Answers for Those Awkward Conversations with Readers
My whole life I’ve had a star-struck, rock-star admiration for authors. Before I even imagined writing a book I’d pour over back flaps, studying author bios and photos, wondering how much of the novel was inspired by real events.
While I drafted what would become my debut: Root, Petal, Thorn, I dreamed readers would savor the subtle connections and deeper themes in my novel, like I’d done as a reader over the years. They’d ask insightful questions and I’d provide profound answers. They’d know me via my story and I’d know they loved it.
I was in for a Reality Check.
Yes, I’ve had fantastic conversations with readers about my work, but in truth many conversations (especially those which occur in passing) are far from the imagined ideal. Below is a list of the most Frequently Asked Questions, my canned Answers, and What I’m Really Thinking:
Q: How is your book doing? How many copies have you sold?
A: It’s hard to track all of the sales but I think it’s doing well. Enough. *modest shrug*
Really Thinking: I have no solid idea. Turns out it’s very difficult to determine how many copies are sold until that twice-a-year statement arrives. And even then the royalty statements are difficult to read. In this age of constant connection I believe this royalty system should be a little more precise and if not more precise, more transparent, and if not more transparent, at least more timely.
Q: Have you made a lot of money?
A: Not enough to pay the mortgage. Turns out most published authors make less than $10,000 a year. *smile as they gasp in horror*
RT: After I finished Root, Petal, Thorn (but before I got an agent) I must have lived in a bubble. I guess I didn’t read the proper blogs about a typical advance. I dreamed of taking all of my beta readers (and their families) on a far-flung vacation to thank them for their help (I was thinking a Greek Island). About this time I went to a small, local conference where one giddy woman had just sold her book to an actual publisher. I was in a bathroom stall as she stood at the sink washing her hands, discussing her advance loudly over the rushing water. I stopped mid-stream to hear her say, “Seven Thousand Dollars.” I couldn’t finish.
I found that girl later at the conference to confirm. Face pulsing from embarrassment and fingers crossed behind my back that I’d misheard, I stuttered, “If you don’t mind me asking, I overheard you say you received an advance of $70,000. Is that typical?”
She laughed. She actually spit a little of her Diet Pepsi into her hand. “Drop a zero.”
Huge reality check (sadly not a huge advance check…)
Q: I have this great idea. You could write a book about it and we could share the money. You see, there’s this guy and he…
A: *listen quietly for five minutes, then break in* That is a great concept! But it’s really your story to tell.
RT: If you only knew how many fantastic ideas I have. Coming up with story nuggets is the very best part of writing a book because they’re all so perfect at conception. The real work is taking that shimmer of an idea and turning it into 90,000 words.
Q: I found several mistakes in your novel. Things like the true syndication date for The Brady Bunch. I’ve made you a comprehensive list on my Goodreads review.
A: Thank you. I’ll take a look. A team of people read the book before publication but we’re all human.
RT: Are you kidding me? I better also see five stars!
Q: I’ve written six hundred pages about my great-great-great grandfather’s journey from Norway to the United States. I’m wondering if you’d give it a read and provide a little feedback?
A: Actually, you would be better served finding a group of other writers who are at the same place in their writing process. I currently have a group of beta readers who I work with.
RT: No, oh lord, no!
Q: My grandma loved your book but I didn’t read it.
A: Grandmas tend to love my book but so do a bunch of young people. You should read it.
RT: Was she being rude? I think that was a subtle dig. She thinks my book is boring.
Q: The cover isn’t something I’d pick up. Did you choose it?
A: I didn’t. The publisher has the last say about cover art.
RT: The cover for Root, Petal, Thorn wasn’t exactly what I imagined when I wrote the book, but it grew on me over time. I’m still working to embrace the cover image for Where the Sweet Bird Sings. I wish I had more input on my cover art but sometimes we authors don’t always get what we want.
Q: In your second book, where does the title Where the Sweet Bird Sings come from?
A: The story is about secrets hidden in the branches of a family tree. That’s where the sweet bird sings, you see, in a family tree. It’s a search for identity through ancestral and genetic records. It’s about accepting and loving a family even after betrayal, even after tragedy. I hope you read it!
RT: See above. I do hope you read it!
What are the craziest questions/observations you’ve received from your readers? What is a question you’d like to ask your favorite author?
* * * * *
Ella Joy Olsen was born, raised and currently resides in Salt Lake City, Utah, a charming town tucked at the base of the massive Rocky Mountains. Most at home in the world of the written word, Ella spent nearly a decade on the Board of Directors for the Salt Lake City Public Library System (and four decades browsing the stacks). She is the mom of three kids ranging from just-barely-teen to just-flown-the-nest-teen, the mama of two dogs, and the wife of one patient husband.
Though she’s crazy about words Ella is also practical so she graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in Finance. After years analyzing facts and figures Ella gave up her corner cubicle and started writing fiction. Fun fact: she now teaches a historical fiction course at her alma mater. She has also lived in Seattle, Washington & Savannah, Georgia.
ROOT, PETAL,THORN (September 2016) was her debut and coming in September 2017 – WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS.
Connect with her on her website http://www.ellajoyolsen.com/
Follow her on Twitter https://twitter.com/ellajoyolsen
Or on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/ellajoyolsen/
Like her on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/ella.joy.olsen.author
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So funny and *alas!* too true. I admit to being one of those idiot readers, star struck and blithering out whatever comes to mind. The worst may have been when I met Joyce Carol Oates and asked about a friend of hers, ignoring the fact that she was there in front of me and signing her book....
Sometimes it's hard to keep your cool. I med Geraldine Brooks at a conference but I didn't know it was her. I was deep into a novel of hers, People of the Book, but it was on my Kindle so I hadn't checked out her bio photo. I entered a social circle, leaned in close to see her name tag and said, "And who are you?" She flipped her tag (which had been backwards) and I nearly peed myself. Blushing and dithering I tried to tell her how much I was loving her book.She was kind and gracious as I spilled my drink on my shoe. Class-act.
I love this. 😀
Laughing in total empathy -- have definitely been there! LOVE Brooks' work, would spill my drink on her shoes, too....
I blush and stammer every time I meet a beloved author. It's a major moment for all us writers. She's lucky you didn't drop the drink down her top.
I froze when Jame Smiley walked up to me and asked me about my cowboy boots at the conference in L.A. last year (I'm the third generation to wear them). I barely managed to stammer out a few sentences. Of course as soon as she walked away, I thought of a thousand things to say!
Of course you did! Once you could stop babbling, "Jane Smiley. Ohmygod, ohmygod. Jane. Smiley!"
I always get "Have I heard of you?" or "Have I read anything you've written?" I usually reply honestly, with "Probably not." Only my family asks if I'm making money.
What a weird question, "Have I heard of you?" I guess this is before you tell them your name. Only they would know if they'd heard of you. Giggle...
One person explained by saying he wondered if I wrote under a different name--like was I Danielle Steele!
Oh my gosh, Terry, I've gotten that one, too! I'm always tempted to say, 'How the hell would I know?'
Terry, I get that one and I'm not even published yet. It's like they always think you are Dean Koontz orr Danielle Steel, hiding in plain sight.
This was hilarious, Ella! I loved what you actually said, against what you were really thinking! I've often wondered why people don't realize asking how many books sold is like discussing a paycheck. Plus, it's really more convoluted than a straightforward "oh, I sold xx so, that means xxx." I wished I could have my wits together enough to say, "well, lets see...I sold this many, but after my agent gets his 15% and the publisher gets their %, they also have to take out the "books returned (what???)", and then there's the differences in %'s paid out for the type of books sold, i.e. trade, vs ebook, and those %'s are..."
Yeah. They would walk away dazed, sorry they asked.
A question I had at an event was, "Did you write your story the way you did, just to get published?" Not sure she recognized my evil eye.
Oh, that's a good one. Basically, "Did you sell your soul for a dollar?"
Exactly what I was thinking, Ella. What a rude question.
Exactly Ella, and yes, Jenny it WAS so rude. It turned out this particular "event" which was really a talk for a local book club at a library turned into the worst ever. There were only ten women there, but three hated the story - actually seemed angry about it. It was very awkward/uncomfortable as in 90 minutes of hell. Ugh.
Ohmygosh, you poor thing. Very little is worse than a bad event that you can't leave. And I hope you cross them off your meet list from now until forever.
So funny! Thanks for providing me a couple lines on how to gracefully exit a few questions. 🙂
When my alma mater found out I published a book, they had their fundraiser connect with me in person. Innocently, I thought she was interested in talking with me about how to engage alum on various levels. No, that wasn't it. At all. After a few sips of coffee she mentioned that alums she connects with usually start with $20,000 donation and wanted to know if that number worked for me. Um...no.
Thanks for a great, practical piece!
Yikes! If they only knew that was double what the average published author makes in a year, she'd have bought you more than coffee...
NOT looking forward to this kind of thing. Canned answers is a good idea. I tend toward sarcasm and cattiness with stuff like this, but I need to control that impulse. I envision a scenario like this playing out:
CLUELESS PERSON: You're a writer? How many books have you sold?
ME: You're an administrative assistant/nurse/student/landscaper/retiree/etc.? What's your annual income?
Or maybe simply this...
CLUELESS PERSON: You're a writer? How many books have you sold?
ME: Wow, that's tacky.
I like asking them their salary. That would stop the conversation...
LOL I have to admit, I've been beyond tempted to use responses similar to yours. Thankfully, so far, I've refrained. The day is coming when someone's going to catch me on a NOT-diplomatic day though.
Thanks! I shared this with my writing clients who suffer dreadfully when faced with these downright rude questions. I mean, would you are the OTHER person how much money they earn in their career or gleefully point out their errors? Thanks for the great standard answers. I'd just add to be sure to have another subject to immediately switch to. Or an equally rude question to ask in return. Okay, not that. But, gosh it is tempting, eh?
Here's another comparison I use: I liken my job to being a rock musician. There are a few break-out stars who take the private jet, but most rockers still practice in the garage.
<3 the 'garage' comment, Ella!
Ha! And there are rockers like our steady mid-list authors who take the van or fly coach, but are able, through enough gigs with merchandise sales, to support their families. Barely.
Love this post, Ella!
I'm always amazed at the questions. The "how many have you sold/how much did you make" is a classic. Then there's the "what do you do with all of your free time" from those who know I work from home. And one of my favorites: "Why does it take you so long to write/publish a book?"
Recently I met friends for dinner and one gal rushed in a little late. I gently asked, "How was work?" She asked me, "How is not working?"
Ella, I want to pinch that "friends" head off for being so rude to you. Geesh.
I know, right?!
I have a neighbor who always - every single damn time - looks confused when I mention I'm working and/or on deadline and answers with "Really?" Umm, yeah, really. Gahhhhh
Don't they know that when you work at home, the work never stops or goes away? Good God.
Some fans just go blank when they meet an author they admire and they often say something banal or dumb then slap themselves in the forehead as soon as they walk away. My wife still blushes about her meeting with Lee Childs.
While some readers are oblivious, every author I've met has been very gracious and we so appreciate your kindnesses.
Fortunately the "Is it like 50 Shades?" Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, question has died off. But I still get the question about money. At least I have a day job in public education, where I can make the big bucks. And when my fans, er kindergartners, tell me I'm fat, it's only because I was asking for a word that rhymes with cat.
Some of my friends have wondered why I don't include more sex? Implied sex is what I've included so far. My barometer for sex scenes: I know my dad will read it and I want to be able to look him in the eye.
I write Romance and it is a big part of my stories, some are more detailed than others but not too explicit. Enough to make my mother skip ahead, but the pastor's wife who lived next door said they were tasteful. At least in the first book.
And Ella, I don't like to write sex scenes either.
Thanks for the smiles, Ella. I guess being an introvert can be helpful sometimes.
I got a great one this week: "If someone makes you mad, do you ever base a character on them and then punish the character?"
My answer: "Not yet, but I'll keep that in mind."
What I should have said: "Why, are you trying to get into my next book?"
I know a bunch of writers in the South who are contemplating a character named Harvey...
No doubt! And since that question was asked at my reading Saturday I've started a list.
You will be happy later that you have that list. 🙂
What a great idea! Word voodoo!
Kristin, 50 Shades never gets old - or at least it hasn't here in Texas. I've also gotten, 'Oh, do you write those dirty books?' I had a niece (by marriage) say, "Whoa, I didn't know there was sex in your books. Not sure I was ready for that.'
What part of romance didn't you get? Did you think I'd never had sex? Wait! Don't answer that!
Unfortunately, I thought of a ton to say, after. Right then, I was too stunned to think.
"Dirty books...." WTH. How on earth do they think they got on this planet? Osmosis?
Terrific post, Ella. Thank you! My experiences have been mostly wonderful. 'Cept that one guy: He stepped up to the table where I was signing copies of my book, glanced down at the cover, looked up at me and asked, "You wrote this?" I smiled broadly and replied, "I did!" He shifted his eyes back down to the book, looked up again and then simply stared at me. Didn't say anything else. Just stood there, staring and blinking. It appeared as though he couldn't wrap his mind around this phenomenon. I finally picked up a copy, cracked it open to the title page and (still smiling like an idiot) said, "May I sign one to you?" He just shook his head and walked away.
I agree...most of my interactions have been great! I love my readers! However, being an author puts you in the spotlight, subject to public criticism. If I do a substandard job as a claims adjuster, say, no one knows except my boss. If I write a book and you don't like it, you can tell me (and all other readers) your opinion. Pays to have a thick skin in this business.
Regarding a thick skin: I completely agree, Ella. The story I related above didn't bother me, at all. In fact, it was quite comical. I simply do not get offended by the social sensibilities (or lack thereof) of others. Life is too short. 🙂
Good on you, Melanie. You're better for it. As you said, life is too short.
Ha ha. This is great, and so familiar unfortunately! Love your answers, though, Ella. I'll have to remember some of those!
Okay, I tried "liking" this post but since I'm not on my normal computer, it isn't letting me. I'd love to print this out and just hand it to people when they ask me these questions. Luckily, my book has only been out a few months so I haven't been asked all of these...yet.
I've been pretty open at my author events so far if people ask anything about money. I remind myself I had no clue years ago, so why would they?
We are (most of us) not in this for the money. Thank goodness.
Still, as I tell people, nobody is MAKING me write, I'm doing it because these dang voices in my head won't leave me alone.
And nodding and swallowing our words at the questions does help.
Thanks for a great post, and congratulations on another great book!
Thank you Jill! Wishing you only the most satisfying of all questions at your book events! xoxo
I need to share this with my husband. Every week he asks me when I'm going to get published so he can retire.
So great to see your face, littlemissw! That cracks me up. Tell him not to quit his day job!
Thank you! I do tell him that, before I tell him that in fact I might need to pick up a day job once the kids are in school. He's still not convinced.
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Ella-such a great post, so interesting. Wish I could attend one of your readings. I'd have to think of a question to top all of these though!
I hate when people I know think my writing is some kind of autobiography--the hero must be my husband, the setting must be about my life, or picking it apart in relation to my life.
It's fiction. Contemporary romance fiction. From my imagination. Because, yes, I can be creative. 🙂