The Social Contract

As a writer who submits and someone who works with social media, I’ve been following a recent Twitter spat with some interest.

At the risk of stumping for Twitter, I think all writers serious about getting published should be on it. I’ve met writers, had literary agents answer questions, participated in contests, and been exposed to a lot of great information about writing and publishing. It’s like a perpetual writers’ conference and kaffeeklatsch.

I’ve also seen agents use Twitter to publicly react to queries in real time. Because Twitter messages are can’t exceed 140 characters, the query, book and writer remain anonymous. Most of those were one-day experiments. Then along came @InternAmie, an account where an intern at a literary agency reacted to queries and submissions as she read them, using the hashtag #queryfest. Here’s a two-part example:

“Memoir-lover that I am, I almost cried when this otherwise stunning memoir opened with an intense scene, but then … Nope–nevermind. The women’s fiction started out great, but major plot inconsistencies would’ve made agent frown & pass.”

The @InternAmie account is now closed, apparently a result of an online backlash. Afterwards the opinions were mixed:

theborderlord I found #queryfest incredibly helpful – it gave a rare insight into how the query system really works. Shame @internamie has vanished.

Tessasblurb If you have a problem with people judging your writing surely you’re in the wrong business… #writing #queryfest

yabreviewed Anonymous as it is #queryfest makes me more nervous about sending mine. To have it end up being a topic of discussion on twitter? No thanks.

Writers of fiction spend hours creating imaginary situations, but it’s nearly impossible for them to picture their work sitting in a huge pile along with hundreds of other submissions. This is @theborderlord’s point: @InternAmie was reading and reacting to submissions objectively, andoutlining the reasons she did or didn’t think they were working. In other words, she was an unbiased beta reader that didn’t sugar-coat things. (If you ever get a beta reader that does this for you, consider yourself very, very lucky.)

I think @Tessasblurb makes a good point, too. After I’d been working as a journalist and freelancer for years, I went back to get an MA in creative writing. Journalism schools understand that their degree is vocational, so getting out there and working is part of the process. But unlike J-school, submitting pieces is optional in an MA.

My MA program was full of people who desperately wanted an authority figure proclaim them Good Enough to Be Published, as if this were some absolute, like knighthood. So these writers worked in a fretful vacuum, like kids from the suburbs afraid of going downtown. I wanted to see them submit, over and over again, until they learned that rejection and having people dislike your stuff isn’t the end of the world–it’s a necessary part of being a writer.

That said, I agree most with yabreviewed. Querying is the first step of a business relationship, which works when both parties operate in good faith. But if a stranger discloses details of your query or pages (even if they can’t be traced back to you), that disclosure violates one of the evolving tenets of social media, which is to ask permission to use other people’s stuff.

Imagine an agent’s website with a submission form containing a checkbox and this: “I agree to have my work paraphrased, excerpted, and possibly commented by an anonymous party online for all to see.” Would you agree to that? I wouldn’t.

I’m not sure what the final chapter of the InternAmie saga will be. I hope she’s still reading submissions, since I want everyone reading my submissions will be like her, turning to the next query in the hopes it will be great.

I also hope the publishing community learns from what happened, instead of pointing fingers. But there are still agents who make sport out of the slush pile (such as Slush Pile Hell, which I find terribly unprofessional), just as there are writers who excerpt from agents’ e-mails, or snipe about them on forums.

In other words, social media is a little like publishing: What you post on a blog, or as a comment, or in a forum, or on Twitter is widely accessible and will be around for a long time. So you don’t want to use other people’s stuff without asking, and you want to make sure what you said isn’t something you’ll regret later.

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One thought on “The Social Contract

  1. Darnit, I missed it and now she’s gone!

    Sometimes I ponder how easy it would be to set up a fake anonymous insider blog. It might be fun to roleplay the other side! One could certainly whirl up a frenzy quickly. Don’t look at me, I don’t have the spare time, I’m just saying… I don’t always believe these “insider” blogs are exactly legit, if they’re anonymous. Same for some internet-only “literary journals” with no contact names.

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