Six impossible things

After the Writing

In the comments on “being a writer,” JP asked about the afterward part – the stuff that’s not writing. And this is rather a good time to write about it, since I’ve been in the midst of doing publicity stuff for Across the Great Barrier for the past few weeks.

Much as nobody believes it from outside the process, getting published is not the pinnacle of achievement. It’s the bottom rung on a whole new ladder. It’s like graduating from high school; you may have been a Big Shot in the senior class, but now you’re either a freshman in college or the lowest replaceable flunky in an entry-level job, and nobody cares that you were voted Most Likely To Whatever.

In addition, the ladder isn’t a nice straightforward one; it’s more like those drawings by Escher with the stairs that go around in an endless square that you’re always climbing but never getting to the top. This is because there’s no real definition of what “the top” actually is. Is a book that sells two million copies closer to “the top” than one that wins a Pulitzer Prize? What about one that gets really good reviews but flops at the cash register? If you get a movie deal, does that make up for six reviews panning the book and a bunch more saying the movie is “even more treacle than the book it was made from”? And what if you get a mega-best-seller…and then your next book is a total flop?

That last bit is the thing a lot of people don’t count on. There’s a saying in the industry: You’re only as good as your last book. And every book is a whole new thing, with all the problems of attracting people to an untested new product. Yes, even if it’s the second book in a trilogy or the eighth book in a series.

Which brings me to promotion and publicity.

There are two pieces to this: the public appearances (which a lot of folks think of as the glamorous part), and all the prep work and support effort that goes into making them happen. The public appearances are enormous fun for writers of a gregarious temperament, but they’re pure torture for those who are shy or solitary, or even for those who are not wildly social. In either case, they are an energy drain (how noticeable depends on how much energy one has to begin with). One has to be “on” for hours at a time – not merely socializing, but socializing to a purpose (i.e., persuading people you have never met that they should buy, read, and hopefully talk favorably about your latest book to all their friends).

Speaking engagements require the most preparation – you have to write a speech (duh). Readings are simpler; all you have to do is pick out a passage that you can cover in the amount of time allotted. In both cases, there will almost certainly be questions afterwards, which is a bit scary the first couple of times until one has done it enough to have been asked the standard batch of writer questions and developed answers for them. (Where do you get your ideas? Where do you get your characters? Who were your biggest influences? What is your favorite book? Do you ever put real people in your books? etc.)

Some speaking engagements pay a fee (which can range from a token $25.00 for gas to several thousand if you’re a famous author giving a keynote speech at a prestigious conference. In the YA field, you also have school visits, which generally involve speaking to one or more groups of students (which can mean anything from the advanced Young Creative Writers class of fifteen to an all-school assembly of a thousand kids or more). Often, several schools and libraries in a particular area will get together to bring an author to town, splitting the travel fees. If the author isn’t wary, this can result in a schedule such as: arrive in town at 5:30 p.m.; check into hotel; dinner with school and library board; 7 a.m. breakfast with School A librarians; presentation to School A literary club at 9:30; all-school assembly at 10:20; drive to School B; lunch with School B teachers; presentation to School B classes in the afternoon; autographing at local bookstore; dinner with adult book group; public library presentation at 7:30 p.m.; breakfast and morning presentations at School C; dash to airport to catch 1 p.m. flight. If you’re really unwary, they’ll try to cut expenses by scheduling you to leave on a 6 a.m. flight, arriving at 8 a.m., race to School A for the 9:30 literary club presentation and proceed from there, thus reducing their costs by one night of lodging and two meals.

Mixers and parties require the least advance preparation; about all you have to do is make sure that you have a stack of business cards, an intriguing two-sentence summary of your book memorized, and a really clear idea of what your tolerance for alcohol is. You also have to remind yourself not to hole up with all the other writers in the corner; it’s the bookstore owners, book buyers, teachers, librarians, and readers that you’re supposed to be there to talk to. Even though you know that the writers won’t ask the Standard Writer Questions (see above) and everybody else will.

Science fiction conventions don’t pay (except room and meals if you’re the Guest of Honor), but they tend to be friendly and more laid-back and off-the-cuff than school visits and speaking engagements that pay.

Autographings come in three varieties, plus the hideously embarrassing “signing stock,” which is where one slinks into a bookstore, checks to make sure they actually have a copy of one’s book on the shelves, and then walks up to the cash register to tell the clerk “I’m an author, and I notice you have some of my books; would you like me to autograph them?” This is almost as bad as the normal autographing, where the author gets to sit in front of a small mountain of books for two hours, while an average of five people stop to get copies signed (three of them employees of the bookstore).

Then there are the special autograph sessions at some of the giant teacher, librarian, or bookseller’s conventions, where the publisher is giving books away free as publicity. This nearly guarantees that there will be a line (though that is “nearly”…and it’s really embarrassing and depressing when you are giving away books and nobody is interested). It also means that a lot of the folks in line will be there because they are getting a free book, not because they know anything about the book, or you. (Which is, of course, the whole point.)

And then there are the rare, precious times when everything goes right and fifty people show up at the bookstore to get your new book signed. Even then, however, there is always someone who insists on telling you in detail about some mistake you made in the previous book…which holds up the line and makes everyone else crabby.

In short, all of the public-appearance after-writing publicity stuff involves talking to and being polite to large numbers of strangers, most of whom are not going to view you with awe simply because you are a published writer. The teachers, booksellers, and librarians make up the largest part of the audience for public appearances. They are sharp, finicky customers; they often admire authors, but they’re seldom overawed by them. The readers are, by and large, much better for the authorial ego (barring the ones who seem to think that the more holes they can pick in a writer’s work, the more the writer will appreciate their honesty and diligence).

  1. I know this isn’t related–but can anyone tell me what a good chapter length is, and how that varies with the length of the work?

  2. Long enough to form a unit.

  3. “When people talk about the glorious life of a [writer], I laugh and laugh. Sometimes I can stop laughing before they edge away and talk about soothing drinks.”

    Raoul of Goldenlake (in Tamora Pierce’s “Squire”) was actually talking about life as a knight, but I think the sentiment is similar. 🙂

  4. My comment from a couple days got eaten. Thanks for answering my question with a full post.

  5. If only that comment was eaten instead. I meant, my comment from a couple days AGO got eaten. Though, I suppose, was eaten is more correct than got eaten. Or, the internet ate my comment, to avoid passive voice. (I feel rather sheepish when I write poorly in the comments of a professional writer’s blog.)

  6. No job is ever as glamorous as our dreams would have, I suppose. Thanks for this insight.

  7. On an unrelated note (or is it?), my local (MN) bookstore now has signed copies of “Across the Great Barrier.”

  8. This is going to sound a little strange, since we don’t know each other personally, but is it possible to be a fulltime novelist and not make public appearances? I am, regrettably, not capable of going out in public and am wondering if that means my attempts at getting my work published would be pointless if I could get no one to actually read the novels.

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