I wrote this article about authors behaving badly to help you avoid becoming one. It’s about several writers whose unusual antics got them into hot (make that boiling) water with the publishing industry (including literary agents), the media, and their fans.

Even if you’re 100% straight-laced, you’ll benefit from—and enjoy—this article. Okay, maybe “enjoy” isn’t the right word, since these authors behaving badly were involved in literary train wrecks. But, at the very least, you’ll find their stories fascinating. They’ll validate your decision to do things differently. And, you’ll experience that guilt-inducing sense of relief that comes with not being part of the carnage.

Authors Behaving Badly

Most authors know it often isn’t easy to capture the attention of top literary agents, publishers, and readers—even if you’re talented and you’ve paid your dues. The problem is that, as a result, some authors conjure up “too creative” ways to get noticed. Ways that get them in trouble. Sometimes, their methods are unethical and/or even illegal. Although the shortsighted grab for glory sometimes works, it’s often short-lived and the authors’ careers are destroyed or severely damaged in the end.

Book karma can be a beast.

Most authors understand that one of the basic tenets of great writing is telling the truth; but that doesn’t mean those authors always tell the truth (in their writing, or their lives). Part of me understands why that might be difficult. Especially if you’re a fiction author. After all, as a fiction author, it’s your job to make stuff up. And, if you’re a published fiction author, you’re essentially getting paid to tell lies. If you’re an unpublished author (any genre), and you’re desperate enough, you might be tempted to make things up as well. Things that make you and/or your writing sound more interesting. Or, you might manipulate the truth until it becomes (well) no longer the truth.

Not a good idea…

We’ve all told lies in our lives. That’s a fact. If you don’t think you’ve ever told a lie, you’re lying to yourself. We’ve all done it. Told lies. There are those “little” white lies, lies of omission, and big fat whoppers. Those “less offensive” fibs we convince ourselves are okay because we only say them to “protect someone” or “for the greater good” also count. Other times, we console ourselves with the fact we’re just bending the truth, not breaking it. Whatever. I’m not going all the way down that philosophical-spiritual rabbit hole with you in this article. I just want to make sure you don’t put something in your book or pitch materials that gets you in trouble.

Or destroys your writing career.

So, here we go…

Examples of Authors Behaving Badly

Authors behaving badly can compromise basic ethics or common sense in many ways; this article focuses on three of them. They might seem obvious (at least I hope so); but, even if they are obvious and you’d never do them, the stories that go with them are worth reading.

Gaming the System – Authors Behaving Badly

Most authors behaving badly don’t have the insight or ability required to “game the system” to improve their position or advance their publishing careers. Some do. But that doesn’t mean they should. One of the most recent instances of this involves Lani Sarem, whose book Handbook for Mortals was slated to appear on the New York Times young adult hardcover bestseller list, but was then abruptly removed. The author allegedly identified some of the bookstores that report their sales to the New York Times, which helps determine which books appear on the NYT bestseller list. Sarem then (again, allegedly) had people on her team make bulk purchases of her book at those stores.

Even if it’s true, it’s not illegal.

But…

Was it worth it? They say all publicity is good publicity. I’m not so sure. I think we can sometimes be too clever for our own good. No one wants to believe you did something shady to gain an unfair advantage over others. So, when you’re contemplating a “creative strategy” to help increase your odds of getting what you want with agents, publishers, and/or readers, don’t just ask yourself if it’s legal. Ask yourself if you’d be okay with (or embarrassed by) the world knowing you did it. That’s a higher standard, one that’s more likely to help you make good decisions. To learn more about the Sarem story, click here to see a full-length article at Huffington Post.

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Misrepresentation – Authors Behaving Badly

This is the category with the most authors behaving badly. As someone who’ve been involved with marketing most of his life (as a former literary agent, former Marketing & Licensing Manager for a well-known publisher, and, now, as an author coach) I know how important positioning is. How you present yourself and the people, products and/or services you represent is critical to your survival—and success. So, it’s natural (and smart) to look for every possible opportunity and angle to get people’s attention. But there are also things you simply can’t do; or, I should say, there are things you simply shouldn’t do.

Lying and twisting or perverting the truth is one of them.

Don’t get me wrong. More than most, I appreciate the art of finesse and nuance when it comes to words. That’s one of the things that makes writing so powerful and—for many, such as myself—so enjoyable. You can express a single idea or sentiment many ways, with different shades of emphasis, to achieve slightly different, or significantly different, effects and outcomes. After all, that’s what makes an irresistible query letter and/or book proposal… understanding all your options when choosing your words and crafting your pitch.

It’s not just what you say, but how you say it.

But…

Please think twice before you say things that aren’t true, or your stretch the truth so far that it no longer resembles the truth. Accentuating the positive, making the most of what you have, and putting your best foot forward is one thing. I’m all for that. You can, and should, milk what you have for all it’s worth. 100%. Just make sure you’re clear regarding the difference between market-ing and ly-ing. Clear and confident self-promotion is expected and appropriate–and often required. False statements and puffery are not.

Don’t say things that could come back to haunt you.

The most recent controversy I’ve seen in this area happened just this week, with author John Smelcer. His novel Stealing Indians was named as a finalist for the PEN Center USA prize. Now, everything about the author is being questioned. Smelcer has been accused of lying about his education, credentials, and heritage. Click here to see an article about the whole brouhaha here at the LA Times. I don’t know if Smelcer lied or not (people are often too quick to rush to judgment), but I see stories like this in the media too often. Well-known people (not just authors) falling from grace because they made up or embellished parts of their background.

Don’t do it…

Don’t make things up in your books, either—unless you’re writing fiction. The most infamous nonfiction (memoir) author I know of who did this is James Frey. His book, A Million Little Pieces, appeared on, and remained on, the New York Times bestseller list, after Oprah cried about his book (in a good way) on national television. It later came out that parts of his “real-life” story were partially, and, in other instances, completely, bogus. If you’re not familiar with Frey’s account, click here to see more at The Smoking Gun.

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Plagiarism – Authors Behaving Badly

Although I understand (but don’t endorse) authors behaving badly by misrepresenting themselves or trying to game the system, I can’t at all comprehend authors plagiarizing. I mean, if you copy another authors’ writing, don’t you think, at some point, someone’s going to figure it out? Forget ethics and morality for a minute. It’s just plain stupid. After all, if you’re a writer, your target market or target audience is readers. So, it’s pretty likely (don’t you think?) that someone, at some point, is going to connect the dots and realize that phrase, paragraph, scene, chapter, or entire book of yours… well… isn’t yours?

I’ve seen articles about plagiarism pop up consistently, and increasingly, every year for quite some time. There’s an uptick of authors behaving badly in this way because the Internet makes it easier to find and copy content; and the glut of self-publishing options makes it super easy to slap your name on someone else’s work and start selling it online. Clearly not a good idea. I’m not sure what you’d say in court if you were an offender in this category to attempt to defend yourself. Probably best to go to the courtroom with a contrite heart and a big fat apology–and, of course, your checkbook to pay for damages.

Laura Harner is just one of many authors who’ve been caught. One of her books was revealed to be almost identical to another novel by a New York Times bestseller, Becky McGraw. Again, I don’t understand how an author could begin to think he or she would get away with something like copying someone’s entire book (or even part of it); but, obviously, some authors are desperate and/or stupid enough to give it shot. Then it backfires. Duh. Click here to see a great article about plagiarism at The Atlantic. And you can click here to see an article about the Laura Harner and Becky McGraw story at The Guardian.

Related Posts

Three other articles you might find helpful:

Authors – Protect your Writing

Nondisclosure Agreements or NDAs

How to Copyright a Book

Authors Behaving Badly – Share It / Post a Comment

What are your favorite examples of authors behaving badly? Okay, maybe “favorite” isn’t the best word. I should have said, “What are the most interesting and/or shocking examples you’ve seen of authors behaving badly?” Let me know, using the comment form below. And, of course, please share this article with other authors who might enjoy it or benefit from it–especially those who fall into the “authors behaving badly” category.

Lastly, stick to the truth in your writing and pitch materials. If you can’t convince yourself and/or others that who you are what you offer is good enough, don’t give up or start twisting the truth. Get someone to help you make yourself and your work sound more appealing. Click here to learn how you can get 1-on-1 feedback to improve your pitch material and/or writing during an Introductory Coaching Call.

You can also click here (no charge) to see The 50 Questions Authors Ask Most (along with my answers). You can click here to see my Guide to Literary Agents. And, you can click here to see some of my best tips to help you Find a Literary Agent and/or Get a Literary Agent.

All my best,

–  Mark

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