Last night I participated in #Querychat on Twitter. And one of the participants asked about her online reviews; I think it was whether she should link to her blog in a query. The agent who answered, Jill Corcoran, basically said, “Go ahead and link if you want, but it’s a good idea to take off any bad reviews of any of the agent’s clients before you do, and the same goes for editors.”
This led into quite a long discussion, in which I, of course, poked my nose.
The asker asked if by “bad” reviews Jill meant nasty/mean ones, or if she just meant reviews where they didn’t like the book. Jill and I both replied–and I believe Weronika Janczuk, another agent, joined us as well, in saying…well, yeah, even just reviews where they didn’t like the book.
The thing is, I think people tend to forget that agents sign clients because they love their work. Yes, they think it’ll sell, but that’s part of loving it. My agent? Loves my work. Likes reading what I write, and wants to read it, and looks forward to reading it (which is the way it should be). So if you hate my work because it’s nothing like the stuff you like, which presumably is the sort of thing you write…well, your work is probably pretty different from the kind of thing my agent likes, right? So there’s one strike against you.
I mentioned that I personally would be rather hurt if my agent signed someone who’d trashed me/my work, or even just said negative things about me/my work online. My friend Yasmine Galenorn agreed with me, and said she wouldn’t help that person out, either, like with a blurb or whatever. Which I agree with, as well.
The Asker was surprised. She didn’t think authors would get so angry over a bad review.
But it’s not anger. It’s not anger at all, really; I can’t think of a review of my work that’s ever made me angry, to be honest. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, and to express that opinion wherever and whenever. But…the purpose of a review, the whole reason reviews came about and exist, is to tell people whether or not they should read that book/buy that TV/use that hair gel/wear those shoes. That’s what a review is, and what it does. You may do a lot of other stuff along with your reviews, and use them to start long involved discussions, but the fact is, people read reviews first and foremost to see if the product–in this case a book–is worth buying.
In other words, you’re querying an agent whose client’s book you’ve publicly told people not to buy. If you ask that author for a blurb, or promo help, or a guest blog, you’re asking for help from someone whose book you publicly told people not to buy.
But it’s not about anger or revenge or anything like that, it really isn’t. As I said, you have every right in the world to have and share an opinion on my books. That’s not up to me. But if you didn’t like my work and then you ask me for help, I’m going to feel used. I’m good enough to help you out–to permit you to use my name to sell your books–but not good enough for you to recommend my book(s), apparently. I hate to sound like a bitch here, but why should I help you, in that case? (In fact, this very situation came up with a friend of mine a few months ago. She was asked to blurb an author who’d previously given her book a very nasty review; not a bad review, but a truly nasty one with personal comments. Do you think she agreed to blurb the book? If you guessed “Hell no!” you’re right.)
(I will say, though, that while I wouldn’t help the person sell books, I would and have still help[ed] them. I’ve had a few people over the years who were unpleasant to me personally and who later asked me for advice/help. I helped them, and I was happy to do it because I don’t want to see anyone treated badly, and I believe strongly that we should all help each other as much as we can. A little while back a small group of micropress writers decided it would be fun to say some very nasty things about me, and I saw it. I’ll help those women if they ever ask me to; in fact, I have helped them already, in several ways, though they likely don’t see it that way. But while I might give them advice about this agent or that publisher, and I certainly won’t actively work to their detriment, I’m still not going to help them sell their book. There’s a line there.)
You never know whose help you might need one day.
The Asker was quite upset about this, so it seemed. She didn’t want to post positive reviews only because then no one would trust her, so she was desperately trying to figure out how she could word negative reviews and still have a good shot with agents etc. etc. But–to get to the thesis line of today’s little post–at some point she’s going to have to decide if she’s a reader/reviewer or a writer. Period.
The fact is, when you decide to become a writer you give up some of your personal freedoms. When you sell your first book you give up even more. There’s no getting around that, and there’s no changing it. You can no longer say exactly what you think exactly the way you think it at all times. You can no longer assume that only the people you’re familiar with are reading your blog or your tweets. You no longer have the luxury of an opinion, honestly, on a lot of things.
(This isn’t to say that writers shouldn’t ever write negative reviews. I don’t believe that. But it does mean that if you want to write one, you need to be prepared for the fact that some people will not be inclined to help you or work with you after you have.)
Look at how many online scandals break out because authors simply forget where they are, or to whom they’re speaking. They mean one thing but it sounds like another thing, or their words are taken in an entirely different way that they never thought of. Or they’re just venting. Whatever.
You can do that as a reader. You can vent, you can moan, you can tell everyone that you hate Person X. Nobody bats an eye if you do so, really. But if you’re a writer and you vent, someone’s going to pick it up, and it’ll become a discussion topic. If you moan, someone’s going to think you’re acting entitled and that you’re obviously not a good person. If you vent someone is going to get pissed. That’s just the way it works.
The more books you sell, the less you’re allowed to say, at least until you’re a Name–a real Name, like more-than-three-books-on-the-NYT Name–when you’re pretty much allowed to say whatever you like again.
This is so easy to forget. Like for me, Twitter is ephemeral. It’s there one second, gone the next. And no one sees your feed unless they’ve chosen to, and you assume people choose to because they like you/your books, so you feel as though you’re talking exclusively to fans/people who like you. So it’s easy to vent or discuss something or whatever there and think of it as a small private discussion among people who care and want to be nice to you. Then you discover that no, it’s being passed around, that people are forming opinions of you–often negative opinions–based on what you said while upset, or in a mood, or shocked, or whatever.
It’s not just reviews, either, not at all. Once you become published you’re no longer free to express an opinion on a variety of publishing topics. Ebook pricing? My lips are sealed, man. Release dates? Sealed. Gossip? Sealed. Not because I’m afraid of whatever blowback there may be, necessarily, but because I simply don’t want to get into it. I don’t enjoy controversy and I certainly don’t court it; it can and has made me physically ill. (Honestly, I spent a good part of my summer throwing up because of the stress of the book releases and the mess that surrounded them, especially the first; it was extremely difficult for me.) There are writers out there who do, who love nothing more than a good debate and whose blogs reflect that. That’s fine for them.
(I’ll say this, too. Remember how we talked about how men’s books aren’t judged the same way women’s are? Ask yourself this. When is the last time you saw a statement from a man’s blog become a big internet to-do?)
It’s not just what you say, either. It’s how people take you. People suddenly read all sorts of things into your words that you didn’t mean and didn’t expect. Their reactions to you change; suddenly they’re more aggressive, or more defensive. Suddenly you have enemies when you have no idea how you got them, and don’t want them. A statement you might have made or a question you might have asked a year ago and been fine is suddenly a huge deal, and makes people angry. A discussion you might have happily had a year ago is suddenly scrutinized, and you always come off badly. Any sentence can be taken as you trying to push your books on people or make yourself look good, or will be seen as hypocritical just to suck up to someone.
When you do offer an opinion, it’s assumed that you expect your opinion to be more important than that of others, even when that’s not at all the case. I think that’s the hardest thing, really; realizing you can no longer just hang out and chat, you have to be ever-vigilant. People will act friendly when they’re not; they’ll be nice to you because they want something.
There is an out. You can post anonymously/pseudonymously. I have a pseudonymous account on a science fiction/fantasy site/forum, where I get to just…be one of the gang. It’s really fun, and they’re great people. Some of them know who I am and some don’t. It doesn’t matter. They just like me, and I like them, and it’s fun and a relief to be there (although I’m still careful what I say). I used to occasionally post pseudonymously on another site as well, simply because I didn’t want it to look like I was trying to plug my books. But that gets tiring too sometimes, honestly. It’s hard when people are talking about, say, what they’d love to see in UF, and your book is exactly that but you can’t tell them because if anyone finds out it’ll look like you’re sock-puppeting to sell books, which is tacky beyond belief. It’s hard when you try to explain something to someone–maybe someone is shilling a vanity press, say, and you try to refute them–and you get a “What the fuck do you know, I’m an expert. Oh, suuuure you’re NY published. I totally believe you.”
I’m not saying any of this to complain, I’m really not. Although it can be very confusing and depressing, and although it’s weird to suddenly feel like people you don’t know are paying attention to you/what you say and do like you’re some fucking celebrity or something when you’re totally not, I’m not complaining. I knew this–maybe not to the same degree, and certainly I never foresaw the changes in reactions to me–before I made my first sale, really. And I did the same things, made the same kinds of mistakes. I said things about books I didn’t like, or authors I didn’t like (I have since deleted all of that). I got involved in the online fun a little too much, and did and said things I regret doing and saying. Nothing I can do about it now; it’s my own fault.
The truth is I’m lucky to be in this position, and I know it. I worked very hard to get even the small success I’ve managed to achieve. I’m not complaining at all. I’m not saying anyone doesn’t have a right to their opinion blah blah blah, or that it’s unfair that I should have to be civilized online. Watching what you say and not slamming people shouldn’t be something people have to stop and think about; it should be something we do every day, everywhere.
But it is something I wanted very badly to get across to that girl at #Querychat last night. You cannot be a writer and a reader both, not publicly, not online (of course you can still read, you know what I mean). You cannot expect people to take your opinions as a writer in the same fashion they took them when you were a reader. Not ever. No matter how loudly you proclaim your belief in this or that, there will always be people who aren’t aware of that (or think you’re lying) and so take your words badly or in a way you didn’t intend. No matter how hard you try to be kind and helpful, there will be people who think you’re just doing it for show. No matter how reasonably you attempt to present your opinion, there will be people who think you’re just an asshole writer who doesn’t care about anybody else. No matter what, there will always be people who refuse to give you the benefit of the doubt.
Yes, part of this is simply the way of life. Especially today, when forgetting other people are human beings with feelings too and not simply toys for our amusement seems to be, if not the norm, all the rage, and when lots of people consider a good afternoon’s entertainment to be sitting in front of their computer judging others harshly, secure in the knowledge that they themselves are faultless and have never made a mistake. We all have to be careful, all the time.
But it is a bit harder for writers, and I do believe that. And it’s something anyone wishing to be published needs to be aware of, and prepared for. Being published changes things. It changes your life. The loss of some privacy and freedom is part of that.
You need to decide which matters more to you.