Wednesday, September 7, 2011

From the author of The Art of Civilized Conversation: How to have a civilized conversation with an author

    I live in Boston, where you could make a fortune selling a bumper sticker that says “Ask me about my book.”  Even though an awful lot of people seem to be writing a book, however, most of the folks who meet them still don’t know how to talk to an author.  I’m going to give you a short introduction to the topic. 
    Writers work alone, out of sight.  the general public doesn't really know what they do or how they do it.  Or why they do it.  If you can avoid asking dumb questions, you might get some insight into their lives, learn about their fields, understand the book world better, and make them feel happy in their work.
      Part of the difficulty in talking with authors comes from not understanding the life cycle of a typical book.  A book takes from one to three years to go from idea to reader.  Writers who have other sources of income (very few authors make enough from their books to live on), such as teaching or a day job, may take longer.  Just because they don’t have a title, a publisher, or a publication date, doesn’t mean they’re not working on the book.  
    Like a child, a book goes through a sequence of different development stages.  And as with a child, some of these stages make more sense to outsiders.  It’s a different book when it is a heap of clippings in their file drawer, or a distant dream on the horizon, or a proposal sitting in an editor’s to-be-read box, or suddenly a product under contract with a deadline, or a manuscript deep in rewriting and editing, or a debutante just about to be published, or an also-ran slowly going out of print.  Different authors do better during different phases; some prefer to talk about the book that’s just come out and how it’s doing, while others are truly only interested in what to put into the book that’s years in the future.  If you can sound interested in newborn babies, and you should, then you can sound interested in an author's book.
    By the way, here's a link to my newest book, and my previous titles.
    Of course it’s easy to make conversation if you’ve heard of the author you’re talking to, or have read the book, or (especially) have bought the book.  The tips offered here are for all the other writers you might encounter. 
Do say:
  • Congratulations!
  • How’s the book doing?
  • What are you working on now?
  • Tell me where the initial idea for the book came from.
  • How long have you been working on it (be prepared to hear “25 years”).

Do say, but only if you can say it truthfully:
  • I loved your book.  I bought your book.  I read your book.  [Don’t say any of these to an academic: if the average person can understand their book their colleagues will despise them.] 
  • I read [something positive] about your book.  I heard about your book [say where]. 
  • I saw your book at the [book store name].  But then of course the author will start worrying about why it isn’t selling. 
  • I’ve always been interested in [that topic].

Maybe say:
  • I checked it out of the library.
  • It sounds fascinating. 
  • What are you doing to help people find out about the new book? 
  • Would you come and give a talk about your book to my group?  (Don’t offer this as if it were a favor from you; it only does the writer some good if you help him get publicity, offer him a fee, pay for his transportation, and make it easy for him to sell book copies.)    

Don’t say, because the author will take it wrong:
  • You have been busy.  As if I only write to keep my hands busy, no ideas or labor involved. 
  • Did it ever get published?  That’s mainly what motivates real writers. 
  • That’s nice.  Thanks for the condescension. 
  • I got your book for $1 at a thrift store.  So I didn’t get any royalties out of you AND someone threw my book out?  Thanks for sharing that. 
  • I’d like to write a book too.  Can you give me some suggestions?  If you’ll teach me all about how to succeed in your profession in 3 minutes. 
  • Where do I buy it?  Have you heard of a little website named Amazon?  
  • Oh, you write?  Well, I have a friend [name] who writes.  Do you know each other?  Trust me, authors are busy, alone, at their keyboards. 
  • Oh, I heard that books and bookstores are going to be obsolete soon.  Thanks, and I just heard that your neighborhood got vaporized. 
  • Does the publisher come to you with ideas?  As if!  The only idea any publisher of mine has ever seemed to have “Can you write something for brides?” 
  • Can you sell me a copy?  Authors write books, not sell them.  They don’t carry their books around with them, or even have extra copies on hand for people who can’t be bothered to click on “buy.”   

    Ask about the profession of writing, publishing, and publicizing, as well as the topic the book is about, and you will have a good basis for a better conversation with the next author you meet. 

No comments:

Post a Comment