You’re on Your Own, Kid by Deb Jenny

There are a myriad of publishing myths that the general public believes about the book world. Of course most folks assume that if an author publishes a book, that author is rolling in cash. Now, I am technologically stunted, a Luddite in many ways, but I’m going to attempt to upload sound effects here to dispel all myths once and for all.
Myth One: Authors are rich. bronx cheer sound

Most writers earn piddling amounts of money in this business. Most authors have day jobs in addition to their writing careers. Most writers do not float off into the sunset with a check for a half million dollars clutched tightly in their hand. Most writers, if you took into account the time it took to write the book, the time it took to solicit agents, the time it took to land a publisher, the time it took for revisions, the time it took for marketing, the time it took for publicity, the time it took for anything you can’t imagine one has to do as a writer, would ultimately earn about two cents an hour. Most of us aren’t in it for the money πŸ˜‰ .

Next off, everyone assumes that because you are publishing a book, you are about to be launched onto a book tour more grand than something Queen Elizabeth would do while touring the Commonwealth nations.

Myth Two: Book Tours happen. bronx cheer.mp3

No, no, no, no, no. Okay, sure, book tours *do* happen to a couple of very lucky authors. Those who have drivers pick them up and chauffeur them to the awaiting plane that takes them to lovely hotels with down featherbeds and at which they can enjoy the mini-bar per diems and the food allotments and are wined and dined by their publishers with $40 lobster entrees and fine wines.

But for the rest of us? Our book tour is essentially what we can patchwork together on our own. At our own expense. Most often it involves things within driving distance, or places we incorporate into a weekend road trip to a family reunion.

Myth Three: your publisher will set up your book tour. bronx cheer.mp3

Refer back to Myth Two for background. There is no book tour but for what you set up on your own. Sure, if you’re lucky, there’ll be some support from the in-house publicity department. But I’ve got news for you: many authors rarely if ever hear from their in-house publicity departments, let alone get much support from them. I know of authors who have never gotten a call from the in-house publicist, even after the book is launched. I kid you not. In-house publicity departments are manned by staffers who are overworked and underpaid and they probably spend most of their waking hours putting out fires with the many authors who they are tasked with flacking.

Myth Four: Oprah actually might care about your book’s existence. bronx cheer.mp3

Of course we’d all love to court Oprah. Hell, I’d court Oprah’s golden retrievers if it’d get me somewhere with her. I’d walk ’em, brush their coats till they were glossy, I’d even consider brushing their teeth. And certainly I’d pick up their poop, if only Oprah would come a-callin’.
Fact is, Oprah isn’t going to be knocking on our doors. Which in some ways I can’t understand because Sleeping with Ward Cleaver is perfect for her demographics. I mean, who watches Oprah in enormous numbers but middle-aged housewives, the very same women who are especially drawn to my book?
Which leads me to

Myth Five: Media Access. Everyone assumes because you have a book published you have the direct link not only to Oprah but to the Today Show, NPR, The Washington Post, the New York Times, and every major glossy magazine on the newsstands each month. bronx cheer4.mp3

Would that life were that easy. Fact is, it’s nigh impossible to get media attention for a book unless you are of that chosen few who got gargantuan book deals. Why? Because with gargantuan book deals your publishing house has invested a large chunk of cash into your guaranteed success, and dammit, they’re going to make good and sure your book succeeds. Therefore they call in their chips and are able to pony up the big interviews. It has to do with street cred. Media outlets only find credibility if they are told by the powers that be that the book is fabulous. Many a fabulous book died a slow death in the remains pile absent the muscle of a powerful publishing house intent on pushing for the book’s ultimate success. Truth is, through my freelance journalism work, I even have connections with a few major publications and media outlets, and I can’t get them to bite. Alas, the media is a fickle mistress.

Myth Six: Once you sell one book, you’ll sell your entire back list. bronx cheer4.mp3

Even a few short years ago, this myth was more like a reality. However…the industry has gotten more fearful, more risk-averse, more craving a guaranteed blockbuster, not content with a simmering moderate success that grows a readership over time. And unless you happen to be in the right genre at the right time, or just be in line when the fairy dust blows your way, you might very well not sell your backlist, let alone your next book, or your next book, or any book after that. I know many, many authors of women’s fiction, for instance, who cannot sell their next book. Word is that the market is “tight” and no one’s buying women’s fiction. Which I don’t understand because I’m a woman and I buy women’s fiction and my friends are women and they buy women’s fiction and I seem to encounter women all the time who like to read women’s fiction. But somewhere along the line, women’s fiction lost whatever meager cachet it held, and now it’s viewed with a wary eye and a shallow pocket book (make that change purse) and apparently not many avid industry insider supporters of it willing to take a chance.

You might think that all of these myths are enough to discourage one away from a career in writing. And you’d be right to think this should discourage folks away from it. After all, good writers are a dime a dozen. Hitting it big as a writer is akin to Lana Turner’s discovery at Schwab’s Drug Store. The odds are not so great.

But there’s one thing about writing that holds true for those of us who stick with it despite the discouraging myths in whose shadows we occasionally cower and at whose behest we can at times be found sobbing for our lost dreams.

And that is that the writers who stick it out, usually, are the writers who have to write. The ones whose internal mandate dictates that they write, win, lose or draw. Despite the general lack of a support network, despite the meager pay, despite the frustrations from banging one’s head against the wall trying to even garner a tiny bit of local media from a cynical press corps.

As damning as the occupation can be, the freedom and power we writers garner from the act of writing supersedes the other nonsense and keeps us coming back for more. And the enormous rewards when we get feedback from readers whose lives have been touched by our words is beyond gratifying. It keeps us coming back again and again.

Sure, you might think to compare us to an abused spouse, returning to the abuser (and I don’t mean the readers, I mean the vagaries of the industry). But I like to think we remain optimistic in the face of daunting odds, and maintain a faith in ourselves that enables us to look beyond the dark shadows, view that brilliant rainbow just off in the distance, and keep working our way toward that pot of gold. Whether or not we find it is really ancillary. We’ve found it merely by having the glorious luxury of being writers, and for that we are so very lucky.

18 Replies to “You’re on Your Own, Kid by Deb Jenny”

  1. I would like to rename today’s post: “Joanne’s innocence lost”.

    In all seriousness, you’re right about all this stuff, Jenny. This industry is not for the thin-skinned or for the faint of heart. I like to think that after the industry chews us up, we become stronger, more determined people. You know, that whole “If it doesn’t kill us…” thing. I’m sticking with that.

  2. LOL- – though you knew all of this stuff anyhow, so I didn’t destroy your virginity!
    I always joke that growing up with 3 brothers who picked on me all the time completely prepared me for this business…

  3. Jenny, so funny, so sad, but so true. This business is not for the faint of heart. If you aren’t thick-skinned at the beginning you surely are after a few years or you are probably already doing something else with instant gratification and pats on the head. LOL

  4. I recently read (but don’t know if it is true or not) that more people make a living as professional baseball players then do as writers.

    We also don’t get uniforms- but on the upside we can scratch ourselves and no one cares.

  5. Oh Eileen, you totally crack me up. Thank goodness no uniforms==I look terrible in stripes and clinging goofy pants. Baseball hat, I can deal with…
    Yeah, Gail, grim but true. Best to go in with eyes open, right?
    Jill–so true about that instant gratification. This business is slo-mo gratification. Like watching paint dry, or an oak tree grow…By the time success happens in full force, we’re all about as old as that mature oak tree!

  6. Wow, I would love to find out if the baseball player / writer income rumor is true!

    I found myself nodding and chuckling ruefully while I read this. Honest and funny. (And your attempt to put the bronx cheer sound effects on cracked me up. πŸ™‚ )

  7. Great post.

    Right on the money.

    There’s an ancilliary question to everything you’ve written, though, that I’ve never heard anyone else ask … except now I’m asking it. Not just of you, but I’ve been asking this a lot, lately, and the answers have ranged from vague to baffled.

    Why on earth, if this is the reality of fiction publishing today, does everyone act, react, and pretend, and set up systems based on the assumption that all published authors are writing full time?

    The fact is that most published authors have day jobs.

    But editors, media, readers, even your own publisher, pretend to be shocked when you reveal that you have a day job, and are actually put out that you can’t drop everything to do a phone interview at two.

    I’m honestly baffled at this Emperor’s-Clothes mentality. It’s systemic.

    Bravo on speaking out.



  8. Interesting point, Tracy. And quite a crazy Emperor’s Clothes business it is, in a lot of ways. I mean the mere fact that some books leap to the bestsellers list when readers shrug in wonder at how it got to be when it’s not really even remotely interesting. It’s crazy. I liken it to Alice in Wonderland LOL. Although I’m first one to be front and center for that interview if they need me πŸ˜‰

  9. I think it might hark back to the days when actors and actresses were “under contract” at studios… anyone know if that might be true?

  10. Ah, you must have a flexible day job, then, Jenny.

    I work for the original inspiration for THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA. I can’t even speak to her directly, let alone ask for time off at two to speak to my adoring media.

    It’s a fun life, sometimes…



  11. Honestly, Gail, I think it goes back to when there actually was a real mid-list, and real mid-list authors who really could eek out a living on royalties and advances.

    Boy, have those days gone.

    Sorry to hijack your discussion, Jenny. This subject is a near, dear and heated one for me. But I’ll shut up and go away now.



  12. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. There’s not much of a mid-list any more.

    Honestly, I think it parallels the state of our nation, really. I mean look at it–we have this small group of citizens who are quite top-heavy financially, then this vast grouping of people struggling to stay afloat, often working two or more jobs, sans health insurance and any safety buffers, and really very little middle class any more. When I was growing up the middle class lived a fairly comfortable existence and did have a safety net beneath them. Who’s even got retirement money saved up, let alone funds for rainy days?

    My guess? It all comes down to Wall Street LOL. Well, actually, I’m only half joking. But what I mean with this is the nature of our economy changed radically back say the Reagan administration. All of a sudden corporations took over and the corporate mentality took over. The end to any power with labor unions, the end to protections for lower-end workers. Companies bought up other companies, fat trimmed off massively, which meant lay off the blue collar workers. The whole Wall Street-profit-quarterly earnings-driven economy is short-sighted in nature. There’s not much long-term thinking that seems to occur. It’s all about profit, profit, profit, and chasing the next big immediately money-maker, and everyone’s scared to take chances because if they screw up, well their butt’s on the line, and of course when the many small pub houses got bought up by multi-media corporations, this is exactly how the direction turned and has gotten more and more focused in this way as the economy tightens and money is not as free-flowing. So I don’t think it’s at all unique to the publishing industry. Rather perhaps because this industry often moves at a snail’s pace, it took this long for the grim reality to catch up?!
    I”m not an economist, but I play one on TV πŸ˜‰

  13. Ah Grasshopper, I see you have learned the lesson and can now catch a dime between your knees knowing that you will need it later. ;~0

    I ran into a formerly fresh-faced innocent writer yesterday at an author luncheon–(we have lots of local talent like Dave Guterson living here and they trotted us out to raise money for the under-funded schools and the title 1 reading program) -she made a comment about the industry being a harsh mistress, and that they don’t tell you that in the recruitment brochure. Poor baby!

    It does make me ponder heavily what the heck is driving the cosmic bus these days- its like the publishers are saying, excuse me, we’d prefer not to laugh. But to me, laughter is the best medicine in times like these.

    Methinks we will discuss this further over Cosmopolitans in San Fran. PS where DOES Carrie Bradshaw get all her money for those shoes, cuz hello, she’s a columnist. ?????????????????????????????????????????????????

  14. OMG, Suz, that’s a great line! Yes, catching dimes between my knees left and right I suppose.
    (did you tell Dave Guterson how much I loved his sister Mary’s book? Wondering if she ever sold another b/c hers is one of those really edgy yet hilarious voices that New York doesn’t seem to buy…).
    You’re precisely right–the publishers ARE saying that. But I don’t get it. I LOVE to laugh and I know lots of other people do too. Why can’t this stuff sell?
    Ha re: Carrie Bradshaw. Maybe Big was paying for them? A Ho for Shoes

  15. I’m just catching up on the week’s posts and I’m sorry I missed this one and all the discussion that ensued. With my debut less than two months away, this is all a bit terrifying and depressing, to be honest, but at least it’s honest and at least I’m somewhat prepared. Though I admit, I’m hanging trying hard to hang onto the starry eyes for just a little bit longer.

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