. Getting projects completed early allows a publishing house or editor to move onto the next money-making thing more swiftly, so they like it if you can have your work submitted ahead of schedule. It also gives them and you more time to make corrections/edits.

Do your best work every time.

It does not matter if the work you are doing is worth $20 for a small anthology or a big advance in a big house – do your best work. No reader knows how much you were paid for anything. All they or anyone else knows is the quality you turned out. You can’t go and argue, “well, the job was only paying $20 so I only gave $20 worth of work” because it doesn’t work like that in writing – the final product is the final product. If you don’t want to work for $20, then don’t submit to the place only offering that.

It’s also professional courtesy to do your best work. A book is a collaborative effort, even if you are the author, and a lot of people have vested interest, passion and pride and, in the case of the publishing house, money, in the outcome. You don’t get to ‘phone it in’ because other people are relying on you to play your part in the overall success. Think how you’d feel if the cover artist did a crappy job decorating a novel you were proud of …

Once you have made an agreement and signed a contract, then that is what you have agreed to so don’t moan about it.

If you agreed to sell your short story for $20, then that’s what you are getting, unless you have something in place guaranteeing you royalties or whatnot. Don’t go on Facebook and tell everyone how you were diddled by your publisher. It’s unprofessional and if the publisher finds out (which he probably will), you can be darn sure he’s going to remember you next time you’re wanting some work.

Don’t be a dick.

Publishers, agents, editors, critics, reviewers and fellow authors are human too and deserve to be treated with respect. Being rude in person or over email/social media or excessively demanding of their time and effort or just vastly inappropriate not only makes them feel uncomfortable and resentful of having to deal with you, but unless you are some Booker Prize winning superstar author (and even if you are …) they will probably avoid you in the future, making it difficult for you to get more work or make certain contacts.

If the offense you’ve committed (even if it’s just a social offense and not a criminal one) is big enough or you’ve just picked the wrong person on the wrong day to get offside, the person you have offended may even tweet or blog about it. They will certainly tell their mates who, like any business community, will most likely be other people in the profession. That means that, not only will you have blown it with the first publisher/agent/editor, but all the others will soon know to avoid you too. So, it’s reeeeeally important not to be a dick.

Don’t get so drunk that you become inappropriate at writer gatherings or business functions. Everyone remembers the half-dressed woman dancing on the tabletop … and everyone takes pictures. Agents and publishing houses have an image to maintain and limited ‘stables’ of authors and, therefore, if they are forced to choose between someone whose Facebook images suggest respectability and professionalism and your photos of a drunken night out, they will probably go with the former.

Don’t air offensive or prejudicial views in the media (including on your own Twitter and Facebook and email accounts and on what you think are ‘private forums’). Better yet, don’t have offensive or prejudicial views in the first place (work on some self-improvement). The writing community is a vast melting pot of every nationality and gender combination and sexual preference and physical and mental ability and everyone has the right to feel comfortable and included in the creative space. The culture of writing communities and conventions is fast becoming one of inclusion for all and intolerance of prejudice and bigotry and, with the internet being what it is, those holding fast to intolerant and discriminatory views and practises tend to find themselves outed very rapidly.

Pick the right moment to engage your heroes or prospective business partners.

This falls under the ‘don’t be a dick’ heading, but is particularly pertinent to writers just starting out.

I often go to writer-focused conventions where there is frequently a smattering of ‘industry people’ – editors of publishing houses, agents and successful authors – schmoozing and catching up. Sometimes these events are the only times these people get to see each other in person.

More often than not, however, these industry-insider gatherings are swiftly surrounded by a corona of hovering students and wannabe writers all waiting to pounce on individuals with requests for publishing tips and pleas to ‘read their work’ and requests for meetings and interviews and business cards and autographs and so on.

Sometimes the individuals being thus-targeted don’t like this (and the last thing your budding career needs is the head of a major publishing house thinking you are an impolite, pushy twit). They just want a quiet drink and catch-up with their buddies. They are not interested in small talk with you. If that is the case (or even just the vibe you are getting from the position of their eyebrows and their fixed avoiding-eye-contact stare) then leave them alone for ‘their time’.

They may well be approachable later and better disposed to meeting ‘you’ if you were polite before. Many a publishing relationship has started following a random meeting in a bar. It’s just that you need to be mindful of the situation and the company. If people are engaged in a conversation, it is impertinent to bust into their conversation with your pitch. If, however, the person you are interested in is sitting alone in public or you’ve found yourself next to them at dinner, then it might be perfectly appropriate to ask if you can join them or even ask if they will hear your pitch or your idea for a story.

But always give them an out – offer to make your pitch at a time convenient to them if they would prefer not to be engaged at the present moment.

If they are not interested in your company at all – now or in the future – then remain polite and respectful and thank them for their time anyway.

Don’t disrespect or dismiss the little guys

This follows on from the above point. Often new writers hover around the so-called ‘big players’, totally ignoring smaller agents and publishers who might be more than willing to hear about your work.

Take time to build relationships with lesser-known publishing houses and new writers and agents. They might turn out to be bigger than you think. The writing community is small and you have no idea who knows who nor how many hands in how many pies a person you think is ‘just a small player’ has. A small-press editor might well be the best friend of a Harper Voyager editor for all you know and quite happy to tell their friend all about this ‘great new writer’ he met at a convention.

Make friends first before asking for favours

Whilst writers and publishing houses and agents are often on Twitter and Facebook and on forums, that does not mean they are fully ‘accessible’ or that they want every unknown on the planet asking them ‘how to get published’ and ‘to read their work.’ They simply don’t have time.

You can, however, get to be genuine friends with these people by reading and discussing their stuff, by attending their writing classes and visiting them at conventions and having coffee with them and so on. Sometimes that even turns into something more and you get invited into the writing community whole-heartedly (this is particularly so when you’ve had some things published and demonstrated that you are seriously committed to the art and that you can work well with other members of the community).

Only once you’ve established yourself as a friend or colleague or ‘student’ of some of these people is it appropriate to make requests of them for tips and Beta-reading so on. Even then, don’t forget to keep everything professional. You might be friends, but you are also work-friends and what you are requesting should never be so much that it interferes with the other writer’s/publisher’s/agent’s own work and professional integrity.

Do not bitch about other people in the industry

There is no such thing as a private forum or a private setting. Even if you are in the midst of a group of writer friends in your own home, it is always unwise to engage in a bitch-session or gossip-session about other writers or publishing-houses or agents or people otherwise engaged in the community (e.g. fans). You certainly would not want to post such things on the internet.

Firstly – whatever you write or say may get back to them. They may have some choice things to reveal about you, in turn. At the very least, you could have lost a good friend or colleague or alienated someone you might have need of one day.

Secondly – you can get sued. Reputations are big in this game and a lot of money can be at stake.

Just be friendly, be respectful and do your best work and you should get on fine.

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5 thoughts on “Be Professional, Writer.

    • Thanks a lot for the compliment! I think people can really scuttle themselves early on by getting too big for their boots before they’ve realised just how small and well-connected the writing community is.

      • I wrote a blog post a few months back which contained similar advice to your post. I completely agree with you. There is no conspiracy out there, and are a million reasons why publishers can’t publish every book

      • Absolutely right. Considering just how many people (all with their own opinions of a manuscript) and stages (slush, editors, subeditors, marketing, finances and so on) a book needs to go through just to be published, let alone make it past the gauntlet of critics, reviews, public opinion and so much other book competition (particularly since self-publishing is on the rise as well), it’s astounding any book gets a chance to make a mark. All the more reason for writers to be on their best professional behaviour (at least how ‘you’ behave is one thing you can control in this process, where so much else is up to the whims of publishing fate and the capricious nature of reading trends).

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