The Heartbreak of Battered Writer Syndrome
The Heartbreak Of Battered Writer Syndrome
By Cody Goodfellow
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.
––Iago, in Othello, Act 3, scene 3, 155–161
Mellow Out Or You Will Pay
The first sale I ever made was for a book-length supplement to a gaming company, in 1994. I wrote and delivered the project, and waited… for ten years. No contract, no payment, no publication. Every few years, the publisher and I shared some laughs over the situation, but I didn’t have anywhere else to go with the work, and no contract to lever anything but excuses out of them.
When the book finally did come out, they had another writer revise and expand it, and went ahead to press without realizing they’d never given me a contract. I played along, because by this point, I had two novels out (self-published, because I didn’t trust anyone else), and needed the exposure.
They paid the first portion of what they owed with the signed contract, and have been assiduously avoiding me ever since, except when I end up in one of their fiction anthologies, which I, from time to time, still do.
Am I a battered wife, to let these larcenous creeps off the hook? A sucker, to keep working with them? These clowns have acted in both bad faith and incompetence over the years, but business-wise, they’re still a better ally to me than many editors in the industry, with whom I am pleased and proud to work or share a drink.
As writers, we have so little control over anything, that it becomes an imperative that we fight, whenever we think we can, to get our due, in the hope of clawing our way to glory. I don’t think a less stressed-out strategy would hurt one’s future; in fact, I think a more relaxed approach is more professional, because a professional would rather write, than fight.
When you’re slaving over a hot story for days, weeks or (like me) months, it’s easy to lose sight of the essential worthlessness of what you’re doing, in the larger sense of the cultural mainstream. You could count the pro-rate anthologies and magazines open to new writers at any given time on one hand, and still have a free nose-picker. Word rates are largely unchanged since Lovecraft’s day, and Lovecraft lived on navy beans. It was an outrage then, and it’s only accrued outrageous interest since, but this is the life that has chosen us, isn’t it?
We must face the sad fact that the unbearably vivid and masterful works of literary art we cherish are still, to most people, as a bunch of ugly, dumb words, with nary a picture to break up the monotony. In short, a damned hard sell.
Most people don’t read, and almost nobody reads short stories. So, in the whole of the cultural market, there is not even a shrinking pie for horror writers to fight over, nor even crumbs. There are atoms of market share to compete for, and yet writers are, in the good ways, the least competitive bunch of starving workers I’ve ever seen.
We all strive to tell the scariest tale, but not at the expense of holding each other back. Because we share the secret of lonely brain-labor, we are closer to each other than to any of our readers, or to the editors we sometimes demonize for short-changing our greatness. So, it sometimes seems like the natural thing to do, to gang up on them.
And the effigy we whip up for such occasions is quite often a hapless, overextended amateur editor, motivated more by a misguided passion for the dark literary arts and devotion to the same writers spoiling to go all Guy Fawkes on his ass, than by any code of professionalism.
Mostly, these guys are trying to be professionals, too, and to promote our art. They want us to succeed, and have staked a lot of labor and a smidgen of hard-won capital on it. And like us, or anything on two legs, they make mistakes. Big ones, sometimes. It’s hard not to imagine a cabal of editors somewhere, swilling cognac and feeding a fire with our irate letters, because somebody must be getting rich off all our brain-sweat.
Where there is true ill will, profiteering or crass inconsiderate treatment, we should come down on them with anvils of furious indignation. When you’re dealing with someone you’ve never met, it is all but impossible to guess at motives, but one thing is almost certain: they’re probably not getting all that rich off you. In most small press pubs, each title has to hoist the next one into being by selling through, and outside the echo chambers of message board fandom, we are not much of a threat to any other entertainment market’s fresh-baked pie.
All too often, the broken promises or delayed payments are the result of poor planning, vaporous financing, and naïve expectations based on a business model that would make a kamikaze pilot think twice before signing on. If they screw over a stable of writers, they can look forward to blackballing and public shaming in the virtual town square, and whatever chance they had to learn from their mistakes is snatched away. And so is another place for writers to be read.
It is not amateurism, I believe, to write and market short fiction with the primary goal of placing it where it will be read. Even if you can write like Harlan, you’ll still be lucky to be driving a Geo Metro in your dotage, if you only write short stories.
To expect payment is not naïve, but given all the other obstacles to success, to appear in a well-made publication alongside superior talent is far more important to long-term success, than the elusive and unimpressive paycheck. To a writer who hopes to sell novels, short stories are a calling card, a trifle that will introduce you to new readers who will, hopefully, be moved to seek out your other work. Think of it as placing an ad for yourself, for which you will, sooner or later, get paid.
When my novels came out, they were well-reviewed, but nobody noticed (except Skipp, who, God bless him, likes looking under rocks). Then the gaming shitheels put out the all-but-forgotten resource guide, and die-hard fans of the Cthulhu Mythos subgenre started to buy my books, and recommend them. I started putting fancy mustard on my navy beans.
Since then, I have appeared in anthologies put out by the unscrupulous fucksticks, if I like the editor and the theme. The editor makes sure I get paid, and every story drives more sales of my novels.
Am I bitter? Hell yes, but the grievance is still only small-claims chump change, and I hate dressing up for court dates. My books put out by Perilous Press handily outsell the one I wrote for them, while they pay me to place ads in their anthologies, which keeps the navy beans sailing.
If you are an honest editor, thank you. It’s harder to make a living at than writing, and you get even less love. We need more of you. So, if you don’t like lynch mobs on your lawn, listen up.
Writers are bosom companions of disappointment. Horror writers thrive on it. Editors trapped by ugly shifts in events can keep writers satisfied simply by keeping them updated. When family troubles or financial hardship hold up progress, writers should be notified as soon as the delay is unavoidable. I’ve seldom seen writers bolt from a delayed anthology as long as they knew where they stood, but I’ve seen others melt down because an editor, no doubt embarrassed by the undoing of all his crazy promises, clammed up and tried to ride it out. Writers are used to bad news, but nobody likes the mushroom treatment (kept in the dark, fed only shit).
Some editors should be shot for their crimes against writers, but writers should try to remember that if they are in it for the long haul, they can expect gridlock, wrong turns, and more than a few dead ends and deranged hitchhikers along the way.
Lately, the idea has taken hold that being a professional means, first and last and always, getting paid for what you do. I always believed that professionalism started with doing what you said you were going to do, no matter what the other guy did. In the end, you must get paid, but a little patience and empathy makes better business sense, than the Goodfellas professionalism of the “fuck you, pay me” variety. Professionalism also cuts both ways; before you go fetch a rope over a late check, review your contract. Better yet, review it before you sign it, and iron out the vague or unacceptable kinks before you have to resort to vigilante justice.
The flip side of this, which I must acknowledge before someone beats me up with it in comments, is that you should never, ever let your work become entangled with something poorly edited, sloppily laid-out or just plain bad. There may be too few decent magazines paying better than a hobo’s wage, but there’re millions who turn out abysmal products, or who tie up misled writers’ works forever, and produce nothing at all. They, too, are driven by love of art, but if they can’t make or recognize it, they can’t possibly help you, whether or not they can pay. My argument only applies to editors and publishers who have business problems, but who turn out professional work that makes you look good. This is a whole other topic, but like porn czar Ed Meese once said, “I know it when I see it.”
To date, the vulpine unclefuckers at the gaming company have not made good on their debt (to me or anyone else, because it’s SOP for them; hey, maybe they screwed you, too!). I’ve been patient and polite throughout, and remain so, because despite themselves, they’ve promoted me quite a lot, bless their black, smegmatic hearts. But on the day I need some folding green more than I need their help getting my name out, they’ll know they’ve been fucked by a professional.