So You Wrote a Book

Photo credit: Vainsang on Flickr
So since I’ve started doing this thing where I actually tell people I’m a writer when they ask, it’s come up a couple times that I’ve written “a” book. I put “a” in quotations, because I don’t usually go into the “I’ve actually written thirteen books but only one is getting published so far” thing unless it comes up, which it rarely does.

But last week, when I was having one of these conversations with a well-intentioned non-book person, I casually mentioned “my book” and not thirty seconds later came something along the lines of: “Oh wow, you wrote a book? Where is it published?”

I hesitated when I answered, because now I can say that my book is going to be published, which is awesome. And I did say that. But I couldn’t help but think that if I’d had this conversation seven months ago, that question would’ve really stung. Again.

But this post is not about the well-intentioned nice non-book person. It’s about societal assumptions and how we, as writers, handle them.

Part of the so-called overnight success phenomenon is the idea outside the publishing word that writers always publish the first book they write and basically start calling editors the day after they finished their first draft (because that’s how writers get published, right? Riiiiight?)

If you are here reading this blog there is a 99% chance you know that’s not how it works. Not even close. (And for the 1%—that’s not how it works. Not even close.) But when all we ever hear about are writers debuting on the NYT Bestseller’s list and becoming mega-superstars, the true backstory gets overlooked. No one wants to hear how they spent years and years writing, and getting rejected, and putting away books, and trying again and again. It’s not exciting to talk about the books they wrote and put away because they couldn’t get them published.

So, instead, there’s this image of writers publishing their first book ever and getting rich off it. And while, rarely, it can happen, it is such an outlier. Most writers, even writers who write full-time, did not start off that way.

So you wrote a book, and you mention to someone that you wrote a book, and now you’re staring that question in the face. And it sucks, it really sucks to have to say, “It’s not published yet” and watch the other person smile politely and immediately lose interest. It sucks to watch them go from excited (wow! you’re a real live author!) to condescending (so what’s your backup job?) in the space of a few words.

Unfortunately, it’s just the reality of being a writer, particularly during those long years before you get a publishing contract. And if you self-publish, unfortunately it doesn’t really go away ever, unless you hit it really really big (which, again, outlier).

The thing is, you can’t change the way other people think. And you often can’t avoid that ugly conversation if you’re open about being a writer. This is, unfortunately, part of the writer life. But while non-book people often don’t understand—and probably won’t understand unless someone talks to them about what it’s really like—other writers do.

So when you encounter conversations like this, acknowledge that it sucks. Acknowledge that it hurts and it’s not fair. But know that there are others like you who completely understand, and know that you are not a failure or a disappointment in any way, shape, or form.

This is just another reality of being a writer. And it’s okay.

Has this conversation happened to you?

Twitter-sized bite:

On the "overnight success" story and societal assumptions about writers. (Click to tweet


Ava Jae said...

That's so true! I hadn't equated the two, but you're totally right. I wonder if it has to do with media portrayal? Singers are rarely shown as instant successes and there are band/singer memoirs that show a lot of the hard work that went into becoming a famous singer/band. Not so much with authors and writing.

Alexandra Perc said...

Many times! And while people become enthousiastic about my stories, they don't consider reading them, since I have them posted on Wattpad.

In other cases, followers from Wattpad have mentioned many times if the books are going to be officially published or (yes I read that too) when the movie will happen.
You do pour your time, creativity and soul on writting but some people do acknowledge you only when you can show them a physical copy. Yes Ava, it really sucks!

DD said...

Love this. I avoid this conversation at all costs because of the ignorant, albeit well-intentioned, responses.

Heather said...

I think it has a lot to do with how we view success. If you are a mountain climber, then obviously, your success story is getting to the top. I think for a lot of people they view publication as the top, when in reality that's a whole different mountain range—for many of us, just getting to a place where we can query and say we are done for now is enough summit to last us for quite a while.

Unfortunately, the non-publishing people can't see the mountains behind our first peak. It's a struggle.

Ava Jae said...

I do think there are other benefits of telling people, namely that it feels really darn good to say "I'm a writer" to people over and over again. But there is this unavoidable downside,'s a give and take.

Also, that's pretty funny about your mom. Mine did that when I was really young and first I'm not sure how much it comes up lol. Parents are funny.

Ava Jae said...

I don't have any experience with Wattpad, but somehow that doesn't surprise me. And that definitely sucks. Also goes to show some reallllly unrealistic expectations regarding movies (actually, I see authors get asked that all the time on tumblr...maybe another post lol).

Ava Jae said...

I actually really love telling people I'm a writer (and did so even pre-pub deal) because it feels really great and affirming to say it aloud to people several times. That said, there is the downside of having this conversation as I said to someone below, it's a definite give and take.

Ava Jae said...

This is SUCH a great analogy, Heather! You're totally right. 100% right. I really have nothing to add except yes.

Sam Taylor said...

So I'm late to the party here ... but oh my goodness, I love this post. Yes, it sucks when people look at me slant-eyed when I say I'm a writer but don't yet have a book published. I get vibes, even from some of my family members, that I'm a hack because I'm not yet published. Or, that I must be a really crappy writer because it takes me several drafts to get a book ready to query. (And then there's the horrible, "Why are you wasting your time querying? You can self-publish your book now. Duh." Yes, thank you for educating me on my own profession and presuming I've done zero research. Duh.)

Actually, I wonder if it's the easy accessibility to self-publishing that causes people to assume writer = book published (or, leads them to wondering why the heck a writer would opt for traditional publishing over self-publishing). My experience has been that many non-writers don't understand the difference between a self-published book and a traditionally published book, and especially the different skill sets necessary to succeed in both venues, or the challenges and benefits that come with each. They just see a book they can buy on Amazon ... or, a lack of one.

SJ Mitchell said...

I have written 'a' book. I haven't done anything with it because I don't think it's good enough to have someone edit it yet. So I keep re-writing.

I won't tell anyone in conversation that I've 'written a book', because I don't want the response that you received and the follow-up questions that go along with it:
No, it's not published.
Yes, the odds are stacked against me that an agent will rep it.
Yes, it'll most likely be self-published.
No, I probably won't make enough off of it to put gas in my tank for the first week it's out.

For me, writing isn't about the notoriety or wealth. It's about having an idea in my head and wanting to entertain people. So while technically I can say 'yes, I've written a book' those words may never escape my lips until it's actually published; self or otherwise.

Ava Jae said...

That's interesting about your experience with non-writer not really understanding the difference between self-publishing and traditional publishing. The people I've come across have made a huge differentiation in their minds, namely (and I don't agree with this) that all self-published books are probably bad because anyone can upload them. Which is why I mentioned the bit about this conversation never really ending for self-published authors. (There also tends to be some skepticism with digital-only or digital-first books—again, because of the association with self-publishing.)

That said, I've definitely gotten the self-publishing talk from family I wonder if maybe the age group has something to do with the perception of self-publishing? Hmm. I'm not sure.

Ava Jae said...

I think that's a totally legitimate choice. I found that for me, the pros outweighed the cons, if only because it was really self-affirming (before I got the pub deal) to continuously tell people "yes, I'm a writer." But I definitely understand not wanting to talk about it to avoid the conversation altogether.

Dan said...

But, you need to publish your book at least on your site or blog or on amazon, etc. Otherwise its not like a book but a diary

Ava Jae said...

Err I'm not sure what you mean?

Sam Taylor said...

Perhaps my experience is more unusual, but I've been pressured by a number of non-writers to self-publish my books. They seem genuinely perplexed that I would spend the time and effort to secure agent representation when I could self-publish on my own. They were just as perplexed when I shelved a book that didn't gain agent representation. This is usually when I have to explain that self-publishing is its own unique venue, not merely some way around agents, and explain why I do want agent representation and how having that could help bring about the writing career I envision for myself. A lot of these people telling me to self-publishing are people closer to my age, rather than from older generations, so perhaps it is an age-group perception? Not sure, either. But it will be interesting to see how these conversations continue the longer I write.

Ava Jae said...

Ahhhh okay. I see what you mean. I'd actually been pressured to self-publish (and one family member was convinced vanity publishing was the way to go) by some too, but they tended to be people who were much older than me. So that's interesting. Maybe there's no trend. Maybe it's just the people we know. lol

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