I was at a book club recently (I try to go to all the ones that are kind enough to invite me) and as often happens, I was asked these three things. Each time I cringed.
1) How many books have you sold? I know this is a hard one for people to grasp because it seems so innocuous, but it is the equivalent of me asking a realtor I barely know how many houses they sold or some other stranger how much money they made last year.
How many books I have sold is between me and my publisher. If we’ve sold enough to hit a bestseller’s list, believe me, you’ll know about it. If we haven’t, sales may have been disappointing. Most books in Canada aren’t big bestsellers. Some only sell a few hundred copies. Don’t embarrass us by asking us to tell you how many.
Remember that commercial publishing is a business. I do not expect a small business owner to tell me whether their business is profitable or not; it’s none of my business. Honestly, this is a question that every author hates.
2) Are you writing full-time? I had already identified myself to the group as a realtor. Clearly, I am not writing full-time; I have a job that I very much enjoy that also pays my bills and keeps me connected with something other than writing.
The underlying question, again, was whether I am supporting myself by writing, which makes it a variant of question 1.
Most writers, even the ones you’ve heard about, cannot support themselves by writing. We are like the actors in New York who wait on tables while they wait for their big break. Most of us have two full-time jobs, one of which is writing. This is a question that simply reminds me how exhausted I sometimes am trying to juggle the demands of both of them.
3) So this is just a hobby, then? This was the question that followed my response to question 2 that I was a full time realtor.
A hobby is something I would take up for enjoyment. I would not expect to be paid for my time. Commercial publishing is a business. There are many aspects of it that are not pleasurable and that are out of our control.
The fact I am not writing to the exclusion of all else does not make what I do a hobby. Suggesting to any artist (visual or written) that their art is a “hobby” is something most would find offensive.
So what should you ask an author?
Ask them about their creative inspiration. Why do your characters do what they do? Are your characters based on people you know in real life? In other words, stick to the books. Authors are happy to talk about their creations and their creative process. Their personal lives, which is where the other questions unknowingly intrude into, are really their own business.
P.S. One of my friends has pointed out that it’s not unreasonable for a prospective client to ask a realtor about their sales record, and I completely agree. But it would be perceived as very rude for me to ask a fellow realtor how many sales they’ve had or for anyone to ask them what they were paid in commissions. That kind of information is between them and their brokerage. (If they’re doing well, we all know it.)