AN AUTHOR'S WORST ENEMY
by John Gregory Betancourt
Authors vs. ...
Over the course of 31 years of selling fiction professionally (and 27 years of editing fiction professionally), I have come to realize that authors are often placed in an adversarial position. Authors vs. Critics. Authors vs. Agents. Authors vs. Art Directors (have you seen some of the covers they come up with?!). But by far the author's worst enemy—capable of destroying any career—is the author himself/herself.
Here is one real-world example. This really happened in the mid 1990s, when I was working as an editor in New York—the editor involved was a friend at a rival publishing company with whom I had lunch every week. (We liked to swap horror stories about authors. All editors do that.)
A science fiction author just wouldn't leave my editor-friend alone. She called him daily (long distance) on trivial excuses, eating into his work time and generally making an unwelcome intrusion into his workspace. (10-15 minutes every day adds up to more than an hour every week. And editors never have enough time.) So my friend began to play "hard to reach" by screening his calls . . . and stopped buying her books,* even though she was one of his most popular authors, with strong sales. He never told her why; when she sent in proposals for new novels, he said they "didn't quite work" for him and politely passed.
In retrospect, I realize the poor author was just lonely. I understand (as an author myself) that writing is a solitary business. She had mistakenly come to believe that this editor was her friend because he worked closely with her on her books, offered much-needed praise, and gave her work and talent the validation she craved. But would he have done any of this if he wasn't paid to do so by his company? Of course not.
Editors aren't friends. They are coworkers on a special project (your book). Not quite bosses (but close). Not quite peers. (Can peers cancel your contract and damage your career?) The editor/author relationship is special and unique.
What's in a Relationship?
My example comes from those dim pre-Internet days, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. It's a lot easier now for authors to find social interaction online . . . but don't dismiss this author/editor mishap as Old School and irrelevant. It offers one invaluable lesson:
Authors often mistake a professional relationship with an editor for a personal relationship.
Without doubt, the author in question hurt her career. She damaged her relationship with her editor beyond repair.
But what about my editor-friend? Did he hurt his career by losing an author? Or damage his company by losing a good author? No. Any midlist author can be replaced. There are always more good authors and good books than any editor can hope to publish. Editors get to pick and choose books—it's part of the job. If one author is too much trouble/too annoying/too distracting, any editor will pick another. (This is not to say authors should hide in fear from editors or be afraid to speak up if there is a real problem. Quite the contrary: editors like authors who help solve problems. Editors don't like authors who are problems.)
Because an editor listens, responds, praises (we hope!), and works closely with an author, it resembles a friendship. And real friendships have been known to grow between authors and editors. But for the most part, it's a business relationship, a partnership to bring a product (the author's book) into the marketplace with the goal of making money for everyone involved.
Because writing is a creative, internal, emotional process, it can often be difficult for authors to stand back and see the larger picture. Editors are not friends. They are business partners. They don't work for the author. They work for the publishing company. And when push comes to shove, they will do what's best for the publishing company—because that's who pays them every week.
Relationship Rules for writers:
1. Whenever money is involved, assume it's business.
2. Whenever no money is involved (writing for a blog, a charity, a fanzine), assume it's business.
3. If your own writing is involved in any way shape, or form, assume it's business.
4. When in doubt, assume it's business.
*The author eventually found another publisher, since her track record made her a known (and profitable) commodity. But she had to start anew, and she lost a lot of momentum in her career. Plus she suffered the pains of rejection and the death of a series she had invested years of her life in creating.
John Gregory Betancourt is a best-selling science fiction and and award-winning mystery writer. He is president and publisher of Wildside Press, where he manages books and magazines, including the Hugo Award-winning WEIRD TALES magazine.