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 whom 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 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)

The following scenario is 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 manager 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.

This author burned bridge after bridge to the point of being left on an island without a publisher and this person’s reputation had spread.

A Last Example

When working as an editor, I had an agent call me on the phone and berate 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 nearly 40 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, on Facebook, or on your blog. (I know of a case in publishing where someone vented on Facebook, and a few days later that person was fired from their job.) 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 publishers–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 you. 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 them 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 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 everyone’s situation is respected and frustration is 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 (and agents are devil-spawn).

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 one on fire. There are times when you need to make a stand for what is right or point out an error. The way you communicate that information determines whether or not that bridge can still be used the next morning.

I wrote an earlier version of this article eight years ago, and it has been viewed by nearly 3,000 readers. It still holds true. I encourage you to bookmark this as an article that will serve you well in our publishing community.

21 Responses to Never Burn a Bridge!

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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).

  4. Judith Robl December 2, 2019 at 6:21 am #

    My sainted grandmother used to say “Make your words sweet and tender. You never know when you may have to eat them.” Remembering her words has saved my bacon more times than I care to recount.

    Thank you, Steve, for the reminder that everything and everyone is connected somehow.

  5. Roberta Sarver December 2, 2019 at 6:27 am #

    Excellent advice, Steve. I can’t imagine being so crass (is that a word anymore?) as to explode on someone like the people in your examples. Whatever happened to common courtesy?

  6. damonjgray December 2, 2019 at 7:14 am #

    I believe much of this bridge incineration could be avoided if we (authors) recognized that we (authors, editors, agents, publishers) are all on the same team, striving toward the same goal. If someone in marketing wants to go a direction I don’t care for, it is in my best interest to hear them out on that, and fully understand why they believe that’s the best direction to go. Indeed, my agent altered the subtitle of my book, and while we both agreed the original title was better, I also understood and agreed with the reasoning behind her request. In the end, nine times out of ten, I believe I’ll adopt the suggestions of the industry experts, because again, we are all striving after the same goal, and the experts know things I don’t know.

  7. Bryan Mitchell December 2, 2019 at 7:23 am #

    I used to be a buffer for clashing personalities in the military. I’ve seen good people “go south” fast. The reasons vary but it all derives from stress. I’ve been there myself–imploding and finding no way to see past my anger. It takes humility to do that, but in the heat of rage, humility is a bitter pill. Once, I became enrage on the road while heading to my school. I had exams and was running late. I missed my turn when a line of traffic refused to let me over. I was furious. But I said something aloud that was beyond my anger and it sparked profound peace. “There’s another way.” I said it because I knew three other ways to get to school. But it meant more to me in that moment. It felt divine. Because not only was there “another way” to school, but another way to deal with stress. Even if I failed my exams, there’s another way. I was in a spiritual fog the rest of that day. And I try to remember that when things “go south”.

  8. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser December 2, 2019 at 8:42 am #

    Our world is not a large one,
    so never burn a bridge.
    Don’t let your passion come undone;
    keep it in the fridge.
    The things you say in fury
    will never go away.
    They may be both judge and ury
    until your dying day.
    Seek ye the wiser counsel
    and let Him play His part.
    let Him calm the flames until
    you’ve trust in your own heart.
    There are those who will be galling;
    let them lead you to your higher calling.

  9. Loretta Eidson December 2, 2019 at 8:48 am #

    Thank you for these words of wisdom. I am appalled at people’s audacity to scream at others in person much less on social media. I tend to back away from those who cannot control their anger and show no respect to those in authority, regardless the level of authority. Everyone deserves respect. I choose to think before I speak, and I rarely burn bridges. If I ever do burn a bridge, I burn them silently without ranting. I don’t anger easily, but if I ever do become angry, I walk away to re-evaluate the situation. “A soft answer turns away wrath. Proverbs 15:1”

  10. sharonkconnell December 2, 2019 at 9:17 am #

    Extremely good advice, Steve. One never knows when one will need to cross that bridge again someday. Yes, take a stand, but do it in a professional way. And remember that we are (none of us) perfect, and all make mistakes.

    This advice can be applied to life as well, not just the writing/publishing business.

  11. Kay DiBianca December 2, 2019 at 9:47 am #

    Great advice that goes beyond publishing to all of life! Thanks

  12. Dan Wright December 2, 2019 at 11:16 am #

    I’ve seen this play numerous times and with evidence of Divine intervention. I’m proud to have so many friends in our industry and still making more after 35 years in the industry.

  13. Jennifer Lynn cary December 2, 2019 at 11:39 am #

    This is a great reminder and you are absolutely right.

  14. Scott Rutherford December 2, 2019 at 12:20 pm #

    My editor has been great to work with, but I think part of that is because I accepted most changes without argument. The few I challenged, I prefaced with, “This isn’t the hill I want to die on, but here’s why I wrote this the way I did.” And ended with, “What do you think?” She was willing to go with my preferences in all but one case. In retrospect, she was right on that one.

  15. Kathy December 2, 2019 at 3:22 pm #

    Very sound advice! Thank you!

  16. Angela Enons December 3, 2019 at 5:49 am #

    Amen. This is so true in every area of our lives. As Joyce Meyer says, “Everything you do, you put it on a wheel and it comes back to you.” Good and bad…it’s on your wheel. Hmmm?

  17. Cheryl Ricker December 3, 2019 at 6:39 am #

    Good word, fellow agent! I’m going to share this!

  18. Michele Israel Harper December 3, 2019 at 9:38 am #

    Excellent advice. Absolutely excellent. Thank you for sharing!

  19. chavelsatxrrcom December 3, 2019 at 12:56 pm #

    Like the old saying advises, “Don’t muddy the water around you. You may have to drink it soon.”

  20. Vicki Deem December 4, 2019 at 7:15 am #

    When did we lose the ability to disagree civilly? Small world or not, it isn’t necessary (or advisable) to get ugly to make your point forcefully.

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