Posted by Guest Blogger Kate Flora
Almost since my first book, Chosen for Death, in 1994, I’ve been teaching writing for various organizations throughout New England. I think I’m very lucky. I’ve had a lot of wonderful students. I’ve also had occasional students who didn’t want to do the weekly writing assignments, but only wanted to sit there, pen poised, to write down the magic advice which, when followed, would transform them into best-selling authors. At library and book store talks, I am often asked by writers who’ve barely begun their first book about finding agents and getting published. High school and middle-school students always ask me if I’m rich and whether my books have yet been sold to the movies.
I’ve been writing steadily and seriously for twenty-four years. My tenth book is coming out soon; I’ve just sold my eleventh. I have three short stories appearing in anthologies this year. I’ve had my essays published in national magazines and my profiles of writers in literary journals. I had an audio book, a book club sales, foreign rights sales. This is said not to brag but only to say that I have some experience with the business and promotional sides of writing. And that on paper, at least, I look like the writer you want to be.
Recently I told my husband that I long for the years I spent in the unpublished writer’s corner, back when the relationship was simply between me and the story, and he was shocked. But for those of you who long for the glory of reader’s acclaim and the riches that a published book brings, be careful what you wish for. The job of self-promotion can be expensive, exhausting, and soul-killing. And you can do everything you can think of and spend more money than they pay you for your books, and have it make very little difference.
Picture this: For several of the events I did for my first book, the publisher didn’t deliver the books to the store in time for the event. Luckily, I’m a fast learner and through Sisters in Crime already had friends in the business, so I knew the solution was to carry cases of my books in my trunk, but it doesn’t do much for your ego or your back to have to buy and deliver your own books. In eight years, the publisher set up two bookstore events, all the others I had to arrange myself. Once, when I had driven four hours to sign my books at a regional book fair for booksellers, I arrived to find that my publisher had forgotten I was coming and given my books away the day before.
Or this: It is Christmas, and I am sitting in a Barnes & Noble, a stack of my latest book on the table before me. It’s a good book—a really good book—and I’m excited about it. I am wearing a ridiculous Santa hat. I’ve give a dozen shoppers directions to the rest room. Discussed my work in several lengthy conversations with people who walked away without buying. I’ve entertained bored husbands, bored children. I’m there to sell books. That’s what my publisher, my ego, and my bank account want. I’m plunged into the depths of despair, wondering how anyone could be so bad at this that they can’t sell books at Christmas. But when I talk to other writers who’ve been out on the circuit, I realize I’m not alone.
The sad truth is that even our best friends don’t understand that our careers rise and fall on book sales. The sad truth is that it doesn’t matter if we’re good writers, give good public speeches, and are personally entertaining and charming. What matters is that our books sell. I have had people who think they are very supportive of my writing career come to my book launch parties, my bookstore events and my library talks and walk away without buying a book. They bought the first one, after all, and that should be enough.
Years after they’ve first inquired about my budding career, I meet people who preface their inquiry about my writing career with the sentence, “I haven’t read any of your books, but…” I used to be polite and deferential. I used to say it was okay. But career-wise, it isn’t okay. Now I respond, “Why not? You should try one.” And to those who ask, “Can I get your books in the library?” I say, “You can get them in the bookstore.”
Readers and librarians are sometimes shocked to learn that most of us schedule our own events, write and print our own newsletters, buy and mail our own postcards, create our own posters and pay for our own websites. When I sold my first book, my husband said, “Congratulations. Now you have two jobs—writing and promotion.”
I wish it didn’t have to be like this. This year, I realized that I’m making so little that if I have to pay for promotional materials, if I have to pay my own way to national conferences, if I add up all the money I spend on gas to drive to libraries and bookstores, it is costing me money to be a published writer. And the truth is, it’s beginning to get me down.
I’m still enchanted by story and I’ve got a lot more stories to tell. Right now I’m balancing five plots in my head and trying to decide which book to write first. I’m working on my MFA in writing, always striving to be better. But sometimes I think about just doing it for myself again. Just me and the story, all alone in my room. No driving, not promo, so speeches.
But I’ve gotten used to the pleasure of having readers. The other night I was having dinner with my friend Sarah Smith—a wonderful writer—and she said, “Just consider what the process is about—you putting a story on paper which is recreated in the reader’s mind—that’s what we’re doing here. Never mind the publisher.”
Wouldn’t that be grand?