Why be honest?

Authors must be asking themselves whether it’s really wise to be honest in their professional dealings these days. The flamboyant examples set by too many untrustworthy public figures send the message that honesty is outmoded, or simply of no competitive advantage. And yet, I continue to judge prospective, as well as current, clients unfavorably if they lie.

I’m a harsh critic when someone fails to live up to promises or when a person implies something that isn’t true in order to secure a benefit of some sort. These days, fraud detection starts on receipt of a prospective client’s query. I commonly hear from writers who already have self-published the books they want me to represent, although they don’t bother to reveal the information in their queries. Presuming their failed do-it-yourself publishing projects might disqualify them, they omit the information and come off looking like liars. The extra few seconds it takes me to discover the book’s publication details aren’t the source of annoyance. It’s the lack of honesty that bugs me.

Posted on my agency’s website is a link to the answer I give authors who ask if I can interest traditional publishers in their self-published books. It’s no secret.

I can’t be the only one who believes honesty is a virtue and its lack a primary indicator of someone with whom I’d rather never be associated. In practice, though, my own honesty when communicating with prospective clients doesn’t always work in my favor.

More than a few authors have complained privately to me that their literary agents set them up with false promises or unwarranted enthusiasm and then failed to find publishers for their books. From the moment I launched my business, I took pains to avoid being perceived as that kind of agent. I’ve been brutally honest about the amount of work involved in getting a book published, but it shouldn’t be surprising that truth isn’t what a lot of writers care to hear. Many prefer the fairy tale, and when given the choice, they’re bewitched by the flattery and bravado of someone less scrupulous.

In the long run, I hope valuing honesty pays off. Whether it does or doesn’t, I’ll choose to align myself with people who are not only talented but whose strong moral character and intrinsic honesty is as apparent in their professional dealings as it is in their writing.

roosting birds

Beware of (not) being yourself

armored unifocorn

Children quickly discover that the most effective technique for survival involves conforming to their parents’ or caregiver’s values, regardless of whether the adults’ values are healthy or appropriate. Rarely does anyone intervene in a relationship between a parent and a child simply because a child is learning maladaptive behavior. Eventually, without being fully aware of it, most children adopt versions of their parents’ values.

If asked why they’ve embraced certain beliefs, most adults don’t claim to have reasoned things out. Instead, they cite authorities recognized by their social group or, startled, they insist the validity of a particular value system is obvious or ordained. Real awareness of the origins of their beliefs is unusual. Internal conflicts and self-doubt are easily attributed to the harmful influence of unseen spirits or the sordid side of human nature.

No matter how often we’re told that individuality is something to appreciate and that we’re all endowed with the right to be who we really are, conformity is the rule. Ostracism is the penalty for believing a little too eagerly that we can be true to ourselves. Some people can’t handle ostracism. It takes enormous strength and at least a little support from others—affiliation for which a person must qualify with some degree of compliance.

And yet, denying who we really are and what we truly believe is a form of hopelessness. It’s a serpent whose bite is painful and obvious.

We don’t choose either individuality or conformity. We constantly struggle to find a good place between the two. The effort is lifelong, and it never, never gets easier.