Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The No A**hole Rule

Remember all those stories about great cantankerous authors way back when who were legendarily inebriated most of the time, were notoriously difficult to handle, got into fisticuffs, and were generally misanthropic to every human they encountered but people still published their books because they were wonderfully talented?

How many successful authors today do you know who fit that description?

Um. On second thought, don't answer that. But now think of the huge number of bestselling and successful authors you know today (some of whom comment regularly on the blog) who are awesome, cool people who you would love to hang out with even if they weren't also incredible writers.


I'm not sure what's in the cultural waters, but I'm hearing from non-publishing people in the world of business that there's a new trend afoot toward politeness, anger management, and a less rigid hierarchy -- in other words, in business you can't really be a jerk anymore. Managers are no longer allowed to mistreat their assistants, it's essential to treat people with respect, contain tempers, work together, and generally avoid being a misanthrope. Stanford prof Richard Sutton chronicled the negative effective of assholes in the workplace with his appropriately titled book THE NO ASSHOLE RULE, and it's been a bestseller. Jim Collins showed in GOOD TO GREAT that the best leaders are humble, not egotistical.

Now, with publishing you're dealing with artists, who are not exactly known for an even temperament. And no doubt there's much more tolerance for eccentricity in publishing than there would be in the rest of the business world. But even in publishing an author who is a joy to work with and has a dynamite, charming personality has a leg up over one who doesn't. Allow me to venture a hypothesis on why this be so: I think this has a great deal to do with the role of the modern author.

Way back when in simpler times, the book was what mattered. The author may have had to do some events and readings, but for the most part an author's engagement with the public was limited. Word of mouth and reviews drove sales. If a writer wrote a good book but was a pill to deal with, that was basically ok.

Not so much anymore.

Now, via TV, radio, the Internet, lots more travel, etc., the author is face to face with their readership more than ever before and is called upon to generate sales opportunities -- this requires social skills. They are also more closely in touch with people within a publishing organization -- also requiring social skills. And it helps when people want to work with an author because they're an awesome, friendly, professional, hardworking author.

Is a publisher going to decline to publish a great book simply because the author is a jerk and a handful? Probably not. But when those difficult and nebulous decisions are being made in a publishing house, such as who gets what advertising and who is going to be the lead title and a great deal of complex factors are being weighed, put a great personality in the "pro" column for an author.

Personality counts.


sex scenes at starbucks said...

I just saw this issue tackled on another blog. In my experience with artists (extensive) and writers (getting to be as extensive) the people who are jerks are nearly the people who aren't very good. I'm sure there are exceptions to the rule, but I haven't met them.

Fisticuffs. Heh. I love that word.

Brian said...

Amen, brotha.

As a publicist, I'm much more eager to help out those authors who treat me professionally and are out there doing their bit to promote their book than the ones who look at me over the top of their glasses and say, "It's not MY job to promote my book, it's YOURS."

I work hard on the books for all my authors but I might just work a liiiitle bit harder for the nice authors.

Conduit said...

It's always been my experience that those who are genuinely good at what they do, in whatever field, are seldom assholes. It's the wannabes you've got to look out for.

A quick anecdote-

In May 1992 I met the man many believe to be greatest guitarist alive today, Allan Holdsworth (Eddie Van Halen worships him). I'm a guitarist myself, and a Holdsworth fan, so when I saw him hovering by the bar after a gig in Manchester, I was very nervous as I approached him. And you know what? Not only was he the best guitarist I ever saw, he was also one of the sweetest men I've ever met. Still is, on both counts. If anyone had the right to be an arrogant prick, it was him - but no, he was the very definition of a gentleman.

One exception to this rule might be Miles Davis, who was notoriously mean-spirited.

Anonymous said...

But that's the dream of every aspiring author: to get a ton of books published (preferably hardcover) and use them to beat people over the head!
Sorry; I think the vodka is talking. ;)

Marva said...

Writers I know (that's a good number) are more likely to be shy and self-effacing. It's a very hard change for them to become confident when going out to appearances and readings. After they decide no physical harm came to them, they begin to relax and even enjoy the public appearances.

Not an a**hole in the lot.

David said...

There's another parameter involved, and that's the expectations of the book-buying public, which has always liked writers to be eccentric, but the flavor of the eccentricity has changed.

At one time, a lot of readers liked writers to be hard-drinking, hard-smoking, hard-cursing SOBs. Now they prefer that the writers exhibit eccentricity in other ways -- e.g., by wearing a stupid white suit.

Diana said...

Everybody should read The No Asshole Rule. I think we've preached "the customer is always right no matter what" for so long, that we've forgotten it's not necessary to tolerate a customer or client's severely rude or abusive behavior at all costs.

From a purely pragmatic standpoint, I'm not sure why most agents, editors and the like would put up with someone they hate to work with and who has the potential to exhibit destructive or abusive behavior towards others - especially in the public eye. Dealing with people like that is hard, and being connected to people like that makes others look down on you.

Worse yet, many of these types of personalities ultimately self destruct, leaving it up to everyone else to clean up the mess.

Josephine Damian said...

As Conduit pointed out: "One exception to this rule might be Miles Davis, who was notoriously mean-spirited."

John Updike is eqully notorious. (Having personally clashed with the literary legend myself, I can attest to this). Somehow I don't think it effects his book sales.

As to the no a**hole rule? I say there should be a no-more-neurotic- insecure-whining-over-book-reviews rule.

Anonymous said...

Um, I don't think we need another forum for bitching about Deborah MacGillivray or Tess Gerritsen (who, btw, was joking when she wrote her now infamous blog post on DAM).

Nathan Bransford said...


For the record (and just so it's clear), I actually wrote this post a while ago and only just got around to posting it. I definitely didn't intend it to refer to any particular person.

Furious D said...

I think being a jerk shows a certain lack of interest or passion for the work.

If you're really passionate about your work, then you will act professionally about it, and that means a certain level of decorum. Being a jerk takes up too much time and effort.

Society is slowly learning to stop rewarding bad behaviour by the famous, but the media isn't because it's cheap filler material.

Adaora A. said...

I completely agree.

But the thing writers often wondering when making their pitch via 'the query letter' is how to let your personality show without being TOO showy.

I work in retail (because it's convenient to organize my time with school and writing), and I think if I worked with people I hated it would not work in any way. I've been called a f**** and a b***** by customers at checkout just because they thought they didn't get a 10% discount they believed was their right to recieve. It's nice to have co-workers I can laugh about it with. Every buisness demands people who are pleasing. I don't think agents would have clients for very long if they were hard to speak to. This post really connects to your post about being able to speak to your agent and to feel comfortable with them.

Anonymous said...

Nathan, I was talking about the post in front of mine. Not yours, which is awesome.

Nathan Bransford said...

Sounds good, anon.

I meant to stress in the post that I wasn't referring to anyone in particular, so you just jogged my memory that I needed to so.

Heidi the Hick said...


This is a bit of a relief... I'm hardworking and friendly and learning how to be professional, and I don't think I'm an a**hole (Unless you'd have asked my little sister 20 years ago) so this is all okay.

But the best part of this post, for me, is this:

And no doubt there's much more tolerance for eccentricity in publishing than there would be in the rest of the business world.


Erik said...

There's a fine line between being blunt and being an asshole, in my opinion. The latter is a bully who is out to control.

But being blunt is a very useful skill, IMHO, especially when you're dealing across lines of culture or social class. There's no reason you can't surround what you say with pleasantries, of course, but I still find that across the lines of social class a couched word is a misunderstood word.

I hope I stay on the good sign of that line, but it's not my call to make. But I do think that while a writer as a commanding presence or a drunk is a cliche worth dumping, the writer as a blunt observer is worth championing.

It's better than a damned white suit, IMHO.

Julie Weathers said...

Another blog recently, perhaps Janet Reid's discussed a publisher who cut one of their authors because they got tired of the F*** You e-mails.

I don't blame them. Who wants to put up with that garbage.

I worked for a horse racing magazine for years. I called one trainer for an interview after a big race and he asked my why I wasn't calling the owner. The owners are the widow and son of a Hollywood legend and the son is a movie producer. I told him I figured they wouldn't have time to talk to me.

He gave me Jim's number and told me to call him since he was wondering why I wouldn't ever call him.

Princess Kawananakoa's trainer is a dream.

Several world famous trainers and owners were gems.

The ones I invariably got attitude out of were the newcomers who felt I ought to be paying proper homage.

Diana Gabaldon is a perfect example, to me, of the author attitude we should have. She is always very gracious and generous with her time and advice. I wonder at times if she gets tired of the many admirers vying for her attention, but if she does, I have never seen it.

Life is too short to have to put up with jerks. I have no intention of giving anyone reason to put me on the life's too short list.

Other Lisa said...

I try!

It's hard.

I mostly agree with what Marva said, that most writers are introverts and eccentrics (by larger society's definition), so there's always going to be a certain amount of friction when bumping up against the real world.

Interestingly, I work in an industry where you expect to encounter a lot of huge egos and screamers - and they do exist. But I've found that they are in no way the majority, that even entertainment companies by and large prefer to deal with rational human beings who are decent in their interactions with others.

Though I do have some funny celebrity rider stories...heh!

Anonymous said...

The only assholes I ran into in publishing were editors.

Both times I dealt with big publishers my books were acquired by someone really pleasant and bright who quit in mid project and was replaced by someone rude and insultingly toxic.

The first replacement editor made it clear he could not imagine why his publisher had ever bought the two books they had published, one of which had been very successful.

I had to offer him the next book, because of my contract terms. When I did, he said, "Who'd ever want to read a book about that?"

The answer was 60,000 people who were willing to pay $19.95 a pop to do so. But that was at another publisher.

But no sooner did that book succeed than my editor at the new house quit and was replaced by someone who must have been the twin sister of the replacement editor at the first house.

susand said...

One of the only things my ex-husband ever told me that made sense was that if you hang out with screwed up (he actually used the f word, but I'm trying to be G rated here) people, you get screwed up. He is actually a pretty toxic and abusive person himself, but that's a different story altogether.

Anyway, my point is, I've found out that when I spend my down time with people who have the attitude and outlook I want to emulate and don't emit toxic waste, I can pretty much get along with anyone when I'm working without losing my composure.

But to me, being a good person is more important than anything else. Because to me, none of my accomplishments or pending goals are worth anything without my family and friends who enrich my life so much every day. They are the best!

Kristin Laughtin said...

I have to agree with marva- most writers I know are rather shy and self-effacing, or if they possess a lot of confidence, are at least decent people. Granted we're all aspiring amateurs right now... But it seems the unpleasant ones spend more time doing that than actual writing.

It makes sense. The world is becoming more interconnected, authors are expected to help with their own publicity, and there is just more contact between people at all stages of the game in general (whether in person or online). No one in the business wants to deal with a belligerent personality, and I've known more than one person entirely avoid an author's works due to the persona they put out there.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if it's that we (writers)have changed all that much since the days when we were "notoriously difficult to handle," or if it's just that we've learned how to play the game a little better because that's what's expected of us these days.

Anonymous said...

Hey look, in the early days, I was part of a "sensitive" writers group and someone "joined" and said:"I hope there are no stupid rabbit books in this group..." (guess who had a stupid rabbit manuscript in progress at that time...)
The second group I joined, you had to be "selected" to get in. I got "selected." However... They all, individually professed to needing to be "rich and famous." I said, I would be really happy if I could just be reasonably "well known and well paid." Although there was much to be said about that, well, my ego was deficient for the patter there.
The next group wanted everyone to "write realistically" and, alas, I make up my story worlds and form.
The next, after that, was the pretentious, "the resident poets" who read aloud and publicly, poetry about their locally known ex's and their defects in a public forum. Ummm...
Then there was the "grammar police." And THEN there were the BIG BAD MURDER MYSTERY WRITERS trying to kill everyone in the group it seems too, with all their RULES AND RIDICULE AND JUDGMENT! I might as well crawl under the bed with the dog and die.
Yikes. I mean "YIKES!"
To make my "The Three Little Bears (or how much I could bear all this) Story" complete, at last there was the group I now fit with and belong to, an open minded group of eclectic ( as opposed to elected) but professional writers (most anyway and the others supported on that journey).
They are so nice to each other. It is a JOY to share. And along that path, we are honest, supportive, instructive in supportive ways, and many of us are starting to get published. Best of all, we LIKE each other. Isn't that a nice affect of politeness and kindness and etiquette!
I certainly vote for nice.
(And I am not sure that "I" could show up in a rude place.)

susandc said...

Anonymous 4:51 - I was in a writing group and I submitted a manuscript which included a scene where a young, handsome Australian hiker who was flirting with me asked me how I got in good shape and after I answered, my internal dialogue was something like "I can't believe this guy ten years younger finds me attractive." In the margin, she wrote in the margin "being in good shape doesn't mean you're attractive." I mean, come on, is this relevant or female jealousy in its worst form? I was beyond annoyed.

Anonymous said...

we have to consider the source, of course, when receiving "feedback."
I'm so glad you were able to.
It took me a "process" to get to that point,myself.
However, I believe, as Nathan, has suggested, that the "tend" is towards kind and polite.
Now, what a supportive peer or honest friend can tell you, good or bad, but for your own good, that may be more worth listening to and for, and in my own book is valuable and I am grateful for.

windsong5 said...

I have to agree--especially as authors are more reachable to the public than they have been before. Personalities color people's perceptions of both the author and their works. There was an author I loved to read. I loved her world and her stories. Then she threw a very public fit over a question a reader sent her. Ever since then I havent' been able to enjoy her books as much and am not likely to buy anymore. Authors are human and have every right to get offended at some of the mail they receive--privately. Public humiliations and name calling are a bit excessive.

Anonymous said...

I will also say, sadly, that my husband and I waited for almost two hours, in a line, once to meet a beloved favorite author, not for his "signature" so much as to meet him.
When we were twenty some people from the end of the line, we got told he "was done" and sent home.
We have stopped buying his books.
THAT was rude.

Mary said...

For years, I resisted the urge to write because I was terrified of turning into a chain-smoking, hard-drinking depressive. It’s a complete stereotype -- but, growing up, that was my impression of writers.

Adaora A. said...

I use to think writers were bi-polar! They do say many of the great artists in history were. That's why they could be so unbearable one second and completely obliging then next. What do you think about that theory Nathan?

superwench83 said...


It's about time that people stop being rewarded for being jerks.

Of course, people who are assholes are convinced that everyone else is an asshole, not themselves.

moonrat said...

Amen! No A**holes for me!

I, for one, am done working with them. At least, on purpose.

mlh said...

No A**holes Rule! Interesting! Don't be the stereotypical bi-polar, chain-smoking, hard-drinking, depressed writer. Yet you're smoking and drinking because you are agitated when waiting for a response from an agent . . . depressed when the agent rejects you . . . and paranoid that someone might have stolen your idea for the same story and their book is being rushed to the shelves.

Who said artists don't suffer for their work?

Anyhow, Nathan, I get your point. Just because a person is a jerk on the inside doesn't mean they should be a jerk on the outside. Image and personality matters - which means I have to break out of my little shy, introverted, self.

And I thought the hard part was writing the novel.

Just_Me said...

Color me young but writing that gets past my door and into any public forum, be it critique group or publishing house, is business. If I want to rant, rave, and be eccentric I can do that on my own time not when I'm working on cultivating relationships that I intend to make work for me.

I've met a variety of writers. I've been *gasp* an editor on a small newspaper so I've seen both sides, writer vs editor, fiction vs non. The crazies are crazy regardeless of everything else. And they don't make good writers. There's this nasty creature in publishing called a Deadline, unstable characters miss deadlines. That doesn't work.

Nathan- I admit you are more patient than I am. While I'm shopping for an agent personality is an issue, I don't want to walk away from conversations with an agent with my eye twitching and ready to punch holes in the wall. Why you'd want to subject yourself to flighty, negative, abusive personalities for good writing ... okay, good writing *is* good writing, but draw a line in the sand somewhere. There's only so much abuse a human being should take.

Anonymous said...

Most serious writers I know are neurotic and/or eccentric to varying degrees, but nearly always very nice people. The a**holes are usually the non-savvy writers who ooze with ego and push their awesome first book that NOBODY must touch because it's already perfect. You see these "I know what's best even though this is my first book and I have no experience in publishing" writers regularly in various writing boards. Sadly, instead of swallowing the humility pill and learning about their craft, these writers often go with vanity or self publishers and become highly bitter towards the commercial publishers and agents who didn't recognise their genius.

Vanessa said...

this requires social skills

I am soooooo screwed *grin*

Other Lisa said...

The Shy Writer - An Introvert's Guide to Writing Success.

kissmequick said...

but, but, but I like drinking and making a tit of myself.

You're sucking all the fun out of life :(

Kimber An said...

This is wonderful news! Anything which sheds the jerkwads is a good thing.

Margaret Yang said...

Thank you, other lisa! xie xie. I'm adding that book to my wish list.

cc said...

This part of your post makes me a little sad, Nathan...

"Way back in simpler times, the book was what mattered."

Ugh. I don't know any A-hole writers, including myself, but I have to say the book is ALL that matters to me. The less I know about the author, the better. I'm the same way with music. I want to sing along when I'm driving down the street -- even knowing what the singer looks like somehow lessens the song for me.

I know it's not a realistic approach in today's world -- talk shows and entertainment shows make you think you need to know everyone's business -- but I like a little mystery.

Howard Shirley said...

So, has anyone worked up the nerve to inform Harlan Ellison about this rule?


Seriously, I have long agreed with this idea, before I even knew it existed as a rule. (Other than it being simply a negative rephrasing of The Golden Rule.)

I once heard a very celebrated children's author, known for her sweet and heartfelt books, turn a "my life as a children's author" speech into a raving (and poorly constructed) political rant. Sort of soured my taste for her books.

But it's not just the authors, as others have pointed out. I know of more than one case where editors have either publicly or privately humiliated authors at paid conferences and critiques, trashing their work or even the author personally (despite not knowing the individual). Yet in these same cases, the authors themselves later became very successful with the very works the editor attacked. In one instance, the editor was long established and respected in the industry, and should have known better.

In a similar vein, I also heard about a publishing professional who started an industry dinner with other professionals, none of whom had met before, with a series of profanity-laced, poorly considered jokes. Hello? Maybe not the best way to represent either yourself or your company? It certainly made me think twice about sending a submission to the business, and I only heard about the instance second-hand. If anything, the actions at the dinner at least showed both poor taste and poor judgment, neither of which I desire in someone reviewing my work.

A firm personality can have its place. But poor judgment never does.

Thanks for the interesting discussion, Nathan.

mlh said...

Ah, hope flickers for this shy introvert when a thoughtful blogger posts a link!

Thank you, other lisa!

John C. Brewer said...

Like many here, I'm an aspiring writer. I work a day job as a Rocket Scientist. I have worked at a number of companies and can tell you straight up that the most successful are run by people who are great fun to be around. Not that they are funny, but that they are just decent people. This flies in the face of conventional wisdom - that all rich people are jerks - but I've come to believe that the main reason they are successful is because they know how to work with other people. This isn't a law of nature, but it is definitely a strong suggestion!


BigTone said...

What about Tucker Max, Maddox, and some of the other "fratire" writers? They seem to be doing fairly well being a**holes.

Is this just a persona adopted by a writer to target the fratboy market?

Taylor K. said...

Awesome! This sure helps me because I know I'm the humblest guy. I would totally beat you in a humble contest! Hooray to me for being so cool, but not knowing it! ;)

More seriously though, off topic, I was thinking over some of your previous entries, Nathan, and I had a question. Have you ever had a query that began with the first line of the manuscript, and then was followed by a rhetorical question? I would also ask if this same query started with "Yo Nate-Dog" but I think that'd be a bit too much.

Nathan Bransford said...


Oh yes. I've seen every rhetorical question combo there is at this point.

C.J. said...

coming to this discussion a little late...
it seems to me that personality counts in terms of being a decent author to work with, etc. but, i also think that being an intriguing character is becoming a more and more important aspect of selling your books. y'know, "memoirs of thus and such person from the fringe of society" or "stripper turned screenwriter." maybe we're headed toward an era where having a great story and being easy to work with aren't enough either.

CM said...

Speaking of being an asshole, here's a completely unrelated question.

You say you don't represent genre romance.

But you're attending RWA, and the agent interest grid on their site doesn't list just romantic elements type work. Are you, in fact, branching out into romance? Or by "genre romance," do you mean something closer to "category," and something farther from "stories that are for women that focus on a love story and other things along the way"?

Nathan Bransford said...


I meant category and said genre. I rep women's fiction and memoir (i.e. FRENCH BY HEART), as well as romantic suspense, but not romance romance.

Adaora A. said...

Ah got it. You rep things which might have elements of romance (BLACK MOUNTAIN has some too), but you don't do harlequin or blaze romance. Do you read romance romance in the way that I read it but don't write it?

CM said...

Thanks! Much clearer now.

Nathan Bransford said...


No, I read women's fiction and romantic suspense but I don't really read romance romance, and thus don't represent it -- I wouldn't really know what's good.

Other Lisa said...

Margaret, bukeqi!

Adaora A. said...

Thanks! I always wondered if agents have ever read what they absolutely don't represent.
There are so many romance romance imprints out there. Blaze, Harlequin, Harlequin Historical, etc.

Anonymous said...

Way back in 1968 (when the earth's crust had just cooled and I was a girl), I happened to be on 5th avenue, near the Tishman Building, and walked by a tall, stunningly gorgeous man who was waiting to cross the street.

My first thought was, "Gee, he looks familiar," and my second, after I got a few yards away, was, "Damn. That's Sidney Poitier."

By the time I turned around to gawk at him, he was completely surrounded by women wanting his autograph.

For the next fifteen minutes or so he smiled and chatted with these women and signed autographs and shook their hands without showing any impatience or irritation. And all I could think was, "Now that is class."

Since then, I've had the privilege of working with writers and musicians at every level of achievement. Some of them are as gracious, decent, and classy as Sidney Poitier, and others are just jerks.

I wish I could say that it's the famous folks who are terrific, while the novices are impossible, but that hasn't been my experience.

What I have discovered is that decency and class have nothing to do with status or achievement. Decent people recognize the humanity in others, and understand the importance of respecting it, while jerks simply do not.

Betty Atkins Dominguez said...

Actually, all of the authors I have met, whether famous or not, have been very gracious and kind. My favorite was Anne Mccaffrey, such a doll. My fav even though I don't write Science Fiction. Her advice was perfect for all genres.

Betty Atkins Dominguez said...

Gosh, I forgot to tell what Anne's advice was.

Write what you love. And, polish, polish, polish.

Anonymous said...

I went from your blog about No Rhetorical Questions to this page. WTF? You throw one out there right off the bat. Come on Nathan, you may be smart & talented, but don't be a hypocrite. Think man! Think before thou typest!

Nathan Bransford said...


Last time I checked, this blog post isn't a query letter.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I have been thinking about something similar, which is that many literary agents and editors I follow on social media come off as total jerks. They write things that seem very smug and self-satisfied, which is interesting, because publishing is not the most secure industry right now. I mean, I realize being an agent/editor must be very frustrating sometimes, but so is EVERY job. (And I don't post on Twitter about how stupid people are. I keep it to myself!)

That's one reason I like your blog. You always seem so upbeat and pleasant. Maybe that's why you are not an agent anymore. ;)

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