Saturday, March 5, 2011

So You Want to Be an Author...REALLY?

On June 30, 2009, as I finished my best-ever conversation with my literary agent, I escaped the mammoth throng of faceless aspiring writers and jumped into the more exclusive club of the faceless soon-to-be-published. Lost in the Hive, my collection of off-the-wall true stories, morphed from pie-in-the-sky dream to new reality.

As my kids would say, I was hella stoked.

After the requisite happy dance—and the fleeting thought, “Move over, David Sedaris, there’s a new neurotic humorist in town”—my mind flooded with questions: Would I find summers in Key West too searing? Would Scorsese understand that only George Clooney could capture the requisite “me-ness” to render the film adaptation an Oscar favorite? How on earth could I protect a chapter devoted solely (and self-lovingly) to masturbation? And on my first of a tiresome series of appearances on Oprah, should I go shabby-chic or prom-formal?

In seconds, my brain swapped Fords for Maseratis, modest bungalows for lakefront estates, friends for groupies, anonymity for celebrity, papa for paparazzi.

It took months to extract my bulbous melon from the haven of self-delusion that, these days, passes only for my ass.

Oh, we’ve all heard the stories. Lonely single mom writes fantasy about wizard boy and—poof—becomes more popular than both The Beatles and Christ. Dad says shit, son gets rich. Ex-first-lady scores eight million to dish about the most famous appendage in the free world.

With such boundless fame and fortune swirling about, how much pie could the rest of us—The Newly Published—expect to tuck into?

If you’re already famous, or struggle to find pants that can accommodate both your frame and the cascade of horseshoes raining out your posterior, you’ll get your fill. If you’re a mere mortal, get ready to spend years wondering if you might better have made your name by duping the media about your toddler taking a solo flight in a hot-air balloon.

So, for those of you who aspire to be—or have just learned you’re to become—a published author, allow me to throw a colossal, well-chilled bucket of truth in your face. No charge. And please, no tears.

Truth 1:
You probably won’t be famous

My book hit the shelves in June of 2010. In spite of the best efforts of my publisher, and a near-manic flurry of self-promotion that started months before and that continues to fill my every breathing moment, get this:

I’m still not famous.

Oh, at my local bookstore, the owners may tell a customer, “Here’s one of our local authors,” and I may be rewarded with a tight smile and a, “Oh, how nice for you,” but my presence generates little more enthusiasm than had the owners said, “There’s a few cookies left in the kids’ section. Help yourself.”

My wife is a teacher. We cannot walk our streets without tripping over current and former students. I walk in my spouse’s shadow. If I say hello to most folks, they still avert their gaze.

I’m not bitter. Okay, I’m a little bitter.

Truth 2:
You probably won’t be rich

In 2004, before much of the publishing world swirled down the toilet, 950,000 of the 1.2 million books published in the U.S. sold fewer than 99 copies. Few books ever sell more than 3,000 copies.

If the new math eludes you, allow me to elucidate: This really, really blows.

And it gets worse.

Most authors receive 10 percent of the cover price each time their book sells. If you have an agent, he or she receives 15 percent of this. So, for each copy of my book that moves at its cover price of 15 dollars, I receive $1.27. At 1,000 sales, I’ll come away with $1,270. At 5,000, I’ll pocket $6,350—hardly enough to qualify me as a Beverly Hillbilly, and a bit less than I’d earn as a panhandler.

For six months of full-time toil, this figures out to between a quarter and a dollar per hour. When I was a kid, I wouldn’t even run an errand for my ailing grandfather for these wages. And he paid cash.

Bottom line: if you’re doing this for the money…don’t.

Truth 3:
Book tour? Hahahahaha

Unless you’ve written a book for which a publisher is itching to mortgage its future—or, in other words, you’re a demigod or better—don’t count on your book as the passport to world travel. For most, the “book tour” is an abstraction; in reality, to get your name out there, you’ll fish through your own wallet, time and again, to sell just a handful of books.

Example: I was invited to headline a book signing at a small store in a smaller town an hour west of my home. The costs associated with this visit—gas, meals and such—came to roughly $100. I bought a book from the host store (which an author should always do). New total: $127. To break even, I would need to peddle 100 books. I sold two. To see my books in the hands of two new readers, I invested $124…and that’s for one event.

Moral of the story: if you want to get your name out there—to meet your “fans”—first check the depth of your pockets.

Truth 4:
You may only get one kick at the can

Somebody once told me that your first and second books are “gateway” books, the ditchweed you smoke before the big houses hook you on the heroin of popularity that comes from being a “name” author.

This may be true—as yet, I wouldn’t know—but I do know you have to get to the second book before you get to the third. Have you ever tried to secure a loan when you don’t have credit? Same principle. If your first book struggles for sales—yes, even good books flop—you’ll deteriorate overnight from beautiful swan to ugly duckling. If your book sales soar, you’ll be the belle of the ball; if they don’t, your balls could be bells and nobody would listen.

If you want to be the proud parent of more than one book, do this: sell your house, your soul and, if you’ve got the equipment for it, your body, to get people to read and talk about that first book. You’ll feel dirty, but you’ll have to get dirty if you dream of becoming dirty rich.

Truth 5:
Nobody cares about your story

You may have a fascinating story to tell. See “Oh, how nice for you,” above. Too bad nobody cares. Before you ever contact anyone in the publishing world, ask yourself, “Do I have a fascinating story to SELL?”

In the months since Lost in the Hive reached stores, I’ve thrown myself into two projects: a second collection of humorous essays, and a less rib-tickling memoir of my wife’s near-fatal heart attack and battle with heart disease.

Both are—in my opinion and my agent’s—good, compelling books. I even allow myself the vanity that they’re on par with books you’ll know more than mine.

The few editors who’ve previewed them agree. I’ve been told, “This is hilarious,” and “The story of your wife is heartbreaking.” In each case so far, though, I’ve also been told, “This just isn’t a strong fit for our list right now.” This sounds encouraging, but really it’s publisher-speak for, “Thanks for checking in; now please go away.” Even the best authors in the world know this schtick.

If you want to seduce Random House, Penguin or another of the big boys, you’d better be one amazing, timely and unique writer, or a successful writer who’s already seduced them and left them spent and breathless with your bestseller-list stamina. And that’s just the foreplay.

You’d also better have a selling proposition that blows publishers’ skirts up. You’re too late for zombies, vampires or vampire-hunter presidents. Publishing is a business of dreams, to be sure, but never forget it’s a business, and a fickle one at that.

So know what makes your story stand out, and do your song and dance. Then hope and pray. Failing that, find two or fewer degrees of separation between you and Lady Gaga. I’m no relation; I checked.

Truth 6:
Don’t trade your dream for anything

Since this piece is about truths, I won’t lie—no battle scars will deter me from my dream, and no amount of suckling on the chapped teat of publishing will leave me feeling anything but thirsty. I’ve written a book; ergo, I am an author. Even if I’m never a famous author, and even if the half-life of embarrassment generated by my written candor spans generations, I’ll know I’ve left a legacy.

Oh, and I believe in the ideal marriage of editor and author. I know there’s a special someone out there for me, a literary soulmate who will love me (okay, my work) enough to stand at the altar with me and beyond— ‘til death (or declining sales) do us part.

Sure, if nobody on Earth ever again buys anything I’ve written, I will be crushed. I wrote the stories because I had something real to say, and I’ve always hoped others would listen. If a million people buy Lost in the Hive, I will believe in it just as much—no more, no less—than I did when I first submitted it for consideration.

I’ll persist even when everything tells me I should quit. “Everything” can shut the hell up.

If you want to write, write. You may never find an editor willing to amplify your voice to the world, but you will have done something toward a goal.

At every book signing, I meet someone who says, “Have I got a story for you;” or, “I’m a writer, too;” or, “Can I borrow your pen?” When I ask these aspiring authors where their projects stand, most point to their heads and say, “It’s all in here.” News flash: it’s no good in there. Set it free.

For much of my life I dreamed of being a writer. On June 30, 2009, my dream came true. It’s not precisely the dream I thought I’d get, and it’s not a complete dream, but it’s a dream nonetheless. And I’m living it.

As insane as this may seem, and even if it means I never wash the bitter taste of mediocrity from my mouth, I would give anything, spend anything, do anything, to forever taste this bile, to feel these frustrations, to stay—however tenuously—in this club.

NOTE: If you would like a PDF version of this entry, you can get it HERE.



  1. I often think that the Emily Dickinson method of fame is best - that you lead a creative, unassuming life, and then your works are discovered bundled up in your attic after your death, published post-mortem and become so famous that your name is a byword for greatness in your chosen field. If publishing is going to be as lucrative as you indicated above, that might be the happier life: Get in, make something beautiful, get out. Just make sure your house is inherited by a relative with a good eye. :)

  2. Can I just say, I love your writing. Maybe it reminds me of what I'm TRYING to do an or trying to be, but I do.But I have a lifetime of public school and too many grammatical errors because of it.

    1. I've been reading your blog and you've intrigued me enough to purchase your book

    2.that makes you slightly more rich than before I read it and decided to buy it

    3. You're forgetting the importance of good humor. I've always loved writing. I live among a family of talented writers. Only one has done anything with it. I've always been able to make people laugh and learning how to write in a witty fashion is hard. Especially consistently. So I'm doing that right now. And you shouldn't stop.

    4. I spent the past year working full time, commuting to school in Boston full time and studying for the LSAT. A Dean's list student and that one mother fucking test changed everything! unfortunately the LSAT is all schools care about. Plus, there's a law school bubble. So I just gave up everything to do what I should be doing. I should be writing and making people laugh.

    5. Stick to what you're doing. You think Napoleon was like, "well...maybe I'll capture Egypt. I don't know. We'll see." NO! he did whatever it takes, crazy or not. If you're going to fail, fail fast. Nothing stopped him and he's a legend. Granted, he was fucking nuts. But there's something about ambition and drive. As he said, "Ambition is in no greater hurry than I; it merely keeps pace with circumstances and my general way of thinking"

    So stick to it. Us humorous writers are exactly what a declining country in a recession needs...laughter! So keep writing! Many people in my life, some of my closest friends haven't "approved" of a blog I started. Something that has made me the happiest in years. Know why? They're all doing what is practical, not their passion. And people hate to watch people follow their dreams is they aren't doing so themselves.

  3. Alison--thanks for your thoughtful reply. I just visited your blog...great, naughty stuff!


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