by Donna Andrews
How I wish Miss Manners would turn her attention to some of the more esoteric areas of etiquette—like etiquette for the hard working writer. Because there’s a crying need for this.
But since Miss Manners doesn’t seem to have noticed the problem, I’m going to take a stab at it. Am I an etiquette expert? Maybe not. But I have been around the mystery publishing scene for a while—my first book came out fifteen years ago this month. And over those fifteen years, I’ve seen a lot of people—nice, talented people, many of them—shoot themselves in the foot. Including me, on occasion. I think I know at least enough to start a dialogue on the subject.
So here goes: some thoughts on award season etiquette
Both Malice Domestic and Left Coast Crime recently sent out their calls for nominations. Every year, when this happens, a lot of writers suddenly realize “Holy cow! I have an eligible book! How can I get myself nominated?” And then some go out and do things that will probably backfire. Like sending out emails begging people to nominate them.
I’ve already received several such emails from people I’ve never actually met, asking me to nominate their books, and I’ll probably receive a few more before the award deadlines. Rarely do these emails take the approach I would use if for some reason--like my publisher ordered me to--I felt I had to ask people to nominate me. Which would be something like “my book, Murder with Wombats, is eligible for the Agatha Best First/Lefty/Bruce Alexander/Calamari/Squid/etc. Award. If you’ve read it and like it enough to nominate it, I would be deeply honored.”
Not you’ll note, “nominate me, whether you’ve read my book or not.” (And certainly not “I’m a fellow SinC member, so nominate me!) “But nominate me if you’ve read my book and if you like it.
“But what if they haven’t yet read my book?” you may ask.
Well, then you’re not very likely to get nominated. The key to getting nominated is getting people to read your book. And to do that, you’re going to have to start well before the award ballots go out. Possibly as soon as the previous year’s convention. And then find a non-intrusive way of reminding your readers, when the ballots go out, of how wonderful your book was.
Fortunately, getting people to read our books is something most of us are trying to do anyway, so it’s not as if you have to do anything extra to get nominated. You just have to make sure you’re doing it far enough ahead of the convention that your enthusiastic readers will have a chance to nominate you.
Say I’m a writer who has a book coming out later in 2014, a book I think would be perfect for the Agatha Best First in 2015.
The first thing I’d do is sign up for Malice this year. I wouldn’t demand a panel—wouldn’t work anyway, because for a panel at Malice you actually have to have a book out. But I’d do what I could to get my name out. I’d get my bookmarks or other promo materials out there in the hospitality suite. Maybe volunteer to help out—most of the other volunteers do it because they are BIG readers. Hang out in the hospitality room and get to know some readers—get to know them as fellow readers, not just someone with a book to push. Collect email addresses and then invite those people to my mailing list—invite, not just add them without their permission. Check out the convention’s newsletter to see if it has advertising or offers convention registrants the opportunity to mention their books. Ditto its Facebook page.
I’d join some of the listservs, like DorothyL and the Sisters in Crime national list, along with my local SinC and MWA lists. And read the list rules and watch the list for a while to figure out what kind of promotion is permitted, and then I’d do that promotion. Do it—not overdo it. Giving away free books is a good thing to do--especially if you’re a new author or a small press author whose books are harder to discover.
Just make sure it really is a free book. (I know a reader who got a free book from an author on a well-known list. About a week later, the author demanded to know when the reader was going to post her review. The reader wasn’t exactly thrilled to be nagged in this way, and her review, while positive, didn’t exactly gush. The author actually contacted the reader, insisting that the reader “correct” her review. Not only did the reader let her less than glowing review stand, she told all her reader friends about the author’s bad behavior. I doubt if that reader ever read the pushy author again, and as for nominating the book—pfft!)
And as nomination time approaches, I’d definitely speak up if a list I’m on does a “hey, I got my ballot—who’s eligible?” thread. In fact, if you’re on a mystery-related list that doesn’t do this, find someone—preferably a reader, rather than a fellow writer—to start it. Please note that I’m not suggesting a “hey, let’s all gang up and get ourselves nominated” thread. That goes against the purpose of the award—to honor the best books, not the books whose authors belong to the most lists and can enlist the most people to vote for them. But there’s no harm in helping each other remember what fabulous books might be eligible. And it’s especially helpful if you start it soon enough to give your fellow list members time to think “Hmm. I’ve heard really good things about so-and-so’s book. Maybe I’ll put it next on my TBR pile so I can read it before the ballot deadline.”
But I’d avoid hard sells on lists—particularly lists that might include a lot of other writers whose books are also eligible for the same award. As one of my (very distinguished) writer friends has said:
The point is, we ALL want to be nominated, from the newest to the most-seasoned. To ask another pro for a nomination is offensive (for that reason, among others) because it's like saying, "I want this more than you, and I need it more than you." Or even more offensively, "I'm asking you and I don't even know you're also a writer."
That’s part of the reason sending begging emails to people who are registered for conventions is such a bad idea—most of the people for whom you can find emails will be your fellow writers, who might also be eligible for the same award.
(Amusingly, I once received an email from a writer who had won an award the previous year, asking “will you nominate my book, because it would be so great to win this award two years in a row.” And I totally understand the feeling, but since I was one of the four nominees this writer beat--well, if I were the sender, I’d have left me and my fellow also-rans off the list when politicking for a repeat performance!)
As far as I’m concerned, it’s fine for writers to promote their award eligibility on their own Facebook pages—after all, it’s your page, and you have a right to assume anyone visiting it might be reasonably receptive to such a message. Though I’d still phrase it “if you’ve read and loved my book.” Or in their own email newsletters—always assuming that the people to whom you send your newsletter actually signed up. I’ve had people sign me up for their newsletters by harvesting my name from my website or from a list to which we both belong—I generally unsubscribe from those newsletters. And in the course of my work with Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and Malice Domestic I’ve often exchanged emails with people I don’t really know, only to find myself added to their newsletter list. Not a good idea. If you’re not sure someone knows you well enough to want to be on your mailing list, ask before you add. And always include an unsubscribe option in every email newsletter you send, just in case.
But it's one thing to add, to the content of your newsletter a mention that "hey, if you're a fan--I'm eligible" and quite another to send out a "vote for me" emails.
I feel bad saying all this, because there are a couple of writers out there who clearly went to a whole lot of trouble to look up emails for as many convention registrants as possible so they could ask them for nominations. “Who is she to tell us what to do?” they may be asking.
Okay. *not telling anyone what to do—just suggesting that based on my reaction and those of the several dozen friends with whom I’ve discussed this, certain tactics are not likely to achieve the hoped-for results. Worse, hard-sell tactics can backfire and make the recipients less likely ever to read the writer who uses them.
“Well, I didn’t know!” someone will say. “No one ever told me not to!”
Precisely. We need to figure out what’s acceptable etiquette for our community—the mystery community. Because some of the people who most need to know what is or isn’t acceptable are the relatively new writers who, if they follow the wrong examples, can get their entire careers off to a bad start.
And until we do come up with some kind of collective sense of what the rules should be, I think the best guide is a particularly old and well-established one: “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.”
How would you feel if you received a begging email from another writer? If you receive dozens of similar emails from other writers? Would it entice you to vote for them or even read their books? Or would it inspire you to say “Another pushy one I won’t ever read?”
I’d be interested in hearing—from other writers and from readers—what they think about the etiquette of award season. Am I being too picky and old fashioned? Or do you, too, find politicking for awards a turn-off?
Who has two books eligible for awards this season--The Hen of the Baskervilles (Minotaur, July 2013) and Duck the Halls (October 2013)--and thus is quite confident that they will compete against each other in her readers’ minds and thus cancel each other out entirely when the ballots go out. And that’s life.