Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Professional Courtesy

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Artwork donated by Pati Nagle.

The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Professional Courtesy

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Last week’s post on “Surviving Someone Else’s Jealousy” went viral.  I got more e-mail than I’ve ever gotten on a single Freelancer’s Guide post, and more people tweeted, blogged, or commented on various social networking sites than ever had before.

I had no idea how many of you had suffered from someone else’s toxic emotions in the pursuit of your dreams.  I suggest you look at the comments on last week’s and on Professional Jealousy from the week before.  Lots of good stuff there.

Mixed among the e-mails were several sympathetic e-mails—virtual hugs—for which I thank you very much.  But honestly, folks, I’m okay.  The examples I wrote about, while disturbing to remember, are long in the past.  Yes, occasionally, I have more trouble with toxic personalities, but as I learned last week, we all have that kind of problem if we’re doing something that we love. Which is just sad—not for us, because we’re living fully—but for those jealous rage-filled people out there, who don’t understand that they need to take care of themselves first.

Posts like last week’s make me nervous when I write them because they talk about the negative sides of the business.  More than one e-mail writer confessed that they had no idea how difficult things could get with friends, family, and even strangers.  A few of those e-mail writers wondered if the price of freelancing—of succeeding at what you love—is worth it.

Absolutely.  I don’t want to do anything else.  In fact, I can’t imagine doing anything else.  I’m saving a post for the very end of this Guide on the benefits of freelancing.  (If folks have benefits they want me to mention, send me an e-mail marked “Benefits of Freelancing,” along with the benefit and permission to use your name in the Guide.)  Believe me, there are a lot of benefits.  One of them is the ability to do something like this Guide just because I felt the time was right, not because someone told me to or I had to or because someone thought I was the person for the job.  Nope.  I got the idea and did it when I felt like it, working at all hours of the day, as I could fit it in—sometimes in the early morning (bleh), sometimes late at night, and sometimes pushing up against my own personal deadline.  You guys—and the recession—have gotten me to write a book I’d been thinking about for years, but had never committed to.  And I’m quite happy with the interactivity because without it, I wouldn’t have nearly 120,000 words of Guide so far.

Nor would I have some of the topics I’ve covered.  Like this week’s topic, Professional Courtesy.  I got several letters this week, complaining about the boorish behavior of professionals.  All of the professionals discussed in the e-mails were professional writers, and at first, I thought of starting a new book when this one was done, called Etiquette For Writers.  (Although I’m not sure I should be the Miss Manners of the Literary Set, particularly when I emitted an involuntary “f*ck you!” at a friend this weekend in response to a comment about my age.  [Granted, he is a friend, so he’s used to me.  He said humbly, “Well, you know I mean it,” in the tone someone else would use to say, “Well, you know I didn’t mean it,” and we all laughed and the conversation went on from there.])

As I pondered this Etiquette For Writers idea, I got more and more e-mails about terrible behavior by professionals.  (All writers.)  I had experienced some awful behavior by musicians and actors, so for a while I wondered if the bad behavior belonged only to people who make their living as artists.

Then, on Dean’s (writer Dean Wesley Smith’s) blog, writers started discussing the way that agents—people they hired!—had treated them, and I made a single post about bad behavior involving cell phones among working professionals everywhere.  That’s when I remembered grumping a few years back about sending gifts to friends and never receiving an acknowledgement or a thank-you.  (One friend actually criticized the gift!)  It took a four-year-old whose father had to dial the phone to remind me what courtesy was like; she was so thrilled with her gift that she had to tell me now, and her response pleased me to no end.

Dean teases me about being too polite (despite the occasional involuntary f*ck you), especially when dealing with people I don’t know.  I’m “yessir-ing” and “no-ma’am-ing” and “please” and “thank you” and “would you mind?” and “excuse me” and smiling politely even when I want to rip someone’s head off.  When I’m startled, I revert to polite.

Which is a good response, considering my potty mouth. (I was startled this weekend, but relaxed and among friends, hence the blue outburst.)

We all know we should be polite to others, particularly in a business situation.  But let me share with you some of the bad behavior I’ve heard about this past week as well as some things I’ve experienced.  I’ll start with writers, then move to other professions.  Then we’ll talk a bit about obligations.

1. An unpublished writer bought a published novel written by a friend.  The unpublished writer was excited to buy the friend’s book, complimented her on it, and had her sign it. The friend proceeded to badmouth her own book—talking about the problems she still had with it, the things she should have done, the things her editor should have done, the problems with the sales department, and more.  The writer thinks of that every time she looks at the book, and probably will not buy any more books by the friend because the experience so soured her.

2. I was signing books with New York Times bestselling author.  A fan, clearly excited to meet NYT author, brought in her entire collection of said author’s work.  The author signed the books, but loudly demanded to know why anyone would want her books defaced like that. “What’s the point?” NYT author demanded.  “Proof that you met me so you can show off to your little friends?”  The author continued along those lines—not in a humorous way, but in a very mean way—and the fan left.  In tears.

3.  I got five e-mails—five!—in which the e-mail writers recounted stories like the ones above.  Each e-mail mentioned that the fan had told the published writer how much the fan had liked the work; each time the published writer had criticized the work or the publishing company or the bookstore where the event was being held.  And each e-mail letter complained that the published writer had never once said thank you.  Not once.

4. My favorite bookstore pet peeve: I get to the checkout counter with my half dozen books (try to get me out of a bookstore with fewer than six—I dare you), and the employee behind the cash register—or worse!—the bookstore’s owner tells me that the books I’m buying aren’t any good. Usually the employee/owner hasn’t read the books.  Often the employee/owner sniffs and says something like, “Since you’re buying so many, maybe you’d like a really good book” (in a tone that suggests my choices were substandard).  This, by the way, is different from “Do you like that author? I want to try his books,” which just shows interest.

5. My second bookstore pet peeve, which used to be a general retail pet peeve until the rise of online ordering (especially for music):  Being told in the same snobby tone as the examples above that “we don’t carry that product.”  Now I’m okay with a place not carrying everything, but in bookstores you’ll hear this as “We don’t carry <sniff> romance or <snarf> science fiction.”  I recently encountered this attitude at a pet store, when I went to buy cat food because my usual venue was closed. I was told in no uncertain terms that I do not love my cats because of the food I feed them (recommended by my vet, btw—capitalist dog that he is).  I ran from that pet store, and have not entered it since.  (Since this was the store’s owner who uttered that “you clearly don’t love your cats” line, I also actively discourage friends from going there as well.)

6. I was accompanying a friend as her eyes and ears while she prepared for major surgery.  When she started questioning her surgeon about the procedure, he told her she wasn’t smart enough to understand everything he had to do.  I stopped him, asked a few more clarifying questions, and he got angry at me for questioning him.  We had other problems with this man as the days progressed. I urged her to get a second opinion—and to find another surgeon. She didn’t.  She came out just fine (thank heavens).  But no degree of expertise should allow anyone to treat a patient/client/customer like he treated her.  (And we’ll not discuss the things he said to me while she was being anesthetized.)

I could go on and on and on.  I’d like to say that this is an American problem only—and honestly, our culture has become very, very coarse in the past twenty years.  But I’ve encountered rude behavior from professionals everywhere except (dare I say it?) Canada.  Although come to think of it, the first rude writer I ever met was a famous Canadian literary writer (who has also been on the New York Times list) who spoke to my college creative writing class.  We spent a week preparing for her visit, reading her work, and preparing questions.  Then she arrived, gave a short talk, and proceeded to insult us all by saying that since none of us would ever be published, we weren’t worth her time.  Since we weren’t worth her time, she wasn’t going to take questions.  I haven’t bought her little books now for 30 years because of that rude and condescending afternoon.

So…am I saying be polite at all times?

No.  That would be hypocritical of me.  Generally speaking, I’m not polite.  I’m blunt and foul-mouthed, particularly among people who know me.  I don’t suffer fools very well (and certainly not gladly), and I have been known to take someone apart piece by tiny piece when I get irritated.

But I try to be polite most of the time, partly because I have been on the other side of the bad behavior.  When someone tells me they like a book I’ve written, I thank them.  When they have a question about my work, I try my best to answer it.  When they scream at me in public (see last week’s piece), I do my best not to scream back.

Let’s talk about fans/readers/clients/patients for a moment.

Without them—oh, freelancer—you are nothing.  If you do not have a readership, then you won’t last long as a professional writer.  If you don’t have clients, then you won’t make it as a lawyer.  If you don’t have patients, you’re not a doctor.

Granted, that surgeon I mentioned above never got his patients directly like a family practice doctor does.  If you see that surgeon, you usually see him once or maybe twice, and always at the recommendation of another doctor.  Believe me when I tell you that I reported that surgeon to all the doctors I know who recommended him, and all of them were shocked at his behavior.  I don’t know if I had a negative impact on his recommendation rate, but I like to think I did.

Be as courteous as you can.  I’ve had fans go through my books line by line, telling me what’s wrong with them, and then buy another book and have me sign it. If I had gotten defensive at those critiques (and trust me, I was feeling defensive, I just didn’t express it), the readers wouldn’t have purchased another book.  Do I want fans like that? Of course I do.  I’m a fan like that.  I won’t tell a favorite writer why I think she went wrong in her most recent book, but I will tell another fan and we’ll discuss the problems.  And then I’ll go out and buy the next book.  I’ll wager a lot of you are the same way.

Most of us just wouldn’t tell the writer how much we hated one of her efforts.  And that’s the only difference.

I can be very forgiving of fans, just like I can be forgiving of customers.  I went out of my way as a waitress and as a retail clerk to make sure that the customers were happy, even if the customers were drunk or rude or wrong.  That old adage, the customer is always right, is a good one to remember when you’re in public.

Of course, there are times to toss the adage.  The customer should not be abusive or violent.  Certain types of behavior should not get a pass, ever.

But mostly, what does it hurt you—the professional—to bite your lip? To be polite or just not say anything at all?  Writers, say thank you when someone compliments your work.  Bookstore owners, be thankful someone is buying your stock.  Lawyers and doctors, expect your clients to be a bit emotional for most are seeing you at a tough time in their lives.  A little empathy goes a long way.

Remember, though, that everyone has a bad day, and not everyone has social skills.  I think the reason so many of my examples this week were about writers is not just because I am a writer, but because writers usually don’t need social skills.  We sit in a room and make things up.  We interact with ourselves, our family, our friends, and our imaginary friends.  Sometimes we forget how to survive in the real world.

I think everyone should get a pass for the occasional rude remark.  If the behavior is continual, though, like that surgeon’s, then don’t go to that professional again.

If you’re a person who has poor social skills, figure out how to ameliorate the problem.  There are actual classes to shore up your public behavior, should you want to take them. Community colleges offer them as do regular colleges.  In my small town, our chamber of commerce has a once-a-year course in public relations.  Taking something like that might be worth your time.

If you’re like me—a person who can be polite some of the time, but not all of the time—figure out a way around the problem.  In most instances, I’m just fine.  But when I’m teaching a one- or two-week workshop, with long hours, I know I’ll relax and then my potty mouth will get the best of me.  So I warn my students ahead of time, and I apologize in advance.  Then I try my best to be on my best behavior.

A lot of people can’t be polite when they’re busy.  Politeness is the first thing out the window.  In that instance, I’d recommend hiring a receptionist, a secretary or a clerk—someone to handle the public while you’re handling the actual business.  (See my posts on employees first.) And if you can’t afford the help, then take classes.  Make an effort.  Learn how to put your best foot forward.

Here are a few tips to help you be courteous.

1. Never take your fan/reader/client/customer for granted.  Treat them with respect and maybe just a bit of awe.  After all, they’ve deemed you worthy of their time, trust and/or hard-earned dollars.  Honor that.

2. Say please and thank you.  I know, I sound like your mother.  Well, take those lessons to heart.  In response to a compliment, a simple thank you means a lot more than a critique of the work at hand.  Show some appreciation for the person who came into your store, ordered food off the menu you designed, or bought a book you wrote.  They didn’t have to do that, you know.  You’re not entitled to customers or nice comments.  You have to earn them, like everyone else.

3. Dress up. This goes for anyone who interacts with the public.  It’s better to be overdressed than underdressed.  As I  mentioned in an earlier blog post, I watch American Idol, and I use it as a learning tool.  One thing that continually shocks me is how many people claim that being a professional musician is their lifelong dream, yet these people show up in sloppy sweats, ratty blue jeans, and ill-fitting t-shirts.  One girl this year—who was chosen from the auditions to go to Hollywood Week—was incredibly poor (I mean horribly, awfully poor).  She managed to scrounge up $4 to buy a dress at the Dollar Store—and you could tell that purchase meant she went without food or gas or something else important.  She worked hard to look her best. Yet people with a lot more money looked like they had just gotten out of bed.  Most of these folks weren’t wearing their punk rocker costume. They just hadn’t bothered to clean up for this big opportunity.

If you work at home and don’t normally dress up, your “public” clothes will become a costume.  I have my jeans and ratty sweaters for at home, and my business attire for book signings or conventions, and my black-tie outfits for banquets.  When I wear the business attire or my black-tie outfits, I’m wearing something slightly unusual—and it serves as a reminder that I am out in public.  My costume, if you will, helps me be just a bit more formal than I would usually be.

4. If you have trouble being polite, smile and say very little. The smile is important so that folks don’t think you’re surly.  But put on your company face, and do the best you can.

5. Be respectful.  I think half the writer examples I read this week wouldn’t have occurred if the writer had taken a moment to view the person they were talking to with respect.  Success doesn’t give you a license to be rude.

6. Enlist a Rescuer. This may sound silly, but it’s important, especially if you have fans.  You’ll need someone to grab your arm and pull you out of a crowd.  I’ve done that for some famous writers back when I was editing.  Dean does it for me at my signings, and I do it for him at his.  Sometimes fans don’t know when to stop hogging your time.  A bookstore clerk will often hustle the fan along, but at conventions, no one will do that.  Your rescuer can get you out of a tight situation without insulting the well intentioned person who has backed you into a corner.

The other thing your rescuer can do is stop you from making a fool of yourself.  I have a look that I get when someone has crossed over this mental line that I have that goes from “nice” to “fool.”  (Usually that line gets crossed by some unforgivable [often bigoted] political remark.)  I’ve had half a dozen friends save the poor person who crossed my mental line by recognizing my look and getting me away from the person quickly.

Once I was at a dinner with a famous person whose politics are—shall we say politely—the opposite of mine. We had a business relationship, that I carefully kept out of the political arena for years.  But, as luck would have it, our dinner fell two days after a particularly hard-fought election.  And he launched into some horrible, unbearable diatribe filled with n-words and other such things.  My assistant, who was having dinner with us, grabbed my knee in the middle of that diatribe and while I thought of going for the steak knife and disemboweling this famous person, my assistant held me down and dug his fingers into my thigh until I was black-and-blue.  But I didn’t destroy a lucrative business relationship with my potty mouth and my politics—only because I had a rescuer at that table.  (Or rather the famous person had a rescuer.  Because had we been alone at that dinner, I might be in prison now.)

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that my post on surviving other people’s jealousy brought out this dark side of professionalism.  I think most of you who are being rude—and believe me, some of you are reading this blog—don’t realize that you are.  Figure out how to gain some self-awareness in this area.  Maybe even practice the things you’ll say when you go out in public.

It’s important.

Remember this: Professional courtesy brings repeat business. Rudeness will often destroy the relationship.  Granted, there are times when you don’t want to do business with that person ever again.  But usually, you do.  Be nice. Be polite. Be respectful.

Really, it’s not that hard.



“Freelancer Writer’s Survival Guide: Professional Courtesy” copyright 2010 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

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26 Comments

  1. Politics. Ouch. That’s one area where I wish more writers of SF and F would learn to put a sock in it. Especially on their blogs. I wonder how many writers scare off potential customers because they’re too busy holding forth about this or that politically-charged topic. Especially when they get around to villifying people who hold opposing opinions.

    Last year when I set up my writing blog, I made it a personal policy for myself to keep it as politics-free as possible, even though I tend to delight in on-line political debate and argument.

    My thought was that it would be the worst thing in the world for me, as a new writer, to set about deliberately alienating large numbers of potential fans if I used my writing blog as a political pulpit. And yes, my track record in the last 12 months has been spotty — I’ve still too often used my writing blog for arguments’ sake.

    But now that I am professionally sellling I feel like it’s probably more important than ever before to try and make my public face a welcoming face for whoever happens to walk in the door. And because I won’t know their political beliefs, slamming them in the teeth with political messages — right off the bat — is probably not a good idea.

    On dress, Kris, that’s a terrific and oft-overlooked point. Sometimes, at cons, the writers on the panels are dressed so amazingly poorly. And while I understand the con environment is supposed to be a place to let your hair down, I’ve always been quietly impressed with people like L.E. Modesitt, Jr. Lee is always sharply dressed and has a flair for vests. Now, this could be his wife doing this — I’m a husband of almost 20 years, I know how it works — but the point to me is that Lee is consciously managing his “packaging” for the audience. His ‘costume’ — as you put it, Kris — is part of his presentation. And I know if I have noticed and liked his attire, I am sure others have as well, especially women; who always seem to appreciate a well-dressed and well-groomed male.

    Speaking of grooming, while this didn’t get specifically mentioned, I think it’s worth noting that SF and F writers and fans are somewhat notorious, when it comes to the shave-and-bath quotient. Again, there is being comfortable in public, and there is slouching into the daylight looking like you haven’t showered in a week, smelling like last month’s dirty underwear, and having what appears to be mold growing on yourr front teeth. You would think more fans and writers especially would clue in on this — that it’s a bad idea to be a slob in a public place. But you see it all the time, and I can’t say I’ve been terribly inspired to begin following an author if when they’re on a panel or mingling with fans at a con, they look gross, smell gross, or otherwise make my wrinkle my nose.

    Reply
  2. Great post, Kris. When I owned a bookstore, I always told myself to treat every customer as if they were the only one I had. That served me pretty well. As a writer, I try to think of readers the same way.

    And you know I’d love to see your Miss Manners book. I think you should title it: “Fuck It: Etiquette for the Foul-Mouthed Writer.”

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  3. Just as an aside, from somebody who spent some years in the medical field, surgeons are notorious for lacking bedside manners. There are various theories about this, but frequently — enough to remark upon it — the best ones with a blade are utter assholes in conversation.

    Last one I had, for a little knee thing, was a gem, funny, smart, personable, and I point folks at him because he was also a genius with the knife and the little knee-cam.

    But I confess I’d rather have a really good cutter lacking social skills than the other way around …

    I don’t think that being an artist buys you a permanent free pass to be a dick, but a lot of folks look at the bottom line …

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  4. Here’s an eye-opening comment about courtesy and etiquette that’s worth considering. I took a non-writing friend to a writers’ event. And at the end of the event, she was very amused by the self-absorption of writers: Although she had talked with many writers, not one single person there had asked her even one single question about herself. They had simply yammered on at length about themselves.

    Curious about this, I tried an experiment at a dinner with three writers whom I didn’t know. I was friendly, but didn’t volunteer any information about myself. Sure enough, they didn’t ask me one single question about myself. They just yammered on about themselves throughout the meal.

    It’s worth keeping in mind that most people would like a conversation to be a dialogue, not a monologue. There may just possibly be something worth talking about besides oneself…

    Reply
    • Great point about politics, Brad. I’m pretty sure my readers (esp. my mystery readers) know where I stand politically, but I don’t bludgeon anyone with it. (Except in person, among friends. Then political discussions are fun.) I read a lot of writers with whom I disagree politically and love their work. I followed one on Twitter and had to unfollow him because his political commentary was making me very, very mad. So mad I didn’t want to buy his books.

      I love the book title, Scott. I may use it. :-) It seems apt somehow.

      Steve, there is so much more to this surgeon story. Like you, I’d rather have expertise than courtesy, but…in this case, we didn’t really have either. I can’t say much more without violating my friend’s privacy, but let me say that this surgeon refused to fill out forms for the surgery, refused to do the pre-op interviews, refused to mark which part of the body was going to be operated on (and this was one of those parts where there’s one on the left side and one on the right), screamed at the pre-op nurse and the administrator who wanted him to follow procedure. The lack of courtesy was just the start. This was 2003. Seven years later, he’s no longer at that hospital. (I tried to get my friend to research him [she wouldn't], tried to get her to another surgeon [she wouldn't], tried to get her to ask questions [she wouldn't]. Nowadays surgeons and doctors have courses in bedside manners so that they can fake it, like I mentioned in the article. All I want is questions answered before someone cuts into me. This guy wouldn’t even do that.

      I never talk about myself, Laura, she lied. :-) Good point. We writers are very self absorbed.

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  5. Great post, Kris!

    This is a little tangential, but something that’s becoming very frustrating to me is lack of response as a social trend. Somehow in the last few years it became the norm to simply not respond to, say, an invitation, if you weren’t interested. Even if the invitation says “RSVP.”

    This has shown up in publishing as the infamous “no answer means no” trend, which I also can’t stand. I realize it takes a moment to hit reply on your email software and say “No, thanks” but even busy editors should have time for courtesy IMO.

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  6. Great post, as always, Kris, and one much needed. I especially need to take the “dress” part more seriously. I tend to show up at signings in NIN t-shirts and jeans, but I need to re-think that and come up with a professional, yet goth-y wardrobe for signings and other events.

    (Of course, there’s also our trip to NY to meet my editor and agent – before heading off for Europe on a research trip. Kris had told me to pack work clothes, unaware I wore jeans and t-shirts to work. LOL. Needless to say, there was a frantic, last-minute shopping spree in NY before the meeting with my editor. LOL. Thanks again, Kris!!)

    I totally agree that without our readers, our fans, we’re nothing. I make sure that I listen to each one at my signings, I always ask their name, and I make sure to thank them. I also try to shake their hand, as well.

    A writer needs to make sure that the clerks and manager at the bookstore where the signing is being held are also treated with courtesy and respect. I try to bring pastry of some sort for the bookstore staff when I come for the signing. Between the yummies and the professional courtesy, along with heartfelt thanks, it usually means I’ll be asked back and the staff tends to promote my books throughout the year.

    And I LOVE Scott’s title for the etiquette book. LOL!

    I also agree with Laura about writers being self-absorbed, so I make it a point to always ask my readers a question about themselves. I learn a lot!!

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    • I agree, Pati. I hate the no response problem. It also happens a lot in e-mail. I’ll send an important e-mail and I’ll get no acknowledgement that it arrived. Then when I ask, I get a “of course it’s here,” response. Considering how much of my own e-mail goes awry, I think “of course” is the wrong answer. “Luckily” is probably more appropriate.

      Good post, Adrian.

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  7. Thanks for the wonderful posts. I’m finding them very useful.

    My husband & I went to a Lily Tomlin concert a few years ago. We were both raised to be polite & courteous but have become inurred to a level of general disregard & vague rudeness around us. At the concert, we were amazed at the high level of courtesy we experienced from other concert-goers. And then we realized … in our early 40s, we were arguably the youngest people in the auditorium.

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  8. The “self-absorption” problem: Ever since my wife pointed out to me that I tend to talk a lot about writing in social situations, I have had to make a conscious effort to balance the conversations.

    I don’t think it’s a matter of being in love with myself; rather, it is a matter of being passionate about something. However, when the topic is “my topic” and *I’m* the one doing all the talking – and even if the listener is intrigued – a lopsided conversation like that can give the impression of self-absorption.

    I’ve recently walked away from a few such encounters mentally head-slapping myself and wishing I’d remembered to ask the other person more about themselves.

    But I am getting better about it. :)

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  9. While I am not a professional writer, nor do I aspire to make a living at it, I think this advice is particularly relevant and I am compelled to chime in.

    I am part of a science fiction/fantasy group in central PA that has hosted more than a dozen different authors and editors over the past decade (Watch the Skies). Our guests have ranged from new writers to well known award winners and NYT best sellers. We’re not huge, but we’re consistent, publishing a monthly zine and regularly attending conventions. *Courtesy is the key to it all* – both from the author and from the fan. We are all people. We love what we read and love to talk to the folks that create these fabulous works.

    Nothing will put me off faster than somebody that doesn’t know how to be polite.

    I will gladly recommend the works of any of our guests, and frequently do. I WILL NOT recommend the works of the folks who seem to lack a basic understanding of what you’ve presented here. In fact there’s one particular, prominent, SFWA author that I go out of my way to push people away from. The fact that you’ve gotten some books published does not give you license to denigrate newer authors and fans. A lack of courtesy can cost you more than you know.

    Thank you for posting this!

    Reply
    • Sometimes, Eric, I think some people should just decline public invitations. I occasionally watch BookTV and shake my head at my professional group. Writers. We don’t have many social skills. But I’m like you. I can get easily put off. I try to remember the writer is not the work. (It helps on the political/religious side for me, oddly enough, but not on the politeness side.)

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  10. On the flip side … There’s a writer whom, for years, I’ve intended to kill. I did a book signing at an indy bookstore about 2 weeks after she did one. I’m pretty courteous and have pretty good social skills. But SHE was SO good at this stuff and had made herself SO popular there, I probably would have had to be the second coming of John Lennon NOT to make a BAD impression at that same store, by contrast, being the first writer to go there since her visit.

    She had brought cookies and gifts, she had become every staff member’s and every customer’s best friend, she was beautiful, she was beautifully dressed, she showered charm the way the monsoon showers rain, etc.

    After I’d spent 30 minutes hearing about this, I just wanted to crawl into a hole for ONLY showing up decently dressed and armed ONLY with good manners.

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  11. On the dress issue: A number of years ago, K. W. got a last-minute invitation to be a guest at a film festival in Nortern Italy. It included me, too. So he said yes.

    After researching this place, I discovered that it was a winter resort at the foot of Mont Blanc in the Italian Alps. This was not Mt. Hood in layers of your old jeans and sweatshirts — this was Audrey Hepburn & Cary Grant in sunglasses, sipping white wine backed by ski lodges and snowbanks. And we had only three weeks to pull our act together.

    Coming from an Italian background, I remembered that la bella figura (or the idea that you should always make a good first impression) was a huge deal in Italy. I hit Nordstroms and K. W. got to the Mens Wearhouse for the basic tailored wool gabardine ensembles.

    When we were in the swing of things at the festival, I noticed that K. W. was the only American writer there who was “dressed.” He was also the first American writer the French and Italian media (esp. television) interviewed. (Now I love my husband, but there were some other writers there with much higher profile who would normally have been first pick.) There was even a big feature article on him in the Sunday La Stampa.

    I am sure that his stature as a writer and the fact that he had a couple of books coming out in Italy created much of the interest in him, but dressing well certainly didn’t hurt.

    As we were leaving, his publisher said to us that we were a “pleasant surprise,” as most American writers did not make a good first impression.

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  12. But I’ve encountered rude behavior from professionals everywhere except (dare I say it?) Canada.

    What can I say? We live up to the stereotype. ;)

    I have a feeling I know which Canadian literary author you’re talking about. I haven’t met the one I’m thinking about in person, but her comments in interviews (particularly her…idiosyncratic…definition of science fiction, which she uses to deny that she writes SF) often come off as condescending.

    Reply
    • Ah, Edgar, you got it in one. And she was quite condescending that day. It wasn’t pleasant, and in 30 years I’ve seen no behavior from her to change my mind. (I do that on occasion. Honest.)

      Geri, I had the same experience in France. One of my French editors actually lowered his voice one day and leaned over to me. He said, “You are someone I can ask because you dress well. Why do most Americans dress like homeless people?” I laughed, but he was serious. I had no real answer for him.

      When Adrian and I looked at the guidebooks for Rome, they all said, “Do not wear sweats to the Vatican.” I asked her, “Who would wear sweats to the Vatican?” Then we got to Rome, and saw the people getting off the tour bus for the Vatican. The answer was simple: Americans wear sweats to the Vatican. (So I guess we hold up to the stereotype too, Edgar.)

      When I travel I dress up as much as possible. The nice thing is that in Europe, this often keeps me from being targeted as an easy tourist mark. To date, I haven’t been mugged or had my pockets picked. I expect that to change at some point, but so far, it hasn’t happened.

      And it’s courteous. Dressing well when you meet others is a sign of respect.

      Reply
  13. When I was in northern Italy on Army duty in 2009 I discovered that northern Italians are highly conscious about what they wear. Men and women both. They get dressed up just to go to the hardware store. Typical American dress — by even modest northern Italian standards — is quite sloppy.

    Not that I think this puts down the American sensibility — because I like being able to wear sweats and a t-shirt when I go get gas or get some hardware supplies or just go grab a Big Mac — but it was a bit of an eye-opener all the same, and I could appreciate their want to look sharp even under mundane circumstances.

    Regarding Eric’s comment, it’s a damned shame, but there are more than a few social “beasts” working in SF and F, and some of them seem to enjoy nothing more than being pricks and dicks to aspirants and fans. Notice, I name no names. Notice also that probably everyone reading this can think of at least one or two really good examples. People who — while they might be basically decent folk in their everyday lives — are complete jerks when you get them on a panel or put them in front of an audience of any sort.

    I have a theory about that, actually. And it mostly centers on that I think sometimes these kinds of poorly-behaved, “It’s-all-about-me!” writers don’t have anything else in their lives that makes them feel special, or which gives them a sense of accomplishment and purpose. They’re therefore defensive about their position among fans and other writers, and will sometimes swan about accordingly. As I may have noted in the previous thread, these people often seem to be operating from a “finite” mentality, versus an “abundance” mentality.

    And honestly, I think that’s just inexcusable. Especially when dealing with fans. I know some fans are bad too, but when an author — especially a prominent author — proceeds to be an entitled a**hole to fans or aspirants… My blood just boils. I want to walk up and clock them and while they’re laying on the floor, wondering what the heck happened, give them a good, salty, Army-style tongue lashing about how they ought to be grateful they even have fans, or young writers who sometimes travel great distances and pay good money to meet professionals.

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  14. The tales of rude professional writers are unbelievable, worthy of an episode of Smoking Gun: The World’s Rudest People.

    I don’t even understand that kind of rudeness toward fans, or anyone else. Even if you are a rude person, that’s lousy business. If a writer treatedme that way, I’d be sorely tear up a copy of his or her book right there on the spot. I definitely would not buy another book that writer wrote.

    Now, on the other hand, I’ve had nothing but good experience with surgeons. I’ve only had to deal with two, but both were courteous, friendly, spent a lot of time with me before and after the procedures, and answered every question I had in depth.

    Reply
  15. I suppose I’m not surprised to hear that authors are self-involved people who only talk about themselves at conferences. They are, after all, artists, and the ego is a powerful thing.

    But given the craft, it surprises me that an author, meeting a person for the first time, wouldn’t ask tons of questions about the other person, just from the habit of observing his surroundings in order to improve his writing.

    Maybe I’m just naturally curious, but while I can easily dominate a conversation about anything (not just writing), I make a conscious effort to direct the conversation back to the person with whom I’m speaking, particularly if I’ve never met that person. I tend to ask question after question, trying to get a feel for their culture and background. I never go and base a character off of someone I’ve met, but small elements of people I know end up in my characters.

    A wise man once said to me, “You know, Jones, if you spent half as much time listening as you do talking, you might learn something.” This was after I’d said something stupid in my youth. Specifically what, I don’t recall. But I remember his chiding me, and I try to use that now.

    Of course, I’ve spent this whole comment talking about myself, ironically.

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  16. Regarding professional courtesy, it seems like common sense, but common sense went out the window years ago for many people.

    In the past year, I’ve connected, albeit on a limited scale, with dozens of writers, some of them bestsellers. Some interactions have been better than others, of course, but I would characterize none of them as having been bad.

    One stands out, however. This man has had numerous bestsellers, movie deals, and even a movie made from one of his books. He is active on the internet as a way to interact with his fans because he feels it helps him be better. He interacts with people so excessively that he has to force himself offline to meet his goals. But he treats everyone with nothing but courtesy and respect.

    If you tell him you liked his book on Twitter, you will get back something like, “Thanks! What specifically did you like about it?”

    I didn’t know his name in June last year, and I’ve since bought, read, and loved two of his books. After learning of him, I went to the bookstore one day to buy a book by another author, and literally turned my head to the shelf and saw one of his. I bought it because I knew his name and because of his positive interactions with people. If he had been an ass, I wouldn’t have bought either book.

    When I read his most recent book, I tweeted that I had read it and I found it very interesting, for lack of a better word. Within a few hours, I had the reply, “Awesome! What interested you about it?” I told him, and he said, “Thanks!”

    That’s a bit of an extreme amount of interactivity for many writers, I’d assume, but this man treats his fans the way they ought to be treated, that’s for sure.

    Reply
    • Oh, what a great book that would be, James, esp. in this market. You should propose it to someone at a publishing house. :-)

      Great posts, Jeremy. I too have bought books from writers I “met” on Twitter, because the writers were nice or interesting or both. I think Twitter and Facebook are like a giant convention, so I try to treat them that way, and love it when others do too. (I have unfriended more than a few folks for politics, mostly, because I want to keep on reading their books.

      Reply
  17. Regarding your comments about bookstore employees, I have to say that is an enormous pet peeve of mine. I worked in “the farthest north indy” in Fairbanks for two years. Most of the staff were grad students and they were always exceedingly unimpressed by romance and SFF customers. We sold new and used and there were employees who would argue about having to stock the used romance section as someone might think they were actually in there buying a book and not just working and oh – THE HUMILIATION!!

    There was a lot of badmouthing romance customers, etc and it infuriated me. At all of 23 years old they were universally convinced that they were the most well read people in the world.

    There is no excuse for such rude behavior and I was always happy when our owner made it clear that they either put a happy face on and helped the customers or quit. I just told them to grow up – and wondered just what on earth possibly made them be so impressed with their obnoxious selves!

    Reply
    • Good for you and the owner, Colleen. One of our local indy booksellers put up a sign that said “Good Fiction” over the mainstream/literary part of the bookstore. My books weren’t there, of course. So I walked him over and said, “Does that mean my books are bad fiction?” He took the sign down, and really apologized. He hadn’t realized how insulting that was.

      Reply
  18. Kris you said: I think Twitter and Facebook are like a giant convention, so I try to treat them that way, and love it when others do too.
    Oh, yes, yes, yes. I so agree. And I won’t even begin to go into convention etiquette. But I have seen some doozie foot-in-mouth situations, and been the brunt of at least one very embarrassing (for me) drunken monologue.

    Thanks for a wonderful post.

    Reply
  19. Oh, and thank you for that nice thing you said about we Canadians. We do queue up nicely don’t we? ;)

    Reply
    • You do, Brenda. I think that’s our problem here in the States. We line. We don’t queue. :-)

      Reply

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  1. Friday’s Links: evaporating jobs and Frank discussions « Booklife - [...] The Freelancer’s Survival Guide blog on professional courtesy [...]
  2. Writers: Why showering, brushing your teeth, wearing decent clothes, and being nice to people really are part of the job - [...] loved this latest post by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, all about professional courtesy by and among writers. There are some …

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