Mediabistro, Redroom and Ominous Rumbles From Publishing Central

Okay, here’s the situation:

You know I don’t like publishers, I’ve pulled no punches on that front. You’ve read the blog, maybe zipped over to my Redroom author site, seen what I have to say there. A lot of it isn’t nice but all of it is true.


Some people don’t like that. One publisher has gone so far as to have their legal beagles contact the Redroom administrators and threaten them into removing one of my posts. They didn’t like it when I quoted one of their editors; they thought the quote made her look bad.

They’re right.

What did she say exactly?

About eight years ago, I was shopping around a novel of mine called Lost. I sent out copies of the manuscript to a couple of dozen publishers and got nowhere. After holding on to Lost for more than a year, this editor finally took it upon herself to call (guilty conscience?) and give me the bad news. I held the phone out so my wife could listen in on the conversation and we both heard this editor quip, right after saying thanks but no thanks:

“It’s too bad you’re not an East Indian writer, they’re really hot right now.” Those exact words. Sherron said I turned pale when I heard that.

“You mean that would make a difference if you were considering my novel?” I inquired, trying to stay calm and measured, despite the fact I was seething.

She quickly realized what a ridiculous statement she had uttered and tried to backtrack. “Um, actually forget I said that.”

She hung up soon afterward.

I reported this conversation in a short blog entry on Redroom a couple of days ago, naming the editor and the publisher.

That’s when the shit hit the fan.

The publisher’s lawyer contacted Redroom, who immediately yanked the post. Redroom’s legal representative then e-mailed me, informing me what they’d done.

My response was: where’s the actionable offense? I related what she said, literally word for word and even if worst came to worst and the publisher did sue, it would be the editor’s word against me (and my wife). But clearly the Redroom folks were nervous.

I’m not blaming them; we live in litigious times. And sometimes the threat of litigation is used to stymie free expression and intimidate people from telling the truth. This is a perfect example. And because the publisher has far deeper pockets than either Redroom or I, they can get away with shitting on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in order to protect an editor who made a dumb and telling statement that, let’s face it, reveals attitudes that are endemic in Canadian publishing.

Let me ask you something: if those sentiments had been uttered toward a writer who happened to be a visible minority, what do you think would have been the result?

“It’s too bad you’re not a Caucasian writer, they’re really hot right now.”

Can you imagine the explosion of outrage, the howls of “Racism!” that would have bounced from coast to coast to coast?

But it’s okay to say such things to someone like me, Mister white, middle-aged male.

So if you pop by Redroom, looking for the original post, good luck–you won’t find it.

The publisher and their lawyers have closed ranks and they know neither Redroom nor I has the resources to fight them. The rich and powerful win again and anyone who steps out of line, anyone who calls them on their stupidity and dishonesty will pay the price.

It’s an object lesson in power.

One I won’t soon forget.


A tip of the hat to Mediabistro for printing excerpts of my most inflammatory statements re: publishers (you think there was a connection between that and the arrival of the Men in Black?).

Their staff writer opined that thanks to such statements I was burning my bridges–unaware that those bridges had been burned long ago, thanks to conversations like the one I quoted above and nearly a quarter century of dealing with publishers, editors and agents on all levels.

One thing I do take issue with–I’ve had hundreds of downloads of my novel So Dark the Night and when I said that in Canada hundreds of downloads in a month represented a bestseller, she scoffed. Not the same thing as a book sold.

Why not? In order to read So Dark the Night someone has to go to the effort of finding my site, clicking on the novel and either saving it to their hard drive or printing almost 470 pages. That shows real interest and commitment on the part of those readers, just as much interest as if they’d walked into a physical store and bought the book.

She’s selling my novel short and casting aspersions on the credibility of e-books in general. Dead tree editions aren’t the sole criteria here. Hundreds of people around the world are reading So Dark the Night. Does it matter if it only exists in virtual form? Not to my readers.

And, in the end, they’re the ones who really count.


  1. derekcatermole

    Gee, Cliff. You one angry fellow. I downloaded a couple of your stories, including So Dense the Night, and I have to ask, are you completely convinced that publishers are rejecting you just because you’re a white man? Is there no possibility at all that your stories are just not very good? I understand that’s a pretty serious charge, given the kind of drivel that gets published by men and women of all colors. But I’m looking at what you write and thinking maybe you just don’t really know what good writing is. I mean, take a look at 90% of novels that get published these days (and it’s not like none of them are by white guys) and you don’t see a lot of merit, right? So perhaps you just have even less. I’ll say that So Dark the Night seems entirely formulaic and that both your prose and your plotting are mostly expedient and your dialog has some real problems with stiffness. The story Matriarchy really just seems to be a fantasy of vengeance, dramatizing the proposition that the only good woman is a dead mother who sacrifices herself for her son. Could it be that your rage is the problem, rather than the appropriate response to the injustice that you think publishers are dealing to you? If you were a publisher, do you think you’d be inclined to champion the work of the owner of this blog? Are you maybe just a little bit paranoid? It does seem to me easier to imagine that publishers don’t like your work, than that you’re the white guy who’s missing out because of the politics of the book trade. As one of the readers who, as you put it, really count, I’d like to suggest to you that your perspective may be a little distorted.

  2. squidnapper

    derek, I haven’t read either So Dark… or Matriarchy, so for all I know they’re both crap– but I *have* read a fair bit of Cliff’s other work, and speaking as a reasonably successful midlist author in my own right I can say that the Burns stuff I’ve read has got some serious talent behind it. I know a few other writers who share that opinion, too. Which is not to say that CB is not an angry dude (he is, and Christ yes he burns bridges), or that he never writes a bad story– only that I’ve read some very *good* stories from the man, so you might want to take another look.

    Also, my own experience is that publishers do, indeed suck like a black hole when it comes to most of their authors. My own house is Tor, which is the biggest purveyer of sf on the continent, and I’ve seen them drop the ball more times than I can count, and then lie about it; I’ve seen them deliberately cut authors out of the loop on matters regarding their own novels; use artists’ work without attribution; once they even tried to put a *negative* blurb on the cover of one of their own books. I find Cliff’s tales completely consistent with my own experience.

    But now (turning to Cliff himself), what I want to know is: who was the publisher, and who was the editor?

  3. rhiannonfrater

    Just my two cents here…

    Whether or not you agree with Cliff blowing to smithereens his bridges with the publishing world or not, you cannot deny the man the right to say what he feels. I’ve not experienced the things he has in the publishing world, so I cannot say I agree with his post one way or the other. But one thing is for sure, his blog caught the attention of many people and perhaps opened the eyes of many to the new media that will soon change the publishing world.

    I have been researching self-publishing for a zombie trilogy I wrote and posted online over a two-year period. The fans of the story sent me countless emails and PMs asking me to please find a way to publish the story so they could buy it. Originally, I was going to go the traditional publishing route until I realized the length of time it would take to possibly get the books into print. I receive messages from fans on nearly a weekly basis asking when the book will be out even though it’s been a year since I pulled the story down for a rewrite. They want the story. I’m going to give it to them.

    As I researched self-publishing, I found some truly awful excepts on the writer’s blogs that had me embarrassed for the writer. I’ve seen other excerpts that were so terrible, I couldn’t make it past a paragraph. Yes, self-publishing has been marred by people who simply cannot write, but it is a viable option for good writers who are either disheartened by their experience with the publishing world (like Cliff) or those who feel they have a good product that has a waiting audience (like me).

    The reality is that the publishing business is a confusing landscape for most wannabe writers and apparently just as frustrating to those who have managed to get their works into print via the traditional route. Despite all the contradictory advice you receive when you’re trying to find out how to get published, the one common thread seems to be that you are at the mercy of what the agent/editor/publishing house is specifically looking for.

    I’m not sure why they were not looking for a good story like SO DARK THE NIGHT. Seriously, it boggles my mind. He had me hooked from the first page. I read a lot if novels in this genre and most are really dishearteningly bad and repetitive, but I’m definitely along for the ride with this one.

    Cliff said what he feels is true: that his book is an excellent read. Writers should believe in their writing and their works. And I, for one, am a reader that heartily agrees that his book is GOOD had should have been snapped up right away. I still can’t believe I am reading it for FREE.

    The new media is here. It will change things in publishing world as it has the music industry. Cliff is using the new media to get his great story out there to readers looking for something fresh and new. SO DARK THE NIGHT is just that.

    -Rhiannon Frater

  4. Cliff Burns

    Derek: I make it a point not to respond to comments left on my site or delete messages, no matter how abusive.

    I’m breaking both those prohibitions in this case. I have no problem with someone raking me over the coals but not another individual who took the time to write in with comments (positive OR negative). Go ahead, kick my ass, say my writing sucks like a toothless vampire. Rebut other posters…but save your invective for me.

    ‘Nuff said.

  5. derekcatermole

    Jeeze Cliff, you didn’t like James Joyce’s “The Undead”? I thought it was pretty cute. Are you maybe a little over-zealous in defense of your fellow authors? An admirable position to take, but doesn’t a little sense of humor help stave off the rage sometimes?

  6. (S)wine

    the sad truth is that drivel such as the one coming from the editor …is true. that was what was hot. hott even. that’s what’s out there. it’s the reason i refuse to write “for an audience” of any sort. you like my shit? great. you don’t? great. i still have a measly day job, so i can at least attempt to pay bills. but i’ll never stop writing; and i’ll never tailor anything based on what’s “hot.” that shit goes hot and cold every other month. i’d be trying to keep up with trends and not concentrate on what i like doing. and so…sadly, your editor was telling the truth. try not to be too offended; it’s how this shit runs. i’m actually a bit surprised that it’s like that across the border, in Canada. i’d have expected a bit more. but just a bit.

  7. Rey

    For every writer with an exotic background, there is an instant book deal waiting to happen.

    Fortunately, agents and publishers are always changing their minds about what is truly exotic. Who knows? Someday, perhaps, you or I will be blessed with an exotic label. Even if our writing is not particularly good, we can have editors fix it up. And if we’re lucky, we won’t have to do any writing with ghostwriters doing it for us!

  8. rhapsodysinger

    I am an East Indian, though no writer and frankly, this craze to publish my country’s rag-tag is abominable. There are a very few excellent writers but the rest are stuff and nonsense. That editor forgot to tell you that if you were a woman and sexy looking at that, apart from being Asian, you’d have a big chance of winning whatever prizes there are to be had… The publishing industry ( read ravenous editors) are destroying true talent both here and evidently at your end of the planet.

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