A Perfect Example of How Not to Go About Doing a Tribute or Homage Project

Posted: May 27, 2019 in Fiction, Life, News, The Blog

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When people do something in a monumentally stupid way, I usually have no issue pointing out that they just did something in a monumentally stupid way. When people do something in a monumentally stupid way and then follow that up by doubling down in perhaps an even more monumentally stupid way, I usually have no issue with pointing that out. Occasionally, when someone doesn’t end up doubling down in ways that makes them come off as a bit of an ass, I’ll even try to be fairly polite about it. Blunt honesty about how someone is behaving might not come across as “polite” in a way Miss Manners would endorse, but, hey, she occasionally over the years came across as less than polite and sometimes even more than a tad condescending.

However, one thing I do hate to do is to punch down. A few days ago, a statement- perhaps in the eyes of some even a borderline challenge -was directed at me where I just rolled my eyes, joked with a few friends about it, and more or less decided to leave it alone and move on. At the time, as the person seemed to be desperately trying to sink himself and a project he wanted to launch, it seemed like responding in the way he suggested I do so would be a little bit like me punching down- in this case punching down on a guy barely holding onto a life preserver in shark-infested waters while simultaneously dumping chum all over himself.

It’s a few days later. I’ve thought about it. Not all that much, mind you, but enough. Just enough to realize that something I said to this fellow was fairly accurate and worth following up on. His actions and his reactions to the fallout from his actions are worth noting and discussing if for no other reason than they are a “How To” guide for everyone else out there. However, in his case, he is and seems to be intent on becoming even more so a “How To” guide on everything you want to not do if you’re hoping to do a project along the lines of his proposed project.

I’m going to work very hard to rein in my natural tendencies towards sarcasm here. There are three reasons for this. First, this is the kind of mistake many fans or fan/pros out there could easily make in this day and age. Second, while the man is acting in a damned fool way, he hasn’t exactly (yet) struck me as someone trying to be a jackass. That could change based on things he’s already expressed on the matter, but I’m going to give him some benefit of the doubt for now. Third… Well, I’ll touch on that reason towards the end of this.

Actually, I’ll add a fourth reason why I’ll rein in my natural tendencies towards sarcasm here. He may very well be a nice guy who doesn’t act like this very often. I don’t know. I have no real way of knowing that. He may normally be a nice, fairly on top of it guy who is just acting in an extremely poor manner here.

Oh, also… If the individual in question sees all of this and feels it puts him in a poor light or that my using him as an example for others of what not to do casts his recent actions in a negative light… Well, there’s a part of me that’s at least a little sorry for that. However, keep in mind; he basically suggested I do this.

Idiot 1

So, here’s the example. Andrew Fox is a published writer with a few books under his belt. A short while back, he had the idea to act as an editor and publish a book as an homage to Harlan Ellison and his groundbreaking Dangerous Visions books. Things haven’t gone quite as smoothly as he may have hoped they would. You can read his account of the matter here. In the entirety of this endeavor so far, he has apparently only done one thing completely right.

DO ASK FOR PERMISSION WHEN SOMEONE OWNS THE PROPERTY

The basic concept for what Mr. Fox wanted to do isn’t something that would require the seeking of approval from the holder of copyrighted or trademarked properties. His idea was to solicit, edit, collect into one book, and then publish himself various speculative fiction short stories where the goal was to push the limits of what’s seen as acceptable today. Each story would take something that we see as a taboo in the mainstream of popular culture today and break the taboo. Each story would have the goal of pushing the boundaries beyond the limits most people commonly accept.

However, he specifically wanted this project to be a tribute to the late Harlan Ellison and to be a continuation of Harlan’s Dangerous Visions with that name on the project. That raises various issues. Mr. Fox was smart enough to reach out to and attempt to get the blessings of the Ellison estate. However, there was a problem with the first email.

DON’T (EVEN ACCIDENTLY) MISREPRESENT YOUR PROPOSED PROJECT

In many ways, the first email Mr. Fox sent was perfect. It was short, sweet, and to the point with almost every bit of required information needed. However, it fell short in one very important way.

His first email describes the project as only him desiring to edit an anthology of short stories as a tribute to Harlan Ellison. That’s somewhat vague as a description and it’s not like the project he wanted to do would have required close to 1,000 words to describe. He could have just as directly stated his proposal was to edit and publish a collection called The New Dangerous Visions and to have this collection contain the type of taboo-pushing short stories the originals were known for. That bit of detail added in may have elicited a different response than the one he actually got.

The email he received back stated that the individual in question would pass the information on to Susan (Harlan Ellison’s widow) but that there was already a tribute anthology in the works and taking preorders at PS Publishing. It was signed Director, Harlan Ellison Book Preservation Project.

Mr. Fox responded. There are multiple issues with the response.

DON’T JUMP THE GUN- PART 1

The appropriate response to an email of the nature they replied with would be to thank them for the response and maybe even state that you looked forward to being able to discuss the possibility of your project with them when they had the time to do so. I can understand- my being a fan myself –that you can be anxious, excited, eager, and raring to go. Nevertheless, don’t jump the gun. A polite response like the one that was sent to him is not an invitation to either flood them with emails or to send back an almost immediate response of significant size and detail.

Less than an hour after being told his proposal would be relayed to Susan, Mr. Fox replied with a rather sizable email.

DON’T WRITE A NOVEL IN YOUR EMAIL

The email Mr. Fox sent back was almost 1,000 words long. To give you an idea of how long that really is, you were as you read the ‘Don’t Jump the Gun- Part 1’ section a little over 1,000 words into this post. That’s just a little more than what he sent within an hour of getting a response.

Why is this problematic? Put yourself in their shoes. They received an email from someone they may have never heard of before who was proposing a tribute anthology to Harlan. They responded that (A) the proposal would be passed on to Susan, the person who could approve or kill such a thing, and that (B) there was already a tribute anthology in the works. Basically, they sent him the polite version of ‘We’ll think about it, but don’t call us, we’ll call you.’

Within an hour, he called them anyhow. He did so with an email so large that it’s not unreasonable to assume the person working as Director of the Harlan Ellison Book Preservation Project took one look at the wall of words sent to them by a stranger and decided to make wading through it a very low priority on the monthly “To Do” list. It’s very likely the response most people, especially busy people, would have when opening an email from a stranger and seeing a small book’s worth of words.

If the people you have attempted to contact have given you a polite reply but have not actually said they want to see the pitch details, do not take it upon yourself to dump all of that on them in a giant email. Outside of the length possibly being a turnoff, many creators have said over the years they will not read full, detailed pitches unsolicited for any number of reasons. One such reason is time. Another reason talked about by many is how people have tried to claim that a project that was already in the works was a rip-off of a project proposal they sent to the creator or creators in question.

DON’T JUMP THE GUN- PART 2

In Mr. Fox’s second email, there was a lot that showed some very serious mistakes on his part. Not the least of which was his statement that he had already started looking for potential contributors to the project through an established forum of science fiction writers.

It’s one thing for you to “gauge interest” amongst your peers when a project is entirely yours. It’s something else entirely to start recruiting- even potentially recruiting –if the property is not yours and you haven’t even sought permission from the owner of the property in question.

Now, granted, this is something of a squishy area. When you have creative partners and you start coming up with an idea to pitch someone, of course you’re going to be discussing it with others. That’s a little different than telling someone that you have already- even if just barely -started the recruiting process to bring others in on a project you have no right to actually start before you ever approached the owner of the property.

Different people will likely have different reactions to that. Some people may see this as a sign that you’ve got it together and you’re not just wasting their time by blowing smoke. Others may see this as wildly inappropriate and presumptuous of you to start to essentially beginning to market and recruit before ever speaking to them. Since you don’t know what the reaction will be, it’s probably best to play it safe. After all, whatever the project or the medium the project will be in, if it becomes known that you’re recruiting for an established, respected, and popular property with the blessings of the property owners you will find yourself in an enviable position when it comes to recruiting contributors.

Play it smart. Don’t go out there and start selling your project- their property –before you ever even talk to the people who own the property in question.

DON’T BE PRESUMPTUOUS

As I noted, it’s quite possible they never really read his longer email. However, even if you write almost 1,000 words of unsolicited response, you should assume that anything in it could be read. As such, do not write anything in the communication with the owner of a property that even hints at you thinking you have more rights to the property you don’t own than you believe the property owner does. Mr. Fox made the mistake of including such a line.

In the last paragraph of his email, he explained that he knew and learned how to edit from someone who once knew Harlan Ellison before the gentleman and Harlan drifted apart. It was thus based on this- the ‘friend of a friend of a friend’ concept -he would give Susan “the courtesy” of knowing about the project he was going to do before he set up the fundraiser and went to print with it. This was so that she didn’t hear about it third-hand after the fact and would still be able to offer comments and input on the project he apparently felt he was going to do regardless of communicating with them or not.

That was a fairly fast turnaround on his part in expressed intent to the rights holder. In under two hours, he went from contacting them about a project he “would like” to do in Harlan’s honor to explaining to them that this was a project he was doing and, hey, as a courtesy he might let them have a say about it.

Mind what you say and how you say it. Many people you might contact appreciate fan enthusiasm and understand the desire to do something like this. It’s a good bet that damned few of them would appreciate you telling them that you’re going to use their works and/or their name but are giving them the courtesy of knowing before you do so they can maybe add a little something to it if they want to. That’s not enthusiasm, that’s arrogance. It’s not going to go over well with the people you’re contacting or for your project by the end of it.

DO UNDERSTAND HOW TO WAIT

Let’s assume for a moment that you’re not doing things quite the way Mr. Fox did them. You’ve sent a request, you haven’t seemingly stated that something is going to happen regardless, and now, after getting a polite reply, you’re waiting. Let’s assume for a moment that almost four full weeks go by. You haven’t heard anything.

Be patient and wait. If weeks become months, maybe send a polite, short communication reminding them of the earlier communications between you both and asking if there’s going to be any further discussions on the possibility of doing your project. Don’t come across as rude or impatient.

You’re dealing with a rights holder who probably has a number of other plates in the air. They’re busy. They’re doing the day-to-day things they have to do just as you are. It’s probably very easy for them to occasionally forget an email about a pitch sent by a stranger when they have more pressing matters to attend to.  At that point, a small, polite nudge of a reminder isn’t unwarranted, but be prepared to accept the fact that you may get a rejection at that point or you may never get another response at all. Sometimes, that’s what happens. Accept that your project is dead at that point, or figure out how you can make it something else if you can.

DON’T JUMP THE GUN- PART 3

Under no circumstances do you want to do what Mr. Fox did. After several weeks went by without a reply, he launched the fundraiser for his anthology, The New Dangerous Visions. Listed pledge figures ranged anywhere from $5.00 to $2,500 and the very long fundraiser description was filled with multiple uses of “Dangerous Visions” and Harlan’s name. It was an impressively long and grandiose pitch for funds, and you can read it at the link I provided earlier if you haven’t already done so.

As was stated in the communication he suddenly found in his inbox, never mistake silence for consent. If you are dealing with things that other people own and you are presuming you can do anything you want with or without express permission, you run the very real risk of learning more about the American legal system than anyone outside of a law student wants to ever know.

Speaking of the email and his reactions to it…

IF YOU MESS UP, APOLOGIZE

Screwing up is easy to do. Well, know this. Apologizing might not fix a massive screw-up along the lines of the one just described as you may have killed your project dead in the water and nothing you say may undo that. However, there’s always a chance. Hold your hat in your hand, say you’re sorry, and try to at least act as if you mean it. It might help. It might not help. But, hey, it damned sure won’t hurt.

IF YOU MESS UP, DON’T COMPOUND YOUR MISTAKES BY LASHING OUT

You messed up. Own up to it. Do not play the victim and do not spin things in ways to make it seem as if you’re the reasonable one and they are being unreasonable and picking on poor little you. That is, in essence, what you will find being done here.

If you want to see a very clear example of what not to do, read what is written at that link. If you want a short version of it, here you go.

1) When you screw up like this, don’t paint yourself as the victim. Don’t spin it as you’re trying to do something great/noble/amazing and they’re standing in the way and unreasonably threatening you with legal action when it’s you coming across as trying to hijack their property for your own use.

2) Don’t be deliberately obtuse, especially when claiming others are being obtuse. The email he received after the launch of his fundraiser informed him that “Dangerous Visions” and “Harlan Ellison” were registered trademarks of the Kilimanjaro Corporation and that he had to remove all references of them from the fundraiser. Failure to do so would result in legal action.

A part of his response in his post was to repeatedly pretend to be confused about why he couldn’t use Harlan’s name. Harlan is a historical figure in American literature. Harlan is a major notable figure in American literature. How can they claim people would need their permission to even talk or write about him or risk facing a legal threat?

But that’s not their position. Harlan long ago ensured his name was protected. You can write about him. You can talk about him. You can print the name Harlan Ellison a thousand times in the course of a review or even something like this or- as I’ve done repeatedly before here and on other websites -when discussing the man and his works. What you can’t do is try to monetize his name for your use and gain. No matter how he tries to spin it, that’s what his actions can very easily make it look like he was doing.

3) Don’t exaggerate your worth to someone else’s legacy while being deliberately obtuse about an informal cease and desist request. Spinning things into you attempting to keep someone else’s legacy alive is one thing, but claiming that you or others like you not being able to act in the manner you were trying to means that the person in question will be forgotten by almost everyone alive in a couple of decades is laughable. Oh, when called on that he said that wasn’t really what he was saying even though that’s basically what he said.

4) Don’t go to your social media and declare that you will use certain things the way you want and they can’t say otherwise.

IF YOU MESS UP AND GET NAILED FOR IT, FOLLOW THE BEST EXAMPLES YOU CAN THINK OF

Let’s talk about semi-current events. James Gunn was fired by Disney and removed from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 due to a controversy around old tweets. A lot of people freaked out. A lot of people said some less than kind stuff about Disney. A lot of people talked about skipping a James Gunnless GotG V3 and some of the cast started talking about wanting out of their contracts. But what about James Gunn’s comments? Well, he didn’t really make a lot of comments on the matter. What few he did were uniformly polite and showed some level of contrition and acceptance.

The matter quietly played out behind the scenes and, eventually, Gunn was rehired. It wasn’t just the fact that the original “scandal” was greatly overblown that helped get Gunn rehired. It was also largely Gunn’s own actions and how he handled the matter.

If you find yourself in a bad situation like this one, use James Gunn as your model for what to do. Don’t use Mr. Fox.

Why? Because you, like Gunn, may not have lost everything. Now, knowing what I know about Harlan Ellison and knowing how his estate would most likely view certain actions, everything was most likely lost here. However, that’s just my opinion and not a 100% guarantee. Everyone occasionally allows from some level of stupidity. Let’s pretend that we know the Ellison Estate would have or whatever entity you’re dealing with will. That allowance for stupidity only goes so far.

Doing something massively stupid is one thing. Following that up by playing victim, playing games about what not using certain copyrights and how you use them means, and exaggerating the significance of your value to someone else’s legacy is likely going to kill off any possible remaining goodwill the people you have to deal with may have towards you and your project. Putting up a post on your professional blog or website that carries an air of “poor me they’re being so mean to me and all I wanted to do was goodness and niceness” about it is going to kill off any possible remaining goodwill the people you have to deal with might have towards you and your project.

If the project that you want to do means something to you, if it’s truly important to you, show that to be true. Don’t let your stung pride or bruised ego override that. Be James Gunn, because going in the other direction will ensure that there’s no chance of getting your project done as originally intended. Doing the opposite will likely ensure that a door that might still be slightly cracked open will be shut in your face and locked tight for good.

DO PUT YOURSELF IN THEIR SHOES

Think about the people you’re dealing with. Think about being them. Think about that before you even act. Put your ego away when you do that.

They’re likely very busy people. The more famous the person- or the more notorious for that matter -the more they likely get correspondences from a small army of fans. They probably get more than a few pitches for various projects of some sort or another from someone or another every week. These days, I’m occasionally bad about keeping up with my own email and my messenger notifications and I don’t have to deal with 1/100 of the messages and emails some professionals in various entertainment industries must deal with. I know a lot of people who say the same thing.

Take it as read that the person you’re contacting has more to do than just sitting around to think about your pitch and/or respond to your emails. Going back to that not jumping the gun thing, assume they’re fairly busy with very important things. If you had a lot of stuff you were dealing with and you had already sent back a brief, polite response, would you find yourself somewhat annoyed if some person decided you not following up when they felt you should was permission to go ahead and take something that belonged to you in order to repurpose it for their own ends? If you think it would even only possibly annoy you, assume it will absolutely annoy them. If you don’t think it would annoy you, assume it would annoy them anyhow. Better safe than sorry.

And now, that third reason I mentioned way back up top…

**********

Now, having read all of this, you may be wondering why I would care enough about some guy shooting himself in the foot as laughably bad as this fellow has done. It’s a simple answer. It’s not just about him.

There are two things I see with some regularity these days. Whether the ideas are just from fans or from people on the fan/pro level, I see a lot of really cool ideas for potential projects get discussed out there. That’s the first thing. Unfortunately, the second thing I see is a lot of professionals slapping their foreheads and shaking their heads because whoever approached the project did it as bad as this guy or worse. The old thing about it sometimes being worse to go about the right thing than wrong way than it is to do the wrong thing is very often true. In cases like this and others, it can flush what’s an otherwise good idea right down the toilet in nothing flat.

That’s a shame. It’s doubly a shame with a project like the one this gentleman proposed. The truth is that this was an idea that could have created a great little collection of stories without ever trying to ride on Harlan Ellison’s name or the name of one of his most famous works as an editor. The fundraising might have been a little harder, but it could have still likely been done. Moreover, if the work itself was true to the source of inspiration in style and quality, he would never have had to mention those names himself. Others would have likely done so when discussing the book with friends or for reviews. It’s always better when others do that kind of comparison on the works rather than you.

You can further shoot yourself in the foot by going about these things in a really wrong way by damaging the reach of your potential project even if it’s a project that’s salvageable as something separate from the existing work or creator. Even now, this gentleman’s fundraiser is continuing with a largely rewritten description even if the fundraiser’s link (beyond his control without canceling it and starting from zero) still has the old name on it. But, at this point, he faces some problems.

I learned about his… tantrum… through three sources- two people who knew Harlan and one large fan group devoted to his works. It’s a good bet that there were far more friends of Harlan’s who posted about it or mentioned it somewhere as the news spread and more than a few other fan groups who caught wind of it and had their members spread the word to others about it. So, the initial reaction post to being told to redo the fundraiser already rubbed a lot of a potential target audience (and possible future source of promoting the work) the wrong way. He’s making it worse with the rewrite on the fundraiser by trying to be sarcastically too cute about it and dancing around the matters he was told to scrub. If you take a chance to fix a bad first impression and use it to instead double down, you can pretty much write off a lot of potential customers who may have otherwise given you the benefit of the doubt.

As it stands now, there’s what could be a good project being attempted where the creator has turned off a lot of potential buyers and goodwill promoters. As it stands now, there’s a potentially good project out there that will go unread by many of the potential target audience because it now feels like someone trying to ride on Harlan’s name and the name of one of his works for his own benefit and who is giving the impression to some that he’s flipping the bird to Harlan’s friends and widow. 

There are too many people out there with too many good ideas to want to see anyone else just flush them down the drain because of one dumb move after the other. If you have a really good idea for an awesome tribute or continuation project and you want to start the ball rolling on it, look at what’s happened here as an opportunity to learn from someone else’s mistakes. Don’t kill potential goodwill with the professionals you must first go to or the fanbase for that professional. For your own sake and the sake of your project, don’t shoot yourself in the foot every step of the way and piss away that goodwill.

Basically, don’t act like this guy.

[EDIT ADDITIONAL]

From a friend- “You forgot: Don’t piss off a notoriously litigious author (or his estate) by using his registered trademarks. Particularly one with a track record of winning lawsuits.”

Yeah… That should probably have been the starter on the list.

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