Advice for aspiring and first time authors or what I learned about the book business in '09
I have not exactly been shy about mentioning my book The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought To You By Pop Culture in these here pages. But I’ve never really talked about the experience of putting out a book, which has been perhaps the greatest and most rewarding of my life (yes, better even than doing a basic-cable panel show in Canada with Erik Estrada). The end of the year is a time for reflection and now that I’ve turned in my follow-up, the My Year of Flops book due out in October of 2010 (at the risk of being immodest, I feel it’s quite good and has a fuckton of new material), I thought I would share some of what I’ve learned through this amazing, exhilarating, heartbreaking, glorious, terrifying process and offer some advice and tips to aspiring and first time authors. I know a lot of you are writers yourselves, so I figured this information might be useful. Throughout this journey (and that’s what it’s been, an incredible journey) I’ve gotten wonderful advice from my agent, editor and fellow authors so I’d like to pay it forward, Haley Joel Osment style.
A few years back, when a manuscript I’d written about my experiences on a poorly rated, mildly disreputable basic cable movie review panel show didn’t sell, I wrote to a novelist and memoirist named Stephen Elliott (who recently put out a fine book called The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism and Murder I plan to write about in this space in the near future) who is an alumnus of the same group home system as myself asking for advice on how to deal with rejection. I was looking for a pep talk. Instead I got a cold, bracing dose of reality. I had romanticized and idealized the idea of publishing a book but Elliott’s words provided me with a much-needed sense of perspective and realism. It was a potent reminder that what we want and what we need are seldom the same.
He described being an author as a difficult process with little immediate payoff, a trade where it’s nearly impossible to make a living without working a day job, where respect is hard to come by and you’re constantly a target for criticism, where you spend years writing something close to your soul only to see someone glibly tear it apart in a few hundred words. It’s a world of hurt and disappointment where you never stop struggling to make your voice heard and you’re lucky to sell a fraction of one percent of what, say, Sarah Palin’s memoir will sell in its first week. This brings me to my first point.
1. Lose your illusions. Putting out a book is the beginning, not the end
Congratulations! You’ve sold a book. Bask in that accomplishment for as long as possible. You are right to feel proud of yourself. But the struggle has really just begun. If you think you’ve made it and your days of having to prove yourself and pay dues are over you couldn’t be more wrong. You’ll have to fight and work and persevere at every stage of the process. If you’ve sold a book proposal (an outline pitching the book you plan to write) you have to write the book you’ve sold. It’s different for novels, which are almost invariably sold as finished manuscripts. That can be a harrowing process. I love writing and derive an almost unseemly amount of pleasure out of the process but retracing the darkest moments of my past was a profoundly emotional experience that entailed reliving a lot of pain and conjuring up old demons. My Year of Flops wasn’t as harrowing but it was still surprisingly difficult and time and labor-intensive. If you take pride in what you do, you’ll go over your book over and over again with a fine-toothed comb and obsess about it to no end. Then once your literary baby is out in the world you have no idea how it will be received.
Chuck Klosterman, one of several authors who’ve been generous with advice, says that one of the best times of any author’s life is before their first book comes out. He wished he’d savored it more. At that stage your book still radiates all the potential in the world. The sky’s the limit. Your book might be the underdog that conquers the world, the Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius or The Area of My Expertise that seemingly come out of nowhere and become big sellers. It could be turned into a movie. Then your book actually comes out and the reality sets in. It’s competing against five thousand other books in the bookstore and millions more online, most by writers better known and more experienced than you. You’re implicitly asking people to choose your book over tomes by huge celebrities or powerful politicians or timeless classics. That’s incredibly daunting.
2. Writing books is a not a particularly efficient way to make money
My friend and fellow A.V Clubber Claire Zulkey, author of the excellent novel An Off Year suggested this one. Say you get a sixty thousand dollar advance for your first book. Congratulations! That’s awesome. You did quite nicely for yourself. Again, you should be proud. Now let’s look at that number a little closer. First, let’s subtract fifteen percent from that total for your agent. She deserves it. She did an excellent job and got you a nice advance for a first time author with no track record. So that sixty thousand dollars is now more like fifty-one thousand dollars. Uncle Sam wants his share as well, and you’ll be paying self-employment taxes on your book money, which is substantially higher than payroll taxes. In Illinois it’s somewhere in the forty two to forty five percent range so now that fifty one thousand is down to something more like twenty-eight thousand dollars. Bear in mind also that putting out a book is a time-intensive process. It might take you a year to write it and another year to come out. So now that sixty thousand dollar windfall has turned into fourteen thousand dollars a year. You should still be proud: you got your book past the finishing line and got a nice advance. But you might not want to quit your job and start popping Cristal just yet. That brings me to the next piece of advice
3. If you get an advance, don’t disclose the amount to friends, family or acquaintances
Again, that sixty thousand dollar number is deceptive. If you brag to someone that you’ve got a sixty thousand dollar advance there’s a good chance they’ll imagine you’ve suddenly got a sixty thousand dollar bankroll and can spend every night making it rain in the strip club, not that you will have a percentage of that amount, most likely doled out in three or four installments over a year or two. So it’s wise to keep that number to yourself.
4. That 40 stop-national book tour probably isn’t going to happen
Commenters sometimes ask why we don’t come to their city. The answer, not surprisingly, is that book tours are prohibitively expensive. The entire publishing industry is in a lengthy recession so it’s likely that as a first time author you’ll be doing a reading in your hometown and maybe a nearby city. That will probably be it unless you plan to hustle and try to scare up tour stops on your own. Also, as a first time author you are an unknown, unproven commodity. Your reading might be packed or it might be empty. There’s really no way to know. Besides, it’s not as if readings by non-famous, first-time authors rival NASCAR or the new James Cameron movie for popularity.
I got to experience both extremes on my tour. I had something like eighty people brave a hellacious thunderstorm to see me in Manhattan and four people attend a reading in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, a number that included a bigwig at The Onion and a woman I came to think of as my Book Mother, since she was a very maternal older woman who was hired by my publisher Scribner to drive me to various appearances and show me the ropes. She was great and the Oconomowoc reading turned out to be a wonderful night; it was more of an intimate conversation than a reading. I was incredibly grateful for everyone who showed up at every one of my readings. This was another great lesson; every first time author is going to have a reading where almost no one shows up. It’s a rite of passage. I’m glad I had that experience. As a first timer you have to make every reading count, whether five thousand people show up or five. You will become incredibly grateful for everyone who takes a chance and buys your book.
During my tour I was chauffeured around by drivers and stayed in fancy hotels. I felt like a big shot but I would have settled for a Greyhound bus and the Econo-Lodge. And I came to understand why a months-long book tour is something afforded folks who are guaranteed to draw a crowd, like the Alan Aldas or Roger Clemens of the world.
5. A big promotional push is also probably not going to happen
If you’re a first-time author who isn’t an athlete, television or movie star there is an eighty to ninety percent chance that your publisher will not spend money advertising your book. Again, the industry is in a severe downturn so it’s up to you to get the word out anyway you can. God helps those who help themselves. I was lucky enough to have a wonderful publicist who got me coverage in places I never imagined possible, like a quarter of a page in the freaking USA Today the day my book came out and a half-hour long interview on Air America with Ronald Reagan Jr. One of the more surreal aspects of my book tour involved having Reagan Jr, whose dad was perhaps the preeminent bogeyman of my childhood, say something to the effect of, “I thought I had an interesting story but you—” but if you think your publisher is going to splurge on an ad in The New Yorker you’re going to be disappointed.
6. David Sedaris and Jon Stewart are probably not going to blurb your book
Wouldn’t it be great to get a big, glowing blurb from one of your heroes to stick on the front of your debut? It sure would. That’s why there are probably two hundred and fifty galleys gathering dust in a corner of Jon Stewart’s office. And it’s not like Stewart lies around the office all day, thinking, “Man, I wish I had something to occupy my time.” It’s that way with most of the people you’d just kill to have endorse your book, like David Sedaris, who is semi-retired from the blurbing business. Of course it never hurts to ask but ninety to ninety-five percent of the people you ask to blurb your book will never get back to you. You’ll become grateful even for emails politely explaining that the would-be blurber would love to help you out but doesn’t have the time to read a three hundred and fifty page book by a complete stranger. That’s why you need to work every connection you have. A friend of a friend or a friendly acquaintance is a lot more likely to give your book consideration than someone you watch on TV every night and has no idea who you are or why your story is worth their very valuable, very limited time. I was incredibly lucky with the blurbs I got for my book and am incredibly grateful to all the blurbers who showed me love but having realistic expectations about who will devote ten hours to reading your book will make the process a whole lot less stressful.
7. Shit happens. Brace yourself for the worst
For the most part, the world has been very kind to The Big Rewind. It got a lot of great press. Readers really seem to like it. It got its share of very positive reviews. Then, about three months after it came out I found out the Washington Post was reviewing my book. Being a pessimist by nature I feared the worst, but my friends and family tried to assure me the paper wouldn’t review a book that late just to attack it.
Oh dear Lord was I wrong. The reviewer essentially argued that I created the A.V Club because I’m a cruel hipster who despises popular culture. In a violently schizophrenic bit of prose, the writer railed against what he felt was an excess of mean-spiritedness in pop culture criticism by viciously attacking what I, and almost everyone else, felt was a deeply empathetic, humane chronicle of how pop culture has helped me survive a traumatic childhood, institutionalization, four years in a group home and my lifelong battle with depression, while using phrases like “snarkitect” and “fauxteurs” and implying that anyone who likes Terry Gilliam, Wes Anderson or Beastie Boys is a moron whose opinion is worthless. It was such a self-evidently bogus, hypocritical, disingenuous and misguided attack that every comment in the Washington Post message board questioned whether the critic had ever even read The A.V Club.
If you write about yourself or your life (something I almost feel I need to apologize for, especially considering I’m still relatively young for a memoirist) there’s going to be someone who hates you for no discernible reason. It sucked but I figured one demented, surreally off-base attack on my book could only hurt so much. The next day, however, the Washington Post review was posted as the main review on the Big Rewind page on Amazon. Apparently Amazon has a contract to automatically run every Washington Post review. So now, if there’s someone who wants to check out my book thinking it might make them feel a little less alone in their struggles with depression the first thing they’ll see is a review about deriding me as a sentient ball of hate. The only really nasty review my book got is also far and away the one that will affect my book sales the most. But there’s nothing I can do about it. That review will be there ten years from now, still frothing at the mouth and spewing vitriol in every direction.
Every first-time author is going to run into a review like that or a similar stroke of terrible luck. The more personal your book is, the more the criticism is going to hurt. Writers are, by nature, thin-skinned and it’s hard not to take things personally when you bare your soul and your psychological scars on every page (though I feel I should point that I think my book is also very funny and entertaining). So brace yourself for the worst. You’re now a target and people are going to take potshots. I don’t want to over-emphasize the negative aspects of publishing a book but it’s best to have realistic expectations.
8. Appreciative readers are your real reward
In his earlier email to me, Elliott ended his reverse pep talk (which I’ve thought about often over the last three years; it really helped me) with, “You can start to savor the morsels once you lower the expectations bar. And then one day (like today for me) you'll walk into a coffee shop and the coffee shop girl will recognize you and give you a free quarter pound of fancy Ethiopian Coffee because she saw you read once and she really likes your stories. And then you won't ask yourself if it's worth it, because that's the wrong kind of question. You'll just be glad for the coffee, and the recognition. Then you'll lock yourself in your office and go back to work.”
Every author I’ve talked to has singled out hearing from people who were moved by their story, or related to it or drew comfort or strength from it, as the real and most powerful reward for writing a book. You’ll probably never see a royalty check but you might just touch somebody in a profound way. I feel the same way. I am so utterly, utterly grateful for everyone who reads my book. I am so grateful that Scribner took a chance on me and did such a fantastic job with my memoir. I’m grateful that I had such a wonderful team behind me, that I have a great agent and a wonderful editor. But more than anything I’m grateful that I have such incredible readers.
I’m so grateful that I get to make a living as a writer and work with people I love and write about things that I feel passionately about. I’m so grateful that I get to write books and share a publishing house with Don DeLillo, Stephen King, Chuck Klosterman and Steve Martin. I’m so grateful that people showed up at my readings and emailed me to say my book moved them. I’ve tried to respond to every email I receive about the Big Rewind, though I haven’t been terribly good at that so far.
Authors are way more accessible than you probably imagine. Writers being the most insecure people on Earth, every last scrap of praise is appreciated. So you’re wondering if you should go ahead and send a Facebook message or email to someone whose book you loved, go ahead and do it. I’m sure they’ll appreciate it. Publishing a book is ultimately all about the connection between the author and the reader. It’s a sacred bond. Incidentally, I apologize if I’ve overused the word “grateful” but that word best characterizes my feelings about this whole wonderful adventure and the people and institutions who’ve made it possible.
But don’t listen to me. I am, after all, just a mean old snarkitect.