Another week in the United States — which, every week, only means more gun deaths.
This week, one of them was a student about to graduate high school, Kendrick Castillo, killed trying to save his classmates from a shooter.
In their classroom.
The 18-year-old was watching “The Princess Bride” in his British literature class when the shooter pulled out a gun, demanding that nobody moved. After Kendrick lunged at the shooter, three other students also tackled the gunman and tried to subdue him while the rest of the class fled the room.
Kendrick was an only child, but his friends, including the members of the school’s robotics team, were like his siblings, his father said. They would host holiday gift exchanges at his home, shared his toys as a child and would pay for a friend’s movie tickets if someone didn’t have money.
“Be selfless, that’s what my son was, and it got him killed, but he saved others,” Castillo said.
In the years 2002 and 2003, I traveled the United States, alone, mostly by car, to try and better understand this attachment to firearms, incomprehensible to millions of others — whether Americans or those living outside the country.
I did three sessions of handgun training, and have fired everything from a .22 rifle to an AR-15, a Glock 9mm (standard police issue) to a .357 Magnum.
I don’t own one or want to.
But, unlikely as a Canadian, I’m now considered one of the experts on the subject of Americans and guns.
A few reasons why getting rid of guns is so incredibly difficult:
— Sentimental and emotional reasons. A gun is often handed down as a family heirloom, generation through generation, as revered as a set of delicate china or a favorite armchair. A father’s service weapon, a great-grandfather’s hunting rifle.
–— Hatred and fear of government. This is intensely and unchangingly American in a nation founded on the hatred and fear of centralized authority. I’ve “debated” on BBC a man absolutely convinced the government is likely to burst into his home one day and grab all his guns.
— Self-defense. Linked to fear and hatred of government, the belief (true in some communities) that law enforcement simply won’t be there, or quickly enough, to save your life from an attack.
— Autonomy and independence. Deeply American is the value that it’s all up to you to take care of everything.
— Regional differences.For every urbanite who disdains the very idea of touching a gun, let alone owning one, there are many Americans who love to hunt, whether for sport or for food to feed their families.
— The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. If it didn’t exist, the entire debate could change overnight: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” An analysis, here.
I spoke to 104 Americans from 29 states, from teens to seniors, and asked each one of them how a gun has affected their lives. Some love them, some fear them.
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.
I’ve been slinging words for a living, since my sophomore year of university.
I’ve never formally studied writing, except for a degree from a demanding faculty in English lit.
I originally wanted to be a radio DJ, but knew I wanted to write for a living from a very early age, maybe 12 or so. Over my career, I’ve worked as an editor for three magazines and a reporter for three major daily newspapers, all of which has helped me think more clearly and write (I hope!) better; my website, if you’re interested, has some of my work.
In 1998, I won a National Magazine Award in Canada for a humor essay about, (what else?) my divorce.
I’ve derived so many pleasures from writing, for decades, including:
As Broadside heads into its eighth year, I’m grateful for everyone who makes the time to come by, to read, to comment, and to return, some year after year. I know you’ve got many other ways to spend your time and attention, so thank you!
I first posted here on July 1, 2009, terrified. I write for a living, but thought no one would ever bother to read my own private thoughts. But we’re now at 16,635 followers.
Broadside has also been chosen for Freshly Pressed six times, a real honor.
Civil, lively conversation
One of the main reasons I write this blog, and continue to enjoy producing it. While I do wish more people “liked” and commented, I really value those who make time to speak up.
The Internet is so full of verbal violence. Not here!
Ongoing readership for my two books
I grew up in Canada, which runs something called the Public Lending Rights program, essentially royalty payments made by Canadian libraries to books registered through their program. Every year they send me a check, usually about $450, based on how often my books are borrowed and read, which tells me readers are still reaching for my work and still finding value in it.
That’s why writers write: to find readers!
Here’s a link to Blown Away; and one to Malled — if you have a book club that would like to read and discuss either of them (i.e. buying at least a dozen), I’ll Skype in for a Q and A.
I recently went out for lunch in Manhattan with a friend who’s 20 years my junior, a woman who now lives in London but who was working in Bahrain when I first spoke to her, as a source for a New York Times business story.
She seems to live in an airplane, but we share unlikely passions, like fragrance. It’s a rare thing, but sometimes a source becomes a pal, as have some fellow bloggers, as have many of my colleagues throughout the years, whether staff or freelance.
Learning about the world
I get paid to learn.
It’s a real privilege to meet or speak to such a range of people, from a British female bank CEO to a female Admiral to Olympic athletes to convicted felons to a Prime Minister to a neurosurgeon to an FBI firearms instructor.
Journalism is no way to become wealthy, but the joy of encountering so many different people and hearing and sharing their stories is worth a lot to me.
Being of service
It’s not waitressing or working retail, but journalism really is in many ways a service industry — if what we produce isn’t useful or meaningful to our readers, viewers and listeners, it’s time to hang up those skates!
I’m delighted when I hear from readers that they’ve learned something new and useful from my work; one Canadian woman said a story of mine had saved her life, as I covered a weird side effect of a medication that doctors kept dismissing when patients complained. Her mother read my story and shared it with her daughter who pushed back harder on her physician.
Telling great stories
The world is simply brimming with hundreds of amazing, untold stories.
Some are deeply unsettling, and it’s our role as reporters to bear fearless and intimate witness to war, crime, natural disaster, social injustice, racism.
Others are lying inside people who have simply never before been asked to talk to a reporter. Their untold tales are powerful, bursting with the energy of something finally unleashed.
It’s a huge responsibility to try to carve story from the raw material of reality — choosing the right characters, setting scenes, evoking emotion, choosing just the right words, in the right order, at the right length.
It is never easy.
It never should be.
Not every journalist can count on a life of adventure, but it’s there for the taking if you choose your jobs and assignments carefully.
For work, I’ve been to the Arctic circle, to visit a tiny Inuit village, spent eight days in a truck with a French trucker going from Perpignan to Istanbul, taken class with the Royal Danish Ballet, have climbed the rigging 100 feet up and worked on a foot-rope aboard a Tall Ship, taken the helm of a multi-million America’s Cup contender.
I’m grateful for all these paid adventures and hope to have a few more before I’m done.
Here’s a piece that opens the kimono on one of the sadder moments in many author’s lives, from The New York Times Book Review:
I assumed the humiliations had ended. They began even before my book was published, when network morning shows that regularly had me on now refused my pleas for some airtime to promote it. Once the book came out in 2012, it only got worse…
Less than a year after publication, my publisher, Hachette, told me they were mulching the tens of thousands of remaining copies of my book, “Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity,” and suggested I purchase copies while they still existed. I capitulated, sending a check to the very people who once paid me to write it…Perhaps the worst indignity is that Hachette sends me a statement each quarter listing my sales and charting my progress toward paying back my advance. Which is pointless unless Hachette pays royalties to authors’ great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren…
But after three years of suffering through my stupid quest to sell a book, I encountered an ignominy I didn’t even know existed. My 6-year-old son’s friend Livia came over for a play date, and her mom brought a copy of my book for me to sign… “Property of the Calgary Public Library.”
I’ve written two books published by major New York houses, and am delighted to have ticked the box on a life’s dream in so doing.
But, oy, it’s not what people think!
Authors are rich!
Hah. Some, yes, earn very great sums from their work, self-published or commercially-published. Often it’s not the books you’d think, but might be 100s of 1000s of copies of a self-help book, not just John Grisham or J.K. Rowling.
Those making serious bank see their work optioned for film and/or television and made into a major motion picture.
You get to choose your title and cover — of course!
Hah, again. Yes, if you’re someone they feel is important enough to their bottom line and whose prior sales offer proven clout. For the rest of us? Your contract offers only “consultation”, not “approval.” Luckily, in both instances, I absolutely loved the covers designed so thoughtfully by my publishers. The first title was mine and the second, (thanks!) came from the publisher.
You’d think every author knows exactly what to call their own book, right? Wrong.
Books tours are amazing
Maybe for some. The Big Names are flown to multiple cities and even multiple countries, met in each place by someone assigned to be their chauffeur and chaperone. The rest of us? That’s where a huge network of well-placed and enthusiastic readers, bloggers, reviewers and media pals is essential. Most “tours” today are by Skype, email, blog “tours” or phone.
Writing books rewards the solitary genius
Today, the first question every would-be author needs to answer is: ‘What’s your platform? How many Twitter/Facebook/Instagram followers do you have?”
Until or unless you can prove a potential audience of thousands — minimally 10s of thousands, millions even better — you’re likely to hit a wall.
Writing books helps you make money for years to come
Again, wildly variable.
Write a textbook used by thousands of students? Maybe. Literary fiction? Maybe not. Today’s “advances” — money paid to the author upon a publisher’s acquisition of the right to publish a book — are now typically paid out over years. My final payment (not unusual now) on Malled came a full year after publication.
Very, very writers ever “earn out” — i.e. sell enough copies to actually earn money beyond your advance. First, you have to repay your advance. That $25 hardcover price? You, the author, see only a small percentage applied from each book’s sale — meaning it can take years, decades or never to earn out and receive a royalty.
There’s also the visceral terror of turning in a full manuscript to be told it’s simply deemed “unpublishable” — and being asked for the advance back. I know someone it happened to, and have heard of others. Brrrrrr!
“Malled” needed a lot of revisions, so many I thought it might be impossible to achieve. Luckily, I had a smart/tough editor and we got it done. (Some readers, of course, savaged it anyway.) Tant pis, mes chers!
It’s deeply moving to me, and validating, to know my work is still finding readers years later.
Since a library book is bought once, (even multiple copies), it represents hundreds, if not thousands, of potentially lost sales and income.
Many nations offer this payment to registered authors — but of course not the United States.
Writing a book, especially of non-fiction, also establishes you as an expert; I was interviewed twice this past week, thanks to my books — by The Guardian (on retail) and The Christian Science Monitor, about women and gun use, thanks to Blown Away.
I really hope to write and sell a few more books. We’ll see.
In June, I participated in a National Press Foundation fellowship on retirement, and its many challenges: physical, financial, emotional. We had 19 (!) speakers in three days, so I’m still processing it all.
I’m a generalist, and write about almost everything, (not science, tech, parenting, beauty.)
If you need help with a writing or editing project or can refer me to someone who does, let me know!
I’ve also worked with the Consulate General of Canada, the New York School of Interior Design and WaterAid America to craft their messages.
This week has been crazy; for a story, I spent a day in Manhattan visiting the new Westfield mall next to the 9/11 memorial, interviewing a few shoppers — including, in French, a couple visiting from Brittany.
I hadn’t been down there since 9/11 and I deliberately avoided even looking at the memorial. I know some tourists love it, but the memories are, even, 15 years later, too painful and weird to re-live.
Using a cane right now for balance, (my right knee has bad arthritis), slowed me way down but I hopped a city bus and headed back uptown to 48th Street to meet and interview a young woman for a Times piece.
I hope some of you will make the trip over to check it out and, if you like it, Facebook and tweet it.
I’ll be writing five posts a month.
A reminder that I also teach and coach fellow bloggers and writers, and have done so with people worldwide, from Singapore to New Zealand to Germany to Maryland, often via Skype.
I charge $225/hour, (payable though PayPal), with a one-hour minimum and my time and skills are yours; you can ask me for whatever help you need: reading a pitch, reading a story draft, advice on blogging, how to sell a non-fiction book…been there, done that!
We’re all so time-starved, between school and work and kids and aging parents and illness, (ours or others’) and income (getting, keeping, investing if lucky). Oh, and TV and movies and other places on the Internet.
Some days I picture libraries and bookstores as a piteous forest, arms reaching out entreatingly — read us!
In an era of CPA, continuous partial attention, (a phrase coined in the Dark Ages, back in 1998), our undivided attention is now a rarity.
Each weekend, I plow through the Saturday New York Times, Sunday New York Times and the weekend Financial Times; two of these include magazines also full of content and images.
As my husband asked recently, “How many words do you think that is?”
I read them in print, as much for the pleasure of its tactility as the satisfaction of tossing all the read sections on the floor.
I also read in print as an escape from the computer screen, to which I’m attached for so many hours every day — like you, I suspect!
My eyes get tired. I want a different medium.
In addition to these, I read the NYT and FT daily and, for work and pleasure, magazines ranging from PeriodHome (a British shelter mag) to Wired to Bloomberg Businessweek. (My husband subscribes to photo and golf magazines and Monocle and Foreign Affairs as well.)
I make a little time to consume digital stories, and some of them are terrific, (on Medium, Narratively and others.)
I follow 905 Twitter accounts, about 85 percent of which are news sources and, when read en masse, can be deeply disorienting and confusing — I’ll see graphic news photos of the latest MidEast terrorist bombing followed immediately by a pastel Dorset living room from a design magazine.
And I still make time to read books, the most recent being “Answered Prayers”, a classic by the late Truman Capote, whose desperate indiscretion destroyed his glittering career. I found it odd, bitter, not enjoyable. I’m glad I’ve read it, but what a nasty little creature he was! (This, in case you forgot, is the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, later adapted to a legendary film.)
And another American classic, the 1937 “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston. I put it off for ages, then couldn’t put it down: great characters and plot, written in dialect.
I never leave home, (and have done this my whole life), without a book or magazine or newspaper, and often all of these at once.
These bookshelf photos are some shelfies — what’s on our bookshelves at home here in New York…no, I haven’t (yet!) read all of them.
Here is how it works: the company gives free e-books to a group of readers, often before publication. Rather than asking readers to write a review, it tells them to click on a link embedded in the e-book that will upload all the information that the device has recorded. The information shows Jellybooks when people read and for how long, how far they get in a book and how quickly they read, among other details. It resembles how Amazon and Apple, by looking at data stored in e-reading devices and apps, can see how often books are opened and how far into a book readers get.
Jellybooks has run tests on nearly 200 books for seven publishers, one major American publisher, three British publishers and three German houses. Most of the publishers did not want to be identified, to avoid alarming their authors. The company typically gathers reading data from groups of 200 to 600 readers.
Mr. Rhomberg recently gave a workshop at Digital Book World, a publishing conference in New York, and some of his findings confirmed the worst fears of publishers and authors.
On average, fewer than half of the books tested were finished by a majority of readers. Most readers typically give up on a book in the early chapters. Women tend to quit after 50 to 100 pages, men after 30 to 50. Only 5 percent of the books Jellybooks tested were completed by more than 75 percent of readers. Sixty percent of books fell into a range where 25 percent to 50 percent of test readers finished them. Business books have surprisingly low completion rates.
Some of the reasons I read:
What words and phrases did the writer choose? Do they work? What emotions are they eliciting in me?
Do I love their choices or am I finding them irritating and distracting? Why?
Do I wish I could write as beautifully? (Read “H is for Hawk” for some exquisite use of language.)
Forever deeply curious about the world — history, politics, economics, nature, science, belief systems, psychology, business, music, art, antiques. There’s so much I don’t know! So much I want to understand.
Writing that clearly and compellingly teaches me? Yes, please!
Maybe it’s ancient Egypt or Edwardian-era London or Paris in the 16th. century or a rural town populated primarily, in an era of segregation, by African-Americans. I need to visit other worlds, literally and imaginatively.
Great writing takes us there.
It’s such a joy to escape into a great piece of writing, so that when you stop reading you look up, disoriented and a bit dazed.
Where were you? Where are you now?
Love savoring characters so real you want to have lunch with them and miss them terribly when you’re done. I still miss the cast of “The Goldfinch”, a doorstop of a book given to me for my birthday two years ago. I wonder about the residents of the Paris apartment building in “The Elegance of the Hedgehog.”
I also wonder about the ongoing lives of so many of the people I read about in journalism and non-fiction, from soldiers to aid workers to choreographers
As someone who writes for a living, I need to read great work by other writers, whether a book review, an essay, an op-ed, a novel, even a great tweet. I want to see how other writers have chosen to structure a narrative, create suspense, choose and carry a theme, or several, to completion.
It can be non-fiction, journalism, an essay, from the 21st century or the 16th.
Artists in every genre look to the greats for inspiration. I do too.
Jose and I have a collection of reference books — of photography, painting, decorative arts, antiques and home design. These include works on Inuit women artists, Gustav Klimt, elephants, jewelry, vintage textiles and a gorgeous two-volume Taschen collection of global interior design.
On a cold wintry afternoon, paging through these glorious images is a lovely break.
Depending on genre — self-help, memoir, essay, religion, philosophy — what a writer chooses to share about their life and their intimate struggles can help readers facing the same or similar challenges.
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’s an interesting discussion, from The New York Times Book Review, about whether or not authors should run around promoting themselves and their products books.
Here’s James Parker on why it’s such a bad idea:
She must explain herself. He must sell himself. To a gifted minority it comes naturally; to the rest, it really doesn’t. Hence the tremendous awkwardness that often attends these sorties into the national mind. Author photos, for example, are invariably ghastly: pouting, bedraggled or staring down with blazing eyes from the spire of genius, the author is basically saying (or trying to say): “Trust me. I’m worth it.” As for media appearances, any interview in which the author doesn’t swear uncontrollably or break into loud sobs must be considered a public relations triumph.
People who choose to write for a living generally prefer to withdraw into their own heads and work at their own pace.
If we were super-chatty extroverts, we would have gone into PR.
If we really loved having our photo taken or being witty in two-minute soundbites, we would have chosen a career in television. Trying to boil down nuance into seconds is difficult and scary as hell — and I’ve done a fair bit of television and radio promotion for my books, whether BBC radio and television, NPR or Al Jazeera America.
And “the public” can be brutal, (see: amazon “reviews”), ignorant and brutally ignorant of what it takes to even get a book commercially published. Authors often get asked to speak at someone’s lunch or alumni group or women’s club, unpaid.
Yet if your book sells poorly — fewer than 10,000 copies — your odds of an agent repping you, or any publisher touching your next attempt shrivel very quickly.
So we feel compelled to sing and dance and do blog tours, even if that’s about as appealing as gum surgery.
Here’s Anna Holmes taking the opposite view:
Book promotion can offer a feeling of agency for authors trying to find their way in an industry that can seem otherwise fickle, opaque and unmeritocratic…
And the readers, really, are where it’s at. There’s nothing more rewarding than taking — or making — opportunities to connect with potential readers face to face or, thanks to the rise of the Internet, pixel to pixel. In fact, I consider book promotion as much of an obligation as proofreading a manuscript. Writing is, in itself, an act of engaging with others, of seeking connection over mere expression. If you were to put a book out into the world, which would you rather have — conversation or silence?
Holmes is being super-polite; “unmeritocratic” is Times-speak for:
How did that piece of shit ever find a publisher?!
I have two friends who head the publicity departments of two major American publishers. I love them as friends, but to hear their insiders’ view of this business is blood-chilling. One told me recently she read a proposal so incompetent she said, “Not a chance.”
Yet the house bought it for a lot of money, because the writer already has a huge following for her website — i.e. demand for her product.
I was intrigued when I started to follow writer Sarah Salway’s British blog, Writer in the Garden, and decided to follow her on Twitter — and read the bio’s of the many highly-accomplished UK writers she follows. Their self-presentation was almost uniformly witty and self-deprecating, a style I used to employ when I moved from Brit-inflected Canada to the U.S. — and to chest-thumping New York City, aka Braggarts ‘r us!
If you’re shy and quiet and reserved about your work here, hang it up kids, because you’re probably going to stay invisible and powerless.
In our noisy, crowded, you-only-get-six-seconds’-of-my-attention culture, introverts can have a tough time getting their books attention, reviews and sales.
I have to say, on balance, I side with Holmes. I’d rather initiate a convo with my readers than sit around waiting for someone to find my books.
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!
“There were so many writers I know and admire who I also knew would appreciate any income at all,” she said in an email. “Most of us, whether or not we are ‘successful,’ really struggle financially in this city. Also, we’ve reached this point at which we’ve come to assume art should be free, and copyright is under assault, etc., and the bald fact is that the artist has to live, too. So I really liked the idea of creating (or at least extending) a new income source for writers.”
Here are some reasons I now say “No, thanks” to most of the people who want my unpaid time, some of which might apply to you as well:
Your audience isn’t going to welcome my ideas
I learned this early, the hard way — speaking unpaid, to boot. Someone I’d interviewed for my retail book, “Malled”, asked me to address his annual conference. He, the CEO of a wildly successful software firm, had about 75 people flying in to Las Vegas, expecting to hear updates on the labor management software they buy from him. They weren’t — even though the CEO cared as passionately as I — the least bit interested in how to better hire, manage and motivate retail associates, my central message. The room was distinctly frosty.
Yes, I got to stay at the Bellagio. But this proved to be a serious mismatch. Next time, I’ll take the psychic hit, but only softened by a four-figure check.
I’m not fond of flying, especially turbulence
Are you eager to jump on a plane heading anywhere, unless it’s a business or first-class ticket with a car and driver waiting at the other end? It rarely is for midlist authors.
I make no money selling books
Non-authors have no clue how the publishing world functions, and assume that every book we sell means money in our pockets. It doesn’t! If you have commercially published a book, you have been paid an advance. Only after you have paid off the advance, (and you’ll make maybe 10% of the cover price of each book you sell), will you ever see another penny. Most authors never do.
A “great lunch” is really not an appealing offer
Seriously. I know you mean to be kind, but I can buy my own food and eat it on my own schedule.
Some of us loathe and fear public speaking
I don’t, but many authors do. Ours is a solitary business, one spent alone at home huddled over a notebook or computer. We spend most of our time thinking, writing, revising. We chose this business because it suits our nature. So standing up in front of a room filled with strangers — whose comments and questions can be quite weird or rude — can be stressful. Why bother?
Your audience is too small
Here’s the math. On a good day, I can sell my books to one-third of the room; i.e. if there are 30 people attending my presentation, 10 will usually buy my book, if 100, 30. Most audiences are small, fewer than 50 or 60 people.
The odds of someone in the room being willing and able to pay me to do the next gig? Slim to none. And I’ve still lost half my workday.
Your audience isn’t my audience
Even if you’ve gathered 100 or 200 or 300 people, are they the people most interested in my topic? If not, I’m an annoyance, and their lack of interest in my work — let alone a passion for the issues I care deeply about — creates a headwind I have no stomach for. It’s emotionally draining for me and it’s no fun for them. If you’ve scheduled me with several other authors, as is often the case, their audience may be completely different from mine.
It costs me time and money to do this for you
You’ve asked me to donate at least three or four hours of my workday — probably driving 30 minutes each way, (plus the cost of gas), to sit for several hours through lunch and socializing, speak, answer questions and sell and sign books. That’s a day’s paid work wasted. I’ve actually had a major commercial organization in another country insist they couldn’t pay me a penny, even travel costs, to speak at their annual conference.
If you perceive so little value in my time and skills, I’m staying home, thanks.
Your competitors pay!
I drive five minutes to my local library — where my friends and neighbors show up by the dozens — and still get paid $50. Local women’s clubs pay. I was paid $8,000 to speak at a conference in New Orleans in 2012. Yes, really.
If you have to, sell tickets at $10 each, but your payment shows respect for my time, skills and experience. Whatever you feel, we don’t necessarily consider it a privilege or honor to talk about our books to people who don’t value our time.
Why exactly do you, and your audience, expect free entertainment from us?
I don’t believe in your cause, the one you’re selling my brand to win attendance
I already donate my time and money to causes I personally believe in. Unless I’m passionate about yours, and eager to help you raise funds for it, I’ve already made my pro bono commitments.