Friday, July 27, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Should Writers Worry About Blacklisting?

Among the more persistent items of writer mythology--agents are likely to steal your work, publishers aren't interested in first-time authors, you can't get an agent unless you're already published--is the notion of blacklisting. Many people fear that there's some sort of master reference list that agents and editors use to identify troublesome writers, or that agents or editors can turn a writer into an untouchable by passing his or her name around among their colleagues.

This idea is actively encouraged by scammers and other disreputables. Writer Beware has documented many instances in which an agent or publisher has responded to complaints, questions, or demands with a threat of blacklisting. "You'd better back off," the writer is told, "or I'll see that you're blacklisted throughout the industry." Or, "You know about the blacklist, don't you? If you get on it, no one in publishing will ever deal with you again."

Don't believe it. It's nothing more than an intimidation tactic intended to frighten you or shut you up. There's no such thing as a "master blacklist." Period. Nor can an agent or editor singlehandedly blacken a writer's name throughout the industry--nor is it likely that they'd care enough to bother. Keep in mind also that the people who typically threaten blacklisting--the fee-chargers, the amateurs--are not actually part of the publishing industry, and haven't the connections or the credibility to blacklist anyone, even if they wanted to.

The ease of searching on the Internet has also sparked fears of blacklisting. Suppose you ask a question about an agent's background on a writers' message board. Suppose the agent does a websearch and finds your comment. Will the agent be pissed off--especially if you have something critical to say? Will she tell her colleagues? Will your name become mud?

Frankly, I doubt it. Certainly there are agents who do websearches on potential clients, and are influenced by what they find. But it seems unlikely that they'd bother to circulate someone's name, even if they learned something that displeased them. Why would they care that much? Why would anyone else? Also, for every agent who has the time and interest to do that kind of research, there've got to be as many, if not more, who don't. Obviously you need to use your common sense. If you post something snarky about the agent who just requested an exclusive on your first three chapters, it may come back to bite you. If you behave in an obnoxious way--sending nasty emails to agents who reject you, for instance--you may become an item of gossip. But systematic blacklisting is not something that should be high on your worry list.

There's a larger issue here, of course, and that's the fact that nothing is really private on the Internet. Just as job-hunting college students have found themselves embarrassed when potential employers discover their MySpace pages, writers need to remember that blog entries, message board posts, and Usenet participation are public discourse. If you take responsibility for your words, and say nothing online that you aren't willing for everyone in the world to see--including the agent you queried last week--you won't need to worry about who's doing a websearch on you, or what they might learn.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

If you want to say something that could come back to bite you, for heaven's sake, don't use your real name. But nobody's dumb enough to do that, are they?

Samuel Tinianow said...

I've used the term "blacklisted" to refer to writers, but only extreme cases like the whole Viswanathan plagiarism deal. There's no master blacklist, but when an author does something that sets the publisher back by seven figures, it's hard to imagine her making a deal with anybody else in the near future.

Of course, nobody will ever be threatened with blacklisting in that regard, since we're talking about stuff that goes without saying. The idea of an editor or agent trying the scare a writer like that makes question marks appear above my head.

Janny said...

It's not just fake editors or agents who resort to this "blacklist" tactic--it's fellow writers. I can't think of how many times I've heard a newbie worry about the slightest indiscretion putting them on some kind of mythical "blacklist." (We're not talking plagiarism here...we're talking wearing the wrong clothes to an agent interview. Or happening to express the opinion that someone's latest book was a little below one's expectations. Or...you name it, people think they can be blacklisted for it.)

Of course, I've been preaching this gospel for a long time, but you're right...it's a persistent myth. Maybe Snopes needs to handle it!

Thanks,
Janny

Yog said...

The only person who can blacklist a writer is the writer himself.

You can do it by becoming spectacularly newsworthy in a bad sort of way -- like Viswanathan, mentioned above. James Frey probably isn't going to be able to sell another non-fiction book (though if he wrote a good novel I could still see it getting published).

Or, you could do it by being a total jerk. (More so than even some of the famous author-jerks, of whom there are more than a few.) For example, I know of one writer who responded to every editor who bought one of his stories by being incredibly publicly and personally abusive toward that editor. Over the years he sold fewer and fewer stories. I'm told now that some editors slide his manuscripts back into the envelope unread because, even if it were brilliant, it wouldn't be worth the grief.

Another way to blacklist yourself is to decide that the guidelines are meant for someone else, not you, so you send gripping tales of men at war to a publisher who only prints sweet romances, or 200,000 word horse-chokers to a publisher that asks for 80,000-100,000 words max, or epic poetry to anyone.

Simultaneous submission to publishers who say "no simsubs" is another way to get yourself blacklisted. Ironically, if you've written tripe that no one would consider publishing you're safe to do this. You get a record number of rejections in record time, and you really feel as if you've accomplished something. It's when you've written something good and publishable that you'll be caught, with subsequent catastrophe and a need to change your name.

I can't think of a single agent or editor who, on getting a phone call from another agent or editor saying "Don't buy a book from Author X" would do anything except laugh and forget the conversation in two minutes. But I can think of plenty of agents and editors who'll mutter "It'll be a cold day in hell before I buy another manuscript from that jerk."

Oh, before I leave, I should mention the special case (because it is my own hobbyhorse): You absolutely, positively will not be blacklisted for saying bad things about PublishAmerica.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Hey... I've heard that if you say ENOUGH bad things about PublishAmerica, they might actually start rejecting your manuscripts!!!!!!!

Or is that another Snopes-worthy myth? =)

Gregory Ludwig said...

The premise of this discussion--that trade-book publishing is a unitary affair where blacklisting would work--seems ridiculous. In my experience of other types of publishing and other media, the industry is diffuse, discontinuous, erratic, and often less than second-rate, and you always have chances to at least try to get something published somewhere.
Three points:
1. **The publishing world is not Zeus.** It makes more sense to say it is a conspiracy by one ethnic group, and even that isn't true.
2. **Just because you are breathing on this planet, and wrote a book, doesn't mean you are automatically entitled to getting it published.** There could be many reasons it doesn't get published that have nothing to do with its specific merits.
3. **Learn to fail.** After my successful academic years, ending with a short term in graduate school, failure and learning to wait to reach a certain kind of career goal became very important lessons for me.
Another way to look at this is: Does so-and-so say they'll put you on a blacklist? Let them--with wild abandon. Then look at it as "Nixon's enemies list"--it should be an honor to be on it. No one shmoe at any level of the publishing world can guarantee, or justify, stopping your trying to get some book published somewhere. But as you try to get published, expect a lot more trying than success.

Jill Elaine Hughes said...

The closest thing to an industry blacklist is the grapevine of book editors who discuss which authors (all published, of course) are egomaniacal jerks who are horrible to work with. Of course, if those egomaniacal jerks' books sell, then those jerks will continue to get book deals. If those egomaniacal jerks' books don't sell, then those jerks might find it hard to sell subsequent books after abusing their editors.

As far as a "blacklist" for aspiring authors, there isn't one---except for those aspiring authors who can't write. That "blacklist" is pretty darn big---numbering in the millions.

pinhead said...

Wow... what a business opportunity for someone. It seems everyone already knows about the publishing blacklist, but it doesn't actually exist. So if I created it (perfect for the www!), I could probably charge publishers to subscribe to it and charge authors to be removed from it. Cool!

Anonymous said...

I work in book reporting, and I've never heard of a black-list for authors of books.

Actually, agents are rather careful about how publishers perceive them, and bad-mouthing some third party tends to hurt an agent's image.

There is informal blacklisting in the magazine world. A writer challenges an editor, and she/he may hear about it later on, from another publication. Often the challenge is something like, "So, when are you going to pay me?", and the author has to decide between being a bastard and getting paid on time, and being nice and working for that publication (or family of publications) again.

Bernita said...

One of the reasons for the perpetual myth may be that some agents admit to keeping a private "black list" of abusive and strange writers in self-defense.
People habitually extrapolate and inflate such reasonable precautions into an industry-wide condition.

Anonymous said...

Blacklist is as real as night and day cause I never made it past the query letter after thousands of emails to agents and publishers. The idea they dont pic and choose who they want to be anything is insane and naive. The social Mafia networks control everything now days and its a locked circlebno one gets in!

Anonymous said...

I was always told if you have to say your honest and lugit or in this case write a fabricated piece of insane crap about a industry that has been known to be run by the social Mafia networks, that there isn't any chance in hell your work will get through. What will happen is members of the social Mafia writing staff will over writ your work take credit for it get paid and show you the door. If you have to say your honest your not honest!!!!