On Being Unprofessional

I’ve been in the “pro” science fiction biz for almost 3 years. In that time I’ve become used to the idea that not every writer or editor is a professional — in the sense that what “professional” means in the world of the arts can often be very, very different from what it means in the every-day world working world that most people are familiar with.

In my military career there are very strict standards and expectations: of behavior, of decorum, of how we each speak to and treat each other as uniformed servicemembers. There are lines you don’t cross. Or if you do cross them, there are defined consequences. This is also true in the professional healthcare and business sector. Both major hospital networks I’ve worked for have had very specific rules regarding what could be said, what kinds of behavior and even attitude were to be tolerated — or not tolerated — in the workplace. And so forth. Again, with defined consequences for crossing the line.

There’s nothing like that in publishing, from what I can gather. And especially in science fiction — which is its own little (sometimes strange) niche of the publishing world — behavior I’d recognize as “professional” according to my civilian and Army standards, sometimes seems tough to come by. People are . . . eccentric, to use the kindest word I can think of right now.

Which is why I very much appreciate it when I see true professionalism displayed (waves enthusiastically to my Analog editors and Dell Magazines, as well as Edmund at IGMS, and Co.) and why I also note it when it’s specifically lacking.

Notice I name no names on the last count.

We have (unfortunately) a notable collection of writers and editors in science fiction who have taken it upon themselves to act as exemplars of unprofessionalism. And why not? This is an “art” field after all. Some people revel in the fact that they can be 100% unprofessional in practice, manner, speech, attitude, and interpersonal interaction, because this is the badge of the artiste. Hey, if people still pay them and they still have sycophants, who’s going to tell them they’re doing it wrong?

I say bull. Unprofessional is as unprofessional does. People who wallow in their bad habits, bad manners, bad tempers, and bad attitude will sooner or later develop bad reputations. Perceived status within the field is no protection, either. One day cock-of-the-walk, the next, a feather duster. Be an unprofessional often enough, to enough true professionals, and people won’t want to work with you anymore.

Now when I run into someone who is an unprofessional I say to myself, “Ah, your days are numbered, sir.” Because even in an artistic field, that kind of crap has a way of cumulatively catching up with you. Whether you’re a writer or an editor or an artist. You may be brilliant, but if you’re a cantankerous pain-in-the-ass, or a snob, or you like to pick fights, or you’re simply prone to displaying uncivilized behavior, this kind of stuff builds negative karma. Little by little, publishers and writers alike will steer clear of you. I can think of half a dozen notable examples right now. Again, I name no names. They know who they are. And most of my friends in the biz know who they are too.


20 thoughts on “On Being Unprofessional

  1. Brad, you are hereby authorized to call me out any time you see me being unprofessional. If I’m going to work in this field, I want to do it right.

  2. Interesting post, Brad. Makes me wonder if something specific precipitated it.

    From what I’ve observed (coming to this professional arena somewhat late in life), people in the field today seem more vocal, in terms of calling out unseemly behavior, than people in the “old days.” And, of course, the field is very small … and people do talk with one another.


  3. Brad,

    I’m just curious. What event or set of events prompted this post? Not specifically, but generally. Was it a recent flame war on the Internet? Was it ad hominem criticism of one of your works or a friends’ works?

    Sorry to raise the question. I’m just out of the loop. That’s all.

  4. I don’t agree. I think Gaiman’s triangle about describes it. If your work is brilliant and you’re on time, then you can be an ass and still find a lot of work. You can be two of these three: Brilliant, on time, and friendly, and you’ll always find work.

  5. Gaiman might be right about that, but even so, I have to wonder what other work such people might miss out on because they’ve developed a rep as a churl around the industry. I think it’s Eric Flint who always tells the Robert Urich story? Robery Urich was never the best actor, but people in Hollywood loved the guy because he was a) nice and b) pleasant to work with and c) was a professional about showing up when he was supposed to, being sober, knowing his lines, etc. Thus he wasn’t too talented but he never lacked for contracts and projects.

  6. Nothing in particular. When I was at Worldcon I got to hear a lot of scuttlebutt. Some of it stuff I’d heard before in Reno, some of it new. When the same names keep popping up in the scuttlebutt, it’s a flag to me that certain so-and-so editors and writers are hurting themselves by being… well… jerks. For no good reason that I can discern. They can’t seem to avoid offending or being offensive to those they work with. Again, singular stories all on their own don’t register much with me. But when a pattern of “data points” emerges about a specific editor or writer being difficult or downright combative, rude, impossible to work with, etc, it makes me wonder. How do such people survive in the industry? Jordan’s Gaiman quote might be accurate, sure. But what a shame to be known as a brilliant jerk. Better to be known as a mediocre nice guy who gets along with people. That’s just my opinion.

  7. Yeah, people do talk, that’s for sure. As I noted to Sean, I heard a lot of scuttlebutt in Chicago. A few names kept coming up, same as in Reno. I was surprised at the ones which were “upper echelon” and I don’t think this was sour grapes as much as it was pros venting about how certain other pros were just impossible to deal with. Such talk, combined with my own (limited) anecdotal experience, prompted this post. Because unlike some sci-fi pros who have never done anything other than what they’re doing, I’m like you: I have military exposure, combined with civilian workplaced exposure, and some of what happens in sci-fi publishing honestly makes me go, “Oh wow, why do people think they can get away with that stuff?”

  8. Well, the problem is that if you’re an asshole you HAVE to be brilliant and on time. I try to be nice and on time so that on the extremely rare day when I’m not brilliant (hah!), I don’t lose a contract.

  9. Robert Urich was one of my heroes for precisely this reason: he had a very traditional, blue collar work ethic. No job was too small for his best efforts, and he was constantly working almost to the end. I’m no judge of acting talent, but I respected his attitude.

    Brilliance may get you work; but eventually people need reliability as well. An erratic genius is a high-risk, high-return gamble. A reliable, solid performer is a sure bet.

  10. Somewhat, yes. Between things I heard in Chicago, things I’ve heard from people since Chicago, and what I myself have seen or experienced. The post is just my little pontification about everything that goes “wrong” when pros (or supposed pros) act like anything but pros; especially the ones who seem to feel entitled to that behavior.

  11. Go read the story about Val Kilmer sometime and what happened to him. It’s really sad because he’s such a brilliant actor. In the end, you have to treat others the way you want to be treated, get the job done on time, show up on time, do your work, and be a nice guy/gal/whatever.

    On the opposite side, you have Mr. Samuel L. Jackson, one badace mothertrucker highest grossing actor of all time. He’s done over 100 films since he started and there’s one very good reason for it. He’s a professional. He shows up on time. He always knows his lines. He does his job and he does it well.

    I think being professional goes hand in hand with being successful. Be a jerk, no one hires you. Be a nice guy and everyone wants to work with you.

  12. Glad you put this post up… it will encourage me to drop agents who haven’t bothered to reply to me in a little beyond reasonable time from the list I published on my blog. I’ll also be dropping those that say they won’t reply if they are not interested… it’s down right rude.

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