Dear friends,

last time (which was admittedly a while back), I promised to write about the contract.

I honestly don’t know what I was thinking. I can only assume it made sense to me at the time, although I have only my own word for it.

In the meanwhile, something interesting has happened. Not to me, but on the Internet. One writing lady had a public meltdown. You can read about it here, or you can just take my word for it: one happy amateur reviewer blogged a less-than-stellar review of a self-published book. And by less-than-stellar I mean exactly that: it was fairly positive, only had a few remarks about editing, but really the sort of review most people would call “positive”. And the author had a complete and utter meltdown. In the comments on the blog.

Predictably, she is now infamous all over the Web, as an example on How Not To Do It. An author should never respond to a review with anything but a “Thank you”, let alone vitriol, and the pinnacles of erudite repartee she scaled have now earned her scores of one-star reviews on Amazon and 19,100 Google hits on her name. Few of them mention her in a positive light.

However, I wouldn’t be me if I were only to write about what she did wrong. Nor would I find the question “How do you excercise proper self-control” particularly engaging.

I’m going to talk, instead, about Calvin‘s Question:

“Here’s another hypothetical question: What if I already did?”

Today’s lesson is

Damage Containment.

This is probably the spot where someone, presumably someone who knows me well, protests that I have no experience at all of media, Internet meltdowns, or PR in general.

Technically, this is true. But I do have rather extensive experience in “managing irate customers”. Much more experience than I strictly speaking deserve; my clients get upset over translations that I usually had very little to do with in a productive capacity, considering that I normally don’t even speak the target language. As an author, your clients are the readers. My knowledge is absolutely applicable to a situation like this.

Ms. Howett has, indeed, made a spectacle of herself in public. Let’s say your self-control slipped similarly. What do you do? Give up your career altogether?

No. You take steps to control the situation. In an office, your first reaction should be to let your manager handle the situation (and recommend your client to push the problem one level up, too): firstly, they’re paid to handle messes, secondly, they don’t have vested interests in the outcome but can discuss the issue in a more detached way. As an author, you’re self-employed, and you probably don’t have that sort of luxury, although your agent and/or editor should be more than willing to help prevent the fallout worsening.

1. Take the blame.

It doesn’t matter if it was really your fault. I can count on one hand the number of times I have had to apologise to a customer for something I messed up personally (and when I did, it was usually for some reason which was entirely reasonable to me, like “I could only handle one issue and the other client is in the habit of paying on time”). In a business situation, you must realise that the person on the other end is probably being shouted at big time, and the simple admission that you’re an idiot who drove into a brick wall for no apparent reason will tend to defuse the situation. In the author situation, you’ll have to realise that it’s no longer about being right or wrong. It’s about appearances. You already appear to be wrong. Accepting this will make you look less of a fool. Yes, it’s possibly unfair; get over it. You’re a pro, remember?

2. Apologise.

Personally and in public. I hear you whine “But I was right!”, but this is immaterial. If you are, and still apologise for your behaviour, it’ll only make you look better. And remember, there are 19,100 people out there who think you aren’t. Optionally, you can invent a reason for your behaviour: you were on medication at the time (or not, as the situation warrants), the cat died, you were told your distant uncle has a serious illness, it was raining for the third day running and you’re allergic to water, anything. Offer it as an explanation, not an excuse. This is important: making excuses is bad, and you will come across as trying to justify yourself. You’re apologising precisely in order to admit that your behaviour was unacceptable, for whatever reason.

3. Offer a solution.

This one is contingent on the exact nature of the mess. In the case of a bad review, you should simply say that you take the comments onboard and hope to write something better next time. If you’ve delivered a lousy translation a week after the deadline, you’ll have to promise delivery of a good translation on a specified date. If you’re a politician and delivered a recession, your situation is slightly more troublesome, but an economic recovery would of course top the list.

4. Deliver.

Ah, this is when it becomes tricky. Ms. Howett has the easy task: she simply has to hire a good copyeditor for her next effort. I normally have to try to find someone else who is proficient in a language that looks, to me, like a drunk ant walked across the page and can provide evidence that he or she has once delivered on time, said evidence preferably not being in said ant-walk language; this can be tricky if, as is sometimes the case, the language is only spoken by some 1,000 people in the world, most of whom are nomads. If you’re (say) a politician, try to make a few wise and popular decisions, or failing that, at least a decision which is somewhat in line with what you said you’d decide before the election. It all depends on your situaiton.

5. Don’t expect miracles.

This isn’t going to work. At least, it’s not going to work if your expectations are that everyone will see that you’re right and start to love you. What you can realistically hope to achieve is that most of the key players – those who saw your meltdown first-hand, your client, or the people who voted for your party in your consituency – will stop taking every opportunity to tell anyone who wants to listen what a complete arsehole you are. Your reputation isn’t going to be restored. But you are allowed to hope that it will stop deteriorating.

And as an author, you have one resort that translation agencies and politicians lack: a pen name.

Or in my case, my real name.