It pays to be polite and Victor J. Banis hammers the point home in his latest post which illustrates that authors get better results by using honey than by insulting readers. I did a poll 16 months ago in which I asked whether an author’s online behaviour affected readers’ buying decisions. 46% of readers said they stopped buying an author’s books due to rudeness, and 35% of those polled said that they were more likely to try an author based on the way they interacted online; only 15% said it didn’t matter either way. Even though the survey was done over a year ago I suspect the results would be the same if it were done today.
I recently dropped out of an online writers/readers group because of a snarky comment made by a moderator. Actually, it wasn’t really a slam, more a dismissive kind of thing, and I’ve got pretty thick skin, so I can’t say it kept me up all night with tears on my pillow. What really bothered me, though, was the lack of manners. If only as a veteran in our gay Civil Wars, I thought surely I deserved more respect than this. Actually, just as a member of our human family, I thought I did. I think we all do.
I’m old fashioned—hell’s bells, I’m old—and I grew up in an era in which courtesy was the expected norm. People comment often on my good manners—but, wait, isn’t that how it’s supposed to work? Now I look around and I think, when did rudeness become the standard? This is not the first such group I dropped out of—I left another a couple of years ago when a member emailed a nasty message culminating in “f… you.” Apart from any other consideration, one has to worry about the word skills of a writer who can’t summon up anything better than that.
But, okay, two such incidents in something like two years – not an awful lot, I’ll admit—or, just maybe, it’s already too much. I hear from other writers about groups they’ve left because of flame wars, and I’ve seen some of it on yet another, mostly hetero, site, though not publicly directed at me (never mind the private messages—it is at least marginally courteous to keep your nasty comments private between us, and thank you for that, Mr. Homophobe.) Think straight guys can’t be bitchy? Think again, it’s like the hair pulling duet in Gioconda, without the high notes.
Historians have noted that if you go back and look at the great civilizations that have come and gone in the life of our planet, one common factor shows up again and again—the first indication of the decay of that civilization comes in the decline of everyday manners. The Greeks of their day wrote about it. And the Romans, and the Chinese and the Persians, et al. I have a suspicion that some of those scrawlings on cave walls are on the very same subject. “Hey, that was my pterodactyl, sucker.” Miss Manners used to joke about saving civilization, but it’s not so much of a joke. Good manners are not something extra that you add on to the veneer of our society, like a deluxe stereo in your new car, they are in fact the glue that holds it together, that makes it possible for diverse peoples to inhabit it and function together. I thought about this at the supermarket just a few days ago when a white-haired Granny all but ran me down with her cart to get in the check-out lane ahead of me. And at Wal-Mart a typical looking Wally customer wore a T-shirt that said, “It ain’t bragging if it’s true.” Well, yes, actually it is—and it’s also boorish, which is to say, rude.
Well, all right, you are saying, what has this got to do with the subject of writing? Good question, and one answer is, it doesn’t. Writing, as I have pointed out before, is a solitary business. You do it alone. But, it is a business, or at least for most of us, the business part of it matters. You want to sell your books. You want editors and publishers to welcome you, and reviewers to give you the coveted stars, or angels, or chocolate kisses—whatever. And sometimes the glue that keeps you and the editor or the reviewer purring along together down the road to publishing happiness is nothing more than old-fashioned courtesy and respect. If you treat someone well, the way you yourself would like to be treated, it often pays dividends. People are kindly disposed toward you. Or, as I put it in another context, sometimes treating it as if it’s not only business turns out to be good business.
Strange as it may seem, I have watched otherwise fine writers commit publishing suicide in flurries of rudeness. I’m thinking of one well known and well regarded writer who personally offended (within a matter of weeks) not one but two editors to whom he had submitted his work—railing against them within days of his submissions for not getting back to him at once. Because, don’t you see, he was an important writer and busy, and shouldn’t be kept waiting. Never mind their importance or busy-ness. It was like watching a spoiled child shouting, “Me, me me.” Of course, both found ways to turn him down, and I think there was little chance of his ever placing anything else with them. Worse than the possible loss of those two outlets, however, is the fact that publishing does not exist in a vacuum. (vacuums are very rare; they exist in the heads of one or two people I know; otherwise, forget it) Word gets around. Other editors, other publishers, hear, and shun the offender. Could have been avoided with just a little common courtesy—which, alas, seems to have become uncommon.
Yet another writer wrote in a blog some unflattering remarks about a publisher. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but one mustn’t forget that blogs and internet postings become public venues. It’s like shouting a bad opinion about someone in a crowded restaurant. People are bound to hear. They may privately agree with you, but they certainly won’t respect your failure to observe the niceties of good manners. In this instance, the writer was more or less blacklisted; but, again, not only by this particular publisher. The publisher happens to be well known and respected. I suspect that other publishers would make note of the lack of respect shown, and act accordingly.
Irene Watson of the online zine, Reader Views recently posted an editorial about a writer who disagreed with a posted review, and had some insulting remarks to make about the reviewer. Here’s the silliest thing of all—it was a 5 star review; but the author didn’t think it was good enough. The review was pulled, the book returned. Count on it, no more reviews in this important outlet. And Ms. Watson added that she had communicated with other review sites about the incident. So, lots of lost review opportunities. Bad manners. Bad business.
Here, by the way, is the correct response to a bad review, no matter how bad: “Thank you for taking the time to read and review my book.” You can’t win by calling the reviewer names. Nothing you say will sound like anything but sour grapes. If there is a factual error, you may politely point that out. It’s okay to point out (nicely, mind you, no snide remarks permitted) that the story takes place during WW II and not, as the reviewer stated, The Battle of Thermopylae. That might matter to a reader. But that’s it, and no nit-picking. It doesn’t matter if the review is vicious. Others will read it and see that for themselves, and you will get their sympathy, and strange as it may sound, you may get sales as a result. Some of them will buy the book to see if the reviewer was right. Start snarling at the reviewer like a pit bull, however, and you lose all sympathy. It’s that simple. Bad reviews go with the territory. You are supposed to be grown up enough to take it without whining.
The same is true at the editorial level. I recently got a turn down from an editor. Not particularly shocking, in the course of a long career, I’ve gotten plenty. But the reason given for the turndown was silly, it told me only that the individual hadn’t read beyond the first page, maybe not even beyond the first paragraph. I could have written back and argued with him, but to what point? Even if I was proved right, what were the chances he’d welcome another submission from me? The right response here is, nothing. Or, if you really want to show what a courteous fellow you are, you can always drop a note back saying, “thanks for the comments, I will give them my full consideration.” Which gets you points for a double entendre, and nothing snarky. Nobody likes a bitch. We may quote Bette’s movie lines ad infinitum, but no one wants to be the butt of the joke. Save that nasty crack to use in your next book. That’s the beauty of being the writer – when you think of those delicious comebacks, you don’t have to waste them, they’ll come in handy later. Then, everybody will laugh with you.
Yes, write, and write as well as you can. But if you’re serious about your career, learn to exercise good manners. At the least, train yourself to refrain from bad ones. I can’t say that bad manners will kill your career, but I can say with certainty they won’t help it.
And while you’re at it, maybe you should let Granny go ahead of you at the supermarket. But don’t brag about it.