Having just witnessed the largest independent book festival in the U.S. – as an invited speaker about my book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” -- I saw with my own grateful and astonished eyes, how untrue this is.
If you’re a dancer, you perform, and you see your audience. Same for actors and musicians.
Writers, not so much. We spend about 95 percent of our lives sitting before a glowing computer screen in lonely silence. Every day we tap the keys, possibly collect a few checks for what we cranked out, then get up the next day and hustle hard all over again.
As one fellow freelancer said, “When I left my newspaper job, I was so thrilled to get off the hamster wheel. Now I’ll work on longer projects! But I’ve put myself right back on the hamster wheel.”
We all have relationships, sometimes for years or even decades, with agents and editors, but we rarely see them or even speak to them. They often live very far away and some travel frequently — to the annual London Book Fair or to L.A., as my agent recently did to meet with several film and television agents there.
We’re all busy, isolated and often quite insecure about whether anyone, anywhere even cares that we’ve written a word.
So imagine the heady, giddy pleasure of stepping out of your hotel — into stunning heat and humidity — to see streets clogged with men, women and children, people of all ages, who’ve come just to see and hear authors speak, to meet them, to thank them, to query them about how they do what they do.
The festival, now in its seventh year, doesn’t pay writers to come, so being invited is an honor, but not one without a price tag. And, contrary to popular belief, almost no one gets financial support from their publisher. People who have yet to commercially publish have some gauzy, hopeful notion that their publisher will surely be the most generous relative they’ve yet to meet, sort of a Fairy Godmother with very deep pockets and a burning desire to boost their careers.
Nope. Writers who know the game know, and learn quickly, to do almost everything for themselves: create and register the domain name(s) of their books, pay someone to design a site for them, maintain and update it, hire a PR team to publicize it. I overheard a man at the authors’ party say, mournfully, he’d already been through three different firms — and his book was barely months on the market. I asked a man with a booth there how much he charges for his PR services — $4,800 for a month. That’s standard, kids.
For many authors, that’s half their advance. Or their whole advance.
In the cab from the airport, I sat with a psychologist who had come from Hawaii, a 12 hour journey, and a massage therapist from Tucson. In the 30 minutes it took to reach our hotel, I learned about the Rwandan genocide from the Tucson author, who had written a novel about it, “Running the Rift”, and how to die gracefully, the topic of the other woman. I went to hear Naomi speak, and learned more about Rwanda in her 45 minute talk than through almost anything I remember reading about it at the time.
The psychologist had just published her first book, so she had no benchmarks of what’s a good number of sales, or the number of people in the room she read who bought her book afterward. It’s a truism that published writers are on a continuum of part-timers, full-timers, best-sellers with six figure advances and those happy to get — as one told me — $10,000 for her manuscript. With two books (so far), under my belt, I’m a grizzled veteran to some newbies, but nowhere near (sigh) a best-seller.
The festival was beautifully organized, using a variety of venues, from a gorgeous, enormous Baptist church to a conference center. I heard Isabel Wilkerson (who used to work with my husband at The New York Times) speak about her award-winning, best-seller “The Warmth of Other Suns”, about the great migration of African Americans to the North.
It made me want to cry to see every single seat — thousands of people — filled. She’s a terrific speaker and many gave her a standing ovation.
I went to join the line to buy her book, which sold out within minutes. After 90 minutes in stunning heat, I finally had the chance to simply say hello and congratulate her.
I did my event this afternoon at 2:30, nervous that no one would come. But they did! It was held in a small auditorium and I’d say a good 75 to 80 people were there. They asked great questions, laughed when I hoped they would and lined up to buy books afterward. The bookseller sold out!
I fly home to New York tomorrow morning grateful, inspired, refreshed.
Have you ever attended a book festival?
Did you enjoy it?