Little White Lies: Are They Good or Bad in Publishing?

Little White Lies. We all use them in daily life. A friend asks us if she looks like she's gained weight and we say no when it does look like she's put on a few pounds. We tell a weary customer service rep we haven't been waiting too long when we've been standing in line for half an hour watching her being chewed out by another customer, and we tell our boss we would love to take on another project when we're already working 12 hours a day.

But what about little white lies in publishing? Those happen all the time, too, yet many of us argue, they're good, for both the liar and the recipient.

If you've been in publishing at all -- no matter what your role -- author, editor, publisher, agent... you've undoubtedly told a few little white lies or been on the receiving end of them.

My experience with little white lies started as a naive but hopeful author, sending out query letters trying to find an agent. Some agents sent a generic rejection letter but others wrote a little personalized note. I got excited about "nice" rejections -- hopeful that they "meant" something. But in the end, they probably didn't mean a thing more than no. No means no, no matter how nicely it is said.

Then I got an agent and we moved to trying to find a publishing house and editor for my work. Editors generally wrote lengthier rejection letters and again I read into them. The editor said the characterization was good! The editor said the subject matter grabbed her! Whatever it was, I clung to it, believing it meant something. But my agent would remind me that no meant no, and no matter how an editor "sugar coated" it, a rejection was a rejection. She went so far as to say that it was common in the publishing world to "cushion" the rejection with niceties and that I shouldn't believe them. She was right. Rejections are rejections. How the person chooses to say it should not mean anything to you.

I left my agent when I decided to self publish. This time, I experienced the little white lies from other authors. Over the years, I had befriended a few authors online whose work I especially admired. They wrote contemporary, family centered fiction; so did I. The only difference was that most of them were traditionally published. I reached out to quite a few to try to get blurbs for my book cover. They all said no. Most said no with the "I'm too busy," line. I sensed they were lying, especially when I would see their names on blurbs for lots of other books over the coming months and years. The lies stung. Why couldn't they say something besides "I'm too busy"? It's one thing to lie, I thought, another to lie when it's easy for the recipient to see that you're telling the lie.

When I brought this up with other writers recently, a traditionally published author told me that frankly, traditionally published authors didn't really want to associate with self pubbers. They didn't want their names anywhere near our work. And that's why they told us they were too busy. They didn't want to tell us they thought our work would suck (even though they hadn't even read it yet). For years I'd been looking for the truth in the mountain of white lies. Now I had it. It still hurt, but it's what I had always suspected. I appreciated the truth, no matter that it hurt. It was still a lot better than the "I'm too busy" line.

What could people say instead of white lying to those authors trying to climb the ladder to success? Agents could just say no thank you. Editors could just say I didn't love this enough to bring it to the editorial board. And other authors could say I don't blurb anyone I don't really know, or who self pubs, or whatever their real reason is. I know it's hard; we don't want to crush those who are trying to paw their way up the very difficult rope to publication.

I've talked with other writers about this. They agree that it's difficult to tell someone their work is not ready to see the light of day, how treacherous it is to walk the fine line of constructive criticism and "this really stinks but I can't tell you that." We've talked about how "nice" everyone is in publishing. It's almost taboo to be anything but super sweet to someone you don't know, or even to people you do.

I know writers who've been hurt by being little white lied to. The little white lie is so "nice" that it may give them false hope. An agent or editor says no but I loved xyz and they cling to xyz, assuming someone else will like xyz enough (as well as the rest of the book) to make an offer. This doesn't give the writer the opportunity to perfect his or her work or get accurate feedback. But it puts the agent or editor in a difficult place, too. First of all, it takes time to create the little white lie -- valuable time editors and agents don't have -- and secondly, they don't owe the writer a thing. Third, they risk being bombarded by more questions from that writer.

What do you think about honesty in the publishing world? Are little white lies helpful or harmful? Do you "little white lie" to others in publishing? Is this something we should just accept? Or should we move to change little white lying to a more authentic way of being... at the risk of hurting some people outright.