The Ten Commandments of Courtesy - Part I

By Richard Curtis

Every society creates rules to prevent anarchy, and the society of author-publisher-agent is no exception. Of course, the more civilized the society, the subtler its rules and the more sophisticated its sanctions for reinforcing them. The publishing business certainly fits the description of a civilized society, comprised as it is of well-educated, literate individuals operating in highly organized (sometimes, anyway) corporate entities and dealing in the extremely sophisticated activity of translating ideas into merchandise.

Actually, if you step far enough away from the sophistication of the publishing process you will see that it still boils down to a matter of seller, buyer, and broker struggling primitively with one another for dominance. Anyone who has lived in or studied the publishing anthill for any length of time can testify that there is as much plundering, treachery, rapine, and bopping on the head as may be found in the most aboriginal of civilizations. The only difference is that we prefer not to call these things by their names, as it sullies our self-image. I remember an editor's description of the dapper, distinguished head of one of our most illustrious publishing companies: "Oh, he stabs you in the back like everyone else - it just takes you two weeks to realize you're dead."

In publishing, the rules governing behavior are codified into a system of protocol and etiquette called "courtesy." Courtesy is not always easy to define because editors, authors, and agents each have their own code and the three don't always harmonize. For instance, some agents feel there is nothing wrong with not telling an editor they are submitting the same manuscript to other publishers. From an editor's viewpoint, however, that may be perceived as discourteous, for if an editor knows he is one of several considering a submission he will behave differently than he will if he thinks he is the exclusive recipient of the manuscript.

Editors may balk at discovering that an author has taken on a project for another publisher while under contract with them. Even though the author may not be breaching his contract (some contracts prohibit authors from working on any other book until the contracted book is completed), and even though the author completes the first book satisfactorily and on time, and even though the author took on the second project because the advance on the first was inadequate for him to live on while writing it, the editor may nevertheless feel that the author has discourteously affronted the monogamous spirit of the author-editor relationship.

Despite the quaintness of the word, a breach of courtesy can be a grave offense that leads to strained or even ruptured relations between author and publisher or agent and publisher. I recall with a shiver how, as a tyro in the publishing business, I committed such a gaffe against the late and great Macmillan editor Peter Ritner, a blunt and bearish man who brooked no nonsense from callow upstarts. It happened in a swank restaurant at the height of the luncheon hour. I told him I had been speaking to another publisher about his author. "That," Ritner boomed at me in his awesome operatic baritone, "was most discourteous of you, sir." All that night I tossed in bed listening for the stomp on the stairs of Macmillan editorial assistants coming to frog-march me off for interrogation.

Space limitations prohibit me from enumerating all the points of protocol and etiquette that prevail in the editorial world, even if I knew what they were. Many of them are the same rules of the road that regulate other forms of social intercourse. Others are unique to our business. Until you feel completely comfortable in that world, until you know the players and are able to bend or break the rules with impunity, the following ten commandments ought to keep you out of the more serious forms of trouble.

1. Keep your big mouth shut. When speaking to agents and editors, refrain from criticizing other agents and editors. You must never assume that the person you are talking to cherishes the same poor opinion of someone that you do. Many is the time I've listened to prospective clients complaining that this editor was a jerk and that publisher was a fool and this agent was a crowning idiot, and I've found myself thinking, What's wrong with this guy?

If you've had a bad experience, say as little as you can, and if you can't be charitable, perhaps it's best to say nothing at all. Lord knows, people in our business understand when you tell them you toured Chicago and Denver and there were no books in the stores, or your publisher originally promised you a 25,000-copy printing but ended up ordering only 7,500 copies. But for you to say, "My editor just sat there and did nothing, and my agent was too busy going to cocktail parties" may reflect worse on you than on those you so harshly judge, however deserving of criticism they may be.

2. Don't be overly chummy with editors. Whether or not you have an agent, be restrained in your dealings with editors. It is more important for them to respect your work than to like or love you. You must never forget that editors work for corporations dedicated to making a profit, and as often as not that profit is made at the expense of authors. However tight you and your editor may be, the time must inevitably come when you will want something he cannot give you, and he will want something you cannot give him. In the resulting negotiation, the closer your friendship, the harder it will be for you to hold out for the best terms. Your editor may care deeply about you, but his corporation cares deeply about its bottom line, and few editors will stake their job for the sake of an author.

From the viewpoint of an agent, the biggest discourtesy imaginable is for an editor to take advantage of an author's vulnerability. That's why many agents take strenuous measures to keep authors and editors apart and to funnel all communications through their agency. Many agents resist giving out their clients' phone numbers to editors or allowing any direct exposure of authors to publishing personnel. They are acting out of concern that editors may take advantage of authors if given the opportunity.

My own view is that a certain amount of contact is both necessary and desirable, and as long as authors are aware of the pitfalls of such contact, and keep their agents apprised of all developments, things cannot go too far wrong.

3. Keep your big mouth shut. Think before you speak. The things you tell an editor may not have the effect you intended and in fact may have the opposite one. The editor who granted you a nine-month delivery date on your book may not be delighted to learn that you'll be finishing it four months ahead of schedule. He may in fact be appalled that a project as demanding as that one will take so little of your time, upset that you're not doing your research or that you're writing too fast or that the manuscript will come in too short. Better simply to say, "Don't worry, you'll get your book on time." If you do think you're going to finish it early and your editor thinks he would like to get it on an earlier list, you can say you'll try to turn it in sooner.

Volunteer as little information as possible, and try to think things through from an editor's viewpoint. Should you be telling your editor you don't want any more money this year? Should you be telling your editor you weren't terribly happy with the first draft but you're sure the final one will be okay? Should you be telling your editor you had to take on another writing project to make ends meet?

Authors volunteer all sorts of information because they feel the editor is their friend. But if you'll try to project yourself into the mind of your editor, or better yet of his or her boss, you might find yourself biting your tongue a little more often.

4. Go through your agent for everything. If you do have an agent, centralize all dealings through him or her. Contracts, submissions, delivered manuscripts should all be sent to your agent no matter how convenient it is for you simply to send the material directly to your editor. Aside from observing the procedural proprieties by doing things this way, you keep your publishers on notice that you prefer for them to deal with your agent rather than with you.

Even your correspondence with your editor should be sent to your agent for review and forwarding, at least anything more significant than Thank you/You're Welcome. That way your agent may pick up on some things you probably shouldn't be telling. And if that sounds like censorship, it's better than committing a blunder that might injure your relations with your publisher.

5. Keep your big mouth shut. If you have an agent, he or she will brief you before you go into a meeting with an editor. Listen very carefully to what they say. A good agent will background you not merely on your immediate business with your editor but on such things as the state of your publisher ("They're hot right now," or "They're hungry, they haven't had a big book in three seasons"), the position of your editor ("She just joined the firm and he has to bring some good books in fast," or "He has no clout over there"), and other tidbits that will help you get a fix on conditions at your publishing house. Your agent will also tell you what to say and, perhaps more important, what not to say. And if he tells you not to say something, then for crying out loud don't say it, or leave it for your agent to explain. Your agent undoubtedly has good reasons for withholding certain information from your publisher, and those reasons may not always be clear to you. There may be undercurrents in the agent's relationship with your editor that have nothing to do with you, or your agent may know something that you don't. He may be conducting negotiations with your editor for other authors besides you (there are other authors besides you, you know), and his dealings on your book may be part of a larger strategy. If your agent accompanies you to a meeting or luncheon, watch him so he can signal you with his eyes. Or sit beside him so he can signal you with a swift kick in the shins.

Look for five more Courtesy Commandments next week (and don't be surprised if three of them are, Keep your big mouth shut).

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.
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