18 September 2014

The Cost of Congeniality

by Brian Thornton

"Oh Be-HAAAAAVE...."

                                                                          - Austin Danger Powers

The above quote from Mike Myers' immortal creation ought to be a catchphrase for every author out there trying to make a buck. The walking Male Symbol (tm) gives great advice, especially for writers of both the established and the up-and-coming variety, and especially when it comes to presenting a public face to a world full of (hopefully) customers ready to buy and read their books!

Yeah, Baby, YEAH!
What do the pithy quotes from a made-up British super-spy have to do with good writer behavior?

It's simple, and the root word for 'behavior."

But, hey, since if you couldn't spell, you wouldn't be here, spending part of your day reading this, let me spell it out for you:


Simple, right?

Well, sure.

But as anyone with any experience doing the simple things will likely tell you, "simple" and "easy" are not the same thing. Hell, they're not even the same word. Or even variants on said word (see "behavior" above).

And all too many of us find that "behaving" is easier said than done.

Especially in the so-called "virtual world" of the internet.

That's why it's so important, especially for an author, someone cultivating a public persona, or to use the current popular parlance, a "brand," to have a grip on what does and does not constitute "behaving."

And oddly enough, it can be completely counter-intuitive.

Let me give you an example.

REVIEWS (Customer or professional)

Let's imagine that you are signing your books after having given a riveting reading. On this day, in particular, you KILLED, really nailed it, and your books are flying off the shelves! Cha-CHING! The bookstore sponsoring the event has already asked you back when your next book pubs. Double Cha-CHING!

And then it happens: you can't help but overhear a couple of patrons complaining about the lay-out of your book. And one of them says the magic words guaranteed to cause an author to spontaneously burst into a fiery column of frustration: "I don't know what the writer was thinking with this layout!"

Now, this is real-world and potentially face-to-face, so if you're really socially adept, it's entirely possible that you can smoothly insert yourself into that conversation and clarify that you did not have final refusal on the layout/color scheme of your books, thereby burnishing your bonafides as a nice person with good taste, all without sounding either defensive or priggish.

It is possible.

In the real world.

(Although there are plenty of authors who are not socially adept enough to navigate that conversation, and if you're one of those authors, steer clear!)

Now imagine this conversation is taking place online.

What should you do?

Unless a response is solicited, keep your yap shut.

Especially if this type of unwarranted criticism is coming in the form of a customer review, on, say, Amazon, B&N, etc.

Customer reviews are conversations not intended for the ears of authors, so if you go read them (and I  know a TON of authors who actually perform this sort of self-mutilation on a daily basis!) you're literally eavesdropping on a conversation not intended for your ears.

And the example above, the one about "layout"? Well, I lived that, reading someone kvetch about it in an Amazon review of one of my books.

I wanted to contact the reviewer either publicly or privately and explain that I had nearly zero control over the lay-out of my book. Rather than contact the reviewer, I did the sensible thing.

I talked to my wife about it. She's the sensible one in this marriage. Me, I'm just sensible enough to listen to her when she dispenses the good stuff. This was some good stuff.

"Don't bother," she said. "It's not worth it." When I protested about the lack of fairness of the whole situation, my wonderful wife, not one to beat around the bush, cut right to the point: "I don't care about this other person we've never met and who doesn't know either of us at all. I care about you." And then she reiterated, "It's not worth it."

After some thought and some delving into the reviewer in question's other reviews (nearly all negative in one way or another), I had to concede she was right.

It's a dictum I heard a whole lot back before Facebook and Twitter, back in the days when people used to argue nearly exclusively via email list or usenet groups: "Don't feed the trolls."


A friend of mine is a fan of the writing of an incredibly successful thriller writer who shall remain nameless. I do not share my friend's enthusiasm for said writer. And frankly he doesn't need me to earn out. The guy's rolling in it. And hey, good for him. I've met him several times at various writers' 'dos' and he's always been personable and engaging. I wish him every success.

My friend who is a fan of his work discovered said work after meeting this author while visiting our fabulous local mystery bookshop (Hint: I live in the Seattle area. Need I say more?). He said of the encounter, "The guy could sell ice cubes to eskimos. He just was not going to take no for an answer, asked me what sort of writing I enjoyed, along with other probing questions, and suggested several of his works, two of which I eventually bought."

Nothing wrong with that, right? An author who takes "customer service" personally? This isn't the first or only account of this type I've heard about the author in question. He's well-known for this proclivity amongst the denizens of the mystery writing community.

But wait, you say, I'm not that kind of person!

That's also fine. But if you want to sell books, then you'd better expect to hear some nutty requests that seem perfectly reasonable to those making them. Especially if you run your own author's page and answer your own email.

I am acquainted (although not well) with another author, hard-working, talented as hell, and fun and funny to be around. I was on an author panel with her once that will live in my memory for decades to come. She was hilarious!

Unfortunately that acerbic sense of humor doesn't always translate well when answering the email/Facebook requests of would-be customers. Without getting into details, my colleague recently stirred up a minor controversy by answering acerbically, pointedly, publicly (and honestly) some rather dunderheaded requests for information about her books.

Annoying? Sure.


The requests were opportunities to win over new fans. When I heard about the hue and cry in response to what she'd said, my heart genuinely went out the colleague (whose writing, I hasten to add, I very much enjoy). That said, I couldn't help but wonder how the successful thriller writer mentioned above might have handled the exact same scenario.

And that leads to my main dictum when dealing with people you'd like to convert into fans. As with other writers, industry professionals, hell, people you meet on the street...

It costs you nothing to be gracious!


It's a big, wide, scary virtual world out there. Here are some links intended to help guide authors both established and emerging navigate the tricky world of social media and we can use all the help we can get!

The Ultimate Social Media Guide for Writers

Essential Facebook Etiquette: 10 Dos and Don'ts

Social Networking Do's and Don't's

Author Etiquette 101: Do’s and Don’ts for Writers Using Social Media

Good Luck!



  1. Thanks for the reminder about remembering our manners (which equates to professionalism in writing) when faced with negative comments and/or reviews. I'm sure I will face some of that when my next book comes out as it's totally different from the first six. I also appreciate the links and will check them out. Meanwhile, I'll try to Be-H-A-V-E.

  2. One can't help but think of the anti-fan diatribe Chelsea Cain recently posted on social media. Not very gracious.

  3. I can almost picture that first writer…

    Brian, can the rest of us borrow your wife? Can we put her on retainer? We need someone like her!

  4. Thanks Fran, David, Leigh and Melodie for weighing in.

    Fran- I think we could all use the occasional reminder that when in doubt, acting in a professional manner is something that can only serve us well in the long run.

    David- Yeah, I really like Chelsea. That was hard to watch.

    Leigh- My wife says she's willing to work up a "Friends of Brian" rate.;)

  5. Brian, we'll happily donate 10% of our fabulous SleuthSayers' salaries.


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