Your Reputation Precedes You – by Chris Nuttall
Never do an enemy a small injury.
I got asked to give some writing advice, so … here is a story for you.
A year or so ago, I wrote a short story for a collection. The organiser was kind enough to accept it. Everything went swimmingly until I saw the proofs and discovered – horror of horrors – that he’d spelt my name wrong. It was an outrage! It could not be born!
I knew what I had to do. I unleashed a wave of outrage on him. I summoned the mobs of Twitter, the faces of Facebook, the yahoos of Yahoo … all devoted to punishing him for daring to spell my name wrong. How dare he? It was a blatant insult to Lancastrians everywhere! We howled and we raged and we wore him into submission … we sure taught him a lesson, didn’t we? We sure did.
Actually, I did none of those things.
Being a reasonably mature person, or at least someone capable of pretending to be mature (strictly in the privacy of my own home, naturally), I simply dropped him an email. And our discussion went something like this:
Me: Hi, you spelt my name wrong. Please could you fix it?
Him: Sure thing. Done!
Me: Great! Thank you!
Him: You’re welcome.
No fuss, no muss and, best of all, no lingering bad feelings.
It should go without saying – but probably doesn’t, these days – that a person subjected to the kind of assault I described above is not going to be happy. People make mistakes all the time. Believe me, my name gets misspelled a lot. If you treat someone with a degree of respect and courtesy, even if you’re annoyed with them, they generally respond well. (And if they don’t, you can claim the moral high ground when outsiders say you’re overreacting.) However, if you treat someone like an enemy who needs to be smashed flat for a minor mistake, you’ll make an enemy for life. Worse, you’ll make outsiders see you as the bad guy.
And if I had treated him like that?
Well, he could have made an excuse and dropped me from the project. If I lacked the self-awareness to realise that I’d jumped well over the line, I might even have accepted whatever excuse he devised at face value. It isn’t that uncommon for someone to withdraw (or be withdrawn) from an anthology, particularly before the contacts are finalised. Or, if he couldn’t kick me out, he certainly would have refused to publish me again. Why go to all that hassle? People do not like working with jerks. There aren’t many authors I’d tolerate – if they acted like that – in exchange for a story.
And even if he didn’t do that either, he’d certainly badmouth me to everyone else who came along. He might have a discussion like this:
Famous Author: I’m thinking of offering Nuttall a slot in my latest collection, which will boost his career into orbit.
Him: Nuttall is a total jerk! I accidentally misspelled his name and he raised a hue and cry against me!
Famous Author: Blimey! Lucky you warned me. I’ll cross him off the list.
The thing you have to bear in mind, at all times, is that people talk. And people listen. And watch silently. If you come across as a reasonable sort of guy, people will want to work with you. If you come across as an asshole who makes other assholes look bland by comparison, they won’t. It’s true everywhere. You’d better be a really great [whatever] if you act like an asshole all the time or you’ll be fired. Why would anyone tolerate you if you’re not?
Indeed, one of the dirty little secrets of the writing business is that there are a number of authors who are shunned – to some extent – by their fellows. Not because of politics or social ineptitude or whatever, but because they treat their fellow writers poorly. Smart people know that friction is common and that, with a few diplomatic words, you can sort the problem out without causing future headaches. Others are too self-centred to realise that they’re coming across as the bad guy. In days of yore, people talked: if you were an ass at a convention or came across as a blowhard, people quietly excluded you. Now, the internet never forgets.
It’s odd for me to lecture anyone on social conduct. I’m not good at being sociable. I tend to fade into the background if there’s more than three or four people in the group. But even I understand that I have to get on with people who can (or might be able to, later on) influence my career. If I give a publisher a hard time, he’ll drop me; if I treat an editor badly, he’ll tell the other editors that I’m a pain in the butt. I’m not saying – obviously – that you have to suck up to them, or ignore mistreatment, but you do have to be reasonable. Give them a chance to fix the problem first, before you start screaming. You’ll be surprised at how far it goes.
Humans – even geeks and nerds like myself – are social creatures. We have an instinctive revulsion towards the betrayer, the one who weakens the group. Most people respond badly to tattletales and sneaks even if they understand – intellectually – that the sneak did the right thing. They also severely dislike people who demand massively over-the-top punishment for small offences, particularly ones that don’t look like offences to outside eyes. If you do this, even if you feel perfectly justified, a great many people will regard you warily. They certainly won’t feel comfortable in your presence. Why should they? You crossed a line.
If you react badly to reviews, people won’t review your books (or write sardonic pieces that make you look an utter fool.) If you accuse another author of stealing your title, people will be wary of you. If you use stock images for your covers and accuse another author of stealing your image, people will roll their eyes at you. If you bash your fellow authors for any reason at all, people will inch away from you; if you do things that harm their careers, no matter how justified you feel yourself to be, people will do everything in their power to stay away from you. A person who damaged another author’s career would not make anyone feel safe at a convention.
I’m not saying you can’t have opinions. There’s nothing wrong with having a different opinion. I’m proud to say that I have friends from all corners of the political axis. But if you act in a way that damages social cohesion, people will draw away from you. How many opportunities have you missed because you treated people poorly? You don’t know. You’ll never know.
The thing is, most people want to get along. They want to keep their relationships with other people. Most people will be quite happy to fix a minor mistake if you point it out to them (or be very apologetic if it’s too late to fix the mistake.) But if you treat them badly – if you jump to the conclusion that you’re under personal attack – you’ll make enemies. People may not say anything to you – you’ve already proved you’re immature, that you can’t take criticism – but they’ll remember. And, in this day and age, nothing is ever truly forgotten.
And your career may be over before it has fairly begun.