Editors behaving badly

I’m a fairly frequent reader of Nick Mamatas’ LiveJournal since I discovered it not long ago (though I can’t remember how). Mamatas mostly seems a pretty interesting guy, and I noted some things in common; we’ve both just recently handed in a thesis to Master’s programs, . . . well. And that’s about it. He’s got quite the track record–winner of a Stoker and nominated for both another Stoker and an International Horror Guild Award. And he’s the editor of Clarkesworld, an ezine/literary mag (is it just me or is there becoming very little difference between an online zine and a blog?).

Mamatas recently posted about banning a writer from submitting to Clarkesworld. This isn’t the first time such banning has been mentioned: see here and here.

All three seem to be instances in which writers respond to rejections, which I’ll be the first to acknowledge is not something writers should do. Rejection is part of the process, part of the story, part of the life. If you’re not prepared to get rejected fairly often and fairly conclusively, go to med school and invest some hours in becoming a doctor, because the pay’s way better, there’s more security, and if Grey’s Anatomy is any indication, it’s probably easier (I jest on that last note. One of my buddies is a doctor. One of the hardest working individuals I’ve ever met. That’s why we’re friends).

However, posting such correspondence on their blogs is not something editors should do.

If this were an isolated occurrence, I might never have brought it up, but it’s not. John Fox, who was on staff at Southern California Review, recently posted A Slush Pile Dispatch in which he inserted comments into a letter SCR received from an inmate. This was troubling not just for the vetting of such correspondence but because John was one of my classmates in the MPW program, a program I chose because it was supposed to be about professionalism, and not “arts”. For what it’s worth, and not that whoever wrote the letter will probably ever see it, but I’d like to note that John’s comments don’t necessarily reflect the opinions of the USC MPW program.

I’d also like to note two other things: first, that John is actually a great guy I’ve enjoyed taking classes with, which means I was a bit surprised by the post but don’t particularly hold it against him; and second, another post I found via John’s site (which, I just realized, I didn’t mention up above: John writes Book Fox, which is really pretty awesome. His interviews at the BookFest were terrific, and he’s going to be running another set soon from Book Expo America). This one over pointed to Fence, which is a literary magazine I’ve actually seen at a newsstand (unlike just about every other one).

In this post, editor and publisher Rebecca Wolff responded to a writer’s question about contributors’ copies by telling the writer to, and I quote, “Eat shit and die.”

When did this become acceptable behavior from editors?

I used to be an editor. For three years, I was assistant editor of the Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services. The audience of said journal, which had a consumer magazine format, was two-fold: first, psychiatric and forensic nurses involved in the mental and behavioral health care industries.

The other was their patients.

Given that second audience, we received many, many queries and submissions from patients in private institutions that specialized in mental and behavioral health. People with clinical depression, bipolar disorder, body dysmorphia, autism spectrum disorders, and various addictions–as well as people in corrective populations (that’s prisons to you and me), juvenile offenders, and individuals who had great difficulty with lives I have difficulty imagining. We often received manuscripts handwritten in tiny scrawl over twenty pages– or phone calls to the office when particular submitters entered the manic phase of their bipolar cycles and decided to head to Atlantic City for a night of gambling and other self-destructive behaviors.

I edited articles by people who had been in the justice system, and not on the end with the gavel. I edited articles by nurses who had overcome addictions and illnesses to train and gain licensure to treat individuals coping with problems those nurses knew and understood perhaps more intimately than they would have liked. I admire sobriety, and I think of the nurses who found it and then dedicated their lives to helping other people find it, which I can’t imagine would have been easy, perhaps somewhat roughly akin to having alcoholism but going to a bar anyway, perhaps to bartend or perhaps again to try to lend the people who believed they needed a drink the ear and support they truly needed but didn’t want to admit.

But you know what? Besides me and my supervisor, no one ever heard about those letters. No one heard about the correspondences, many of which began before I ever started working there and continue, I’m certain, to this day.

Not only did I edit that magazine, but I’ve been reading Making Light since back when it was both Making Light and Electrolite, probably around 2001 or so (I remember I found it while I was working in Manhattan, which was 2000-2001). It’s maintained by Teresa and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, two editors at TOR (well. I know Patrick is. I remember Teresa mentioned a position consulting for, I believe, a media company, but I’m not certain she left TOR to take that position).

I mention Making Light because it’s maintained by not one but two editors and features frequent contributions from people like Jo Walton and Dave Langford, and never once have I seen such an egregious lack of professional etiquette on that site. They’ve focused on takedowns of plagiarism and fly-by-night/scam publishers, certainly, but never anything like what I’ve seen going occurring lately.

I wish it would stop. I’d really like to see editors do their job, rather than sharing their jobs with the world. I’m a writer. Tell me your guidelines and your rates. Tell me the sorts of stories you’re looking for. Tell me, even, what you’re not looking for. Tell me about any upcoming anthologies you’re putting together, tell me about any projects you’re excited about and want me to be excited about, too.

But don’t tell me how you tell your contributors to “eat shit and die,” and don’t tell me how many you’ve banned, no matter how egregious those writers’ behaviors. Because I’m a writer, and if I see that’s how you’ve treated some prospective authors, or authors you’ve already even published, well, I can’t help but worry about how you’re going to treat me. And nowadays, we’ve got blogs, we’ve got Lulu, we’ve got book reviewers and designers, and the Internet makes it incredibly easy to meet people we need to when we want to, so what do we even need you for, anyway?

In the relationship of aspiring author and zine/mag editor, one person often has professional status, and one often does not (especially considering the word: “aspiring”). Here’s a helpful hint: if you’re paying for stories, you’re a professional editor, and you should act so.

19 thoughts on “Editors behaving badly

  1. ALMA

    I think the problem is an overall arrogance that is inherent to the current literary marketplace. The whole vetting system is flawed and biased, to a large degree. My question is: who are these so-called professional editors, and what right do they have to deem anything worthy/unworthy?

    Sure…some of them have publishing credits…academic esteem…blahblahblah. But would any of actually read the stuff they write?

    I heard, once, that editors are simply writers who aren’t talented enough to be included in their own anthologies. I don’t necessarily agree. I, too, edited a few publications–and worked for a non-profit editing training materials and journal articles.

    Still, I’ve got to wonder why writers need these pompous twats. Honestly, literary magazines are about as useless as any other boilerplate Web site some pimply-faced teen can concoct over a weekend.

  2. Pingback: “PROFESSIONAL” SHOULD MEAN MORE THAN GETTING PAID TO PERFORM « IT’S ALL ONE THING

  3. NATHAN LONG

    Got here through Will Shetterly’s LJ.

    I see this not just in editors, but in the blogs of all kinds of people – professional or not – everywhere, and I agree with you that it is not acceptable behavior, but I don’t think it is arrogance or conscious asshole-ism. I think it is a function of blogging itself, and the fact that people haven’t quite figured out where it falls on the spectrum of private-to-public discourse. If you were a good friend of any of the people you describe above, and you met them in a bar or had dinner with them and they talked about “the crazy letter I got,” or how “I had to ban this guy,” or how “I told this guy to eat shit and die,” you wouldn’t think much of it. People talk smack in private, and they use their friends to vent about the problems they had to deal with during their day. Nothing wrong with this. Everybody does it.

    The trouble comes because a lot of people seem to use their blog in the same way, telling it the things they would tell a pal over dinner. Of course there are privacy filters and such, but just the fact that you saw the above stories means that most people don’t use them. I don’t know why people don’t seem to be able to understand it, but when they post to their blog they are not in private. I’ve seen people tear into co-workers, bosses, family members, spouses, potential employers!!!, former employees, fellow professionals, etc. as if there was no possible way that those people would ever find and read the post – not to mention other readers who might one day have the opportunity to be in one of those relationships with the blogger, and who now know that whatever interaction they might have with them will be broadcast across the internet for all to see.

    Blogging encourages oversharing. I think that that might be the aspect of it that requires the most self-discipline – particularly, as you say, if you are an editor or other public professional.

  4. WILL ENTREKIN

    @Alma: your question is a good one, and one of the reasons (besides what I perceive as an utter lack of marketplace for short-form writing) I used Lulu–if I’m going to work with an editor, I feel I need to work with one who’s better at it than I am.

    @Eoin: thank you. I think there were a few more points I could have made or should have driven to (if you follow Will Shetterly’s ping, up above, he makes in the comments an analog to priests and psychiatrists, which is very much akin to where I’d meant to go [the JPN material moved toward that, but I never made it there]).

    One of the parts of blogging I’m worst at is filling in the blank there. Getting better as I go.

    @Nathan: welcome and glad to have you! You bring up a lot of great points, and I definitely agree that the often oversharing nature of blogging is one of the causes of this. And that’s precisely one of the points I was going to: “I’m not dumb–I know that you get correspondence from idiot writers all the time. However, that’s the nature of the business, just as rejection is, and I don’t need to read about it.”

    So thanks for helping me bear out my point.

    Also, for anyone interested, Nick Mamatas commented over at Will Shetterly’s ping. Among other things, he asks how many lulu.com books I’ve seen in bookstores.

    Which I fail to see the relevance of (something about how editors are what gets books into bookstores, I think), but I wonder two things:

    When was the last time you paid attention to the publisher of any given book?

    and

    How many books do you buy online? Bookstores are good for browsing, but how many other people go to, say, Barnes & Noble, browse a bit, and then go home and order everything from Amazon for a penny?

    I can’t be the only one.

  5. PAUL RIDDELL

    Good luck on that, especially considering that lousy pay and bad working conditions tend to make editors who stay on due to ego. The more “edgy” the publication and the less likely it was to pay its contributors, the more likely the editor was to go completely berserk when told “No”. It’s especially bad when you dare quit the citadel of genius that is some crappy zine read by the editor and about ten of his friends: while I have some interesting tales about editors throwing tantrums (including the Portland, Oregon zine with the comics editor who expected me to spend more time working for free for a freebie zine and less on job interviews so I could keep from being evicted), one of my favorites came when I quit Film Threat Video Guide and got three days of crank calls for my trouble.

    Actually, I take that back. My worst Editors Behaving Badly incident happened when I quit working for Science Fiction Eye in 1996. I’d spent the previous five years dealing with progressively more erratic publishing schedules: the magazine was supposed to be a triannual, but when Steve Brown took the magazine away from his former co-editor Dan Steffan, it went from biannual to annual to “Whenever the hell Steve can let go of the proofs”, and he always had more and more bizarre and implausible reasons why each issue was later than the one before it. (My favorite was how the magazine was being shipped to North Carolina from the printer in Wisconsin by way of Mississippi, and the shipment was delayed by three months because the truck broke an axle and the magazines couldn’t go anywhere until the truck was fixed.) Finally, after a 2 1/2-year delay between issues, I volunteered again to assist however I could on the next issue, and was blown off. More specifically, Brown told a mutual friend that said friend would be fired if I got involved, so I figured that I wasn’t necessarily wanted and quit.

    Big mistake. I wish I had saved the E-mail message sent in response, but he effectively threatened me for daring to quit, telling me that he was going to let his voluminous number of friends in the magazine business know that I was being so unprofessional by quitting, and threatening that I’d just throttled my chances of being published elsewhere by being seen as “difficult”. My basic response was “Oh, puh-LEEZE, Brer Fox, don’t throw me in that briar patch!”

    One absolute about the ego editors: they always end up disappearing. Just as with that famed “permanent record” from high school, they always tend to vanish when their publications go under, usually because they owe ridiculous amounts of money to advertisers and subscribers, and you never hear from them again. I say let ’em throw their tantrums in public: the best revenge is in their discovering in ten years that their work has been forgotten and that they weren’t important enough for their names to become profanities.

  6. WILL ENTREKIN

    @Paul: while I don’t quite agree with the whole thing, your post certainly made me chuckle. Nice to hear from someone who’s been in the trenches.

    I’m not sure everyone I mentioned is an “ego editor” (I’m certain, in fact, John is not), but I get the sentiment. I think the same can be said of “ego writers” (who are, incidentally, probably the writers who sparked Mamatas’ posts in the first place); they’ll become the almost-rans, the quasi-published, who might spark immediate conversation but will be forgotten just before . . .

    Thanks for comin’ by. Y’all come back now, y’hear?

  7. SILVIA

    “How many books do you buy online? Bookstores are good for browsing, but how many other people go to, say, Barnes & Noble, browse a bit, and then go home and order everything from Amazon for a penny?”

    I buy more stuff in person that online. I do buy stuff online but my larger purchases are done in a store.

    I’m not browsing around, say, Amazon looking for titles. I browse physically for books. But the problem is not really that, the question is: how likely are you to purchase a book from unknown author X which is only sold online, direct from Lulu?

    One of the basic principles of marketing is distribution and by having your self-published title only available by POD like Lulu you have a much narrower distribution channel than someone who has their books in a book store. Impossible to succeed? No. But much harder. A good publisher would have a good marketing department, good distribution ties and of course, good editors, copy-editors and artists, which would be able to put your book out there more effectively into more hands.

    Nick’s point that Lulu.com is not an alternative is actually true, but not because Lulu or any other POD sucks, but because you are comparing apples to oranges. You are talking about a push and pull strategy and there lies the issue.

  8. JOELINKER

    “Eat shit and die”? Maybe she was in a hurry and just didn’t have time for the commas. But I was disappointed in the BookFox post because of his assumption regarding good writing: “…but alas, almost all of the cover letters are subliterate, not to mention the prose itself.” So what? Isn’t that when the editor is supposed to go to work? The post is really about John’s literary values. What does “subliterate” mean? Does he mean illiterate, or non-literate? Sounds like the mission of the SCR is to defend us against all three. Is the SCR a journal of literary etiquette? And if so, do we really need another one? But I welcome the airing of all the editor comments; they’ve started a revealing and instructive dialog I hope continues.

  9. WILL ENTREKIN

    @Silvia: actually, yes, I agree with you on all those issues, but Nick was the one who brought Lulu up, his argument apparently being that an editor gets you distribution (really, an editor buys a license for material that the publisher than distributes). Given that I’m aware of this, as well as all the issues concerning distribution into bookstores via a POD publisher but used Lulu anyway, I’m not sure how it bears to the conversation; you must realize that I understood but didn’t really care about being in bookstores. Sure, a purchase from unknown author x might be a stretch, but you don’t need to purchase it–it’s a free download. So in reality, it’s not so much apples to oranges but more just kind of irrelevant to the discussion.

    @Joelinker: omg, I totally laughed aloud at your comma joke. I’m still such an editor sometimes. That was awesome.

  10. SILVIA

    Since an editor would (I presume in this context) work for a publishing house I would say he gets you distribution. Or rather, if you want to be very specific, that the publishing house gets you distribution and the editor is part of the publishing chain that gets you that distribution.

    I think he mentioned Lulu because he was reacting to what someone said why seemed to be, paraphrase: “I don’t need you editors and your lousy publishing houses! I’ll publish it myself through Lulu and be a super succesful author and get all my books into the bookstore with out you!”

    And Nick’s answer to that seemed to be: We’ll see how far you get with that … um, not far. The main idea of his posts was: POD doesn’t mean you no longer need editors and publishers.

    And he’s right about that, snarky comment and all. The easy answer to a mean editor from the dejected author is “I’ll publish it myself.” Substitute that with I’ll publish it with Lulu, or any other POD and you’ve got, well, a very naive person. That does not invalidate POD. It’s just a tool. But writers who run to it thinking it’s the magic silver bullet they’ve been looking for may do well to think twice about it. And good old snarky Nick was pointing that out in his own charming and sarcastic way.

    As for the general discussion of editors manners … there’s a crucial difference between Nick’s rejections, his bannings and absolute uncalled for rudeness. He gives a lot of feedback and he doesn’t sugar coat it. Still, it’s feedback. He bans people or exposes people who were extremly rude. He doesn’t do it routinely, nor does he make fun in his blog about would be writers that are submitting but follow his guidelines.

    The Alien Skin Wall of Shame, to me, is more gut wrenching than anything Nick can say because they don’t only post people who sent them a rude remark, but if someone didn’t send something in the right format they go up there. That seems like a minor infraction not worthy of getting someone’s name in a blog as opposed to the writer who sent a death treath to an editor.

    On the other hand, telling someone to eat caca and die is a totally different ball game. I would put reading a manuscript that is very poorly written out loud to a sci-fi con in the same area of unncessary rudeness. Sure, I did have a chuckle or more when I was going through the op-ed letters at the national where I worked. Maybe I even showed it to my friend in the next cubicle, but I didn’t Xerox it and distribute it through the office. That’s more like sadism.

  11. SILVIA

    Oh, and we did get a lot of weird stuff at the paper: letters from inmates, letters written on recycled envelopes (they crossed out the address, put on a new one), on post-its, on the back of anything. Weird letters. Letters from people who were insane. Things we would never publish like fairy tales and poetry. Ramblings. Hate mail. Envelopes I was afraid of opening. I never wrote eat shit to anyone though, as much as I may have secretly desired it. But maybe that’s because I had to stuff my response, if I sent a response which almost never happened, in an envelope. The process of writing, then stuffing, then licking a stamp seems to make you more rational. It’s too easy to hit send and regret it tomorrow as we’ve all probably learned in our lives.

  12. WILL ENTREKIN

    @Silvia: again, no, I’m not convinced by that. First that an editor gets distribution. An editor’s job is to acquire manuscripts for a publishing venture by purchasing their licenses. Yes, an editor is perhaps the first step toward major retail distribution, but it is a journey that has probably a million of them. Saying that “an editor gets you distribution into major chains” is disingenuous at best and flat out incorrect at worst.

    Seems to me we’re not talking about an editor’s actual function, which begins with acquiring material and continues with, you know, editing. If the function of an editor was simply to get distribution, we wouldn’t call them “editors”; we’d call them distributors. I was considering editing in the context in which I performed it, which may well be different from many commercial publishing ventures, but was this: acquiring manuscripts, importing them, editing them, corresponding with authors concerning changes to style and grammar, lay-out, design, proofreading, pagination, uploading, and approval. In fact, never once did I distribute in any sense, and saying that SLACK did isn’t really completely accurate, either; SLACK had a printer that ultimately distributed the final product to subscribers.

    Also, your paraphrase is vast oversimplification, quite silly, and I’d even say absurd. Don’t pretend you’re paraphrasing my saying “I’ll publish it myself through Lulu and be a super succesful author and get all my books into the bookstore with out you!” Especially given what I published via lulu– a collection of short-form writing. Short story collections, Lahiri and Wolf aside, generally don’t perform well and are shunned by publishers; I doubt anyone becomes a super-successful author writing them (not to mention: what is ‘super successful,’ anyway?). Given that I have a background in editing, design, formatting, and now a master’s degree in professional writing, I felt I had the experience to pull it off, and I’m proud of the book. Nick’s argument seems to be that without an editor, it will never be in a bookstore (and perhaps it won’t; I’m terrifically happy with my experience at Lulu and see little reason to change it), but Nick is an editor, and even he wouldn’t have been able to get one of my stories into a bookstore, because, of course, he edits an online magazine.

    If I couldn’t do all the things I delineated, I’d have hired an editor. I can, so I didn’t feel I needed one, though I will admit I think most self-published authors do. Not for distribution so much as to ensure a quality product–one well formatted, well edited, and well designed.

    Which was my argument. Perhaps that leaves the fact remaining that most writers need editors for quality purposes, but I still think this whole distribution thing is completely absurd.

    And finally, it’s worth noting that while I had no qualms making that collection available via lulu, I’d never do so with my novel, and am indeed seeking both representation and a traditional contract via a commercial publishing house for it.

  13. SILVIA

    “Nick’s argument seems to be that without an editor, it will never be in a bookstore (and perhaps it won’t; I’m terrifically happy with my experience at Lulu and see little reason to change it), but Nick is an editor, and even he wouldn’t have been able to get one of my stories into a bookstore, because, of course, he edits an online magazine.”

    Which would mean the argument is not that an editor can’t get you into the distribution chain but rather that Nick would not be the editor for you because he does not publish, say novels or short story collections. Fair enough.

    Your initial comment of “And nowadays, we’ve got blogs, we’ve got Lulu, we’ve got book reviewers and designers, and the Internet makes it incredibly easy to meet people we need to when we want to, so what do we even need you for, anyway?” is what I think Nick was reacting to and what I’m reacting to. It seemed an oversimplification, which is the same thing you complained about when Nick said editors get you into bookstores.

    We as writers do need editors and publishers. Of course, editors and publishers need us to. The supply chain however would indicate there’s more of us writers going around than editors and publishers which is probably why no one should reply to Nick (or any other editor) with a fuck you fagot, unless you want to make your life harder. Conversely, I would hope editors do not tell me to eat shit and die.

    Can you live with out editors? Sure. But if you don’t have all those skills (that you did, like experience with editing, formatting and rest) it’s going to be very hard to pull a book off.

    Btw, I don’t think it’s just editors behaving badly. It’s probably a general case of netiquette.

    Which reminds me that I hope you’re not pissed at me because I wasn’t trying to be rude to you or anything of that kind thing.

  14. WILL ENTREKIN

    @Silvia: no, I wasn’t (and I’m not). And you’re right. Really, the problem with the correspondence begins with writers behaving badly, but like I noted, in the editor/aspiring contributor relationship, one is supposed to be a professional. Which is what all this was about. And I suppose the missed thread here is the bookstores thing, because the goal is to get to readers, not to bookstores, isn’t it?

    That said, I see where you’re coming from now, and I’m glad we’ve had some thoughtful discussion. Hope you’ll stick around.

  15. Pingback: OCCASIONAL FISH » REJECTION SLIPS

  16. SY SNOODLES

    Don’t be too hard on these editors. If you were a certified genius and had nothing to show for it but angry responses to your rejection slips and pocket lint, you’d post those Emails, too. If you weren’t busy fashioning a noose out of discarded Ramen noodle packages.

  17. WILL ENTREKIN

    @Sy: well, since I’m neither of the above, I’m not quite sure what your point is. I don’t think I was being “too hard” on them; just stating that a certain degree of professionalism should be expected, while arguing that posting rejections online and telling writers to “eat shit and die” doesn’t quite meet that standard.

  18. WILL ENTREKIN

    @Sy: I’ve just realized that your use of “If you” was what threw me, as I took the “you” to be addressing me, and I’m certainly not a certified genius. Then again, I’m not sure who is, in fact, a certified genius (do geniuses have credentials now? I had no idea).

    I still don’t know what ramen has to do with the discussion. Though I think you might be close to violating the comments policy. Please refresh yourself on it before posting again.

    Thanks.


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