Sunday, 24 June 2012

Ten Things the Small Press Can Do As Well (Or Better) Than the Professional Press, Part 10: Professionalism

They said it would never happen!  Or they would have done if there was a they - that is, some appropriately shadowy convocation of interested parties - and if they'd been paying any attention.  Still, while none of that's terribly likely, it detracts nothing from the fact that if there was a they and if they had been paying attention, they would in all likelihood have said that the odds of me ever finishing this blog post series, begun in the heady days of February last year mind you, were about as great as the odds of me winning the Tour de France dressed as a pirate.

Yet here we are, nine articles of somewhat confused argument, inadvertent repetition and self-contradiction later, having smiled a few smiles and shed the odd tear, all in the service of showing that the small press can do plenty of things just as well as the professional press and one or two things even better.  So what could that possibly leave for this final post, other than some sort of muddled conclusion where I try and pull everything together only to reveal that I was too lazy to actually go back and read articles one through nine?

Oh, wait ... I put it in the title, didn't I?

And it probably doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense.  Surely professionalism is the one thing you can't possibly expect the small press to do as well or better than the professional press?  That would be like ... um ... expecting cats to be better dogs than dogs are.  Wouldn't it?  Actually, now that I think about it, maybe I just typed that title wrong.

But no!  Odd though it sounds when you write it out loud, I think it's fair to expect a bit of professionalism from any editor, no matter their budget or level of experience.  All else aside, it has the potential to make their life a heck of a lot easier, especially if something ever goes seriously wrong or if a disagreement arises.  Not being a pro doesn't mean it isn't sometimes in your interest to behave like one; after all, the standards that have developed in the industry over the decades are there to protect editors just as much, if not more than writers.

So here are a few thoughts on the kind of professionalism that can be easily achieved without actually having to be a professional:

Put consideration into the tone of your e-mails, your guidelines, indeed any communication direct or indirect between yourself and the writer.  Be clear and precise about what you want and polite but firm when you don't get it.  Try to be reasonable in your expectations; fussy formatting requirements can be a nightmare for a writer who's submitting to market after market, and mistakes are bound to creep in occasionally.  If someone makes a genuine error, it's usually fairest to ask them to correct it and resubmit.  If they've ignore your guidelines altogether you may want to be less lenient.  Simply ignoring misformatted subs, however, as many markets claim to do, is self-defeating.  Not only are you damning a writer to months of pointlessly getting their hopes up, you're making work (or at least spam) for yourself when they finally lose patience and decide to start pestering you.

Many small press markets don't feel the need for contracts, opting instead for brief "verbal" agreements or even for nothing at all.  This is just about okay if you make absolutely clear what you're after, if your requirements are straightforward - say, one time, non-exclusive electronic rights - and, crucially, if those requirements are made available on a portion of your blog or website that will never be removed or changed.  Your writers have the right to know what to expect, and so do you; lacking a contract leaves you vulnerable to having stories pulled from under your nose at the last minute, just as a writer should know if you plan to keep their work archived for all eternity.  Generally speaking, they're not offering you a story but the use of a story, and there are many reasons why they might want to limit or eventually revoke that use, the most obvious being that down the line they may well wish to resell their work.  Be vague about this stuff and sooner or later it's bound to come back and haunt you.

If you're paying, providing contributor copies or offering any sort of remuneration, lay out a clear timescale in which that's going to happen; say, within one month of publication.  This is the kind of stuff that should be going in a contract, or at the very least in your guidelines.  And while things are always going to go wrong, especially when it comes to money, you should try your damndest to keep to those targets and - perhaps the most important point - be sure to say something when you don't.  Even if it's only, "Sorry for the delay in payment, my dog ate my debit card and then emptied my bank account and ran off with my wife."  Because, of the many things it sucks to be kept in the dark about, money figures pretty high on everyone's list.

Lastly, don't mix up professionalism with rudeness.  Professionalism doesn't mean you can't be friendly, especially once all that awkward contractual gubbins is out of the way.  If I had a pound for every e-mail I've had demanding something, be it a bio or an edit or a contract returned, I'd probably have enough money for that puppy I've always wanted and I'd be out frolicking in a field with my new best friend instead of sitting here writing this nonsense.  It's okay to say please and thank you; most writers will not interpret this as a sign of weakness.  We're all busy people here, and most amateur writers - like most amateur editors - are trying to fit this work that they do for love around other work that they do to keep a roof over their heads.

Which is perhaps the crucial point of this final post, not to mention much of this series: the publishing industry is full of very busy people and many of them, editors and writers alike, are having to manage their potential literary careers around other major commitments.  Not everyone can be a professional, and the industry wouldn't be half so much fun if they were, but there are times when acting professionally makes everyone's life easier.  And since writers and editors are more or less reliant on each other, and since we all want more or less the same thing, maybe making each other's lives easier is a good goal to be aiming for.


  1. Well done, Dave. Both for finishing your series and for this piece. :)


  2. Man, it did turn out to be a lot of work! The question is, what am I going to tattle on about now?