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Dear Author, Don't Be a Jerk. No, Really.

There was a time when it was OK for authors to act like jerks. Indeed, you could say some authors' careers were enhanced by this practice. Think Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote. Hmm...they're all males. But today's Internet makes it too easy too act like a jerk on a regular basis. Your primary job as a writer is to write books. Your secondary job, if you want that to go on being your primary job, is to sell books. And being a jerk, at least too often, well, it kind of runs contrary to that goal. Think of it like this: every time you behave boorishly, you run the risk of alienating - and therefore losing - readers. Even when you write a blog - this one could be an example - you never know who might read it and take offense at your pearls of wit and wisdom. And yet sometimes it's worth running that risk. In my case, if I save a few writers from pitfalls, it's worth losing the ones who conclude, "Ah, she's an asshat." Here, then, are some of the rules I've acquired over the last 25 years in this business to help others avoid jerkdom. Naturally, I've broken some of them from time to time myself, and I'll try to point out when and why that has been the case, so no one comes back afterwards with, "But *you* did that!"

OK, here's the list:

1) Don't Respond To Wholly Negative Reviews. It seems obvious, and yet how often do you see writers fighting their own battles in the Letters to the Editor section of the NYTBR? Or better yet, the writer who transparently signs herself "A Reader" who is transparent because she responds with venom to every one-star review of her books on Amazon? Really, you're not going to win readers with this sort of behavior, although it is sick fun to watch. Are there times when it's worth responding to not entirely positive reviews? Sure. If a blogger gives a mixed review, there's nothing wrong with dropping a note thanking the reviewer and possibly adding that if they do attempt another of your books, they'll find it more pleasurable. Bloggers are often astonished to realize that there's a human being who wrote the book and that that human being actually read their review. It actually serves to remind them, as we constantly need to be reminded, that what we say on the Internet is not said in a vacuum. Another time when I responded to a negative online review? When I was accused of plaigiarising JANE EYRE in my novel HOW NANCY DREW SAVED MY LIFE. Accusations of plaigiarism and other nefarious writing crimes - Hello, Frey! Hello, Kaavya! - can spread like wildfire on the Internet, sinking a book or at least temporarily sinking a career, so I felt the need to publicly point out firmly and vehemently that it's not plaigiarism when the text of the book constantly acknowledges what it's doing. It was worth speaking out. The accusations stopped. But as a rule? Don't be Richard Ford. Don't take a copy of one of Alice Hoffman's books out into your yard, shoot it to pieces with a gun and then mail it to her, all because she gave you a lousy review.

2) Don't Dis The Author Who Has Blurbed You. It sounds obvious, but if someone has been nice enough to blurb you, don't go posting how much differently - and better! - you'd have handled certain passages in her new book. Yes, we all know you write better than JK Rowling - or at least we know that you think you do - but please don't do this. It is just such bad form. It's the opposite of gracious. You want to tell me or your other friends this in private, great; maybe I'll even agree with you. But doing it publicly makes everyone who comes across it think, "Wow, if she ever comes to me for a blurb..." Now does this mean you should say positive things about a particular book if you don't mean it? Gack, no! But there's a third alternative to dissing and lying - it's called keeping your mouth shut.

3) Don't Boast About Your 50-Page Blurbs. Don't crow about how you got authors to blurb your book on the basis of the first 50 pages and then used them on your finished book, because: a) you make those of us who actually read the whole book before blurbing and only accept blurbs from people who've read the whole book look bad; b) you'll make me wonder if the other 350 pages of your book suck.

4) Don't Be An Expert. Remember when your mother used to say, "No one likes a know-it-all"? And remember how annoying that was because she was yet again right, proving that she herself was, yeah, you know, a know-it-all? Well, she really was right. It's so tempting. You've waited 20 years to get published, having written 53 books along the way. Now you've finally achieved that dream. You want to share your wisdom. You want to help others on their path. So noble! So virtuous! Really, it's a fine impulse. You could say this blog falls under that heading, and you might be right. But I would say to you: Modify that impulse. At the very least, modulate your tone when you're handing out all that good advice. Except in those rarest of cases, when there really is only one right answer to a thing, I always try to cheerfully convey that what I say is just my opinion, based on my experiences - no more, no less. But some writers opine in The Voice Of God and at thesis length about everything from query letters to whether to use black and white or color for author pics. Resist. Occasionally, let another writer weigh in on the all-important evergreen topic of just how long a YA novel should be these days. By all means, help other writers; help as much as time and temperament allow. But you want to write something at length? How about getting started on your next book.

5) Don't Complain About Your Cover. Actually, you can complain about your cover, or about anything else related to your book. But generally speaking, the person you should be complaining to is your agent, who can then bring it up to the appropriate parties. On the other hand, when you publicly tear your hair out over it on one of the writing sites that are out there or on a Yahoogroup with 1000 other writing members, how can you be sure that someone from your publisher won't be a guest there somewhere down the road? And then, when you're trying to get them to go back to contract for more books, won't you feel, um, stupid? Of course it's painful to get a lousy cover and almost every writer who is lucky enough to have a writing career will eventually suffer this indignity. So talk to the people who can do something about it, talk to friends who can commiserate with you privately over the sheer suckdom of it all. But please don't... Well, you get it.

6) Don't Talk Politics. Actually, do talk politics. It's too important these days not to be involved. But as with everything else, when participating in public forums, think before you open your mouth. It's so tempting to think that others will automatically agree with everything one says - after all, I'm right! and I'm so brilliant! - but really, not everyone does. Who knows? They might even be stupid enough to vote for That Other Guy!     

As I said in the beginning, I've broken some of these rules myself, although thankfully not all. But here's the thing: I always know the risk I'm running, know just which bridges I leave blazing behind me. So when I do opine, it's because I've weighed those risks and have concluded that it's worth the potential loss to achieve the greater gain of helping someone else. Or maybe because the subject under discussion really does matter that much.

So how about you?


Be well. Don't forget to write.

15 Comment count
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QUESTION on the subject

I'd have to agree with most of this. It's common sense stuff, as you said. We all have the occasional bad day, and I know better than most that it can come back to bite you later.

At the same time, I have a question on the subject, if you don't mind. Maybe you can get another blog post out of this one. In #5, you talk about how an author shouldn't complain in public about the publisher, but not doing so can cause the author to take a LOT of flack about things that are ultimately not within the author's control.


I won't name names, but one NYT Bestseller recently got hate mail from readers over something she did in a book. Now, the problem here is that the author in question didn't write the parts that were wrong. While my editors have always taken reasonable edits to mean that they accept my fact-checking, hers apparently didn't. The EDITOR, without the author having a choice, rewrote portions of the book to fit the editor's mistaken ideas about certain events that do not match the historical record...in essence causing errors in the book. Now, the author has a choice. Take the abuse and take the label of "idiot who doesn't fact-check/research" or tell the readers that she had no choice in the changes the editor made.

Again, I won't name names, but several authors have had proofers change something AFTER the author's final check that made it into the print book and caused everything from confusion to world rule breaches. Same situation. It comes down to a choice between the author's professional image with readers and the author's professional standing with the publisher.

At the same time, the authors are told not to have readers complain about these sorts of things, but if the author isn't allowed to simply prove her research and have it go as written...and the readers aren't allowed to tell the publisher how deplorable we find them doing this sort of thing to an author... Is it any wonder some readers get the mistaken idea that authors are slipshod?

Which would you choose? Just out of curiosity... Appearing completely incompetant to your readers or appearing a problem to your publisher?

It's a difficult question, since (ultimately) everything that goes out wrong is not the author's fault...but I have a whole blog post about that subject. Shrug.


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Hey, Brenna! The rules I cite are, as I say, generally speaking. But of course there are individual cases that warrant handling things more differently. I'd say that a good overarching rule of thumb would be: If you would not be embarrassed to have your words heard by the people you're speaking about - publisher, copyeditor or what-have-you - then post away! 

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I've always felt it was

I've always felt it was better to be reviled than ignored.  And, I'll have you know, I've been ignored by the best!

 As far as book covers goes, I was blown away by the cover for Plasma Dreams.  I think my publisher read my mind.


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Great line!

"It['s] better to be reviled than ignored" - I love that! Me, I don't mind being reviled at all, because I almost always know when I've brought it on...and it's been intentional. Great to have you here, Eric, and congratulations on having a cover you love.

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Wave If You Must

Never complain. Never explain.

I have a character who has created a formula for social interactions of a negative nature. S, N + SP



Slip Past

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"Never complain, never explain" - I've said that before! And I firmly believe in it...except when I feel compelled to behave otherwise. Great to have you here, Dale!

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This is great

Lauren, thanks for these pointers. I've added this post to Red Room's Tips page.

Huntington Sharp, Red Room

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Now I feel famous! Btw, the link provided goes to Amy King's page, but when I clicked on "Tips" on the tool bar, I saw it there. Anyway, thanks, Huntington! I'll try to say more useful things in future blogs here.

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Thanks, Lauren. I was adding that post of Amy's at the same time as yours, and got the links mixed up. Fixed.

Huntington Sharp, Red Room

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Now I feel famous *and* properly linked!

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It's not all about me.

I am much more sane if I focus away from myself. Instead of searching for how many people read or reviewed my work, I focus on reading new books and new literary magazines. And when I like something, I either blog about it or drop the author or editor a note. Everything I wish for myself, I better be doing for others first.

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Always sound advice. What are you doing here? SMOOCH!

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A dash of humility and a good dose of gratitude

Thanks so much Lauren for these great points. I also believe in picking your battles with your publisher, and generally keeping the ego in check, remembering that they want to sell your book as much as you do, and editorial feedback is designed to improve the book. I also always send thank you's to everyone who's worked on my book. It takes a team to bring a book to life.

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Don't be a jerk!

You ask, what pitfalls of jerkdom do you think authors would do best to avoid? How about not beating up on the reviewer? I have heard from more than one reviewer who has told incredible stories of personal attacks -- directed to their personal email addresses -- by authors who do not like their reviews. It takes a lot of work to review a book, especially to review it seriously and honestly. I write both professional and lay books. I consider reviewers who give honest opinions (agreed that opinions are not necessarily global truths) to be valuable resources and thank them, whether or not the author likes my book. In fact, I like to analyze why the review has been negative and take that into consideration in the writing of future books. Negative input can often be far more valuable in the long run than unmerited flattery. I think it is also important to keep in mind that we are all different (a wonderful blessing God has given this world), and so not all of us will like the same things. If one reads the chatter by reviewers, there is a growing tendency to write only positive opinions in a review for fear of personal attacks. If that tendency mushrooms, what a loss that will be to authors. Really. And to readers.

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The other thing is to be grateful that you have a publisher who publishes your books because sometimes, we can be in a situation where we are ungrateful to our publishers, which is not good because it's actually not easy to find one these days. I disagree about the political matter because I am an author who is also a social critic. 100% of my books are politically motivated, but I don't expect everyone to agree with me. But thanks for the rest of the advice.