Monday, 8 June 2009

The Golden Commandment

This is the last in my 10 commandments for aspiring writers series. Whcih means I now have to think of a new column theme :-)

Networking is about looking for ways to do something FOR people, not get something FROM them.

This is my favourite commandment of all, and I’m delighted to save it till last in this series. We’re always reading about networking. Anyone who’s part of a writers’ site like Authonomy knows that success has so much to do with spreading your social tentacles, and we’re always being urged to use social media to increase our contacts and improve our chances of success – these days we even have sites like Ning that we can use to create our very own virtual social networks.

So why “network”? To get to know more people so there’s more of a chance of getting things done for us. Isn’t that right? Well, to the extent that’s most people’s motivation, it’s right, yes.

But it’s hardly the best way to go about it.

I’m not quite sure how the structure of this post will proceed. For me the truth of the “commandment” is self-evident, which makes it hard to write about. So apologies for structural vagaries.

I spent the first 30-something years of my life thinking not only was I the world’s worst networker, but that I hated the very idea of networking – it was inimical to me and to everything I, as a sensitive, shy aesthete thought the world should stand for. I associated it with men in suits with slick haircuts and shiny shoes; and I thought it meant the kind of self-aggrandising, pushy arrogance said men in suits seemed to indulge in as they boasted over their lagers about the size and speed of their silver BMWs.

Then I got a job as manager of a carpet shop, and fund myself spending at least half my time drinking coffee with company reps whilst we talked about colourways and product specs and interior design, and I very soon realised that the people who spent most time explaining the trade to me – all about jacquards and chlydema squares, and the acoustic properties of different underlays – were not only the ones I looked forward to seeing, but the ones whose products I sold more of. I’d start calling them up and ask if we could take more of their ranges, maybe put in a window display. They’d start calling me out of the blue and inviting me to go to nice places with them, and they’d start offering me lower prices for the products I was already selling plenty of at the higher price.

When I moved, after a couple of years, to one manage of the swankiest showrooms in the south of England, I was told one of the reasons I’d been headhunted was because I was a good networker, a statement I met totally blankly, until it was explained that was what I’d been doing all this time.

In my next set of columns, I’ll write about marketing and promotion. And one of the golden rules I’ll give you is this: never ask someone to do something for you, or tempt them with your amazing book, if you’re not prepared first to do something for them. So I’m not going to go into detail here about it. It also feels disingenuous as I think about it – because what you get out of helping other writers and people in the trade really is nothing to do with why you help them in the first place.

It’s hard to say much more without sounding either mercenary or a total hippy, so to conclude I’ll go back to anecdotes.

I’m a member of two “competitive” (to the extent that they hold out “prizes” of having your work read by people in the trade) writing sites, and Both these sites attract – from a vociferous, but smaller than their loud voices would lead you to believe minority – criticism for the way some people use the competitive elements of the site to get an advantage. Squabbles erupt about how writers “score” each others’ work, and about the mean-spiritedness of writers who fail to appreciate members’ masterpieces.

It never fails to amaze me what an uncollaborative bunch we writers are (see my previous post). If we go onto these sites to get “discovered” we will almost certainly fail. If we join in order both to learn, and to share what we’ve learned with as many people as possible, to help other writers through our comments, and to add to the educational and emotional value of the site, we will always succeed.

And I’ll close with an ambiguous anecdote. The editors at Harper Collins recently very generously answered a whole swathe of questions about the industry from Authonomy’s site members. Amongst the more illuminating answers was a reinforcement of what I’ve heard said and what I’ve seen done many, many times. When looking at a proposal, one of the things an editor asks themselves before deciding to proceed is what it’s going to be like working with this author.

What would it be like working with you? Does the way you conduct yourself with your fellow writers reflect that reality? Interesting questions. I wonder if we ask ourselves often enough.


  1. Great and timely post - I've never heard of the two sites you mentioned until now (and will check them out), but they remind me of the Project Greenlight screenwriting competition from a few years back, run by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.

    The idea was essentially the same - allow other readers to critique your work until you build up enough 'popularity' to hopefully win the contest. The trouble was, your work might be critiqued by an 18 year old (or several 18 year olds) with no experience and very little useful commentary. Any writer who has spent years honing their craft would probably feel a little insulted that they wasted their time on such an endeavour that, in the end, gave them so little. And they paid for the privilege.

    And no insult meant to the brilliant 18 year old out there - I know they exist.

  2. Hi - thank you for coming over here, and for introducing me to your lovely blog :-)

    brilliant 18 year-olds They certainly do exist - I was watching a documentary the other night about T S Eliot, which said he was 18 when he wrote Prufrock - that's scary!

    I think we expect different things maybe when we pay for something - the important thing tehre is for it to be clear what you will get before you sign up. There is now so much great open-source software around that it's relatively easy for writers to start a collaborative venture - alas, so many of us are magpies that we always get drawn in the biggest numbers to the sparkly, shiny promise of being read by someone "on the inside". If we really all got together and thought about what WE could do, not what we'd like someone to do for us, just think what we could achieve then!!

  3. I think the great dream - and I remember Francis Coppola remarking on this in Hearts of Darkness - is that the giants of the industry will become obsolete and the amateurs as such will take charge of their work and art will become something genuine and pure (if you like) and not just a 'product.'

    I do agree that you absolutely must know what you are getting into before you sign up and I love that we can potentially collaborate and create communities from far and wide, but I hope these extend to the in-person sort of gatherings and meeting of minds since it seems to be so much lacking.

    Kind of circles back to your point on how we behave, what are we like to work with and how networking is 'give' not 'take,' it is something we are hardly ever taught in life or in school which prizes competition over collaboration. I remeber this quote about the Olympics - that it is not really about winning but the taking part.

    I appreciate what you wrote about adding education and emotional value - I think these are such key components of understanding, we are just people after all, though it is easy to forget when staring at a screen.

    And thank YOU for excellent and thoughtful writing!

  4. I so agree with this post, and actually I would go further. I think that "networking" is a horrid word, and if one is trying to get established (and also remain in the groove), the best thing is simply be friendly to people. By simply being around, and taking a generally positive view of life, you can help others and they may be able to help you too. I think this is the way a lot of business gets done, including in the creative world.

    But. there's another point too, which is that when work rises above the person-to-person level and into the bigger arena, things probably start getting political. And THAT is what real networking is about.

    I feel sure for instance that the JOhn Birts and Peter Mandelsons of this world did not get where they did by having a genuine interest in being friends with ordinary people like you and me. They are like the courtiers of Queen Elizabeth, with one eye on the main chance and a good knowledge of human nature - and particularly the nature of whoever is the boss. They are probably what I would refer to as "networkers" and actually I think that they tend to start swimming around at a level where there is a lot of power and a lot of money.

    Not a level I would personally much enjoy being on...

  5. dijeratic ( not sure what I should call you) - I was having a chat on one of the Writers' groups on Facebook (Help Support Independent Publishers I think, but knowing my scatterbrain I'm wrong), and where we ended up as our ideal of something really exciting that brought online collaboration into the real was a literary version of Sundance. I wonder also if (given the two sit side by side at mainstream festivals) we couldn't have an indie/DIY literature session at an indie music festival. I think part of the battle is stopping being ashamed of ourselves just because we aren't part of the mainstream - music revels in its independent status, cinema is getting there. We need, as authors, to stop being apologetic - it's NOT true that every self-published book is rubbish, and those of you (count me out - I'm sure my "coming of age in Eastern Europe" schmaltz IS rubbish) who write great fiction and don't have a publisher need a place to celebrate your work. On this note - tomorrow I'm going to post something on the "long tail" in the light of a remark I had from an agent.

    Hi Jenny :-) Yes, I would rather chew on the shards of a port glass than swill form it in those echelons. I work as an administrator in an academic environment so I see it every - the kind of deference and all-round fakeness to (and only to) people at or above a certain level, and it makes me sick to the core. Which I guess is why I come back to teh zero-sum thing - with culture, it's not a competition - every success - yours, mine, anyone's - makes other successes more likely. I think it's my way of reacting to the unsightly sycophantic mess I see around me to refuse to get bitter about it but to try and get as many people working together as possible to set up an alternative system. Ah well, we can dream...

  6. Hey -

    Great post, and timeless, as much as it is timely. Also puts me in mind of "Love is the Killer App," by Tim Sanders [1] in which he basically says, yes even in the business world, we can all get along and improve our position by sharing "the love."

    There *is* a fine line between coming off as "...either mercenary or a total hippy," and I'm really looking forward to your next set of columns.

    In their latest "Rebooting the News" podcast [2], Dave Winer and Jay Rosen discuss the idea of newspapers engaging citizen journalists by posting guidelines for contribution and by creating an assignment desk, which suggests possible events that people could cover, etc. The point here is that by creating an assignment desk, the press is passing along a message - there is an unlimited supply of news, it is not zero-sum, it is in fact a renewable resource.

    Not sure why people treat writing as a limited resource that must be hoarded. Emily Dickinson put it nicely - "One is Money, One's the Mine."


  7. Piers, thank you so much for these links. I've often wondered if I've been looking at new business models through rose-tinted spectacles (or maybe it's just the background colur of the blog!), but I do think there is a tendency (sometimes sold to us as being a result of their hippyish beginnings) for more progressive businesses to see the "business case" for a more person-centred way of doing things. From such basics as realising that the people who work for you will work harder and better if they believe in what they're doing, to seeing that we like doing business with nice people.

    On your last point, I can see the internet - and what I'm sure some perceive as its parvenu oiks who come along and insisit on doing things differently, not caring about giving their work away, turning the whole place into an open source free for all that feels more like Woodstock than Waterstone's - must appear at first sight very threatening to the vast majority of writers who live on the breadline, relying for most of their income on lots of little bits of repeat rights income. For them the threat of plagiarism, and the thought of aggressive undercutting (to them we must seem like Wal-Mart only worse, giving away a poor product [because I think the ethos is still if its free that can only mean it's bad] for no reason other than to drive them out of a living) must be really scary stuff. Aside from the fact I'd love to see everyone in this position succeed as much as I want to do well myself, what I would like to say is simply that it's a big pie, and I wouldn't dream of trying to deny a slice to anyone who chooses to go about things the traditional way. What I would ask in return is that they accord us the same respect. I'm not an independently wealthy person who writes as a hobby - I have a menial day job and would give my eye teeth to be able to ditch it and do this full time. I suspect most of the people pushing at the boundaries are in the same position. So I'm not going to use my unlimited riches (!) to drive out hardworking professionals - I just want to show that writers can bring stories to readers and get paid enough to live at the same time. It may sound a bit scary when I put the reader-writer relationship before the making money bit, but my experience of the business world is that really successful businesses actually get really successful, whatever the sphere, by doing just that.