As a young undergraduate in Dublin, Ireland, I once eavesdropped on a barroom conversation among some off-duty prison officers. These uniformed men one-upped each other with war stories about the prisoners they were paid to guard or serve.
I recall lots of beer-fueled guffaws and anecdotes that skirted or violated the privacy laws. Clearly, these men no longer saw the incarcerated as individuals or people.
Instead, around that bar stood a pack of male Marie Antoinettes who regarded the people in their care as the faceless peasantry--beyond and below and begging to storm the castle gates.
Recently, I (unfortunately) encountered a book publisher whose online blog posts about submitting writers instantly reminded me of those tipsy and pissed-off prison officers.
I'd love to be able to say that this woman is an anomaly. Thankfully, until now, in my own author-to-editor encounters, she actually is.
But in the broader world, I fear that this "you-dumb-authors-out- there" posture is becoming a trend.
Last summer, there was that Twitter agent-pitch getup, an online pitch-a-thon that was (I think; it was hard to follow the actual premise and procedures) a virtual open house in which agents invited neophyte authors to pitch their books. Sounds very gallant and democratic, right?
Except for that one agent who Tweeted out his rejections--plus a set of sneering remarks about his submitting authors' works. Now, in any other industry, this behavior would instantly get him fired--as it should.
The two examples I cite here are extreme and rogue examples? Please tell me this is the case.
I've written on this before, but it bears repeating here: In the rest of the world, a business's success and reputation and bottom line are driven by how that business conducts itself in public, online and behind the boardroom doors.
Do yourself a favor. As a writer researching or approaching your next agent or publisher, watch for those Marie Antoinettes who regard you as yet another dang and dumb author trying to storm the publishing gates.
This trait or stance is not always detectable via a Publisher's Marketplace search or any of the other ways in which we pre-check and -vet a target editor or agent, but you can and should do your own due diligence.
Here are 4 tips:
1. Published submission requirements: Read through the list of submission or pitching requirements (which you should strictly adhere to). Pay particular attention to the tone, the tenor and how this outfit actually pronounces the word, "authors." You're a writer. Your specialty is tone and word choice. Now, use these skills to weed out the amateurs.
2. Social media: Check out the editor or agent's social media presence and postings--including blogs. Again, pay close attention to what gets said about current or prospective or rejected authors and how it's being written. Take a pass on anyone who seems to get a thrill--like those prison officers--out of using real-live or recently considered authors as Exhibit A in how put-upon and barraged her editorial life is.
3. Industry blog? Or personal blog diary? There's nothing more civic and civil than an outfit or individual who hosts and maintains an industry blog with information, statistics, tips and commentary on the industry as a whole. Alan Rinzler's "The Book Deal" is one gold-standard example, but there are lots more. Then there are those that read like a teenage-y diary rant. These are not industry blogs. At best, they speak for one outfit and its editorial preferences. At worst, they're the digital counterpart of those prison officers' after-work beer rant.
4. Listen to your gut: Google search for online interviews or a writing conference's videos that feature your target agent or editor. Listen to your gut when you're judging this person's delivery and demeanor. Forget how desperate you are to be published. Forget the skewed power dynamic. Forget a so-called downsized publishing world. Apply the same standards you use when choosing any other business partner.
The bottom line: Especially for book-length projects, the road from contract to editing to publication can be a long one--too long to walk with someone you don't like and who will never treat you as an equal or worthy project partner.
Postscript: Look at this piece I found on one publisher's website. To me, this is Exhibit A in how it should be.
About Passing on Submissions
Just because we pass on a particular submission does not mean it does not have merit. Do not take this personally. Just sitting down and getting your thoughts on paper is a task for which you should feel great pride–not everyone can do it. Every piece of writing has value. We feel it is important to spread the message of being persistent and diligent in your search for publication. Never let rejection discourage you from sharing your story. Just because it is not right for us does not mean it will not find a more fitting home. Write on.