Do unto others as you would have them do unto you

I don’t normally get all Biblical on you fine people, but on this particular Sunday, I’ve just had some rather startling news: a writer friend of mine, someone whom I have helped until I was blue in the face, has just landed a rather large publishing deal. With a big enough advance that she can take months off her day job to finish the book — since it’s a NF book, she only has a chapter and the proposal written.

She has, in fact, just achieved the writer’s dream. So why am I not dancing and singing and inviting all of us to celebrate her success?

Normally, I would. You know me — usually, I am the first to jump up and down when someone hits a home run in the publishing game. Especially a friend. And even more especially someone I have helped along the way — not only did I spend a month and a half going over her book proposal with her, but I more or less bullied my wonderful agent into first talking with her (when’s the last time a powerful NYC agent gave you twenty minutes of phone time mid-project?) and then into reading her proposal toute suite.

Nor was that all. 100% of my friend’s information about how to write a book proposal came from this very blog and my in-person assistance. Heck, I once edited one of her proposal drafts when I had a fever of 102 — as her friend, not as her hired editor — because she was in a panic about a deadline.

I seriously believed in this writer, in short.

I don’t like to toot my own horn, but considering that my friend had NEVER queried before, these boosts probably took at least 3-5 years off her road to publication, conservatively speaking. I am not exaggerating — she knew so little about how the industry works that she didn’t even know that I had hooked her up with one of the best agents in the world for her type of book until AFTER she had signed — and then only because other writers in her area gasped when she told them who her agent was.

Yes, you read that right: my friend was so new to the process that she hadn’t even bothered to do ANY research about an agent before signing with her. That should make those of you who have been conscientious in your querying faint.

But hey, I try to be as supportive of other writers as I can; I’ve been working hard to be happy for her, even though, strictly speaking, she hasn’t paid her dues. She’s a good writer, and a lot of people forget in the early stages of the process that kind authors like me who are willing to help those earlier on are not simply public utilities provided by the universe for their assistance, but human beings who might conceivably like to be thanked every once in awhile.

Okay, so maybe it was a little overly-trusting of me to teach someone I had known less than a year to make Mediterranean recipes that have been in my family for generations (had I mentioned she was writing a food memoir?). Perhaps it was overly-tolerant to let someone who really didn’t want to get published any more than any of the other writers I knew hijack what was supposed to be my Christmas vacation to teach her how to do a book proposal. But honestly, there was really no graceful way I could whack her over the head and say, “Um, would you mind learning enough about the business to be grateful for what you HAVEN’T had to go through?”

So I held my tongue, even when she started speaking about parts of the book that had been my suggestions as her own unaided ideas. Even when she implied to her blog readers (she’s a fairly successful blogger) that she had gotten her agent through a magical process of networking set up by the universe, apparently without any individual human being having made any exceptional effort on her behalf. (It made me feel like a telephone operator, not a friend.) Okay, I put my foot down when she started stealing my recipes (and my godmother’s, while she was at it) for her book, but other than that, I just was supportive and waited for more experience in the business to teach her that it’s a bad idea not to give credit where credit is due.

Then her book garnered offers from two major publishing houses — and she didn’t even bother to pick up the phone or drop me an e-mail to let me know.

I had served my purpose, I guess. The only reason I found out that she had sold the book at all was that I had sent her an e-mail about something else. Yes, dear readers, I honestly did find out about her first book sale as an, “oh, by the way.” After she had informed other friends, evidently. As nearly as I can tell, I was pretty much the last in her circle of acquaintance to know — after I had given her such a boost in her career that from the beginning of the proposal-writing process to book deal was 10 months.

Yes, you read that correctly.

I don’t know how much the publisher is giving her. I am not going to ask. I would rather not know to the penny how much my friendship is worth.

I am writing about this not just to vent (although that’s feeling pretty good, too, of course), but as a double-sided cautionary tale — no, make that triple-sided. First, since publishing is a business that thrives on personal connections and writers believing in one another, it is — as I expect I have pointed out before — an environment where we’re all better off if we are eager to help other writers.

If I did not believe that we all have an ethical obligation to help and a need to be helped, I certainly would not devote so much time to this blog. I genuinely hope that the advice I give here will help you succeed, and that as success builds upon success, you will help others in your turn.

Unfortunately, there are people who don’t understand that generosity should be reciprocal; writers like my former friend, who will grasp at any connection they can to clamber more quickly up the proverbial ladder to success, are not all that rare, alas. Do bear this in mind the next time you meet an established writer and ask for advice or a recommendation: that hesitation you see will be a direct result of having been used before.

The unappreciative make it harder for everyone else.

Second, it is very, very common for those of us with good agents to be asked by writers we barely know to show material to our agents, to lobby for representation. This is a more substantial favor than most aspiring writers realize: most of us will NEVER ask such a large favor of our agents without reading the manuscript in question first, at least in part, so the request generally entails investing a fair amount of our time. And since a well-known writer might get four or five of these requests at any given writers’ conference, that’s a substantial charitable donation to the arts.

Why must we read it first? Well, if the requesting writer turns out NOT to be very talented, it will make it significantly harder for us to make similar referrals in future. If the requester is talented but turns out to be hard to work with or just a jerk, that will necessarily reflect badly upon us, too.

Which is why it is considered very, very rude within the industry to walk up to someone you’ve never met before and hand him a manuscript. No matter who he is. If you want to enjoy a good reputation, NEVER force a ream of paper upon someone who hasn’t asked for it.

Pitch as often as you like, but don’t penalize busy people for being too polite to say no. (Oh, yes, sometimes they will take the manuscript — but the ones that do are usually authors new to the game who are afraid that they’ll get a reputation for being mean if they do not say yes to all comers. It’s really not fair to take advantage of that fear: if your first book had just come out, and you were promoting it while still working your day job, wouldn’t you resent being handed 500 pages by a total stranger?)

Third, don’t leave all of your gratitude to grace the acknowledgments of your first published book. If people are kind enough to help you now, express gratitude now — and no, just saying, “Gee, thanks” is not always sufficient for a major favor. For heaven’s sake, send flowers every once in awhile.

And remember, no one in this business (or any other, for that matter, outside the clergy) is under any obligation to do favors for people they don’t know. Bear in mind that you ARE in fact asking a personal favor if you ask for advice or assistance, a time-consuming, genuine drain upon a generous person’s limited time. Please don’t treat any author, agent, editor, or writing teacher’s having been nice to you once as an invitation for further imposition.

Trust me, you don’t want to be the person about whom someone in the industry says, “Wow, I should have said no three favors ago.”

Above all, try to place yourself in the shoes of the person you want to help you. Treat them as you would like to be treated — because, in the long term, being considerate can only help you in this business. Not only does this make abundant ethical sense, but this is a business where people have long, long memories: it is certainly not unheard-of for an act of over-eager imposition to catch up with its author years later.

As for my friend, well, bless her for landing the book contract. I’m glad she’s making money for our mutual agent, and I hope her book is very, very successful; as I said, she’s a good writer. I even sincerely hope that she becomes a major writing star. And I wish for her the best gift of all: that she will come to realize that in this industry, as in life, other people don’t just exist to bring her benefits. In a generous universe, we all need to help one another.

There endeth today’s lesson. Keep up the good work, and be kind to one another.

5 Replies to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”

  1. Anne – I appreciate YOU very much. Your blog has been more helpful to me than the many books I have read about writing. I try to help others but don’t feel I have much to offer yet outside of encouragement. Publishing one book and knowing almost no writers does not make me the most useful of mentors. But one of these days …

    1. I wasn’t fishing for compliments, but thank you! I like to feel that I’m helping people.

      And good for you for helping other writers — and for asking good questions here, which also helps other writers. The great thing about this process is that a good writer is always learning — and thus always has new insights to share with others.

      It’s empowering, in the face of an industry that can be very cold, to be able to give others newer to the game tips!

  2. For those of you who have been curious, here is a postscript to this saga, from the perspective of a few days later: I did in fact confront the food writer about what had happened, and the friendship is indeed over. Chalk it up to experience; in future, I will at least be aware of the possibility that my friendship may be less interesting to new acquaintances than my connections.

    But to show you how much I hoped it would not turn out this way, I did not remove the link to this former friend’s blog on this website until today.

    On the bright side, though, I now think I was lucky that this happened: my former friend’s new publishing contract gives her a VERY tight deadline to finish her book, and it would have been fairly natural for her to turn to someone who had helped her with the proposal. So I am now thinking of this incident as having given me the gift of DOZENS of hours over the course of the next few months. It’s all good.

  3. I’m sorry to hear what happened, Anne. I find this topic mind-boggling. If I hadn’t experienced it myself, I’d have a hard time believing such a thing could happen. When writers take time away from their own projects to read my manuscript and provide me with comprehensive feedback, I’m not only thankful, I’m ready to shine their boots, wash their cars, and baby-sit their kids. I just don’t get people who plead for donations, then take what’s offered as if it was owed to them in the first place, and toddle on their way without so much as a nod of thanks.

    I just shot off an email to a fellow writer asking if she received the feedback I sent to her (via email) over two weeks ago. I met her at a writers conference. I helped her with her pitch. She asked if I would read her first fifty pages. Due to lack of time, and needing to prepare my own submissions, I was reluctant to say yes — I had already postponed similar requests from other writers I’d met. But she asked a second time, and I agreed. She had an interesting story premise, I reasoned, and never mind that I’d already helped two other thankless writers this summer; this girl wasn’t one of them. Right? And I’d been fortunate to receive help from generous colleagues over the past years. It’s good karma to pass along the kindness, not to mention that I genuinely enjoy being able to help a fellow writer.

    Right. So, after taking precious time away from preparing my own submissions… Well, I guess I don’t need to tell you what happened. Maybe my email reply with the eight-page comprehensive critique attached to it was accidentally marked as spam and deleted. Maybe her computer crashed. Maybe there was a family emergency. Hopefully, she’ll respond and enlighten me.

    In the meantime, I still have some synopses-polishing to do, and a title page. (Off to find your article on formatting the title page. A gazillion thank-yous, Anne, for making this priceless information available!) And then I can finally get my submissions out the door. My goal was August 31. Darn it.

  4. Oh — thanks, Colleen, for reminding me that it’s getting to be about time to run another series on how to avoid this type of situation! It’s SO annoying, isn’t it?

    And if you’re at the point where you are polishing the synopsis and title page this close to your deadline, I’d say that you’re in great shape! Good for you!

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