If there's one thing that shows like "House of Cards" has taught me, it's that politics is a dog-eat-dog world. Just one viewing of "Full Metal Jacket" is enough to know that the military is not for the faint of heart - and not just because the enemy is shooting at you. Pop culture even warns us in the guise of "Wall Street," "The Social Network," and so forth that business is a cut-throat world where your best friend will betray you for a bigger slice of the pie.
One thing I've rarely seen depicted, though, is the dangers of the publishing world. When I think of movies about writers - and there aren't very many, and most of those are not very interesting - it usually amounts to someone writing a brilliant manuscript, and with very little foreplay they are suddenly a bestselling author. Everyone is very happy for them, and...scene!
From time to time I've considered writing about the drama of the publishing world, though that may end up being a novel for when I'm older and have more experience. But right now I can already tell you there is enough betrayal and turmoil to make Shakespeare blush. When I was a teenager, I thought becoming a writer would mostly consist of writing, then being published, then making tons of money and fending off fans. Nobody ever told me I'd be swimming with sharks. So consider yourself fairly warned, young neophyte, if ye be reading this: you're about to plunge into the deep end of the shark tank.
A few of the species of sharks you will encounter in your journey towards fame and fortune include:
1.) Schmagents and Schmublishers
I believe we've gone over this before, but to recap: there is no test, badge, or vetting process for calling yourself an agent or a publisher. If you get pulled over by somebody pretending to be a cop, well, that's illegal and they can get arrested. If you sell your manuscript to some idiot with a mimeograph machine in his basement calling himself a publisher, well, basically there's nothing you can do about it.
There are people in this business who are outright hucksters (Publish America, anyone?) who simply wish to prey upon innocent writers and essentially fleece them for their money. Again, there's nothing illegal about this. It's a universal rule that there's more money to be made off of aspiring writers than there is to be made off of readers. But the government can't really stop anyone from giving bad advice (if they could, Deepak Chopra would be Public Enemy #1) or utilizing bad business practices (hell, that seems to get rewarded with the highest political office in the land these days.)
But somewhat adjacent to more-or-less unprosecuted con men are what we call "schmagents." They're not an agent with beaucoup sales. But they're also not not an agent. They're probably just someone too dumb to know what they don't know. They're probably some guy in Flint, Michigan or West Texas who assumes that with a little elbow grease they can sell just as well as any snooty New York agency with millions of dollars worth of sales to their name. These people probably aren't out to fleece you, they're just a bit delusional, like the forty-five year old couch potato with a midlife crisis who decides with enough gumption he can get into the Olympics.
Ditto the schmublisher. They may have good intentions, but if they're essentially just a step between you and Amazon, what are they doing for you that you couldn't do on your own by self-publishing?
2.) The Next Stephen King
Most of the authors I've met have a hard-earned, wholly realistic grasp of where, exactly, they fit into the publishing totem pole. After just a few years of looking at your sales and banging your head against the wall, you usually can get a pretty good grasp of where you stand. I might call myself reasonably well-known in the horror literature community, the kind of guy that four horror readers out of ten would say, "Oh, yeah, I've heard of him but haven't read any of his stuff." But that's about it. And I have no illusions about who I am.
Some authors, though, are hopelessly delusional. They think they deserve a higher station than they've earned. How does this affect you? Well, for one thing, prepare for a veritable vineyard of sour grapes. If you're the sort of person who can let complaining roll off your back, great. But I think even the best of us can be brought low by ten or twenty doses of negativity a day.
And if he doesn't just mope about, The Next Stephen King may be a rager. Nothing makes sense like getting angry about a book, right? They may hate another author's success. Hell, they may resent your success, young upstart. When you bypass them along the road to Writer Valhalla (and you will) they may start chucking bombs along after you.
I don't mind a one-star review now and then. In fact, I prefer it. It means my work is getting read widely enough that it's reaching the sorts of people who don't dig it.
Let me reiterate: bad reviews are fine. What's not fine is personal attacks. What's not fine is doxxing a writer. What's not fine is starting a flamewar encouraging twits on Reddit to down vote all your books or leave bad reviews. What's not fine is conservatives leaving bad reviews on a book they've never read by a liberal (or vice versa.) What's not fine is threatening to blow up an author's child's school (yes, that really happened.)
The internet is full of morons and trolls. Your average person can just avoid them. Authors, however, like any public figures, are going to attract their fair share of loonies.
And finally, where would we be if not for well-meaning idiots? It's hard to get angry at morons, but it doesn't make their behavior any less dangerous. The buffoon may just be full of terrible, terrible advice. They may direct you towards schmagents, schmublishers, and trolls. They may worship The Next Stephen King, making it that much harder to forget about him.
A buffoon may be a terrible editor who takes your money anyway. He may be convinced he's the next Picasso, but produces a cover in MS Paint (and charges you anyway.) He may be a publicist who turns off every reviewer and blogger he contacts, making him worse than useless (oh, and a big old drain on your wallet.)
He might come to one of your convention panels and try to hijack it with terrible ideas. He could be a jerk, but he could also be perfectly nice, and just terrible at the whole writing and marketing thing. In which case, he's probably going to offer you a review-for-review trade of his terrible book like an earnest puppy, and you feel terrible giving it a bad review.
Buffoons, like trolls, are also not unique to the writing world, but, again, since you're a public figure, they'll become more difficult to ignore (and especially difficult to tell off.)
So, fairly warned. If you want to run with the big dogs, you're going to be running with some that are happy to maul you. Some are malicious, many more are just wrong-headed, and a whole bevy of them just don't know any better.
But what can you do to avoid the sharks? Well, lucky for you I've got a few shots of good old-fashioned Bat-Shark-Repellant here to take the nasty taste out of your mouth from reading the rest of this article:
- Look before you leap. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If someone's offering you something that you don't feel like you've earned yet, ask yourself why. Maybe you've had good fortune. Or maybe you've run into a shark. Never sign a contract the day you receive it. Never agree to anything the instant the offer is made. Hard thinking and intuition will help you steer clear of most chondrichthian encounters.
- Research widely. Sure, I highly recommend Across the Board. But you should also be regularly reading Author Beware, Terrible Minds, Scalzi's Whatever, Publisher's Marketplace, and as many industry blogs and sites as you can find. Terrible advice is rampant, but you can always triangulate the truth by ingesting as much data as you can, seeing what jibes, and rejecting the junk.
- Learn who to trust. The best defense fish have against sharks is swimming in schools. I can think of seven people right off the top of my head who will have my back and help me avoid the sharks, and you know each and every one of them: Jonathan, Mary, Carrie, Abby, Kim, Brenda, and Cheryl. They're not the entirety of my Tribe of Righteousness and Truth, but they represent a good cross-section of them.
So, what do you think? Have you come across any sub-class of authorial sharks I haven't mentioned? Come up with any ways of avoiding their predations? Let me know in the comments below!