Saturday, 28 February 2015

Debut Author: Ten Questions You Will Get Asked - Clementine Beauvais

(Confession: this is an adaptation of an old blog post on my own blog, but I'm v v v busy this month sorry so I prefered to do this rather than dash off a sloppy new post (and also, almost no one read it the first time around anyway). )

Hello, debut author! Congratulations on the book deal! While you’re busy getting Vistaprint to produce acceptable promotional bookmarks, finding ways of getting better known on the Internet (don’t worry, no one actually has any idea how to), practicing answering ‘so what do you do?’ with ‘well, I’m a writer’, and fervently noting down what every single author, agent and editor blog says about what you should be doing or else, here’s my little contribution to your constant migraine: the 10 questions you will get asked by everyone, from complete randomers to your grandmother, within your first year of publication.
Oh you will have fun. Here we go.

10. ‘But like, how many, I mean like not exactly, but more or less, how many books have you sold, like, approximately?’

This question can occur at any time, including the day after publication. And you cannot be vague: even if the questioner is otherwise incapable of adding three and four without frantically reaching for a calculator, s/he wants numbers. Not sure why; but it is absolutely vital. Saying ‘Oh, it’s going well, I think’ will only drag you into a labyrinth of subdefinitions of the adverb ‘well’ associated to specific numerical values.
The assumption, you see, is that part of the induction ceremony into the Great Publishing Sect consists of implanting a magical chip in your brain which permanently connects you to every single online and brick-and-mortar bookshop in the whole world. Every time they sell one of your books, a little ringtone goes off in your skull. You can personalise this ringtone (I have the first few chords of Supermassive Black Hole). The latest version synchronises with your iPhone and compiles the data into easily understandable statistics.
How to get out of this tricky situation without having to reveal (that you have no idea about) the latest figures? The only solution is to say, with an expression of disdainful detachment which you shall practice in front of your mirror, ‘Not enough to pay for your Frappucino, you cheapskate.’

9. ‘Why aren’t you on an intergalactic promotional book tour?’

O friend, I share your perplexity. I too wish I were wanted from Johannesburg to Santa Monica by armies of fans with bellies and chests tattoed with my (probably misspelt) name. Unfortunately, this isn’t normally what happens to the debut author. Unless you are Pippa Middleton (in which case, please leave a comment explaining why Pilates doesn’t do to my body what it does to yours), you are relatively low on the list of people whom your otherwise lovely publisher would like to send on a first-class trip around the world. You might be invited to a few book fairs, bookshops and schools, but it will probably be Melbourne, East Anglia rather than its more glamorous Australian equivalent (unless you are from the suburbs of the latter).
The relentless questioner will not take this for an answer. Instead, offer the following explanation: ‘Because I would have missed the chance to be with you today.’ Then bat your eyelids.

8. ‘When will you be on the Oprah Winfrey show?’

(I don’t know if that thing still exists, by the way.) Your persecutor is here hunting for a Claim to Fame to disclose at the watercooler on Monday when Amanda of the green miniskirt is passing by. ‘I know a girl who knows *person on TV*’ is indeed guaranteed to saturate the ambient air with pheromones. They will not be happy to hear that you have given an interview to the work experience boy at the local newspaper. It will not satisfy them to know that people have blogged about your book. They want names. And yet, blogs are the best way for books to get known and promoted, as they are more influential than magazines and papers. But your questioner will not believe this.
Your best bet is to mention offhandedly that ‘Richard and Judy’ liked the book a lot, and you’re hoping she’ll do something with it. No one needs to know that Judy is your aunt’s dog-walker, and Richard the dog.

7. ‘So I went to Waterstones the other day and your book wasn’t there. That means it’s out of print or what?’

Yep, it’s only been a year but people hated it so forcefully that the publisher discontinued it, burnt all the stock and issued a public apology.
Your questioner is here betraying their vision of bookshops as a land of magic with unlimited storage space, very much like Mary Poppins’s bag. It would be very cruel to shatter their lovely dream with dull considerations of the fact that the number of books currently in print divided by the available squared metres in your average bookshop results in an imaginary number which spontaneously creates dangerous amounts of antimatter if it is written down or spoken.
What you want the person to do here is to order the book: that way, the bookshop will know that it’s wanted (and order more) and you will have sold another copy. But you don’t want them to know that your book isn’t still the number one favourite darling of said bookshop. So the only way is to say, ‘Oh dear, tell me about it. Every time they restock the shelves, they’re empty again within the next half hour. I would recommend ordering it; only way to make sure you can have it.’ Win.

6. ‘When’s the next one coming out?’

That one’s easy if you’ve got a multiple book deal, because it’s written in your contract. If not, it is a very stressful question, because of the existential vertigo it triggers in your insecure psyche. You are not allowed to take this as an opportunity to confess that you are terrified that your editor might not like the next one and stop loving you and that as a result your agent will slap you in the face and worst of all that the people who once ‘Liked’ your Facebook page will ‘Unlike’ it. This is not an acceptable response. You are not on a psychoanalyst’s sofa. This is war.
The perfect answer is a lie: ‘November 7th, 2016′. Repeat this to everyone who asks. Tell everyone who doesn’t ask. Write it on your blog. That way, there’ll be so much pressure to do it that you’ll actually write that second book. No choice.

5. ‘Do you Google your name everyday to see what people are saying about you?’

No need. I’ve installed a piece of software on my iPhone connected to the aforementioned chip in my brain and whenever my name appears in any corner of the world wide web another special ringtone reverberates through my skull (Lensky’s aria in Eugene Onegin).
People seem to assume that finding reviews of your books is always the most wonderful experience. And of course it is when they’re good, and of course there are (many) writers who get completely obsessive-compulsive with looking up reviews. But not me. If you do start looking for them, there’s always that horribly stressful feeling that you just don’t know what you’re going to end up finding.
It’s as if you could google your kid’s name and find reviews of the dear child. Of course, a lot of the time it’s all going to be ‘Sharon’s adorable little boy is a charming example of toddlerhood with perfectly rosy cheeks under an avalanche of cherubic curls’. But once in a while you’ll get the occasional ‘Scrawny-looking and relatively indistinguishable from a tiny piglet, Billy suffers from a worrying lack of vocabulary for an eighteen-month-old’. Maybe that would make you think twice before asking the world what it thinks of your progeny.
Your questioner will not agree with that, of course, so just evasively mention that you don’t need to because your mum and dad do it for you and select which ones they tell you about, haha! (and tragically it’s probably true, too.)

4. ‘Why don’t you translate your own books into French/ Chinese/ Martian to sell them abroad?’

(This isn’t a question asked to the chronically monolingual: lucky, lazy you!). This one primarily betrays a forgivable lack of knowledge of how the publishing industry works on an international level (clue: not like that).
But the more worrying (and frankly annoying) assumption is that any bilingual person can translate anything, including their own prose. What is the point, quel est le point, I ask you, of studying translation? Absolutely none. Bilingual people are naturally endowed with the gift of translation; fact. Any Jean-Pierre Dawson born of an English dad and a French mum can write with equal velocity and Booker/Goncourt-winning quality in both languages.Therefore, they can translate their own work, of course, since they wrote it to start with. The assumption is strengthened, of course, when you do write in both languages.
The only appeasing answer you can bring to this question is, ‘If I’m asked to, I might.’ But you might not. Because nothing, of course, guarantees that you are the best translator of your own words.

3. ‘Did you choose the illustrator/ the title/ the layout/ the cover/ the chapter headings font/ the ISBN/ etc?’

Niet. Nein. No. Non. … [I've run out of other languages]
This will not satisfy your well-intentioned questioner. ‘What!?! but it’s YOUR book!?! How come?!?’. They will think your editor is Really Mean. Then they will think you’re a Loser who only had Bad Ideas. Then they will laugh at you in secret. It will be the beginning of the end of your social respectability.
The problem here is that once again the writer is envisaged as a prodigy multitasker who must by definition know everything about what a book is. ‘Of course I chose the exact paper texture I wanted, 68.9g/mm and ivory-off-white with a tinge of cerulean’. The editor is just the person who makes the money. S/he has no experience and no right to interfere in the great creator’s vision of the work.
The truth is that making a book, for the editor, is about n-ego-tiating the author’s ego with the actual reality of the fact that the book has to sell and that their vision of a full-colour picture of a Murakami sculpture with the elliptic title ‘Albeit Capricious’ will not be the most efficient way of reaching out to the average Waterstones customer. And they will very probably be right.
You don’t want your questioner to ruin your professional life and career by spreading rumours about how powerless you are, of course, so the only acceptable answer is, ‘Oh of course I had a say’. And to be fair, you probably did.

2. ‘Which authors are you friends with now?’

This assumes that other authors are by necessity your best friends forever, just like all accountants flock together and all academics only have friends who are academics.
Ok, that last one may actually be true.
The fact is of course that there are many authors you are now friends with because they’re actually nice and others that you can’t stand because they’re terrible people, just like any other group. You are not automatically on the same wavelength as someone who writes in the same genre. It is also possible that you are not the kind of person who can bear the disproportionately huge ego of other writers on top of your own equally impressive self-confidence, especially as everyone is tragically plagued with crushing moments of doubt.
But the myth about birds of a feather must be maintained, so name all the writers that you’ve met, from the loveliest to the most unpleasant, and with a generous smile, tell your questioner that ‘They’re all amazing, what can I say? We’re like a big family.’
NB: Some people will also labour under the opposite delusion: that you are by necessity extremely jealous of all the other authors. This is a probable sign that they are themselves dangerous, envious, frustrated psychopaths will little experience of peaceful relationships. Cut all friendship ties immediately.

1. ‘Yeah ok so you write children’s books, right, but when are you going to write, like, real literature?’
When the rest of the world starts to understand that children’s literature is real literature.


Clementine Beauvais writes in French and English. She blogs here about children's literature and academia.


Susan Price said...

Thanks for this, Clementine - made me laugh many times. You are spot on - especially, of course, the last question: When are you going to write a REAL book?
I think I have been asked that, by someone, every time I've put my face outside the door for the past 40 years. I'd retire to a closed order, except I suspect the nuns would ask me the same question.

Sue Purkiss said...

Brilliant, and SO useful!

Joan Lennon said...

And coming in at Number 11 - "So, do you write under your own name?" DO NOT get me started de-constructing THAT one!

Sue Bursztynski said...

I sometimes wish I didn't write under my own name. Nobody can pronounce it - my books might sell better if my name was Smith or Jones. And number 12: "You're a writer - why are you still working here?" I get that from our students. Sorry, kids, not all of us can stay home and make a living from this!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Brilliant! loved it! It needs to be read not just by debut authors but by every author. Even my family don't understand why I don't know exactly how many books I've sold.

Anonymous said...

Definitely a post worth repeating! It certainly made me laugh.

C.J.Busby said...

Excellent! Will now be using your answer to the question 'why isn't your book in Waterstones?' at every opportunity!!