Artwork donated by Pati Nagle.
The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Lies, Scam Artists, and Bullshit Meters (Networking Part Five)
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Irony of ironies. If it hadn’t been for networking, I wouldn’t have lost an hour of my work time today saving one of my best friends from a scam artist. Not that he would have fallen prey entirely. My friend, whom I met in college, works in one of those professions where, if you add the word “thriller” to the end of it, you get a bestselling book category—for some of its practitioners, anyway. For every Robin Cook or John Grisham, there are a slew of wannabes or almostbeens who write good novels, but never really make a living.
But everybody thinks these writers make a living—meaning everyone outside of the publishing profession, everyone who reads one of those hyphenate thrillers. The other side to those thrillers is that people who have degrees and/or expertise in the professions that inspire the thrillers believe they have experiences and/or the knowledge to write a better thriller than the current practitioners of the genre.
My friend has more than enough experience to write a good thriller, and better chops than most. He was a good writer in college, and with some practice, might write a fine novel someday.
He dreams of it. And lo and behold, through a continuing education brochure in connection with his current business, he gets offered the chance to take a seminar on writing the thriller. He’ll be able to write this conference off as a business expense for his current business (or hell, I don’t know, he might even get the entire thing paid for by his employer).
So, bright man that he is, he asks me—in a private message on Facebook—if I’ve ever heard of the people putting on the seminar. Smart question. He follows that with a second question: is it worth studying with these people? (See my post on continuing education to learn what other questions to ask before you pony up cash to attend a seminar.)
My answer to my friend, after a bit of digging, was an unequivocal no. Two of the people putting on the seminar are legit—they’ve published books in the hyphenate thriller genre—small books, not bestsellers. But the person who will “train” everyone to break into publishing, the person who talks through most of the two-day seminar?
That person I’ve met. At conferences. That person is what I call an accidental scam artist.
And now a bunch of you are asking yourselves, “How can you be an accidental scam artist?”
I go back to intentions. If I told this person that they were a scam artist, they’d be appalled. This person is really and truly trying to help people get published. This person’s intentions are very, very good. The advice given at the seminars is probably excellent when it comes to believing in yourself and awful on the nuts and bolts of publishing in 2010.
The problem is within my industry itself. So many peripheral parts of the publishing industry are unregulated. People can call themselves editors just because they know how to pick up a pen; people can call themselves agents just because they want to; and people can call themselves book doctors because they have opinions on what a novel should be, not because they actually know. Only two states in the nation regulate agents—California and New York—and those regulations only apply to the agents’ fiduciary responsibility.
For more on this, see my husband Dean Wesley Smith’s Killing Sacred Cows series on agents and J. Steven York’s hilarious blog, written from the point of view of his cat Sydney, who has set herself up as (and she says this) the World’s Worst Literary Agent.
My business isn’t the only one with unregulated “experts.” The financial services markets are filled with them. And even if someone is in a regulated industry, that doesn’t mean that they’re good at their job. I know of one very famous speaker in a regulated industry who is so successful at speaking that he now holds seminars all on his own. My friends in that industry point out that this man cannot hold a job in the industry (“He’s been fired from all the best places,” said one), but he is making his living teaching seminars geared to beginners in that industry. I have a hunch this sort of thing goes on more often that we like to think.
My friend came to me through traditional and nontraditional networking means. He asked the only person he knew well who worked in the writing field about the credentials of the folks putting on the seminar. He would have called me (old-fashioned networking) if Facebook hadn’t provided a quick and easy way to contact me.
If the web didn’t exist, I would have had to ask my friends about the unintentional scam artist, and after a few queries, I would have remembered that I had met this person. My recommendation would have been the same—don’t waste your money on that seminar—but it would have taken me longer to find answers.
Tonight, all I did was use Google, and I found more than enough to jog my memory. I also found the brochure for the seminar that my friend was thinking of attending, and I saw how the classes broke down among the instructors.
Had, for example, the two people with actual credentials in the hyphenate thriller category been doing most of the speaking, I would have told my friend to go and avoid the accidental scam artist. But the other two speakers were incidental; the main focus was the one person who really didn’t know the industry.
I wrote back to my friend, told him to avoid this seminar, and suggested other seminars for him to attend. I also mentioned conferences and organizations in his area that would be worth his while if he wants to learn how to write a thriller set in his professional world.
Then I paused, and realized that he would be just as vulnerable (if not more vulnerable) to scam artists, bad advice, and wrong turns at those conferences and in those organizations as he would have been at that continuing education seminar.
And therein lies the problem of networking.
It’s only as good for you as your bullshit meter allows. If you have a faulty bullshit meter, you’re in trouble as a freelancer, my friend.
Let me give you a case in point. As I mentioned above, Dean has been writing a series on Killing the Sacred Cows of publishing. Lately that series has focused on the worth of agents to the writer. Dean believes in having an agent, but he also believes that writers who hire one know what the agent’s job is before hiring any old person (makes sense, right? If not, see my sections on employees).
Also on that site are a number of successful freelance writers who discuss their experiences with agents at length. No one blogs anonymously. Everyone gives credentials and opinions, and uses experience and statistics to back up their point of view.
This week, Dean got some rather hateful mail in his comments section on the first agent post. He let the least egregious of the comments (the ones that didn’t use foul language and call him horrible names) through to the site. But it wasn’t until he got a few of them that he realized where they were coming from.
They were coming from a blog by someone who claims to be an editor, someone who blogs anonymously. Now, I’ve only read the unbelievably nasty post about my husband that this anonymous person has put on its (his? her? I dunno) blog, so I can’t tell you if this person’s advice is sound or not. And after that attack on my husband, I’m likely not the best judge of the anonymous blog.
However, I can tell you this: that is a blog—irregardless of the attack on my husband—that I would never read. Why? Because it is anonymous. I cannot check the credentials of the person writing the blog. Whereas, in the case of the accidental scam artist, I could easily check their credentials. That person was up front in on the website that this person now makes a living giving seminars about how to get published. The accidental scam artist even mentions that their experience is thirty years old (as an editor) and more than fifteen years old (as a writer).
The accidental scammer’s blog and seminars look positive, upbeat, and cheerful, helpful in a believe-in-yourself kinda way. If that was what my friend needed, I’d tell him to go and ignore all the nuts and bolts publishing advice. Because the accidental scammer isn’t hiding anything for the person who knows how to look.
But the anonymous blogger is hiding something. And when Dean pointed this out in his return e-mails to the people whose posts he declined to put on his site, they wrote back to him telling him they would trust someone who blogged anonymously over someone with his credentials because the anonymous blogger is taking a risk and could possibly lose their job by being honest about the industry.
Okay, that might be true for whistle-blowers and some political bloggers (a columnist in Madison, WI in the 1980s comes to mind, who wrote for Isthmus under the name the Capitol Eye), but it’s not true in publishing. There is no reason to be anonymous in this business. Lots of editors blog—including my editor at Pyr—as a way of helping writers, yes, and as a way of promoting their book lines.
The poor naïve writers attacking my husband through his site have faulty bullshit meters, and until they get those meters fixed, they’re not going to survive in the big, international world of publishing.
Unlike my friend. Who took one look at that seminar and contacted someone who could verify credentials. My friend has a mighty fine bullshit meter, and knows some of the basics about life: find out who you’re taking advice from. Figure out if that person is worth listening to.
And figure out if the advice is worth following. Not all advice is. Not all advice—even from the best people (like me, she says with an evil grin)—is worth following all the time. What might be right for me might be wrong for you. Think it through before doing it.
Especially advice that comes through anonymous sources.
Just this morning, I read a post by comic book writer Kurt Busiek about breaking into the comics business. However, in my opinion, his advice applies to all freelancers. He says, “If you need to have someone lay out a set of instructions for you, you probably don’t have the skills or imagination to be a freelance writer.” He goes through the long arduous up and down path it took him to get to his place in his freelance career. It’s an excellent analysis of the ups and downs of freelancing. It’s also an example of someone who knows who he is and what he can do as a freelancer in order to survive.
On last week’s American Idol (and if you want to know why I watch it, see this post), Ryan Seacrest pointed out to Crystal Bowersox that she received contradictory advice from two of the judges, Kara Dioguardi and Simon Cowell. Diogardi told Bowersox to lose her guitar for her next performance. Cowell told her to keep the guitar.
“Who’re you going to listen to?” Seacrest asked.
Without missing a beat, maybe without taking a breath, Bowersox said, “Me.”
And both Dioguardi and Cowell applauded, because Bowersox was right. If you’re going to survive as a freelancer, the only person you can trust to do the right thing is yourself. As I realized in the middle of a negotiation last week, if I screw it up, no one is going to give me a failing grade. Three years from now, I’ll probably not even remember that I was negotiating, let alone that I had made a minor mistake. I’m not going to get slapped; no one will yell at me. The worst that could happen was that I could make a bad deal or do something I didn’t like. Oh, well.
The advice side of this is pretty simple: listen with your bullshit meter on. Realize that good advice for the person next to you might be terrible advice for you. Figure out what you need and then go after it, through networking, education, and of course, good hard work.
I have no idea, as I write this, if my friend will go to the seminar. For all I know, he’ll still sign up. It might be worth his time to listen to the two legitimate writers at the seminar. He might need a trip to Los Angeles and an excuse for some downtime. He might think he can get something out of the seminar, especially now that he knows that one of the speakers cannot help him get published as promised.
Or he might take my advice and go to other conferences. Of course, at those conferences, there will be scammers and frauds, people who set themselves up as experts when they know little about the industry, and people who have incredible credentials, people who know quite well how to do something.
My friend will survive whatever he does, because he knows how to filter information. I don’t know how to teach you how to do that, except to research experts before you take their advice. And even then: once you’ve taken their advice, that becomes your decision. You have taken the action; it’s not their fault if something goes awry. It’s yours.
I can’t tell you how important a good bullshit meter is. Without one, you’re drowning in the deep end, unable to know where to turn for help. Start training yourself now; it’ll save you a lot of grief later.
“Freelancer Writer’s Survival Guide: Lies, Scam Artists, and Bullshit Meters
(Networking Part Five)” copyright 2010 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.