In the USA We Threaten Authors
Or: Cults, Stalkers, Angry Readers, and How You Can Avoid Them
The first time somebody contacted me with fantasies about my death I thought to myself, "Wow! I've made it as an author."
I'd only been writing professionally three years by that point. It's easy to have imposter syndrome when you're new to an industry, or when you don't have a lot of career accomplishments yet, or when you come from marginalized groups, or when you don't have a university degree in your field of work.
Or, when you're like me, all of those things combined.
There has been a controversy recently in the United States publishing scene surrounding an author who engaged in some fairly egregious cultural appropriation according to the members of the community being written about. The author took up space and resources that should, by rights, have gone to people from the community they were attempting to write about, all while perpetuating stereotypes that do harm to the community.
Supposedly there were threats against this author and the publicity tour was canceled. An uproar resulted, and certain prominent authors chastised the public by declaring that this is the United States and we don't threaten authors.
It has since come to light there were no threats directly issued against the author.
Now, as a woman or member of a marginalized community…you know there are threats everywhere, every day, and you receive more of them when your visibility increases, so none of this is news to us. Also, those of us who maintain our own social media accounts in this day and age have a pretty good grasp on the nature of being exposed to threats regularly.
As for me, and thinking I'd made it because people wanted me dead for my work in an anthology? Well, there was no valid need for any such badge of honor to be considered a "real" author. Early in my career articles, poems, and stories of mine were appearing in magazines and anthologies and newspapers around the world. For some reason that didn't feel like quite enough, somehow. I needed recognition.
Like, perhaps, the stalkers I've had at various times in my 20 years of writing. To some folks it seems glamorous, the way they talk about celebrities and the people who dangerously obsess over said celebrities. From my experience it is quite the opposite of glamorous. In addition to all the obvious problems you would anticipate in a stalking situation, your life can become so disrupted you're unable to carry on with your career — and you can even become trained to fear success, no matter how small, because it opens you up to further public exposure.
Of course, if you have whole teams of assistants and publicity people and researchers and so forth insulating you from the public — as does, say, a top author who's made hundreds of millions — maybe none of that matters. I wouldn't know. But I can confirm that in the United States yes, we most definitely are threatened as authors.
That's just one of the things I've learned over my years in the business. Another lesson, even more crucial, is that so much of the abuse heaped on us as authors is the result of not knowing how to get ahead. Not having a roadmap, or benchmarks. We find ourselves going down so many dead-ends as authors and editors and reviewers and book designers because we are groping in the dark, hoping that we can trust this new lead or contact we made while networking. The unending series of scandals in recent years tells us just how well abusers and con artists have done hiding in broad daylight within publishing circles. So many of us come to publishing through connections, not through formal training, and find our fates in the hands of people who may not have our best interests at heart.
Some of us are trying to point the way, though. During my career I've been lucky enough to connect with generous mentors, and learn from some great teachers and colleagues. For almost 17 years I've helped run a publishing company dedicated to putting works into print by authors who defy the traditional publishing model. In that time we've been fortunate to work with authors I admire on our nonfiction imprint, Guide Dog Books, publishing among others the guides Architectures of Possibilities by Lance Olsen and Trevor Dodge, and Monstrous Creatures by Jeff VanderMeer. I'm proud to say students in writing programs around the country have used these books, as uncouth as they may be, filled with outsider observations and advice
A lot of readers have come to know Jeff VanderMeer in recent years due to his Area X trilogy and the film it spawned, Annihilation. What most don't realize, though, is he's spent decades helping cultivate the publishing landscape with noted editor Ann VanderMeer through work on magazines and anthologies, in addition to running workshops for young writers.
Likewise, Lance Olsen has helped shape the literary landscape the last few decades through his work as a teacher, speaker, and member of the Fiction Collective 2 board of directors. And, just like VanderMeer, Olsen consistently defies the lines meant to define what is "literary" or "fantasy" or "horror" or "science fiction." Both authors have maintained grueling schedules between their writing, teaching, and commitments to the public.
There was a time when I was much more publicly engaged myself, of course. These days, though, I can come across somewhat standoffish. Sure, I'll be polite, and I'll respond to comments on my publicity posts, but I don't put myself out there the way I used to. Once upon a time I would talk with everyone online who showed interest in me, to the tune of 3 hours or more of correspondence. But after a series of rip-offs and stalkers I've cut back drastically. Plenty of my early publications relied on my being open to interaction with anybody and everybody. These days I have enough of a professional network established that's no longer necessary. In fact, if you follow me online you'll notice there are periods of time where I might disappear entirely.
One such occasion was after spending months getting to know somebody online who was not only supportive of my work, but seemed to be interested in using their experience and connections to help grow my audience internationally. Eventually, though, things started taking a disconcerting turn. It turned out they were trying to recruit me for a worldwide cult.
At the time a service called Klout was still around, and it ranked my online influence somewhere between the Spider Man play, which was just debuting after months of drama, and the Les Miserables film which was taking the box office by storm. All of which, I'm sure you'll agree, was entirely unfair because I didn't have the hype machine of a major film or Broadway musical with a $75 million budget, so surely my influence should have been weighted higher, yes? Regardless, the point is I was targeted to be drawn into this cult along with Marilyn Manson and Pitbull who were both riding high at that time.
I can't speak for the two of them, but as they tried to get me to commit to an extended stay at their compound in Brazil, and tried to convince me my family was scheming against me, I rapidly withdrew. The final straw was after sharing certain memes and news articles they became convinced I was part of a conspiracy with The Travel Channel and some TV psychic named Zak Bagans to expose the various compounds held by the cult. I had to look Bagans up because at the time I was watching very little TV and had no idea with whom I was meant to be colluding.
It was suggested my family might burn up in a vehicle fire — not a bomb or incendiary device, mind you, but the result of too much negative psychic energy being focused around them. Naturally, I took protective measures, and at the same time let my online presence whither because on top of all those things the online boundary-crossing, set-ups, and weirdness had been a monthly, or even weekly, problem that year.
Maybe the whole threats-against-authors thing is generational; previously you needed to have the wherewithal to write a letter, pay to send it via post, and wait weeks for a response. Back in the day people didn't have the resources of time, postage, envelopes, paper, and ink for all that. My first death wishes, for instance, arrived via email. The incident occurred when LiveJournal and MySpace were the hot new things only hip, internet trendsetters maintained a presence on.
But threats aren't the only issue. I just made reference to the resources people sank into correspondence. Consider that a master's in fine arts degree can cost you $30,000. If you have the money I believe it can be worth it. But how many of us have that kind of money? Especially later in life. The average age of a first-time novelist is 40. That means most authors decided sometime in their 30s to invest in a writing career, putting in the long hours writing a book and researching how to get into the business. By your 30s you typically have a lot of bills and responsibilities college students don't typically have, such as, you know, paying off student loans from your prior college degree(s).
For my part, growing up in poverty, college was out of the question. Working writers can still get ahead by having an agent, though, right? That's the public perception. I've known just as many authors whose careers stalled due to agents as I have authors who got ahead due to agents. Why? Because agents are, unfortunately, people, with their own agendas and ever-changing personal circumstances. Meaning that even within a renowned company of agents you'll have varying degrees of success for your individual needs as an author, or with a particular unsold manuscript.
Early on I had an agent who represented my screenplays. They had been the agent for the writer of a popular television show in the 1980s, and we got on well enough in our initial phone discussions. The further I went along with them, however, the more things failed to add up. First and foremost were the fees for all sorts of things, then a lack of results, and finally the lack of follow-up. There aren't just agents who are a poor fit for you or your project, or who torpedo deals that don't make you rely solely on them, but there are agents who are total scams. Once upon a time they might have done the necessary work, but now they just skate by on their past accomplishments with the knowledge they can make a living charging inexperienced authors for their services.
The good news is that a lot of us publishing veterans don't want other writers to go through all these horrible experiences just because we did. Plenty of us have written books that can guide you through the publishing industry, or we teach workshops, but my friend and colleague Nick Mamatas has now gone one step farther and organized a low-cost book bundle that is, essentially, a $5 MFA program. For a short time he is curating an eBook collection over at StoryBundle including his own Starve Better, along with Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More by Kate Wilhelm, and our two volumes from Guide Dog Books. For an extra $10 you unlock seven more titles, gaining access to a total of six centuries worth of career experience from working authors condensed down into a single eBook collection!
Mamatas tells you all about it in his article about the Write Now Storybundle. You can click on the covers for samples from the books, author info, back cover descriptions, and reviews at https://storybundle.com/writing.
Personally, the books published by other companies I'm most excited about in this bundle are Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, Heart of the Original by Steve Aylett, and To Each Their Darkness by Gary A. Braunbeck. Then again, I've also heard good things — both professionally and from the reader's perspective — about Yours to Tell by Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem and Story First by Kit Reed. At RDSP we're already fans of VanderMeer's Booklife which we read years back. Judging by what Mamatas has put together every book collected here will be essential.
Jump ahead 20 years in your career for just the cost of lunch at a restaurant over at the StoryBundle site but only for two days, so don't wait.
And maybe, just maybe, you won't have to deal with multiple people trying to get your attention by trying to kill themselves. It's no fun for anybody involved as I can attest. But if you want to take the long, slow, unsure road that leads through every trap the publishing industry has to offer then, hey, you go ahead and do you.
Oh, and if your book steps on an entire culture no amount of writing guides will help you avoid public backlash after the fact. They might, as in the case of Writing the Other, help you avoid public backlash to begin with by providing necessary tools for constructing a culturally accurate and respectful story.
This is America after all, as a famous author has reminded us, and we have freedom of speech. That means you can write what you want so long as you are not inciting violence or infringing on somebody else's copyright. The same protections extend to literary critics. People can say whatever they want about your work because this is the United States of America. Check in with us publishing veterans who have experienced it and see what our advice is so you can deprive your would-be critics of safe footing by making your writing as unassailable as possible.
In the meantime I'm working hard to stay visible myself. Maybe you'll encounter me on social media, or at one of the many in-person events I'm scheduled for this year. If you ever have any questions about the publishing industry feel free to ask me, either for yourself or the aspiring writer in your life — a lot of parents have asked me how to be supportive of their children, adult or otherwise, who are embarking on a career in the industry.
Thanks in advance to everyone who shares this post, makes purchases, or contributes through the tip option. Any money received here or from our part of the StoryBundle goes into publishing authors and artists who otherwise might not be able to bring their work to the reading public.
If you don't have the money you can still find plenty of free writing advice that might help you. Here are three articles and interviews from me on the subject of publishing poetry:
- Carving a Niche For Poetry: An Interview With Raw Dog Screaming Press
- I Don't Like Poetry
- Self Mutilation: Strategies For Terrifying Yourself to Create Successful Horror Poetry
Whatever path you take I wish you the best with your writing!