This blog was featured on 11/27/2019
Writing is a Humiliation Banquet--And Book Promotion too
Contributor

One day, needing to vent, I wrote and sent this piece to my friend and fellow writer Carole Geithner, the author of the lovely book If Only. Carole and I have commiserated often about the trials and tribulations of the writer’s life since our recent books came out in tandem. Carole urged me to share my little essay with our fellow She Writers. So, here it is:

Writing is a humiliation banquet. It is time that everyone who reads books or counts a writer a friend be acquainted with the menu of this exclusive club:

The Writer’s Club
Plat du Jour

DRINKS

Rot-Gut Wine                      

The pitying looks, false cheer, and stumbling superlatives, handed to you by fellow students at writers workshops, and your own friends or family, upon the first tentative sharing of your work, who let you know, though they wear little smiles on their faces, that they consider your writing very poor indeed.  Welcome to this oh-so-shi-shi club.

APPETIZERS

Clams on Toast

The platitudes offered you by agents who turn down your work with responses such as “Memoirs by women aren’t selling this year.”

Wilted Celery Sticks          

The rejection notices from publishers who write that your book, while impressive, is “not quite right for us.” 

SOUP

 Thin Gruel   

The fact that, though, by some miracle, your book is now published, it receives no reviews.

ENTREE

Chopped Liver        

The time you are presenting your work on a panel of four writers, and the good-looking young man who just told stories, and read not a word of his writing, is rewarded with long lines of buyers, while you have none—and just to add a bit of sauce, you have to buy your own book in order to trade books with the other panelists at the end of the event.

SIDES

 Parsnips                               

The kindly looks of writer friends who have looked up your sales on Amazon—something you studiously avoid—and let you know, in so many words, that their sales have surpassed yours. 

Poached Tongue                

The kindly looks of writer friends who let drop the number of new twitter followers they get every seven seconds. 

Stewed Prunes

The confit you must swallow when you show up at a bookstore for a reading and there is no audience, or there is one psychotic man pulling flies from the air and a ten year-old, and you have to decide whether to put your chin up, smile, and read, or find a hole to vomit into.

Grits              

The sweet, ingratiating smiles from well-meaning people, at whom you must smile graciously when they tell you they are so eager to read the book you worked on for ten years at less than slave wages, and will get it from the library.

Bitter Cabbage                   

The other well-meaning people who, thinking they are helping you and not knowing, perhaps, that you have to buy your own book, tell you they want to give your book to someone who will love it, and could just you send them one to give to the friend for a gift?

DESSERT

 Killer Sundae                      

The kindly meant but misguided question put to you by your very best friends, and everyone else, after your book comes out: “How is the book doing?”  The friends have no idea how this scrapes the writer’s oozing, ever-raw wounds.  “How is the book doing?”  Now what does that “doing” mean?  People mean well, they are not really thinking, but I’m pretty sure that sentence means, if I am not mistaken (and writers eating this daily humiliation fare can most certainly be deranged), “How much money are you making?”  Or: “Just how worthwhile an author are you?”  The same goes for “What was the print run?”   This is the question, the cherry on top that some people who really badly want to know how much you have made, push on to ask.  Who else do we greet by asking how much money they are making? 

Here is the truth, the secret answer to that eager question, “How is the book doing?”  Let me herewith dispense with the common illusion held by those outside the club: that writers make money.  These are the facts: Advances for books are minuscule for most writers: from $0 to $25,000.  Bottom line: not enough to live on even for one year.  Seven out of ten books do not make even these tiny advances back, so seven out of ten writers receive no royalties at all.  As for royalties, a writer typically receives ten percent  of the cover price for the first 250,000 copies sold.  This means, for a book listed for $25, the writer will receive, if the advance has been earned back, $2.50 per book. 

And as for sales ambitions, everyone assumes—in this America where we believe we can achieve anything we put our minds to and where anyone not a millionaire just isn’t working hard enough or is a self-promotion wimp—that every author any good would be making sales in the six figures.  Publisher’s Weekly reported in January, 2012 that the average U.S. nonfiction book now sells fewer than 250 copies per year, and fewer than 3000 over its lifetime.  And moreover, as the wonderful, best-selling author Anne Lamott has said—to paraphrase her—no matter how much praise you receive or how high your royalties are, it is never enough to feel worthy in this measure-people-by-money land we live in.  Whenever you look up your sales, it is humiliating because, as she would probably put it: if you’re any good, you should make as much as God would if she’d written a book.  Keep in mind that Virginia Woolf hoped fervently that one of her books might sell 500 copies.  I won’t go into why the books that do sell, sell, but it is not always their literary quality.

LIQUEURS

 Stiff Brandy             

The last, fast gulp of the dawn-to-dusk humiliation, of spending your time in an activity that everyone in America views as self-indulgent unless you are making the income of Stephen King.  Let me tell you, writers are afflicted beings—afflicted with the need to make arrangements of words.  They have to do it, like others have to eat donuts, but they sacrifice financial security and suffer daily, second-by-second humiliation to put forth their scribbling to the world. 

--

 

“Writing is like prostitution,” a wise friend and wonderful writer commented to me recently. As a writer, you strip down, put out your best wares for all to see, and stand there at the corner, being brave, sucking in your belly, hoping to get a sale. And each moment of each day on that corner, even when you know you’re looking your best and you’ve produced something of real quality, you are subject to mortifying humiliation. 

So when you see your writer friend next time, know she is dining on celery sticks, gruel and stewed prunes. Buy her a real meal.

 

 

 

 

Sara Mansfield Taber’s latest book is Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy’s Daughter.  The memoir portrays the thrilling and confusing life of a girl growing up abroad in a world of secrecy and diplomacy—and the heavy toll it takes on her and her father.  Sara is also the author of Dusk on the Campo: A Journey in Patagonia and Bread of Three Rivers: The Story of a French Loaf.

 

Sara's website: http://www.sarataber.com
Sara's blog: http://sarataber.wordpress.com

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Comments
  • So true. It is funny, and then not funny, coming authors trying to hold their chin up when, I want to say everyone, knows this truth. In a way I would like to change this narrative, but then there's that other side of me that relishes WHY I WRITE, and as well why I enjoy reading so much;-)

  • Dear Fellow Banquet Eaters,

    Thank you so much for your kind comments, commiseration, and stories.  We must all stick together and share our banquet dishes!  As Carolyn Heilbrun wrote, "It is the laughter of women together that is the revealing sign, the spontaneous recognition of insight and love and freedom."

    I have to add what we all know: I've found that the only cure for this sort of humiliation-gulping and indigestion is getting back to the page.  When I remember to do that after a particularly bad meal, I'm much sooner back on my real feed.  Other cures are: calling a friend, and, of course, chocolate!

    Thanks again for your wisdom and friendship--and, most of all, for your writing,

    Sara

  • Sally Pfoutz

    Excruciatingly clever, I smiled the whole way through, yet my favorite part is how it came to be, from two writing friends commiserating and supporting one another. I'll have a stiff brandy now, please.

  • Jeanne Nicholas

    Alternate dessert....Upside Down Pineapple Cake

    The fatal moment when a stranger has just listened to you excitedly begin to relate your story plot of your first published book and he/she, who wasn't really listening after you introduced a "science fiction fantasy" genre, tells you they don't really care for that "type" of book, but they hope it does well.  Then they turn to talk to someone else, and your left with all this excitement within to slowly bleed out of your ears for the rest of the party. 

  • OK. I laughed about the friend who said they'd check the book out of the library. I once had another WRITER friend tell me that. And I thought, wow, what an insult. Ah but the beauty of shared commiseration. Thanks for this post.

  • Julie Luek

    This was sadly funny. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us. It's the writers who go before us that help us get a reality grip (and understand the menu!).  Your book sounds great, by the way-- going to go check it out!

  • Karyne Corum

    Oh so true. Especially the whole what makes you feel worthy as a writer. The sales, the events, the sheer fact that you actually got all those ideas into neat word packages and it still makes sense. 

  • Peg Herring

    Brilliant summary of the whole mess--and we all love it and keep eating!

  • Pamela Olson

    There's also the Fecal Matter Pie you must eat when an organizer has CLEARLY done no publicity for an event you traveled many miles to put on, and they just shrug as if it's no big deal, or suggest Mrs. Big Stuff who was here last year got a big crowd without publicity. And you can't do anything but smile and shrug and give your talk to your two local friends who showed up...

    Or you're sitting there, at a table, signing books, and someone asks, "I can get it online, right?" Yes. Yes you can. And that's your right. But can you please google it on your phone instead of asking me in front of other buyers?

    Ah well. As you say, it's a compulsion -- nothing to do but get on with it. There are pleasant surprises along the way, too, of course, but... yeah. :)

  • Natylie Baldwin

    Loved this, Sara; especially, the part about feeling like a prostitute - "As a writer, you strip down, put out your best wares for all to see, and stand there at the corner, being brave, sucking in your belly, hoping to get a sale."  Thanks for providing a good laugh and some hard-won wisdom. 

  • Daphne Q

    This is quite funny... and true!