When a debut author acts abysmally—how complicit is their publishing team?
Thoughts on the Cait Corrain scandal—plus the one thing that publishers need to do to make their authors better people.
Hello my writer friends.
I had a paid post ready to go today about stage-directiony writing, but then the Internet imploded with a fresh literary scandal. I am not usually one for hot takes, because I think reflection reaps good writing, but I have strong feelings on this particular storm. For those of you not aware of the Cait Corrain dumpster fire that is raging across the Interwebs, I’m going to summarize it for you. Spoiler alert: it’s a story of a woman behaving very, very badly.
Here’s what I understand: First-time author Cait Corrain who, according to her Instagram, writes “queer space romantsy,” had a sci-fi book due out with Penguin Random House imprint Del Rey books in 2024 called “Crown of Starlight.” At some point this past year, Corrain started participating in a Slack channel of either debut authors or debut authors at Del Rey—I’m not clear on which. Maybe both. Regardless. In the lead-up to her publication (which was slated for May of 2024), she succumbed to feelings of panic and competition around how her debut might perform, and created a series of fake Goodreads accounts that she used to one-star review bomb her fellow debut authors. It just so happened that a lot of the authors she chose to slander were people of color, and it is reported (though I couldn’t find proof of the names used) that the account names Corrain invented read as BIPOC names. At some point this December, some people in her author cohort starting putting two and two together, and an author named Xiran Jay Zhao shared a 31-page Google doc that supported Xiran’s theory that 1) someone on the Slack channel was review-bombing their fellow writers using fake accounts and 2) that same person appeared to be upvoting one book over and over again in book lists: CROWN OF STARLIGHT.
When other slandered authors began playing sleuths themselves, it became clear that Cait Corrain was behind this. Corrain came forward and said that the review-bombs were the work of her friend “Lilly” who didn’t want her gal pal’s book to flop. Spoiler alert: Lilly doesn’t exist. Corrain shared text messages with the slandered authors as proof of Lilly’s existence, but the text messages between Corrain and “Lilly” were also falsified. On December 11th, Corrain admitted she was behind the Goodreads/Slack channel scandal and posted an apology letter to Twitter saying she has been struggling with “depression, alcoholism, and substance abuse” since June of 2022. The letter went on for two pages. People were not impressed with the apology, nor were they ready to forgive her. In the time since that letter posted, her agent has dropped her. Her book deal has been yanked. In her attempt to beat down her perceived “competition,” Corrain imploded her career.
Before I go on, I’d like to say that I don’t know Cait Corrain personally nor do I know the authors that she slandered as I haven’t read anything out of the Del Rey imprint yet. It does seem to me that many of Corrain’s choices came from a place of racism. I have to imagine that a lot of those same choices came also from self-hatred and fear. It appears that Corrain led her agent and her editor along in her downward spiral—denying, denying, denying until it was too late for an apology from her to hold water. I feel terrible for the authors that might have thought they had a confidante or cheerleader in Corrain, who found their work downvoted and slandered. I feel badly for the people on Corrain’s publishing team who didn’t understand the extent of this author’s mental health challenges, and I feel badly for Cait because whatever psychological issues she was dealing with, they’re a hell of a lot worse, now. The lesson that she is learning comes with mighty consequences. I saw rumors online that Corrain was paid half a million dollars for her book deal.
But let’s pivot for a second, because the point of this post isn’t to bash further on Corrain: that content is spread out like a buffet on Twitter for anyone to eat. Here’s what I want to talk about—it’s one of the reasons I wrote “Before and After the Book Deal” in the first place. That topic is the professional and psychological unpreparedness that most authors face when they enter the “workforce” of an American book deal.
In most professions in the world—but certainly in America—when you get a job, you are given either an initiation (sometimes called “onboarding”) and/or a code of conduct to sign. An instruction manual to your new job, if you will. When I worked at Starbucks, for example, I was given a 3-day orientation period complete with managerial support, PowerPoints, and take home docs a go go. I learned the brand colors, what to wear to match the brand colors, what not to wear to go off-brand, what to say and not to say to customers to fit the corporate culture. That kind of onboarding has been standard in most of the jobs I’ve had. And while I didn’t love the rigidity of Starbucks’ corporate culture handbooks (I quit when they docked my pay for wearing a fetching bowling shirt with a light blue trim at the collar) I will say that such work manuals helped me feel prepared for my new job.
Job preparation is a kindness. It’s a kindness to the hire, it’s a kindness to the hire’s colleagues. It’s like driving a car: you don’t just hand someone the keys if they have never driven. You put them through a course, you make them get a license. You put them through some hoops to make sure that they can do the thing you’ve tasked them with, whether it’s making a Frappuccino or passing another car efficiently and safely across a divided line.
But when you are an author who gets a book deal, there is no instruction manual. There’s no onboarding document. There’s not a formal initiation period— there’s just a book contract and the assumption (which is a naive one) from your editor and agent that you know what to do now; that you know how to behave.
This assumption drives me freaking nuts. I’ll say it again: gatekeepers assuming that writers know how to publish gracefully is one of the reasons that I wrote “Before and After the Book Deal” and keep on writing about publishing today. Some people—especially those who publish when they’re older, or writers who have been teachers for some time, or came through a solid MFA program—they might be prepared socially and civilly for all that lies ahead. Maybe. Maybe not.
As for the rest of us—those of us who came from outside of the industry without an MFA or experience in traditional workshops, assuming that we know how to flawlessly behave around our new superiors and peers online and in the real world is borderline delulu. Most of us are toddlers thrown into publishing daycare, except in this particular daycare, there aren’t any adults showing us right and wrong. It is wrong to be a racist. Let’s be crystal clear on that. Whether Corrain’s racism was apparent to her publishing team before she went off the rails on Goodreads, I don’t know, and thus I don’t feel comfortable commenting on this aspect of her breakdown. But harboring feelings of envy and jealousy and fear about our upcoming publications and not knowing what to do with those feelings or where to put our muck? That part of the scandal is what I want to look at. That level of confusion and disorientation is partly the fault of agents and editors and other gatekeepers who don’t understand that authors are new hires, and you need to train us to be good at our new jobs.
Big picture: most writers spend years—years—toiling at 4am or 12pm in feral states on material that very well might never see the light of day. We don’t necessarily know how to talk to other people about what we are working on, the work isn’t earning us money—it’s like a mental illness, creative writing, sapping our sanity and time. And then, overnight, we’re supposed to be ready to speak on podcasts and the radio and navigate weird interviews and shrug off hurtful comments about our work and publish like an industry veteran? How? How? Who is teaching writers that?
Pretty much no one. I was very, very lucky that my agent gave me etiquette lessons when I was coming up, (“send thank you notes to the booksellers that host you,” “be extra kind to your editor’s assistant,” “send gifts to your team on pub day,”) otherwise, some of my darker instincts might not have been kept in check. While I certainly never one-star review bombed people or tried to take down a peer’s career, I absolutely—definitely—harbored thoughts of envy as a younger writer, and that envy felt like a flesh-eating fungus because I didn’t know where to hide it. I didn’t know what was right to say or think, I didn’t know which of my questions were delusional, I didn’t know how many books my publisher wanted me to sell. I didn’t know if they were happy with me or thought that I was a failure. I knew absolutely nothing. Some of that ignorance was my fault: when I got my first agent (I’m on my third), I had zero writer friends and nobody to school me on author etiquette. But honestly? First-time author ignorance is also the fault of the publishing industry, because no instruction manual exists. The publishing industry also doesn’t have a way to evaluate how a debut author will handle stress and disappointment, which is how publishers end up with a nightmare author like Cait Corrain.
When I started writing BEFORE AND AFTER THE BOOK DEAL in 2018 (it came out in 2020) I hoped that editors and agents would give it to new authors to help them understand what they had signed on the dotted line for. Some editors and agents have done so—some, not a lot. Mostly, it’s authors telling authors “you have to read this book, it will explain so much about the industry—it will save you from mistakes.” I’m beyond grateful for that word-of-mouth, and I’m also grateful that there are writers out there today likeMira Jacob “The Shit That No One Tells You About Writing” team and others who are telling it like it is. But I remain SO VERY FRUSTRATED that there isn’t a “finishing school” for debuting writers that teaches us what to do, what not to do, which proverbial fork to use with which proverbial dish.
Obviously, we all hope that we would be magnanimous and generous and supportive of other writers if we got a book deal, especially a lucrative book deal. But I’m here to tell you (alongside the 200+ people I interviewed for BEFORE AND AFTER THE BOOK DEAL) that the stresses of pre-publication are no freaking joke and can turn people into monsters. That statement does not mean I forgive writers for monstrous behavior. But it does mean that I can understand how and why the transformation occurs.
If you’d like to take a look at the publishing guidebook that inspired this Substack (and still inspires me today), you can do so here.
Have a good Wednesday. Be nice to your fellow authors today. And thank you, kind writers and readers, for being here.