The Ten Commandments of Courtesy - Part II

By Richard Curtis

As we said last week, 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.

The rules governing this behavior are codified into a system of protocols 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. Authors who are unsure about the rules are advised to proceed cautiously.

In the first part of this article we discussed five vitally important rules. Three of the them were, Keep your big mouth shut.

Here are the other five.

6. Report everything to your agent. In due time you may have direct contact with your editor and other staff members of your publisher concerning a variety of matters. Your editors might feel there's no point in bothering your agent about small stuff, so they will contact you directly. In most cases the business at hand will be routine, and requests will be innocent. But they can develop into problems if the author isn't alert or fails to discuss developments with his agent. Those routine queries about your manuscript by your copyeditor can develop into a request for a rewrite. The nice young lady who calls asking you to name some dates when you're free for promotional appearances may end up bullying you to accept a time that is inconvenient to you. I'm not saying it will happen every time, but it has happened in the past, and it can happen to you if you don't keep your agent au courant.

7. Keep your big mouth shut. When you're out with an editor, don't contradict your agent or question his handling of your work. And don't tolerate your editor's questioning of your agent's handling of your work. Publishers often have a vested interest in dividing authors and agents, and anything you inadvertently do to help them promote such divisions can only redound to your discredit and disadvantage.

8. Don't play your agent and editor off against each other. In your eagerness to please everybody, you may end up defeating yourself. On many occasions, for instance, an author and editor may have a friendship that long predates the relationship between author and literary agent. The introduction of the agent into that bond creates instabilities that may result in jealousy, tension, and even hostility, and the author sometimes fosters these emotions without realizing it, for it is, let's face it, highly gratifying to have two people fighting over you. How often has a client said to me, "That dirty rat Joe down at Feemster House has been taking advantage of our friendship for years, so on that next contract I want you to wring every dollar out of him that you can." Then, a moment later, he'll add, "But go easy on the guy, okay? I mean, he and I are old friends."

Experienced agents are sensitive to the dynamics of friendships between authors and editors and don't barge into the middle of them like crazed water buffaloes. If, however, your agent does feel he has to be firm or tough with your old buddy, don't interfere. That, after all, is what you hired him for.

9. Keep your big mouth shut. Don't spread rumors or gossip, however knowledgeable it makes you look. For, in the long run, it makes you look like, well, a gossip. Because this is a gossipy industry, discretion is a highly prized virtue, and one that far outlasts the pleasures of spreading the Hot Scoop about somebody. And because this is also a small industry, gossip has a way of turning on its disseminators. As in any small town, you never know who is a friend, ally, relative, or business associate of whom. Rumors are traced to their sources with far more ease than you would imagine. Don't be a source: You don't need enemies.

10. And finally (all together now) - Keep your big mouth shut. When in doubt, err on the side of silence. Let your work and your agent speak for you. Whenever you feel that impulse to say something that you suspect may be out of line, consider that you really have only two choices: count to ten and call your agent, or count to twenty and call your agent.

Don't make your agent's job harder by putting him or her into the position of having to apologize for you or explain away some indiscreet things you may have said. "God!" an agent friend of mine once burst out. "My job would be so easy if it weren't for authors!"

Although we tend to lose sight of the fact, writing is still a profession. Behave professionally. As a wise person once said, the best way to save face is to keep the bottom half of it closed.

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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