Thoughts on a Snowy Afternoon

Wisconsin finally decided to commit to the whole “winter” thing, so I’m here basically locked into the house for the day. A few things have cropped up in the community of writers and publishing in the last week or so, and I thought I’d take a minute to add my thoughts.

First, there was the curious case recently of an editor of a small, no-pay ezine flipping out on a writer who asked a simple question about her publication. The writer on the receiving end of the tirade posted the comments to social media, where they quickly went viral. Well, viral among writers and other people connected to the craft.

Now, I’m not going to weigh in on the merits of publications who only pay their writers in exposure. Most of them are small and just starting out, trying to build up subscriptions and page-views. This very closely mirrors the journey new writers have to undertake, and I wish all of them the best of luck. Personally, I believe in being paid for my work, even if it is only a token sum. I’ve been paid as little as $3 for a piece of flash fiction before, but it was still real money that was able to buy me a significant fraction of a Culver’s Snack Pack. Other writers may feel that in the early goings, exposure is a sufficient reward for their troubles, and that’s fine. The only person who can make that call for you, is you. But there comes a time in the career of every creative where people will only start valuing your work if you do. I just decided that for me, that was Day 1.

No, what was so strange about this incident was just how much of an outlier it was, at least in my experience. From the get-go, I’ve been shocked at how supportive, even nurturing the community of writers, editors, agents, and publishers is. You have to be willing to work hard, and churn out quality material, but there has never been a shortage of people willing to extend a helping hand with advice on the business, critiques, beta-reading services, etc. I cannot tell you how many of the friends I’ve made over the last few years have gone out of their ways to help pull me along and try to find success. It’s unlike any working environment I’ve ever been a part of before. There is almost a complete lack of competition among writing professionals. It’s a fraternity, and a warm one at that. I would send a shout of thanks out to everyone who has helped me, but the list would take up far too much space, and I would invariably forget someone.

So it was through this lens of camaraderie that I read this editor’s attack, and that’s all it could be called, upon a fellow writer for having the gall to ask her a politely worded question about compensation, and for the nerve to believe her work might be worth real money. How dare she believe she should be compensated for her work the way everyone else in the universe is compensated for theirs! Not only did this editor display an incredible lack of grace and professionalism, but she had somehow forgotten the people who had in their own time helped her reach what success she had achieved. I don’t care who you are in this business, someone took the time to give you constructive critiques, someone gave your first published story a break, someone volunteered to be the Beta reader for your first novel manuscript. No one does this alone, it’s just not possible.

And maybe most importantly, someone teaches you the ‘rules’. Listen, we all make mistakes coming through this process. There is no creative writing program in the country that teaches you the rest of the story. Finding markets, submitting, landing an agent, negotiating contracts, running a social media campaign. branding, etc. We all walk into that part of the job blindly and stagger around in the dark for a while. Mistakes will be made, and all you can do is hope whoever catches you will be gentle and understanding.

I, for example, am still in the process of shopping around my very first novel manuscript. I’d sent it out to nearly eighty agents and publishers. And while I’ve gotten some solid nibbles, I haven’t managed to drag any of them back to the boat with this one yet. Then, late last year at World Con Chicago, I thought I was getting a break, when a side conversation with an acquisitions editor for one of the biggest sci-fi publishers in the business (names withheld to protect me from embarrassment) asked me to send him the manuscript. Needless to say, I was ecstatic. I ran right back to my hotel room and emailed it to him straight away. Only later did I come to realize that another person, whom had asked for a sample of the manuscript some months earlier, was actually an editor for the same publisher. I had inadvertently gone around his back and submitted directly to his boss.

Now, this is a Four-Alarm, Gold-Plated, No-No. But here’s the thing that our meanie editor above had either forgotten, or never knew. When you fuck up by the numbers, the best possible thing you can do is fess-up and immediately apologize. Acting tough, entitled, or too important for such lowly concerns is the single fastest way to stain your reputation. And this is a very small industry, with very long memories. In my case, I hadn’t known the two men worked for the same company, but even that wasn’t good enough. Unlike submitting to agents, who expect that you are blasting your novel out to anyone who’ll listen, editors at that level expect an exclusive look. This was one of the rules I hadn’t been in a position to learn yet, so all I could do was thank the man I’d wronged for educating me, and promise not to repeat the mistake. Fortunately, I hadn’t run into a primadona, and while he was rightfully irritated, he chalked it up to a rookie mistake. Would he have been willing to do so if I’d been defensive, or given him an attitude? Would you?

The moral of all this is, no matter how far down the road of succes you get in this industry, always remember that there were people there all along to help push your cart. Someday, it will be your turn to do the same for the next person coming up the road. And that ended up being quite a bit longer than I’d planned, so I’ll sign off for today. More tomorrow on “used eBooks” and “Space Marines.”

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