Never Burn a Bridge

by Steve Laube


The sale of Thomas Nelson to HarperCollins and last week’s sale of Heartsong to Harlequin brought to mind a critical piece of advice:

Never Burn a Bridge!

Ours is a small industry and both editors and authors move around with regularity. If you are in a business relationship and let your frustration boil into anger and ignite into rage…and let that rage descend on someone in the publishing company, you may end up burning a bridge. And that person who you vented on might someday become the head of an entire publishing company.

True Story

A salesman got into a verbal altercation with the buyer for a major chain. The salesman stormed out and called his boss asking to be taken off the account so that he would never have to talk to that buyer again. A month later the salesman’s company hired that buyer as the salesman’s new boss. (Yikes!)

A, B, C, D, & E (and beyond)

Scenario based on a true story: An author was so frustrated with her editor she wrote a scathing letter to the publisher (A) dressing down the entire editorial staff. The next year that editor moved to a different publisher (B) and when that author’s proposal was presented at a meeting, the editor relayed to the publishing team (B) the volatility of that writer.

Soon the writer was with a new publisher (C) because she was so mad with her previous publisher. Everything was great…until something set the writer off. She again melted down and with a scorched earth method set every relationship on fire…and watched it burn. A year later the marketing at this publisher (C) moved to a new opportunity at another publisher (D). And shortly thereafter the editor (C) became an editorial director at yet another publisher (E).

You see the pattern? There are technically five publishers that were burned by this author, two by action, three by proxy. Each bridge fell into the river. And guess what, this writer is now mad at her publisher (C) but is having trouble finding a new home.

A Last Example

When working as an editor I had an agent call me on the phone and berated me and our company for about five minutes. Most of the monologue was done by shouting. The agent concluded their rant by demanding to talk to our Vice President. So I called the VP with a warning and transferred the call. I later asked how the call went. My VP said everything was all peaches and cream, so why did I need to issue a warning? It became obvious that this agent just wanted to get past me to talk to “someone important,” i.e. a real decision maker. Suffice it to say I knew something about that agent that stuck with me…especially after I was promoted and became a “real decision maker.”

(Don’t ask who I have been talking about, it is irrelevant. I’ve been in the industry for 30 years and have seen a lot of things happen over a long period of time.)

What Do You Do When Things Go Wrong?

1. Talk to your agent.  Your agent’s inbox or phone line should be a safe place to vent. Do not vent to your critique group, to your writing friends, on Twitter, or Facebook, or your blog. Talk to someone you can trust. You might actually be wrong in your frustration and don’t know that what you are experiencing is supposed to happen that way. Every agent will concur that a big part of our job is helping our clients measure their frustration in a professional manner.

[[I’ve spoken to authors who did not have an agent and things had gone wrong with their publisher. Things that could have been easily prevented with a good contract or a solid relationship with the company. These authors now want an agent to come in and fix things. Often it is too late. So, at the risk of sounding self-serving, this is one really good reason to have an agent from the beginning.]]

2. Own the anger, but don’t let it control. It is foolish to deny that you are frustrated. But letting emotion control your actions is not a good idea.

3. Write out your thoughts and send it to your agent in an email but only if you can trust the agent not to forward it to anyone. Better yet, call your agent and read it over the phone. You are a writer! Use your gift to express your thoughts. Sometimes that is enough and you will never have to hit the “send” button. What I have done on occasion is ask that the client to write the “Angry Letter” but send it to me and only me. Many times I can edit the tone and the words and put the language in “publisher’s speak” so that everyone’s situation is respected and frustration expressed firmly but without anger.

4. Beware of bitterness or distrust. I read so many blogs from authors, both Christian and in the general market, who love to tell their tales of woe, and then conclude that all publishers and editors are evil.

Remember that people make mistakes. And sometimes businesses make business decisions that affect you negatively. I understand. I’ve been fired from a job with no warning before, I understand. But it can only become worse if you let that pain fester inside like an infection. Your craft will suffer and your calling as a writer will be stunted.

5. Remember Colossians 3:12-13 where Paul wrote: “Put on…compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”

By the way…

I said never burn a bridge. But I didn’t say you can’t light them on fire. There are times where you need to make a stand for what is right or point out an error. It is how you make that information known determines whether or not that bridge can still be used the next morning. But that may be a good post for another day.

23 Responses to Never Burn a Bridge

  1. Pete Missing January 30, 2012 at 4:01 am #

    The opposite of burning bridges is building them. The contemporary model of marketing is about extending your networks (or to quote scripture, “extending your tentpegs”).

    The currencies of eras past were spices, manufactured goods, gold, knowledge and so on. I have no doubt that the currency of the prevailing era, will be “relationships”. Without relationships we will quite literarily face what the stand-alone, self-reliant giants of past ice ages faced, whilst lesser souls eked out a viable existence by sharing the burdens of survival.

    Even if angry, there are ways of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to it and come back for more.

    • Jodi Lobozzo Aman January 30, 2012 at 5:17 am #

      I love this Pete, building bridges. I think this is what we are all striving to do.

    • Timothy Fish January 30, 2012 at 6:01 am #


      I must disagree; people do not come back looking for you to tell them to go to hell. Relationships have a way of falling apart when one person wishes the other person dead.

      • Pete Missing January 30, 2012 at 8:31 am #

        Tim, the point I was making, albeit crudely, is that if we have to confront, do it in such a way that it does not destroy. Some of the most effective rebukes I ever witnessed were soft spoken, but they were effective because they cut to the heart not to the hide, the way that blunt anger does. A soft answer turns away wrath and also calms the issues down, turning potentially inflammatory exchanges into something constructive.

        Its important to confront or to light fires, becuase the alternative is to live with unresolved issues, but if done with respect and restraint, such engagements can win respect, keep doors open and solicit longer term concessions, whilst ensuring in a polite but no-nonsense way that it won’t happen again.

        I love my wife and kids (another Timothy and Daniel), enough to confront issues from time to time, but as Stephen Covey advised, I always start with the end in mind – and that end, in my home, is always increased harmony. The same should apply in professional relationships.

  2. Timothy Fish January 30, 2012 at 5:55 am #

    I try my best to get along with people, even if I disagree with them, but there are some people who try even my patience. Some people are very hard to work with.

    • Pete Missing January 30, 2012 at 8:35 am #

      Tim, I so agree – Paul had the same challenges and specifically said, “have nothing to do with a contentious soul” (paraphrased).

  3. Richard Mabry January 30, 2012 at 7:03 am #

    Steve, Thanks for sharing those stories. I’ve heard similar ones. Although I believe in standing up for principles, I try always to follow the old axiom,Keep your words soft and sweet–you may have to eat them sometime.
    Your advice to take your frustrations to your agent rather than your editor or publisher is excellent, and something all authors should take to heart. You all earn your commission and more, and I appreciate you.

  4. Lindsay Harrel January 30, 2012 at 8:10 am #

    This is such good advice, which we can carry with us in life and not just as writers seeking publication. Words have a way of coming back to haunt you, so it is important to choose them carefully.

  5. Robin Patchen January 30, 2012 at 8:41 am #

    Steve, this is a great post. It worries me how often I see blog posts about these issues. Is the publisher/author relationship always so contentious? As an unpublished author, I hope to someday have a cordial, even friendly, relationship with the people at my future publishing house. Am I crazy to anticipate that? Is it too much to expect everyone to behave like godly grown-ups?

  6. Patti Jo Moore January 30, 2012 at 10:40 am #

    Steve, you are a very wise man. 🙂 And this was excellent advice–thank you!

  7. Lenore Buth January 30, 2012 at 12:28 pm #

    This is a great post, Steve. Your examples clearly show what happens when we throw rocks into the pond. Most of us who’ve lived awhile know it feels good to “tell ’em off,” but later on we may regret giving in to that urge.

    Besides, even in great relationships, rough spots are inevitable. After all, we remain imperfect human beings, even when we’re redeemed. I like the way Martin Luther put it in his explanation to the Eighth Commandment: “Put the best construction on everything.”

    Imagine what our society would be like if we all did that!

  8. David Bazzett February 5, 2012 at 12:51 pm #

    Excellent post. Thanks!


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