This is a regular column that runs in the Arts section of The New York Times. As author of two works of nationally reported non-fiction — the second of which was nominated for the prestigious Hillman Award and published in China — I thought I’d do this here as well.
When did you first get the idea to write this book?
I worked at a trade publication in New York City as an editor and was friendly with a colleague there. One evening, having dinner at her apartment — where she had a doorman and a very large dog — I asked her (?!) if she owned a gun. She did, a handgun. I was a bit stunned and wrote an essay about this for The Globe and Mail, my former newspaper in Canada. I went on to attend a three day shooting class and wrote about that for the Wall Street Journal. After writing a much longer feature on it, I realized there had not been a book written about American women and gun use, whether they enjoyed it or feared it used against them or their loved ones. It was clear there was a lot of great material to be gathered and many stories to be told. For Blown Away, I spoke to 104 men, women and teens from 29 states. Here’s a link to the book.
For Malled, I was urged from the very start to write about it, but couldn’t see any narrative arc or story line to the menial job of folding, hanging and selling clothing for The North Face. But I worked part-time, at $11/ hour, for 2.5 years — much longer than the average retail sales associate, so I watched the economy plunge into recession (2007 to 2009) from a specific and unusual place. The book is also a story of how the retail industry works, from the inside, so it’s both a memoir and a business book. I was urged to produce the book after a column I wrote in The New York Times prompted a flood of appreciative comments and emails. Here’s a link to the book.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
For Blown Away, the regional differences in how Americans view gun use and gun ownership is huge. People really don’t understand it and underestimate its political strength. It isn’t just the NRA’s powerful influence and deep pockets, but also strong cultural and historical attachment to gun use and gun ownership that’s deeply embedded, for millions of people, in the very idea of what it means to be American. But because those in your local area are likely to share your views on gun use — whether pro or con — you usually end up with confirmation bias, unable to envision or understand this.
For Malled, It was really depressing to hear the words “disposable” used over and over again to describe the hard-working, poorly-paid staff that stand for eight hours in all retail stores. The highly paid executives at corporate headquarters of every major retailer spend millions of dollars buying specialized software — designed to reduce the costs of labor. It was so demoralizing to do a job to the best of our ability and realize that no one (in corporate) cared or would ever compensate us accordingly. My “raise” in 2.5 years? Thirty cents an hour.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
They’re both what I wanted them to be — a firsthand and intimate examination of two of the United States’ most intractable political issues: gun ownership and low-wage labor.
Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?
My parents and late stepmother. My father is a former documentary film-maker and my mother a journalist and my stepmother wrote television series. All worked freelance in challenging and competitive creative industries. I learned early that your own great ideas, presented and sold well, can earn you a living. That was pretty revolutionary, and certainly inspired my own work as a writer.
Persuade someone to read “Blown Away” or “Malled” in 50 words or less.
Blown Away is the only book of its kind, a nuanced, balanced deep dive into how guns affect women in the United States, whether they use one for sport, work or self-defense, or have been traumatized by the use of one against them or a loved one.
Malled is similarly unique, offering a firsthand examination of low-wage labor in the U.S., and explains in detail what it is like to work for paltry wages in a large and crucial industry and in an economy based on consumer spending.
It happened this week, as it has now for several years.
It’s when one specific check, (or cheque, as Canadians and Britons spell it), arrives. It’s a payment from a cultural agency of the Canadian government, an annual payment from the Public Lending Rights program.
There are 30 of these programs worldwide, but only one in the Americas, so I’m fortunate to be Canadian and to be a participant — it’s a royalty system that pays people who have created books now held in public libraries.
I had never heard of it when I lived in Canada and only learned of it thanks to meeting a man whose wife was enrolled in it.
If you have published a book, or several, that meets its requirements, and have registered it, and it is held by public libraries, you’re eligible.
It is open not only to writers, but to photographers, illustrators, editors and — crucial to a nation that is officially bilingual (English, French) — translators.
I’ve published two books — both about life in the United States, albeit through the eyes of a Canadian — and both are still receiving this payment.
Last year I got $452, and this year $507.50 — love that 50 cents!
To determine who gets how much, the program samples seven library systems in French and English — that might be a major city like Toronto (my hometown, whose libraries bought multiple copies of Malled), or a collection of smaller ones across a province or territory.
If your book has been registered for 0 to five years, the payment rate is $50.75 for each hit (i.e. it is still in those library systems), dropping each year to $25.38 for those held 16 to 25 years.
It may seem a pittance, but it means the world to me because it means my work still has readers.
The lowest amount one can receive is $50 and the most — even if you have 20 books in circulation — is $3,552.50
The PLR has 17,000 registered and a budget of about $10 million; every year there are 800 new registrants and more than 5,000 titles added.
The check arrived with a charming letter from its chairman, his closing sentence: “I leave you with my best wishes for another productive year of creation.”
I so appreciate that my government supports the arts in this way!
“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”
— Samuel Johnson (died 1784)
Few subjects will so quickly divide a room than writers talking about how much money they make from their work.
If you write blockbuster fiction, made into Hollywood movies, you might own a lovely home, or several, and shiny new cars.
If you write non-fiction that hits a cultural or political nerve — like over-rated “Hillbilly Elegy” — you might also hit it big.
If you write poetry, you might get “paid” with a copy of the journal that deigned to accept your work.
If you’re a full-time freelance writer, as I am, you probably earn a fairly wide range of fees, unless you’re primarily writing for Hollywood, or the elite tier of top-flight magazines and/or producing a Niagara of material, with very little time off.
There’s also a steady oversupply of people desperate to say: “I’m a writer!”
Blogging doesn’t pay most of us, (unless sponsored.) And yet, blogging here since July 1, 2009, has brought me more than $10,000 in income, teaching my skills to others. (I offer webinars.)
I began writing for money — for national magazines and newspapers — in my second year at university, in Toronto, where I was doing an English degree. It’s the center of Canadian publishing, home to most major newspapers and magazines. I just had to gin up the nerve to start approaching them, and one of the magazine publishing houses was, literally, a block south of campus.
I got my first assignment for a national women’s magazine after writing a furious letter to the editor, asking them to run better material. That editor, (bless her!) called me in for a meeting, and said: “I’d rather have you writing for us than to us.”
Yes, a hugely lucky break.
But I already had two years’ experience writing every week for our demanding university newspaper, so I brought developed skills.
The money I earned writing helped put me through university and paid my rent and groceries, living alone from the age of 19 in an apartment.
That taught me to negotiate for better pay, early and often.
I also overheard an editor pleading with a fellow writer, (a man, older than I), out-earning me for the same kind of weekly column by 50 percent, not to quit.
So when I see — and I see it every day — writers accepting shitty pay, or no pay, and refusing to even try to negotiate for more, or to build their skills to a level they can ask for more and legitimately get it, I lose it.
I also see some Big Name Writers telling the world they have no savings and no money put aside for retirement, as if to glorify the de facto penury of being a writer.
If you have no savings and are perpetually broke, even while earning your full-time living as a writer, consider:
Your skills are weak and no one will pay you properly for them — since so many competitors do it better, or say they can.
You’re unwilling or unable to negotiate higher rates.
You’re living beyond your means, possibly sabotaged by high rent/mortgage in an expensive city; (Toronto, New York, London, San Francisco, Vancouver.)
You didn’t realize that writing for a living is no less serious — and often just about as glamorous — as sanitation work. Just because you enjoy it doesn’t mean it isn’t work. (Sanitation workers, at least, have a union, paid sick days and a pension.)
You haven’t done enough work yet to acquire a consistent track record of achievement, when it’s more reasonable to ask for higher pay rates..
You have a weak or inexperienced network — or people don’t like and trust you enough (yet) to refer you to their decently-paying contacts; most of my work now comes through referrals.
You need to improve your marketing and sales. While people think writing for a living means actually writing, about 75 of my time and energy is spent finding and qualifying new clients.
You need more help with domestic chores or other tasks. It takes time and energy to find well-paid markets for your work, often in addition to teaching.
You write only for low-paying outlets, almost all of them digital, offering $50 or $100 or $300 for long, reported stories, (some writers think this is a lot of money). No one can earn a living at these rates, or work a healthy number of daily/weekly hours to do it. Aim for a higher-paying mix — agency work, print work, non-profit or custom publishing or branded content.
You might need a job, part-time or full-time, until you have a decent financial cushion and can turn down low-ball offers. You can’t refuse lousy jobs and terrible payment if you’re always desperate for the next gig.
You’re too slow! You have to know your minimum hourly rate and stick to it. If you waste time or work inefficiently, you’re cutting into your profit margin. It’s a business!
Caitlin Kelly, an award-winning non-fiction author and frequent contributor to The New York Times, is a New York-based journalist. Her one-on-one webinars and individual coaching, by Skype, phone or in person, have helped writers and bloggers worldwide; details here. Contact: email@example.com.
She was tiny: 4 foot, nine inches, with (when corseted) an 18.5 inch waist.
The dress, white with small blue flowers and a brown velvet collar, stood in a display case with her shoes.
Few items I’ve ever seen in a museum struck me so powerfully as seeing a dress worn by a woman, a fellow author, and a woman who broke every convention of her era — the author of the novel Jane Eyre — and who died at 39 after only nine months of marriage.
The show fills one room, the walls painted a deep turquoise, with some of her quotations painted on it. It’s small, intimate, deeply personal. Like the best shows of their kind, you come away deeply moved by the artifacts and the life story they tell.
Her determination, in the face of overwhelming odds, resonates with any woman anywhere who feels compelled to write — and to be published — to find a receptive audience for her ideas, no matter how chilly the prospects.
Charlotte and her sisters and brother published their poems and stories under pseudonyms, as no woman of the time could be believed as a legitimate author.
There are tiny, tiny books, the writing illegibly small, she produced as a teenager; the museum, thoughtfully, has magnifying glasses available so you can read them.
(I went to the show with a friend, a fellow woman writer and author. We marveled, gratefully, at the enduring physicality of these precious items, the spidery handwriting, the delicate folds of paper. What, if anything, of the 21st century will survive — a pile of pixels? A stack of printed-out tweets and emails?)
Her writing desk is modest; she was a clergyman’s daughter living in Yorkshire, not a wealthy woman, not someone with access and power and acres of self-esteem.
Many editions of her work carry a copy of her pastel portrait; shown here for the first time in North America. Also a first, a portrait of Charlotte and her siblings, rough and crude, deeply crackled and bent from being folded and stored for many years before being re-discovered.
Perhaps my favorite item of all is the letter sent from her friend living in New Zealand, exclaiming with delight that Bronte has actually produced a book.
Every writer, everywhere, needs a loving, encouraging friend to cheer loudly and ferociously, when they finally achieve their dream.
My goal in writing it was to approach the issue of gun ownership, and use, from both sides of the gun use “debate”.
I traveled across the country — New Orleans, Massachusetts, Ohio, Texas — to interview American women, of all ages, races, income levels and political views, whose lives had been altered forever by gun violence, (by them and/or against them or a loved one), and those whose firearms are an integral part of their daily lives and identities, whether they work in corrections, law enforcement, the military or choose to hunt or shoot trap, skeet or clays.
Some have also chosen to buy a handgun, some carrying it with them everywhere, as their “protection firearm.”
In rural Texas, I met women who had saved their own lives with a handgun and a woman running a lucrative hunting operation on land she had inherited, land too dry and isolated for any other profitable use.
On 9/11, a woman named Patty Varone saved the life of then-mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani — I was the only reporter she ever spoke to about that horrific day; she was his NYPD bodyguard and her powerful story is in my book as well.
I don’t own a gun nor have any desire to — although I did a lot of shooting and weapons training, firing everything from a .22 to a Magnum 357 to a Glock 9mm. But I now know why so many American women who choose one for self-defense, or for hunting or for sport, make that choice for themselves.
In the years since, I’ve appeared many times on television and radio, from NPR to NRA radio to Al Jazeera America to BBC’s radio program, World Have Your Say, to explain — as best anyone can — the ongoing allure of gun ownership in the U.S., where an estimated 30 percent of homes contain at least one firearm.
My second book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, came out in April 2011, and is three books in one: my own story of working part-time for $11/hour as a retail associate for The North Face in an upscale suburban New York mall; many stories from other associates, part-time and full-time, and a business analysis of why retail still pays so badly and treats many of its staff so poorly.
Fifty percent of those working in low-wage retail are gone within months of being hired.
They quit in disgust or are fired. No wonder — the work is exhausting emotionally and physically, the pay usually appalling, the number of hours ever-shifting and the odds of a raise or promotion to a better-paid managerial position slim-to-none.
Yet shoppers need and want smart, informed help, and an army of well-paid retail consultants line up at major conferences to yammer on about the “customer experience”. It’s a mess!
I worked the job not with any initial intention to produce a book, as many cynics alleged, but because, in 2007, the American economy fell off a cliff, and by 2009, when I quit, was deep in the throes of recession.
Like millions of scared Americans unable to find better work, I needed steady cash.
It was nominated for the prestigious Hillman Award, given each year to a work of journalism “in the service of the common good.”
I’d love to write more books and am often asked if I’m deep into the next one. Not yet!
These days, I’m teaching writing here in New York where I live, at Pratt Institute and the New York School of Interior Design. My writing clients include The New York Times, Investopedia and WaterAid, a global charity that took me to rural Nicaragua this March.
I also offer other ambitious writers individual coaching at $150/hour, with a one-hour minimum — (that price will rise to $200/hour in January 2015) — and webinars focused on specific topics like:
freelancing, writing personal essays and finding and developing story ideas, whether for digital, print or books.
I schedule the webinars to match your needs, working by phone or Skype, and have helped satisfied writers and bloggers from Germany to New Zealand to D.C. to Rochester, N.Y.
Here are 12 things you should never say to a writer:
How much money do you make?
I get it — you want to be a published writer, too — and are naturally curious about the rewards. But most book advances are now paid out over as long as four years — minus 15 percent to our agent — and the average book advance is pitifully small to start with, far less than $50,000. Do the math, and weep.
There is also so little direct correlation between work we may value intellectually — and what the market rewards most handsomely. (See: the best-seller list.)
Wow, that’s not very much, is it?
See above. While a few fortunates are pulling in mega-bucks, the highest-paid print journalists usually earn less than a fresh graduate working for a major corporate law firm. Sad but true.
Are your books best-sellers?
Long bitter laugh. Only a minute percentage of books, on any subject, will ever hit the best-seller list.
Can you introduce me to your agent?
No. Maybe. Probably not. The agent-author relationship is intimate and fraught with multiple perils. It’s also a question of chemistry — the person who’s a great fit for me may be a lousy choice for you.
I’ve never heard of you
Here’s a sad little essay by Roger Rosenblatt on how un-famous he feels, even after publishing a few books. (You’re thinking: Who’s that guy?) The only way to survive the publishing world is to assume that your book(s), even after all your years of hard work and promotion, will largely be ignored by the public and bookstore buyers. Anything beyond that is gravy.
Will you read my manuscript?
What’s your budget? Assuming we want to read your work, unpaid, is naive.
Can I see the article you’re writing before it’s published?
Nope. Journalists get asked this all the time and the only correct answer is “No.” If you’re in doubt about the accuracy of a quote or some data, call your source(s) back. But allowing someone to review your copy opens the door to their desire to rewrite it to their tastes.
If I don’t like what you’ve written, I can ask you to remove my quotes, right?
See: on the record.
When I stop (doing whatever you do professionally), I’m going to take up writing
Awesome. Now go away! No, further.
Nothing is more irritating (OK, deadbeat publishers are more irritating) than having people treat our profession as an amusing hobby, something you can pick up and put down at leisure, like macrame or scrapbooking. It looks soooooooooo easy, right?
Writing well is bloody hard work. It’s not something you just “pick up.”
Journalism is a dying industry.
Indeed. Imagine how I feel after 30 years in it…
I hate journalists! They never get anything right
Same with doctors, lawyers, teachers…fill in the blank. It’s a big industry with some bad apples and some good ones. Don’t assume I’m unethical or inaccurate just because you’ve been burned by someone else.
You can’t make a living as a writer!
Define “living.” Your assumptions or prejudices may be inaccurate. Or your idea of “a living” means $300,000 a year before bonus. In which case, you’re right!
Rejection has value. It teaches us when our work or our skillset is not good enough and must be made better…Rejection refines us. Those who fall prey to its enervating soul-sucking tentacles are doomed. Those who persist past it are survivors. Best ask yourself the question: what kind of writer are you? The kind who survives? Or the kind who gets asphyxiated by the tentacles of woe?
3. This, Then, Is The Value Of The Gatekeeper
Hate the autocracy of the kept gates all you like, but the forge of rejection purifies us (provided it doesn’t burn us down to a fluffy pile of cinder). The writer learns so much from rejection about himself, his work, the market, the business. Even authors who choose to self-publish should, from time to time, submit themselves to the scraping talons and biting beaks of the raptors of rejection. Writers who have never experienced rejection are no different than children who get awards for everything they do: they have already found themselves tap-dancing at the top of the “I’m-So-Special” mountain, never having to climb through snow and karate chop leopards to get there.
I’ve added the bold and italics here…
So, my question to all of you is why you are so damn scared of being rejected? A few theories.
Because having your work rejected seems, for some of you, to really mean:
I have no talent
Entirely possible. OMG. Did she just say that! Yes, I did. Because, despite what your friends and sweetie and Mom have told you your whole life, maybe you are really just not very good at the thing you are absolutely determined you must be good at. (Or what? Or what? Then what happens?) Stop being a Special Snowflake, already!
I’m such a loser!
Maybe. Maybe not. If you are ever going to survive being a writer you must do this: find a way to separate you from your work. You are not your work. (Here’s a truly disgusting analogy: we all use the toilet and most of us excrete waste every day. It is a product of our bodies. But we do realize that it is not us.) In other words, being rejected may make you feel like shit. You, however, are not shit!
I just wasted all that $$$$$$$$$ on getting my MFA
Can’t help you with that one. I’ve avoided any formal post-graduate education because I’m too damn cheap. If you want to spend a ton of money developing your skills, great. But if you’re looking for serious financial ROI on an MFA, I’d say you’re a little out of touch with the marketplace.
The competition is way too big/famous/established
Here’s the thing we never say out loud. If you’re a total newbie, you’re not my competition! Nor am I yours. Your ego wants to think we’re equal, but we’re not. You will be paid less than I will. (Probably.) I’ve earned it, over decades of consistently good work. You’re still earning it.
If you write about science or babies or science fiction, you’re not my competitor, nor am I yours! I sometimes think of the writers’ marketplace the way an air traffic controller sees the thousands of planes in the air. They never (thank God!) collide. Because they are all on slightly different trajectories.
Stop freaking out about all the other writers out there. Just go be better than they are. (Maybe that means being better at going to a few select conferences and finding some people to help and advise you. Not just banging away all alone at your keyboard.)
I’m scared my email or phone call will be ignored
Bet on it! Count on it! You are not (just) a writer or artist. You’re are a salesperson, hoping to sell your work to people (agents, editors) who’ve quite possibly never heard of you and couldn’t care less if you ever succeed. Be prepared to be more persistent than you ever thought you might possibly ever have to be to get to the right/powerful people who will get your career going. Then double it. Now triple it.
I hate competing
Waaaaaaah! It’s a crowded marketplace. Go big or go home.
But I’m really scared
Of what? Seriously. Of what? Creative failure does not = terrifying medical diagnosis. CF does not = end of your marriage. CF does not = your dog/cat/guinea pig just died. (A friend of mine in London, a super-successful young photographer, is mourning the loss of her guinea pig.)
It is ultimately both self-defeating and self-indulgent to sit in the corner and be too scared to get into the game. We’re all scared, damn it!
Every freaking time I turn in a story I’m still scared the editor will: hate it, not pay me, never use me again and tell everyone s/he knows that I am an incompetent hack. Hey, it can happen.
Then I hit “send.”
I will never be good enough to sell my work
Maybe not. Or maybe so. Maybe you’re trying to sell to the wrong people, or at the wrong time. (i.e. your skills are not yet good enough to compete with all the other people doing that right now.)
It’s depressing being rejected all the time
Which is why God invented martinis, puppies and very good sex. You need to feel really happy at least 63.6 percent of the time in order to deal with the nasty reality of rejection. It hurts. It really does.
I hate my life and being rejected only makes it worse
This is the real problem. I guarantee it — if you are really happy with other aspects of your life, then the endless frustration of trying to sell your work will be annoying and tiring, but it won’t kill you or make you lie in a corner in the fetal position weeping. If it does, you are placing way too much emphasis on your work. Deal with that instead.
But my blog followers love me!
Of course they do, sweetie. Your work is free. It costs them zero social, political or financial capital to read and adore you. Now go find someone to lay their reputation on the line for you…
No one will ever know my name
Pshaw. Go do some volunteer work for a year or so. Join a faith community and show up. Join a committee. Sit on a board. There’s this narcissistic fantasy that Being A Writer means everyone knows you and cares deeply about you. They don’t! You’ll find much deeper satisfaction and happiness from being a valued member of a community of people who don’t give a shit how much copy you sold this week. Get over it.
No one will ever admire or respect me
I think this is a fundamental, unacknowledged and undiscussed part of why people are SO freaked out by rejection. Since when (really) is rejection 100 percent final? You’re reading the blog of someone who applied eight times to the Globe and Mail before being hired. Who interviewed three times at Newsweek and never got hired.
No one will ever know how great I could have become
This is such self-indulgent bullshit. You either want it more than anything, or you don’t.
I will starve to death and live under a bridge in a cardboard box
I doubt it. Get a day job and keep it as long as you have to. Or make the leap of faith (with six months’ expenses in the bank and no debt. And, ideally, no dependents.) Those of us who have leaped have little patience for the endless hand-wringers.
I have nothing new or fresh to offer
Really? Then why do you want to bother?
No one wants to work with me
EQ (emotional intelligence) is the new black. EQ is the new IQ. If you’ve grown up in the U.S. in an affluent community (and many of you did not), then being really smart is often deemed the most important thing you can be. Wrong! Being someone able to get along really well within seconds with a wide range of people who are very different from you is going to move your career along a lot faster and further than only hanging with people who drive the same car and went to the same college(s.)
No one wants to help me succeed
Really? What sort of person are you? A taker, giver or matcher? Are you a selfish little wretch who rarely, if ever, returns calls or emails? Who has yet to write (yes, really) a hand-written thank-you note on very good paper and sent it through the mail to someone who gave you an interview or mentored you? There’s an inverse relationship between how greedy you are and how much anyone is interested in helping you be even more greedy.
Everyone else is doing great!
As if! The effect of Facebook on millions of fragile egos — mine included — is to make us all feel Utterly Inadequate all the fucking time. Just don’t read all those perky, upbeat, how-great-my-life-is status updates!
Who actually posts: “I hate my agent. S/he never returns my calls. My book isn’t selling. I’m living on credit cards. I owe $10,000 to American Express and everyone is paying me late.” They should. Because that’s all too often the Glamorous Reality of being a writer.
It is estimated that over ¾ of Americans say that they would one day like to write a book. That’s a LOT of people. Ah, but how many do? How many decide to look beyond that day job? How many dare to take that next step?
So only 5% of the millions of people who desire to write will ever even take the notion seriously. This brings us to the hundreds of thousands. But of the hundreds of thousands, how many who start writing a book will actually FINISH a book? How many will be able to take their dream seriously enough to lay boundaries for friends and family and hold themselves to a self-imposed deadline?
I’m a little dubious about this “statistic” that so many Americans want to write a book. Did Gallup take a poll?
But the larger point is true — many people I’ve met over the decades sigh, wistfully, or say, with tremendous conviction, they, too will soon publish their own book.
Do they? Apparently not.
I think “writing a book” is actually proxy for an unexamined stew of more complicated desires — many of which have very little to do with the talent + endless slog it takes to actually publish a book:
— public validation
— media attention aka “fame”
— showing everyone you really are creative
— proving to your high school English teacher/skeptical spouse/Mom you can do it
— seeing your book at Barnes & Noble
— hitting the (cough) best-seller list
— being able to say you’re an author
Luck is about .000006 percent of what it takes to become a published author.
The definition of “successful” also varies widely:
Did you (as some of my colleagues have done) get on the “Today” show?
Did you hit the best-seller list?
Did you sell more than 500 copies? 100? 10?
Was your advance $150,000? $750,000? (Or, more typically, $25,000 or less?)
Was it made into a movie or television series (preferably starring Julia Roberts or Brad Pitt, maybe both)?
Writing seems a perfect career for introverts, since it entails many hours alone in a quiet room. That’s the fun part of the job. Easy, even. But once your book is published, the real work starts: Getting people to buy it.
The days of publishers spending big bucks on book promotion are long gone. Today, after you manage to sell the book to a publisher, you then have to sell it to readers. So people who have chosen the solitary life of the writer are forced not just to step into the spotlight, but to chase it down. Heck, you have to get your own spotlight, point it at yourself, and holler “LOOK AT ME!”
But an author’s gotta do what an author’s gotta do. What’s it like? Here, from four introverted writers, is a mix of advice and fear and loathing.
Today is a day for me to sit still. I spent the last two days, from 9:00 to 6:30, traversing the enormous Javits Center, Manhattan’s conference center, attending the annual National Retail Federation Big Show.
There were 15,000 people attending and thousands of exhibitors, most of them people selling their products and services (from security cameras to signage to software) to retailers. As I stood in line to buy my coffee, Kip Tindell, CEO of The Container Store, a huge celebrity in this world, walked right past me.
But who should I address? What should I say?
One of the people I interviewed for my new book is the CEO of a software company who invited me to be the keynote speaker at his users’ conference — with major players in attendance like Kohls, Home Depot, Old Navy. Being a keynote speaker, while a fantastic honor, was scary enough, and I even did it while on crutches.
Scary or not, for my new retail book to take off — “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” (Portfolio, April 14, 2011) — I need to do much, much more of this sort of self-promotion, meeting senior executives with decades of experience.
No one could possibly work the Big Show alone, so two friends — bubbly, outgoing blonds my age — also worked the room handing out postcards for the book. I paid one of them for her time, $180 out of my own pocket for her labor and energy.
It’s not easy!
Approaching total strangers hour after hour after hour to explain why I/my book are fabulous requires a sort of psychic stamina few people possess.
Barb and Hannah did a great job and I’ve made some terrific new contacts for speaking engagements and book sales.
The whole thing is a little terrifying to someone who — today — is writing this wearing a T-shirt and sweats, no make-up, uncombed hair, face unwashed.
Writers do most of our work alone at home, interacting with sources by phone or email because so many of them live very far away; even if they’re an hour away, we often can’t afford the two hours’ wasted time traveling to and from their location. (Now that gas is already $3.35 a gallon here as well.)
So the HeyhowareyaGreattomeetyou! of determined, ongoing book marketing and promotion can be a real a shock to the system. Most writers are fairly private people, attached to a computer and printer for months, if not years, interacting for their book primarily with three key players — your agent, editor and publicist.
All of whom are on your side.
Then — boom! — you’re shot out of the editorial cannon and into public view, criticism, questioning and judgment. Fellow journalists whip out their notepads and cameras and it’s my turn to be listened to and quoted. Gulp.
I now carry hairspray and a mirror. (I normally often forget to carry a hairbrush, let alone my cellphone.)
I was interviewed for two videos yesterday and, totally by chance, by a reporter from Women’s Wear Daily as I sat in a hallway.
As authors today now know, or quickly learn, whether you can produce a publishable manuscript is only one piece of the puzzle. How are you on YouTube?
From The New York Times:
“But people who spend their whole lives writing and people who are good on video turn out to be two very different sets of people,” said the best-selling author Mary Karr, who last year starred in her first book video for her memoir “Lit.”
When, at her publisher’s request, Ms. Karr created the trailer, “I looked like a person in a studio who had never been in a studio.” She scrapped the footage and asked her son to shoot her in their living room instead. The final version opens with Ms. Karr drawling, “I’m Mary Karr and I’m here to talk about my new book, ‘Lit.’ ” She goes on to say, in her trademark twang, that the book “took me seven years to write, and believe me, I would have made more money working at McDonald’s.” Featuring Ms. Karr’s languid wit and reluctant half-smiles, punctuated by family photos of the author, the trailer is actually pretty good.
But don’t tell that to the author. “It is, in a word, humiliating,” Ms. Karr said.
For many authors, it was bad enough when, once every book, you had to slick on makeup, hire a photographer and adopt a writerly pose — hand on chin, furrowed brow — for the book jacket portrait.
I saw this when I sold my first book, on a cold wintry day in 2002, summoned to the headquarters of Simon & Schuster to meet several executives face to face. I knew this was my audition: Could I handle public pressure? Tough questions asked face to face? Was I fat or spotty? Did I stutter? Wilt under pressure?
I wore navy blue wool, my power uniform — anything that airline pilots or cops wear makes me feel safe and strong.
When I sold my second book, in September 2009, I sat in a very small room with, once more, my agent and three executives who would decide if I was worth their investment. This time I wore black, to hide the sweat rings. I knew how I comported myself there could kill the deal. This is the author’s lot now, donning a cool, calm, engaging public face.
It demands a very different set of skills to be able to chat lucidly and wittily to a camera, whether on YouTube or on CNN, or to do live radio or public events than to write prose of any value. Writers, by their nature and/or training, look inward or observe others. Many find such preening abhorrent, simply not who they really are.