Thursday, March 18, 2010

why famous authors don't want to read your unpublished manuscript

Everyone's read this expletive-laden Village Voice piece about why amateur script-writers should never ask professionals to read their scripts. And a lot of authors object to reading strangers' unpublished manuscripts for the same reasons (roughly summed up as: the hugely time-consuming, hellish acrobatics that go into writing a "casual" 3-line e-mail response that will convey the author's honest opinion—often a negative opinion—without sounding like a jerk).

Today while cruising around YA author websites, INTERN came across the "can I show you my manuscript?" question in Aprilynne Pike's FAQ. Her answer:

"I actually get this a lot. If your work is unpublished, the answer is almost always no. I can't review unpublished material simply because I have to protect myself and my family from potential liability."

Now this is a whole 'nother ballgame indeed, and one INTERN had never considered.

In a time when it seems like everybody and their pet iguana is trying to sue successful authors for stealing their ideas, said successful authors have good reason to put their hands over their eyes and sing "LA-LA-LA-LA-LA!" when unpublished writers try to show and/or tell them about their *awesome* idea for a book. The potential for getting sued is real, and it is a frigging shame.

Published authors don't have a duty to read strangers' manuscripts any more than famous chefs have a duty to eat and comment on strangers' attempts at coq au vin, Texas-style. But it's sort of heart-breaking that authors who otherwise seem like they might be happy to take a look at the odd manuscript cannot, for fear of legal quagmires that could threaten their family's financial security.

INTERN would like to know: have any of you ever asked a published author (with whom you are not personally acquainted) to take a look at your manuscript? What was the response? Have you ever agreed to read someone's ms?


  1. i've never asked a published author to read my MS, but then, i somehow managed to 86 the beta-reading bit (my mom and my brothers and my best friends don't really count, do they?) and somehow land an agent, so i didn't even think it was possible to ask a pubbed author to do something like that. i do, however, know someone who emailed a pubbed author and asked her to crit her first chapter. and the author actually gave her feedback. (but then again, that was only one chapter.) (i'm not really answering your questions, am i?)

    the whole thing can be rather embarrassing, i think. maybe that's why i stayed away from it?

  2. Impulsively I recently offered a published author who had just encouraged my work (over twitter) to look at a story I'm happy with. I had just tweeted a description of a subplot. I offered to trade feedback, which seemed fair to me but may have come across as inappropriate.

    The reason she gave for very politely turning me down was because of a busy schedule. That made sense to me and I think was probably true, but I hadn't thought about liability issue until now.

    I tend to say yes when asked this, because I get a lot out of looking at another writer's draft: seeing how they approach composition; what kind of experiments they are trying; how other people's minds work.

    My first published story is coming out this June, so maybe I'll never read another MS after that! I doubt it though. :)

    Thanks for an interesting post, I always enjoy your site.

  3. I once emailed Stephen King's agent, telling him that I would like to get ahold of Mr. King, re: critiquing my MS: an erotica/horror/1993 kitty cat calendar, written in ancient runes. King wrote back a day later. Here is what he said:

    Dear Mr. Kray,

    Fucking A. I just finished reading your manuscript. It was so good I read it straight through without even getting up to use the bathroom. It was so good I punched my agent in the face for waiting 5 minutes to email it to me. You are a genius, and I would like to pay you five million dollars just to hang out one day.

    -Your bro 4 life,

    Oh wait. What I meant to say was "I once saw Stephen King at a multiplex and was too star-struck to say hello, but played out elaborate fantasies in my head." Sorry.

  4. Never asked, but I have accepted one or two requests, after I checked that they could handle a real opinion. It's extremely time-consuming, and I doubt I'll be doing it much in the future.(read: never again)

  5. I have not and would never consider asking an industry professional for free advice. I wholeheartedly endorse the sentiments in "I will not read your f-ing script".

    The brazen willingness of people to ask for and expect to receive free advice isn't limited to the literary industry.

    My father, a well respected CPA with a large and successful accounting practice, eventually gave up going to social functions to escape people who insisted on buttonholing him with their tax questions. The attitude seemed to be that since he was not in his office, the billing clock would not be turned on. They robbed him of his social life until he finally quit the business.

    I cannot recall the number of times I have been asked for advertising or marketing advice. Just a couple of hours ago, in fact, a friend of a friend called to ask for free help in setting up an entire online marketing campaign. It never ends.

    I have learned through the painful experience of wasted, thankless hours to give the automatic response of my hourly rate for consulting and minimum billing hours. Many advice seekers express shock at my cheekiness. The smart ones pay.

    My attitude cannot be better expressed than this excerpt from the essay: "...when you ask a professional for their [advice], you're not just asking them to take an hour or two out of their life, you're asking them to give you--gratis--the acquired knowledge, insight, and skill of years of work."


  6. Never done it, would never even CONSIDER doing it. And I'd never even thought about it from this angle! Great post =)

  7. No. Never. Ever.

    But I'd never thought of it from this angle either.


  8. I've had several dozen manuscripts partially read by published authors. They were all lighthanded with their comments, but in retrospect right on the bull's-eye.

    On the other hand, I've had works in progress read by fellow unpublished writers. I'm always shocked to see unique features of my voice and other features from my stories emulated. I don't share anymore with unpublished writers.

    Published authors, I learned foremost that their creative visions are theirs, mine is mine, and never the twain shall meet. Except for the one overarching premise I took away from their comments.

    Everything that didn't work was a consequence of failure to establish or spoilage of audience rapport. Everything that did work was a consequence of engaging audience rapport. More often than not, the rapport flaws were inextricable from the rapport virtues. I focus more than anything now on establishing and maintaining rapport.

  9. I have several published friends. I don't think I've asked them to read my work (I'm almost unpublished). A couple of them have asked to read my work and then they've given me honest feedback...I know it was honest because once I almost cried and the next time I wanted to dance around the room. :) Only one of them has asked me to read/critique their WIP and he is the least published out of the group. Four of these friends make a living writing...I would never ask them to give up their time for me...NOT COOL!

  10. Having spent most my writing career as a failed screenwriter I often faced the Catch 22 of screenplays, those who buy scripts read scripts from agents only. I had an agent which got a never to be read script lost forever. There is a saying in Hollywood, you are not a success until you have been sued. As the writer of Hurt Locker is discovering now. For some reason I focused on producers and agents, you know people who could buy the damn thing. I never considered sending it to some writer who might steal it and make it his or her own. But you book writers are such a sweet trusting lot.

  11. I wouldn't consider sending my manuscript to an author I didn't before they published.

    I've always assumed they'd be too busy.

    And liability did cross my mind. Since everybody and their cocker spaniel is suing these days, it's almost a crime to be famous!

  12. I’ve seen this a lot in author’s FAQ sections. While I’ve enjoyed correspondence with a couple favorite authors, I’ve never asked them to read anything of mine, if just to spare them having to say no.

    I did, though, right after college, send some poems to one of my poetry teachers, got back a glowing letter about one of them, and about five years later found it in his latest book, with just the title changed.

    On the flip side, a novelist wanted me to read his new manuscript, since I’d found so many errors that got by his editor in his previous book, and yet his publisher wouldn’t send me the manuscript because they were afraid I’d leak it.

  13. I'd never ask a published author to read my ms. I've had another writer offer, which was cool, but I think we presume to have friendships that don't exist because we communicate online. I can sympathise with deep river's comment. People ask me to heal or give readings all the time. They assume I'm on call to the public 24/7. You have to say no to have a life with family.

    'The potential for getting sued is real, and it is a frigging shame.' I was aware of this and it's another sign that trust has become an empty word.

  14. No, I have never done it! Nor would I ever consider it. Great post!

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  16. I never thought of doing something like that. Though I do Beta quite a bit, I only do it for people who I know/trust.

    This is a very interesting concept, not for using, but for sort of a warning. Food for thought, thanks!

  17. Wait! Where does that leave you, INTERN, as far as your offer in the blog's sideline -- the HIRE INTERN for manuscript critiques offer? Do you feel you're in danger of being sued if you undertake such a task? Does being paid for it protect you somehow?

  18. i know one published author and asked her if she'd read my work. she happily agreed but in the end i didn't send it to her because i really didn't want to put her in the position of having to tell he it was bad and worrying about our friendship. i'd never ask someone i didn't know, it seems so rude.

  19. Intern, I agreed to read a stranger's manuscript, once upon a time. It took hours, nay days, to compose a thoughtful response and it was met with all the enthusiasm and gratitude one might expect in response to an offer of cold haggis.

    This was before J.K. Rowling started getting sued. Because of her experience, I would be much more reluctant to offer to read anyone's work now. (After all, we never know when we may become hugely successful, right?)

  20. Among authors the liability excuse ranks up there with my agent won't let me. Both contain a nugget of truth and both put up a firm wall of NO. don't even ASK. I'm not even a famous author and I get asked all the time. I say yes under extremely limited circumstances: when the requester is a teenager and can write a decent email. Then I'll read 1-3 chapters. I have also agreed to mentor young writers from time to time, but I do make sure everyone understands I don't have unlimited time.

    I decline such requests from adults. It's time consuming to read and respond to even a chapter of poorly written material and the person who wants this kind of intensive work doesn't understand how much work it is because, sadly, that person isn't a good enough writer to know better.

    The really competent writers have done the research. They learned how to find good critiquers.

    That's requests coming from total strangers, by the way. Not people who know me.

  21. Damn...Why didn't I think of this earlier? Thanks for the tip.

  22. I would never ask a published author to read something I wrote. Actually, I don't know any personally. But this makes me wonder about all the online crit places one can join. I have joined one. I wonder now if it is such a good idea. Problem is I wouldn't know where else I could get a decent opinion for my story.

    I have read some pretty awful writing, but still try and give the writer decent advice,but I wonder about my story, sitting out there for everyone else to read.

  23. I've read nearly a thousand manuscripts in progress over the last dozen or so years. One or two had merits. The rest were unresolvably unsettled. I commented on a few of them. Once in a leap year blue moon a writer might respond back with gratitude, and more importantly, demonstrate they understand. The ingratiatory responses made me cautious, so I prefer to avoid commenting altogether. I've got better things to do than suffer ingrates.

  24. I've had authors read my manuscript... of course I paid them to do it, so...

  25. wow, what an interesting and opinionated level of response!

    jill cayrol: INTERN never really thought about that until she wrote this post! it has never been a concern. for one thing, the stuff INTERN writes is quite different from the stuff she's been critiquing. for another thing, INTERN's clients are intelligent and reasonable across the board, and she's never had any kind of bad mojo, let alone threats of litigation!

  26. On the road to publication, I exchanged MSS's with other pre-published authors. After my first release, I've reigned in my beta readers list considerably.

    Much to my shock and utter happiness, a multi-published, international romance writer approached ME when looking for a critique partner. We agreed to try it out, giving each other a chapter here and there - and I'm thankful to the stars above that it's worked out wonderfully. As unworthy as I feel in her presence, I wouldn't trade my CP for anyone else.

    Now that you brought this up, my dear INTERN, I'm going to consider writing up a FAQ page on my website so I can say something like the above if approached by someone to read their MSS.

    I really appreciate the fact that you can be both funny and poignant, INTERN.

  27. I have critiqued friends' things before, even outside critiquing circle/course settings, but, then, I don't know if I'd count myself among 'published authors' or anything.

  28. Ingenious idea. But Edith Wharton is already dead.

  29. That line in Pike's FAQ is something writers pass around to each other as a convenient thing to say to get out of reading other people's work. Seriously, I hear it all the time--*just tell them you can't read it for legal reasons.*

  30. The thing that gets me about these lawsuits is that--if I understand the letter of copyright law--it technically is not plagiarism to have the same plot elements. You can have a young wizard at a wizard school who arrives by magical train and you aren't writing Harry freaking Potter.

    But to answer your question, I have read other writer's work as a beta reader. I have even been in critique groups or tossed about ideas with some published writers. I wouldn't ever be willign to read and comment on an unpublished manuscript by someone I didn't already have some sort of writing relationship or friendship with, though, because of the time it takes up. When I read someone's novel, I automatically lose a week to the critique. It's a given. So I do not do that lightly.

  31. That line in Pike's FAQ is something writers pass around to each other as a convenient thing to say to get out of reading other people's work. Seriously, I hear it all the time--*just tell them you can't read it for legal reasons.*

    This. Otherwise, we'd never have beta readers.

  32. I'm just reaching the stage of saying 'no' to any queries like that, but not because of potential law suits. Every time a 'valued opinion' is sought the translation should be 'praise is sought'. And when I spend time passing on stuff I've learned through reading and trial-and-error over many years, an insincere but polite 'thank you' is followed by a deathly silence.