PSA: Authors, Write Books, Not War
On Facebook this morning, my husband linked to an article at The Daily Dot about the dangers of blogging/posting at work. Before I even clicked the link to read the post, I laughed bitterly and thought, “Yeah, if only my maxim could be that simple.” Because as an author, whether I talk about writing/publishing or not, everything I put on the Internet affects my work. All my words and pictures and links have the potential to affect my sales. My daughter, now making her first forays into social media, has been warned if she wouldn’t be comfortable seeing it on CNN Student News, she shouldn’t post it, but for authors and anyone whose public persona isn’t an outlet but a lifeline to a paycheck needs a tighter mantra. Every tweet, every Facebook post, every chat and private Instagram could elevate our profile, yes—and it could also stake us more thoroughly than any book we’ll ever write. Public posting for authors doesn’t simply risk getting us fired. Every word and pixel we put up for public consumption could tank our careers. And it’s well past time we started behaving that way.
I feel like so many posts I’ve written on my blog are variations on this theme, but this one matters enough to me that I’ll do it again and be more direct than ever. Authors: if you doubt for a second, don’t post on social media, don’t write that blog. If you’re trashing another author—of any caliber, any level of fame, you should not. You should use great caution and care when and if you review. You should be careful when you post tweets, status updates, and photos. You should behave as if every word you say is being heard by everyone in the entirety of the world, and everyone who loves them—but most importantly, you should assume the world is listening. And taking screenshots, and getting popcorn to watch in case you burn.
Somehow it seems a myth has been started that authors, big or small, are owed something. In the past few weeks I feel like this entitlement keeps coming up in various forms in all genres of publishing, at all levels. Somehow even the most obscure excuse me, who the hell are you? authors have no issue with standing loudly at their pulpit of choice decrying the unfairness of not being chosen for conferences or awards or whatever the hell crawled in front of them that day. Reviews—God help us all, reviews. Authors writing reviews trashing other authors, then acting as if they’re Joan of Arc when everyone turns on them. Authors acting as if every complaint from a reader hurts their poor little feeeeeeelings—which, actually, that happens every day. And it’s why I have my besties on IM and in DM and on speed dial. When a review manages to wound me, I go to a trusted, vetted private source and I snarl and cast aspersions on penis size and sexual prowess and throw enough shade to cast eternal darkness on my enemy’s soul. And then I get over it and move on, the Internet never the wiser. I don’t, ever, broadcast that crap even in a private blog. I sure as hell don’t attack or argue with readers or reviewers. I suck it up. I move on.
Any author reading: you should too.
Authors, what you are entitled to as a published, paid author is a paycheck for the works you sell. You are entitled to not being plagiarized. You are entitled to a fair market and fair pay. You are entitled to a level playing field. But what you are not entitled to is a special refrigerated train car for your very special snowflake. You are not entitled even to a car or a track to ride on. You are entitled to a chance. Everything beyond this you must earn.
I understand why this is such an unappealing concept, but I suggest anyone who wants to get ten feet in this business learn to swallow fast. Publishing has never been a graceful or kind affair, but right now, at this moment in time, it is nuclear war every single day. There is no safe house. There is no clear path. There is no Way to seek and follow. There is blood, terror, heart-rendering risk, and there is pain and betrayal. Those are your guarantees. Your promises I can make you as one who has been actively watching this stuff go down for almost twenty years and wading neck-deep into it for five.
What I can also promise you is that you will go nowhere without friends and allies, which means every word out of your mouth should be filtered to make sure you avoid making enemies.
I don’t think any author can be immune to hope and wistfulness, castles in the sky we wish to build foundations under—and those dreams are vital. But authors must remember, always, that other people are building foundations too, and if you steal other people’s stuff or hurl rocks at their heads, you will pay. If you build your foundations on the blood of your friends or while sniping and snarling at anyone who dares challenge you, your foundations will fall long before you get anywhere worth getting to. Every tweet you share, every Instagram you post marks your brand. It’s possible that it serves you to be a caustic, rotten asshole as your brand—possible, but even this must be polished and affected. And you’d better pray the risks of that approach pay off, because the odds are never in your favor.
I wish we could make a rule that every author or want-to-be author before they get WiFi access needs to read The Prince, and like license renewal we should ingest it again every so many years. When I first read Machiavelli, I hated him and his jaded view of politics. I still kind of hate him, though now it’s because I think he’s completely and utterly right and I wish he were not. What frustrated me about The Prince in college was this idea that the world was not a good, Disney-like place where nice people prevailed and everything, if we all worked hard and went to church and did good deeds, would be okay. This idea that people have to be calculating and sometimes nasty to get ahead made me sick.
The thing is, it’s true, and as authors? We need to stay well out of it, because no matter what our egos might tell us, we are not princes, not kings, not queens. We are barely courtiers. We are jesters every one. We are bards. We are servants, here at the whim and will of the populace, the public, and sometimes the prince himself. We are ruled by forces greater than we can control. We have moments of power, of fame, but everything we prize may be taken away at any time. Our great fame may be toppled by one ill-timed fall or misspeak. Our work will sometimes disappoint, yes, and sometimes our star will not shine as bright because of something we create, but we’ll be forgiven because everyone wants another tale. We are servants, always, and the princes and courtiers love to be served—but never scolded. The mob, the masses—they love our work, but as Twitter teaches us daily, the mob loves scandal more. It is transfixed by the public display of someone behaving badly, of being publicly burned for daring to step out of line. We may as authors, or even as possessors of souls, dislike this tendency, but we will have more luck attempting to roll back the ocean’s tide than we will quell this part of human nature. And as an author, we are in the worst positions in the world to do so.
The sense of entitlement luring authors is our trap, because too many of us want to be movie stars. Or twitter stars. Or conference stars. Who of us does not want to be Jude Deveraux and Julie Garwood at RT with all the fans and authors weeping like supplicants, so overcome by awe and nostalgia they can barely speak? We all want that, yes, but that adoration is not our birthright. Those ladies bought that status with grace, civility, and politic. They bought it with luck and perseverance and diligence. They did not stab their way to the top. They did not whine and cry their way or seethe about the horrible unfairness of it all. They worked. They behaved. They shone like stars. They earned that reverence.
Somehow though there is this idea that we may be all that by sockpuppet trickery, by flattery and bribes, by stepping on the necks of our fellows, by standing up and demanding we be honored. Somehow there is this idea that we may complain about bad reviews on Facebook—we’re all friends there, after all—and it will not taint us as soft-bellied complainers whose books no one wants to buy anymore. Somehow our personal blogs are an acceptable place to rant about any and everything we dislike in the world—and consumers should ignore the discomfort and dislike they feel in us now and still shop for our books.
I don’t think most people are thinking this deeply or even very shallowly when they post unwise things. Most authors mis-stepping in the social sphere are merely naive and untutored and foolish. The great irony for writers is that as a population we are the wallflowers, the outsiders who observe. The idea that we should also be media moguls is dangerous, and often leads to those melt-down blog posts we flock to like the trainwrecks they are: there but for a well-timed glass of wine and phone call go we all. No one is immune. Authors barely significant enough to float in a puddle drown in the same Twittercycle as decades-established bestsellers who could buy and sell us all on a whim. Sometimes these are momentary lapses in judgment. Sometimes the scandals are legitimate. Sometimes they represent deep philosophical struggles with no real answer.
Bloggers—book bloggers, readers, anyone not an author? They can have these public conversations far more safely. Scandal is lifeblood to bloggers more often than not. Controversy means hits. Negative reviews, even when authors foolishly firestorm, even when readers defy them as is their right (so long as they are not sent by the author), are good for blogs. Authors, you should not go here, and when you are compelled to do so anyway, you must be aware that every single word you say might lose you sales. You may disagree with me. You may burn and learn on your own. I certainly have done so, and many others have before me and many will in days to come. But this is my advice, and it comes from my heart, my soul, my being. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t be negative in public. Don’t snipe. Don’t disparage your fellows. Don’t diva. Don’t demand. Don’t assume. Don’t snarl, just don’t. Because while you think you’re digging yourself or someone else out, more often than not all you’re doing is carving out your grave.
Traditionally published authors, stop snickering or hating on indie. Indie, stop mocking traditionally pubbed for being codependent. Everyone, stop whining and kvetching about how you’re being held back, about how the system is against you, about how you’re never picked for the ball, about how someone is taking your spot in the show. If you want a spot in the light, earn it. If want to go to the ball, work. If you want to win, play the game. If you want to shine, work on your glow. Be kind or at least gracious to your fellow performers. Remember that you are allowed to perform at all only by the permission and pleasure of your audience. Remember that to create your art you must be vulnerable, which means you will need friends and support more than you’ll need a sharp sword.
Writing is hard. Publishing is harder. It is an arena you enter where the rules change and the efficacy of all your best weapons will abruptly, unfairly cease and you must build new ones while arrows come at your head. It is a world where nothing is real and seldom constant. It is a career where everything you have you will earn, and where gifts and luck and happy accidents, success stumbled upon, can be a greater burden than climbing the ladder. Publishing is a slog, and fame and success are not guaranteed. Never, not one time has waging war, from the mildest whine to the most vicious peer attack, advanced a career. But collectively and singularly, those acts have ended many.
Write books, authors. Write stories. Channel your emotions, your fears, your vulnerabilities into your work. Swallow the hurt and give voice to a song. In your books, which is what you are here for in the first place. Everywhere else? Post about cats and beards and the cupcake you had instead of dinner. Better to be banal than a bitch. Because readers will flock to the cats and the cupcakes and possibly bring you baked goods and collars with your cover art as collars to singings. But they’ll get a front row seat to watch the bitch go down.
Every. Single. Time.