Thursday, November 19, 2009

Five Things You Should and Shouldn't Say to Authors

I thought about saving this post until next April, for the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, but I'll forget about it between now and then. With Sarah Palin currently on book tour, I have a feeling many people will be turning out to book events who have never been to one before. That's a good thing; anything that gets people into bookstores is a good thing.

Before I go all negative, here are five things that every author loves to hear. These should be pretty self-explanatory:

1. "I can't wait to read this book."

2. "You look so much younger in person than you do in your author photo."

3. "We're reading you in my book club."

4. "I've given copies of your last book to all my friends."

5. "I had to buy this in hardcover because I couldn't stand to wait for the paperback."

And these are things you should restrain yourself from saying:

1. "Write faster!" You think this is flattering, but it just makes an author anxious. Non-celebrity authors write as fast as they can, because they make their money by writing. Most authors don't control their publication schedules, and feel that they're writing too fast as it is (to meet impossible deadlines), or that they aren't being published on a schedule that allows them to support themselves. This is particularly painful for authors who don't currently have a book contract; they may have half-a-dozen unsold manuscripts in their desk, which they would love to publish if only someone would make them an offer.

2. "Everyone tells me I should write a book." A variation of this is "I've always wanted to write a book." It's not rocket science. The average book is between 75,000 and 140,000 words. If you write 1,000 words a day, you can write a first draft in three months — and then spend as long as it takes to edit it and polish it and find an agent and a publisher. The fact that you haven't done this means that you don't really want to write a book, and it belittles the effort of the people who have. That's not to say that you aren't a fine doctor, lawyer, teacher, accountant, raconteur, whatever; it's just to say that you aren't an author. Unless you are, but I'm getting to that.

3. "Would you read/blurb my book?" I have been at book events where complete strangers handed authors manuscripts or self-published books. This embarrasses most authors, because every new author owes a great deal to established writers who helped them along the way. No decent human being wants to say no to a request for help, but this is not the way to ask. If you really want an established author to read and critique your work, sign up for a writing workshop. Not only is it an honest way to get help, it's an introduction to the world you want to be part of.

4. "You need to go on one of those talk shows," a.k.a. "The Oprah Question." Yes, once in a great while, an author shows up on "Oprah" or "Ellen" or "The Craig Ferguson Show." Glenn Beck has become known for featuring thriller authors on his shows. But the percentage of authors invited to be on television is tiny — and, except for Oprah's book club, it's not at all clear that being on TV helps sell books. (As far as that goes, no one really knows what makes a book sell, except for word-of-mouth, which might as well be magic; and what is Oprah's book club but word-of-Oprah's mouth?)

5. "Why aren't your books more like [insert big-name author's name here]?" Authors can and do compromise to make their books more commercial, and only the most idealistic insist on pure artistic integrity; as one friend of mine says, he writes the kind of books he writes so that he can write more books. That said, you wouldn't ask a tennis player why she wasn't a marathon runner, and you wouldn't ask a French chef why he didn't cook Asian food. If someone writes romances, it's because that's what she likes and what she's good at. It's not reasonable to ask why she's not writing science fiction.

A few authors are regular visitors here; anybody want to comment on other things you want to hear or not hear from readers?


Judy Bobalik said...

I have a great idea for a book. Want to write it with me?

The verification word was shamed. Interesting.

Karen Olson said...

"Why do you use such bad language in your books? You look like such a nice person."

Yes, I have heard that. More times than I care to count. If I had a dollar for every time someone said it, perhaps I would make more money than my advance check. Which leads to:

"Why do you have a day job?"

Kevin Wignall said...

Where to begin...

"Are you famous?" My answer - "Clearly not."

"I've got a great idea for a book - it's about..." My answer - "No, don't tell me, you'll ruin it. Just go away and write it."

"My life would make a great book - I just need a ghost writer (hint, hint)" My answer - "If you find one, let me know."

Best thing? Best thing ever? The teenager who said, "Your books are probably the only reason I'm still reading."

Anonymous said...

Kevin.. you are right, that last one Rocks! What a great thing to have someone say to you.