If you’re like me, you appreciate authenticity and honesty. And with that in mind, we’re going to cover an interesting topic for writers, one that my friend Steven Capps has been kind enough to come as a guest and speak on.
Stick around and please consider sharing your thoughts in the comments!
Lying about Publishing, Awards, and Credentials
By: Steven Capps
Over the last few days I’ve noticed a few articles on fake credentials. The New York Times reported on an article written by a few high school, journalism students. It focused on how their principal fabricated their Master’s and PhD, and the students’ article resulted in the principal’s resignation, four days later.
Another isn’t an article, but it deals with a someone I came across in the online writing community. The person is claiming to be a “Hugo nominated writer.” In case you do not know, the Hugo’s are nominated and voted on by the current members of the World Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention. Any member can nominate and vote for up to five works in each category. Common sense would dictate that someone could nominate themselves—garnering a single nomination—and still be able to call themselves “Hugo nominated.”
The committee has seen this possibility and taken active steps to mitigate it. The Hugo’s are one of the three most prestigious awards in science fiction and fantasy, and they do not want their reputation tarnished by works that do not actually deserve the award. Below is the first paragraph of their official statement on the topic:
“We have once again received word of persons who are describing themselves as ‘Hugo Award nominees.’ The term ‘Hugo Award nominee’ does not have any official meaning. The term for a person or work that receives sufficient nominations to appear on the final Hugo Award ballot is “Hugo Award Finalist.” (Source)
There are several other prominent writing awards and credentials within the community (the Nebula’s, Writers of the Future, Clarion, Locus, and Best of the Year… as well as various degrees from prestigious universities). While anyone can see that claiming something you haven’t earned is unethical, it is dangerous for the writer doing it, the readers, and the community as a whole.
The Writer who Just isn’t Good Enough
Imagine that you are a struggling a writer (for many of us, we’ve all had some period where this was the reality). You may have a book or two out, or maybe you are just constantly getting rejected. In your mind, the editors (or readers) just need to give your work a chance and then they will see how awesome it is. You decide to embellish a little. What harm can it do?
You add to your cover letter that you graduated with a degree that you didn’t. You add a blurb to your author bio or book cover (if you self-published) that you are a “Hugo-nominated writer” like the person I described above. This isn’t meant to hurt anyone, only to catch a reader’s or editor’s eye and get them to open up your work. Once they start, you are sure that your skill in prose will kick them in the teeth.
Maybe, this gets you a few more sales. Maybe, you are right, and the editors just needed to look at your work from a different perspective. Maybe, this was all you needed to finally make it. As an editor who reads the slush pile for a SFWA pro market, I can almost guarantee this won’t happen.
Editors Call Bullsh*t
As an editor, I read cover letters. Not all do, and there are solid reason why some don’t. I look at cover letters for two major elements, what’s the word count (it lets me judge how long it will take to read) and what are their credentials. I look at credentials as a gauge to the quality of writing. If someone’s been published by Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, or Lightspeed (all Hugo award winning magazines) then I will think that the story I’m about to read is going to be at least decent. Same thing goes if they claim to be a Nebula finalist.
If someone is lying about their credentials, I can almost always tell from their writing. This isn’t some crazy magic that editors get the first day they are hired by a publisher. Almost every avid read can see it too. The best way to explain this comes from a paraphrased metaphor I heard from Brandon Sanderson.
If someone sits down to play the piano, how long does it take to know if they are a master musician or if they started last week? Can the average listener tell the difference between someone who’s been playing for a couple years vs. the master? You can probably tell the difference within the first 30 seconds that they press a key. Writing is the same way.
I, and pretty much every other editor/astute reader, can tell from an author’s first page whether or not they have the skill to be writing at professional level. 60% of the stories that I reject are not rejected out of some vague, evil motivation to keep all unpublished writers unpublished. They get rejected because the prose itself is just not good enough. No bit amount of embellishment will change this. Everyone was a poor writer at some point, and saying you’re an “Award Winning Author,” has no affect on your actual writing.
(Side Note: Using guess-timated numbers, 30% of the stories in the slush have good prose but have broken elements with their plot or characters. The top 10% of all stories don’t have obvious flaws, but some just are not unique or emotionally powerful. The top 5% are the ones strong enough to get published. Only a sliver of the top 1% are the ones strong enough to get nominated for major awards.)
The Publisher’s Response
The publishing industry is pretty small when compared to other sectors. I am at least acquaintances with people from major novel publishers like Tor and DAW, SFWA officers, and editors from other magazines. If something shady is going on, we will talk.
In regards to people claiming a Nebula finalist status that they didn’t earn, Kate Baker, SFWA’s Executive Director and the Nonfiction Editor at Clarkesworld, tweeted, “…if you are using that credential to make money. That is fraud and @sfwa will take action.” (April 15, 2017)
The community needs to police this behavior because it lessens the reputation of the awards, publishers, and writers who’ve actually earned it. If a bunch of mediocre writers claim that they’ve won the same award you have, people might question you as well.
As an editor, if I find out that an author is lying about their credentials, I pass that info up to my Senior Editors and there is a chance that they will get blacklisted. Why would we want to be associated with someone who is known to lie?
It is incredibly easy to check whether or not someone is telling the truth in regards to their credentials. Both the Hugo’s and Nebula’s have databases that list all of the finalists. If you know or suspect someone is doing this. Call them out. You can easily search their name on any publisher’s website and find it that way. They may evade and say that they exclusively use a pen name, (which is possible and I know more than a few writers who do this so it isn’t cut and dry).
Generally, most people who are engaging in the writing community are partly doing so in order to build their personal platform. This means that they might be using their pen name in order to communicate on forums, their blog, or on social media. Research the name that they are using and if nothing shows up there is a solid chance than they are just trying to make themselves seem more important than what they are.
Thanks for reading, and I want to thank Rachael for having me on. If interested, you can follow me on twitter at @stcappswrites or check out my own blog where I regularly discuss writing, the slush pile, and the business of publishing. I hope you are having a wonderful day. Good luck with our writing!
My name’s Steven Capps. I’m a freelance SFF writer and an Associate Editor with the SFWA professional, short fiction market PodCastle. I have a B.A. in English from the American Military University and have been published in Fiction, The Bird & Dog, Survival Prepper, Survival Sullivan, and a few others. My short story, “Lux Nauta,” won an Honorable Mention in the Writers of the Future contest (3rd Quarter, 2016).
Content of this blog represents the views of the author and not any publications they are affiliated with.
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Later this week, I’ll put together a post with links to advice on how to write up an author bio for anyone who might be interested!