The Company We Keep: Guilt By Association

[December 2007] A few weeks ago, I read the submission guidelines for a small press anthology. I’d never heard of the publisher, but a superficial search told me they’d been in business for a couple of years and had published some books, including one by an author whose name I vaguely recognized.

It wasn’t a pro-paying gig, but they offered moderate compensation in advance, and the premise intrigued me enough that I started adapting an old, uncirculated story to suit their guidelines.

Then I did a little more research. I visited the publisher’s website and was dismayed at what I saw. The introductory sentence was a disaster, both structurally and grammatically. The pages were riddled with poor grammar, misspelled words and amateurish writing.

Worse, the layout of some pages was horrendous. In one place, there was a narrow column of fully justified text down the middle of a page, leaving abnormal gaps between words, as I’ve illustrated here.

If their web content was this poorly edited, what type of editorial oversight would stories in their anthology receive—let alone simple proofreading? And what would one of their books look like if this was someone’s idea of an attractive design? Not having seen any of their books, I can’t say. Maybe the web site was an anomaly. However, I wasn’t encouraged.

I dug deeper to see what others were saying about the press. I stumbled across some unflattering information that made me decide I didn’t want to be associated with that publisher. Was I being overly judgmental? Perhaps. I just knew that I had this queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach, and when that happens I pay attention. It’s like the situation I found myself in several years ago when I received an acceptance letter from one of those agents we all learn through experience or lore to avoid. Tempting as the offer was, my instincts told me something was rotten in Denmark.

A few months ago, I learned that the publisher of an anthology containing one of my stories had agreed to publish works that I considered of dubious merit and questionable taste. I was displeased at the thought that our anthology might be lumped together with this other work simply because they came from the same publisher. Guilt by association. In that situation, there wasn’t much we could do to distance ourselves from the publisher. We were already part of the stable. We could only commiserate, and request that the publisher not use our names to promote his business.

A character in a novel I read recently had four rules for success. The final one was: “Never go into business with someone you wouldn’t want to wrestle naked in bed.” That’s a little extreme—and easy for him to say since he was working with his wife—but pithy sayings like this often reveal an underlying truth. Though a short story sale is essentially a financial transaction between two people who know absolutely nothing about each other, does or should personality or character enter into it? Should an editor refuse a story from an author who says atrocious things on a message board, for example? Are there publishers you wouldn’t want to be associated with because an employee has a questionable past or because they’ve purchased stories from someone with a dubious reputation?

I have a reputation. We all do—and we probably each have different reputations with different groups of people. We don’t always actively seek to create these reputations—they’re a consequence of our actions and statements—though some people do go out of the way to generate a certain reputation, especially people who like to be thought of as edgy or controversial.

As a writer, I try to always meet deadlines, respond to editorial requests promptly, return galleys corrections on time and be generally easy to work with. I never want to be the reason something falls behind schedule. I want to cultivate a reputation as someone easy to work with so that editors will be favorably inclined to work with me again in the future.

Online, I try to avoid getting involved in messy fights and flame wars. I have opinions about a lot of things—I just don’t feel compelled to share them very often. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve been tempted to respond to something, have actually gone so far as to compose a response, and then canceled out of the editor.

That probably makes me a little invisible and unmemorable on message boards, but that suits me just fine. Better that than to stand out because of something lame, annoying, thoughtless or volatile I’ve said. That might turn me into the kind of person other writers would feel uncomfortable appearing with in a table of contents.


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