Who Will Buy Your Book?

May 21, 2018 | 1 book mentioned 77 6 min read

1.
“Nobody else is here,” the elderly woman said into her phone. “It’s embarrassing!”  

cover She was the first one to arrive at my reading at the Philadelphia Library, a week after the release of my third novel, and two weeks after the pinnacle of my writing life, when that novel was praised in both The New Yorker and The Washington Post, two articles that I had assumed would create something like buzz around me or my writing. It was 6:58, and the reading started at 7:00.  

Earlier that day, I had gotten messages from nine different friends, all saying they’d planned on attending but something had come up and they couldn’t make it. Each of their explanations was understandable—sick children, stuck at work, car troubles—but also it seemed cruel that every one of them would have an emergency on the same night. My wife was there, in the second row and I sent her a text from the front of the room: can we just leave? Will anyone notice? 

I did not leave. I had promised to do an event, and the library had made space for me, and even if only one person was in the audience, I had a responsibility to deliver. But in those next two minutes—as I kept hoping for, say, a bus full of book critics to break down outside—I was thinking grim thoughts about the creative life.

2.
I have been very fortunate as a writer: since 2010, I have had three books picked up by three different publishers. I have gotten coverage in major publications and been invited to do events in many bookstores along the east coast. I made enough money on my first book contract to buy a pretty nice couch.  

Before I ever published anything, I’d assumed that if I ever finished a book, there would be so much demand from family and friends alone that we’d have to go into a second printing before the release date. But I am here to tell you: most people in your family will never buy your book. Most of your friends won’t either.  

I have a handful of friends and family members—people I consider close to me, people I see regularly—who have never come to any of my dozens of book events. I don’t know if they own any of my books because I haven’t asked, but I have a pretty good guess. After my first book came out, I would peruse friends’ bookshelves, trying to determine their organizational system (if it’s not alphabetical, then where is my book? Maybe they have some special hidden shelf for books they truly cherish?). On a few occasions, I called them out for not having it. This accomplished nothing, besides making both of us feel bad.   

The point of this piece is not to shame those people or to complain about not getting enough support. It’s just to say: whatever you think it’s like after you publish a book, it’s actually harder than that.  

3.
During the entire process of producing a book, the writer becomes a swirling vortex of neediness. First you’re begging for time to write, then you’re asking people to read and edit, then you’re querying agents, then you’re asking (oh god) for blurbs, then you’re contacting reviewers, then you’re emailing everyone you’ve ever met, then you’re posting on Facebook (again and again), and then you’re asking people to show up to some bookstore on a Wednesday night to listen to you read words at them. Later, you’ll ask them to write reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Every day, you are making demands on people’s time and money. It’s terrible.

For most of these people, the only appealing aspect of the book is that your name is on the cover. Maybe they’re not readers. Maybe they like gritty mysteries and you’re writing literary fiction about a divorced Brooklyn couple. Maybe they like reading but don’t have time, due to career, kids, community activism, or something else. Relative to the amount of time and anxiety you devote to the project, you’re really not asking for much. But it’s important to remember: nobody in the world will ever care about your book as much as you do. Very few will ever understand exactly what it means to you. 

People will like your Facebook statuses and retweet your tweets and they’ll even leave very nice comments. These likes and comments do not translate to sales. It’s the most passive way for anyone to show support. Over time, the novelty wears off. It’s exciting for non-writers to say they know an author, or for writer friends to remember back when you were starting out and working on your first, bad stories. Very little can sustain that enthusiasm over the six (or more) months during which you’re posting about the book.  

I admit to having felt betrayed by my friends’ indifference, especially after the first book, but I remind myself that I do the same thing all the time. I have friends in bands that I haven’t seen live in years. I’ve never been to any friends’ improv shows. I skip a lot of readings, even when I know the readers. I have friends with books I haven’t bought or read. I have explicitly lied to colleagues about having read and enjoyed their books. The book industry is partly kept afloat by a shadow economy in which the main currency is bullshit.  

4.
At a family party recently, a cousin asked why I didn’t bring copies of my newest book to sell. I don’t like the idea of showing up to family parties like a cotton candy vendor wandering from table to table looking for handouts. I’ve done this before (at my mom’s wedding, I sold two books, including one to the pastor), and it has always felt cheap and more than a little passive-aggressive. I’ve decided that the misery of haggling over prices with a cousin is not worth the benefit of one more sale. When the cousin said he wasn’t sure where to get the book, I told him he could probably order it with one click on his phone. I did not close the deal.

5.
The event I did at the Philly Library started late, as every reading does, as we hoped for that sudden influx of people. For the first time in my life, a (small) busload of people actually did show up. The library partners with a local retirement home, and so about a dozen people filled in the seats. Then a colleague arrived, followed by a writer friend. Then a friend from college, who I only see now at these events. Then a childhood friend, who always shows up even though he works long hours in the suburbs and has four young kids. Two people even bought books.

An hour earlier, I’d been drowning myself in self-pity, vowing to never put myself through this again. But then, in front of a modest crowd in the modest basement of a local library, I thought about how lucky I am to have any of these opportunities. I felt incredibly grateful to everyone who showed up, even the woman who made the upsetting phone call (she sat in the front row and listened intently and asked three questions). As always, I felt incredible gratitude to my wife, who has sat through so many more of these events than any person could ever be expected to endure. I felt fortunate to have friends who still keep showing up, sometimes making an hour commute to get there, even when all they’re getting out of it is fifteen minutes of me reading from a book, and maybe my signature. Some people couldn’t make it, but some did. That counts.  

The next night I did a reading in my adopted hometown in New Jersey and eight people showed up. I gave them the best performance I could. What other option is there?  

6.
Most of the writing life is disappointment. Publishing a book, which should be your most triumphant moment, is an anticlimax. There are no fireworks and no awards, no parades down Main Street. Many people close to you will disappoint you. But there are people who will come through, and they will keep coming through, and sometimes you’ll be surprised who falls into which category. I’ve learned to cherish those friends and family members who are always there, or even sometimes there. It takes real sacrifice on their part to support this weird thing I do. It takes money and time for them to seek the book out, to ask their local shops and libraries to carry it, to share it on social media.  

People will read your book. Almost certainly not as many people as you wish. But sometimes a friend from high school or a former teacher will surprise you by showing up to a reading, or posting a review online. Sometimes a stranger will email you out of the blue and say they loved it, and in those moments it will feel like you’ve accomplished something impossible. It will feel better than you ever thought it could.  

I don’t think there is any way to convince all the people in your life to buy your book, let alone care about it half as much as you do. Though their validation feels great, it’s important to remember that it’s also not the point. As a writer, you need to approach every project with the understanding that you’re doing this work for yourself, and everything that happens once it’s in the world is out of your control. Whatever project you’re working on now doesn’t derive value from your friends’ approval, but rather from the love and energy you pour into it. You can do the work, and you can keep showing up, and that’s all you’ve got. Most of the time, it’s all you need.  

is the author of the novels How to Be Safe and The Young Widower's Handbook. He co-hosts the Book Fight! podcast and works as non-fiction editor for Barrelhouse. He lives in New Jersey and teaches at Temple University.

77 comments:

  1. ….food for thought… dropping two novellas this summer and was considering harassing family&friends into purchasing it…. will have to reconsider….

  2. Tom, nice write-up. I think too many writers create books because they want to appeal to a general audience and make the big bucks. When they fail to become millionaires after six months of the publishing of their first novel they fall into a depression. Many stop writing. I believe a writer should write because he or she has a story inside of that screams “let me out” and won’t stop until you finish. If you’re lucky another story will take its place and the process starts over.

    My genre is a historic crime fiction that takes place in Philadelphia. Talk about a small target platform. My first novel beat me over the head trying to come out and I finally did it. Because of my age, I went the self-publishing route. I just didn’t feel I had the time or energy to fight for a rep and publisher that is more interested in established writers. The story kept urging me on and I have now written an additional three books in the series, each one I think, gets better. I am just starting my fifth book in the series.

    Funny, I found my niche customers in people who grew up in Philly (or nearby) and are 50 or older. They seem to like my books and while I won’t get rich selling them I feel satisfied that I was able to write the books, and that some of my peers from Kensington, Fishtown and other parts of Philly enjoy them.

  3. You got it exactly right. The joy is first in the reading. Then comes the writing. And sometimes the sharing. Hard to give up on any of it.

  4. Also, you never know. I once did a reading with two other writers (think more would show up, right?) and only six people showed. But one of those six was running a Brandeis Book and Author luncheon which had 800 people coming to it and wanted me to give the keynote. Of course, after the keynote, I did another event…with 8 people, one of them asleep.

  5. Tom,

    Thank you for that positive outlook on the reality of being “a published author.”
    In 1999, my sister asked me to help her and her son write a children’s book. I had never considered writing as a hobby, let alone a career, but I have always been a viracious reader. Well, they never did write a book, but I got an idea for one of my own. Or, more correctly, a book idea jumped into my head and never let go. I still have no overwhelming urge to “be published” since my day job, family, and friends occupy my time in a satisfyingly fulfilling way, but I still love writing. One of these days, I might get around to publishing The Adventures of Danger Dave, Galactic Hero, or even a collection of humor in haiku from my Twitter alter-ego, @HaikuHare. Until then, writing is a constant source of joy that keeps me going in a world that would like to beat me down. As long as my characters are out there in the galaxy, battling evil and rescuing the innocent, I feel that I am, too, and that is a nice feeling to have.

  6. Too true! Unfortunately. I have attacked my family for not reading my books. I did mot get a single comment about them. Even an I hated it would have been a reaction.

  7. Preaching to the choir, but surely you have attended many readings by distinguished writers and poets with crowds that were of– umm–intimate size. One writer I particularly admire began by acknowledging the small audience with an anecdote about a poorly attended Doctorow reading. He quoted Doctorow– who was quoting someone else: “We happy few.” Carry on.

  8. Thanks Tom I have only published one book. MY CHAOS Searching for My New Normal. I have close family members who have not read it. It is a evidence based along with stories helping people cope with loss grief and life transitions but some of my own health care colleagues have not supported it to the degree degree I thought.
    But then I get an unsolicited response from a women who is in stage 4 cancer, saying it was the most helpful resource she has read or a neighbor who said any family who adopts children with special needs should read this.
    I could go on but to say your words resonate and support this new writer. I worry much less about those who have not purchased or read the book but give thanks for those who have found it helpful!
    Thank-you
    Rick C Benson

  9. I think the model of how to write and promote a book has changed. Expecting friends and family to be default fans is a mistake. Writing for fans is much easier. Some may call that selling out, but it avoids almost all of the laments the article covers. I just received a 5-star review from a stranger and another stranger bought 14 books from me to deliver in Europe. If I had written something for myself, that might not have happened. That’s why I disagree with the line, “As a writer, you need to approach every project with the understanding that you’re doing this work for yourself”.

  10. This is a really fine article. I’ve shared the link with two other author friends. We are always astounded that relatives and life-long friends don’t buy our books, let alone review them. Reviews are truly appreciated, especially when we know someone has stepped out of his or her comfort zone to write one. I had a book reading last year where four people and a dog showed up. I sold two books (the four consisted of two married couples) but our intimate group ended up having a wonderful after-reading wine and cheese soiree, and we became friends. Making lemonade, and all that!

  11. Fantastic piece. Yes. Yes. Yes. A million yeses. My first novel came out this April and well… yes. You have nailed every aspect of this thing. You’re right as well, that this shouldn’t lessen the joy or enthusiasm for this thing that we do. Getting the book published was huge for me, even if it wasn’t for everyone else. What to do now…. keep writing. Thanks for this post!

  12. Great article! I have been in that spot myself more times than I care to remember. I’ve also been on the positive side of that coin which refuels me and keeps me going. I love what I do and will keep doing it for one person or a hundred (I dream big :-)

  13. Very informative and telling post. I’ve experienced similar signings/readings. And it is embarrassing but we’ve made commitments and must honor them.. Another interesting aspect is that a lot of folks, including family and friends, won’t buy your book but they don’t mind a handout. Such is the life of a writer.

  14. I think this essay begs the author to ask why did I write this book. Seeing what is and what I can do (sell books as best as I can) versus what it could be ( there’s hundreds, thousands to be sold) is an expectation that needs to be addressed once an author decides to write a book.
    Great essay!

  15. All absolutely true for 98% of us writers. I once gave a book talk in NYC to a packed room — my editor couldn’t even get in the door — and yet not one person bought a book.
    I enjoyed it anyway and made a friend there.
    It is good to have low expectations and remain cheerful.

  16. Worst public reading story I know:
    A colleague was giving a reading in a library to a single person, and in the middle of his reading the police arrested his audience. The fellow apparently had been shoplifting in a store nearby, and was hiding by attending the reading.

  17. You’re too forgiving. We live in a social media age where people sit at their computers all day and impulsively give money to strangers’ sick pets with two mouse clicks and then forget about it. While everybody can’t support everything, buying an author friend’s cheap Kindle edition shouldn’t be an exercise in beard-stroking thoughtfulness, especially if he or she has supported your work–or just supported you.

  18. This is one of the best (and truest) essays I’ve read on this topic :) Well done!

  19. I shared this of Facebook for my many friend who would relate to it. Simply told, tragic deeper down.

    I have given up expecting to sell but give away copies when interest is shown- probably more than 100. Although we write because we have to we shape for an envisaged reader.

    Not even a nomination as runner up Book of the Year has translated into sales so finding a kindred in the same boat is comforting!

  20. I remember going to a reading that Richard Russo gave (this was a few years before he won the Pulitzer, but still he already had a following and a reputation) and, I think, only six people showed up and when it was over, he invited us out for a beer.

    Also, some years ago, Bret Lott wrote a funny (but painful) essay about his experience after his novel JEWEL was an Oprah book…when he gave a reading that only one or two people showed up to and one them asked him to autograph his novel…for her dog.

    I agree with those here who say that the main thing is the writing for the sake of writing. Sure, try to publish your work, but that can’t be the aim of it.

    When my novel came out a few years ago, I felt very special because I had a wonderful editor and it all makes you feel a bit like royalty, all the attention the editor pays to you and the publishing house pays to you…then it stops. I decided that publishing a novel was a little like acting in community theater. You go on for opening night, and there is electricity. You really nail it and there is an ovation and afterwards, everyone talks about how you really ought to go to New York, because you’ve got *it* and some person you never met comes up to you and says that your performance changed his life. Then you go to the cast party and everyone makes promises about how life will be different from here on because all of you have been blessed by the artistic gods…

    Then the next day you go back to selling shoes.

  21. This was sent by another writer in my critique group. Thank you for writing it. I am in the humdrum of trying to market my first book–a memoir, biography, tribute to my father titled Unsung Hero. Not going well.

  22. I have always wanted to attend one of your readings (as boring as they likely are ha ha), however I live 2 hours north of your old home and I have always been unable to get down there to meet you.

  23. Well that explains why my sisters could not even utter the word Congratulations for my nonfiction book. Coverage went international. I was going to give them each a signed copy but donated them instead to their local library.

  24. I really appreciated this well-needed dose of realism, Tom.

    I co-run the New Books Network author-interview podcast consortium (http://www.newbooksnetwork.com). We mostly feature books of a scholarly provenance, but do sometimes cover fiction, trade, and “crossover” titles. A typical NBN interview will be streamed or downloaded 3,000-5,000 times during the month of publication and then a couple hundred times monthly thereafter. Sometimes I get the sense that our guests and podcast hosts are disappointed by these numbers, when actually, they are quite terrific, (especially for academic monographs)! There’s no doubt that these podcasts generate some sales, but really, authors should simply take heart in knowing that although their books may not be flying off the shelves, people are listening. They are curious, and they do care. Heck, it may even prove that there are larger markets for these books than we had imagined. So yes, authors should temper their expectations, but there’s also considerable cause for optimism in the Age of the Internet.

  25. Thanks, Tom. So nice to know one isn’t alone when it comes to readings, even though one might well be.

    A few years ago, I gave a reading at the World Fantasy Conference in Saratoga. Three people attended, including an older couple that I had to coerce to stay from the previous reading. After I’d completed the first of three short chapters, one of the holdovers raised a hand to interrupt. “I feel there’s a disconnect in what you just read. Can you read it again?” I paused, mulled it over, said “No,” and carried on, as she glared daggers at me for the rest of the way.

    On the upside, the one legitimate audience member came up to me to say how much he enjoyed my writing and asked me to autograph a couple of collections my stories had appeared in.

  26. In love! I’ve been trying to tell my clients that this is the reality for years (I’m a publisher and book marketing coach) and they never quite believe it until it happens. And then they feel like they’ve done something wrong – and I feel bad for them. It is very hard to get people to buy books, bottom line, but that doesn’t mean you failed. Thank you, Tom, for this perfect article. 10 years in the business and the best I’ve read on the subject matter.

  27. Well said, Tom. You’ve hit most of the downers and the one great upper: creating the story. We need to enjoy those moments, then when it’s done and polished, go on to the next characters and story, because that’s the point of it all.
    I’ve had published and sold many copies of my non-fiction books. But my real joy has been with characters and their stories. Got an agent for my first novel and some wonderful rejections. I’ve never sent out any of my four other novels (plus two in process) because of the great swaths of time and energy marketing takes, which as you so thoroughly point out, continues well past publication.
    Beyond the self-satisfaction of my creative days and nights, I read pages to my three critique groups, who give me great feedback and support. They want me to publish, as does my wife, of course, and perhaps I will some day. But I will remember your essay and hope to avoid the aggravation that comes with pushing my product.

  28. Perfect timing! My first book tour started out great…but the last one (the one I tentatively thought would be the best), was a major letdown. I KNOW book signings are a crap shoot, but this hurt. However, I am holding my head high and moving on. I know these events are not as important as the connections I’ve made, the books I’ve sold online, and the books that continue to be ordered.

  29. Such a thoughtful piece. So glad you were able to express what many of us writers feel so eloquently.
    –author of the novels Deadly Fare and Blood Sons, the latter set for release June 12.

  30. Inputting a contrary opinion: I would never expect people I know to read my book and would probably be fairly mortified if they did.

    I do not own physical copies of my friends’ books and I do not consider posting on Facebook about my book to be an appropriate form of advertising (unless I am purchasing literal Facebook ads to be targeted to strangers).

  31. You have a very generous heart. As a novelist who is still struggling to get an agent and nowhere near getting published, I found your article very compelling. Because of that generous heart of yours, I am going to a good bookstore to buy one of your novels. If I don’t find it I’ll get it on line. Thank you, Tom, for sharing your experience as a writer with us. I look forward to reading one (or more) of your novels. I wish you the very best and an increasingly large readership.

  32. I once did a reading with three other writers. Not to name names but one of them was Tim Lebbon (New York Times bestselling author) and another was the cult SF writer Neal Asher. Plus a lesser known writer and also me… Oops I mentioned two names. Ah well! The reading took place in Leicester Waterstones and the number of people who turned up was….. zero. Yes, zero. I counted the audience a few times just to be sure. Zero. Did it matter? No, not at all. Why? Because audience attendance numbers have nothing to do with success, and even if they do, success isn’t that important, and even if it is that important, so what? The other writers seemed to be a little bit upset about it and they don’t like acknowledging that nobody at all turned up to their reading, but that’s an absurd egotistic reaction. Zero is a number just the same as infinity or any other.

  33. Your article really touched me, Tom. I was so excited to do my first book signing for my two novels and a nonfiction writing-related book last summer in historic downtown St. Augustine, Florida. The venue was an artist/writer collective shop located in an old house with a large front porch. They set me up on the porch, which was quite warm in July but otherwise nice — plus people could see me there as they walked by. No one came in the first hour, and then the sky opened up and it POURED, with the wind blowing sideways and onto the porch and my books (which I had to box up and move inside) for the next two hours until the end of the official signing. Maybe half a dozen of my friends had told me they would come — a fellow-writer Facebook friend even coming from out-of-town and bringing her mom with her to meet me — but the weather kept all but one away. She is a fellow writer friend here in town who introduced me to the store manager when I attended her book signing there and bought her book. Now she came in the pouring rain, with no nearby parking available, and took a lovely photo of me and the books and bought one of my novels. Another of my writer friends, a Brit, also showed up in the downpour with one of his writer friends whom I had not yet met. Neither bought a book, but they invited me to join them for tea, and I did and had a most delightful time. I also had a nice chat with the owner of the store, who informed me that she was moving overseas and closing the store (where my books were FINALLY for sale) the next day. So, all in all, you could say I got a bit excited about the public exposure for nothing, but I am so grateful for my writer friends who did show up. That sort of support is something you cannot buy, no matter how much marketing you do. Writers are wonderful people, and I love them. Thank you for this most excellent article reminding us writers of what really matters in the writing life.

  34. how about using “received” instead of “had gotten”. Sorry, it puts my teeth on edge.

  35. This may be the most perfect thing about writing books and being an ‘author’ I have ever read.
    Thank you!!
    Ian Andrew
    Author of some books and sharing this on my Facebook page :)

  36. Tom, thanks so much for writing this. I really needed it today. I’m on the cusp of acquiring an agent for my first novel, and I needed this dose of reality. ♥♥♥

  37. And then there are the folks who fail to type “thank you” emails or texts after you send them gift books. Sigh. Real readers and writers, we’ve got to stick together.

    Honest, moving, no-bullshit posts can be the best promos. Just bought How to Be Safe and your memoir Bury Me in My Jersey. (No need to reciprocate out of bogus, writerly obligation that passes for friendship on social media.)

    Good luck w/ your work.

  38. Sometimes honest, authentic writing is the best promo. Just bought 2 of your books. Good luck w/ your future work.

  39. As the author of twelve books, I can confirm Tom McAllister’s authorial testimony. I am now retiring from my profession with a nearly unblemished record: I have rarely–by which I mean no more than two or three times over 40 years–heard from readers of my publications, including people to whom I have given copies, having credited them in the Acknowledgements.

  40. Loved your authenticity. And you make an important point….The work is for yourself. Gives me a feel for reality as I teeter totter at the first step of a book writing journey

  41. Dang. That is both depressing and eye-opening. Thank you for putting this out here, a little forewarning about realness never hurt anyone.

  42. I totally agree with everything you say here. The one thing that I have heard some authors say (that I totally disagree with) is how much they hate to do book signings, or how they don’t like to talk to their readers.
    I LOVE to do book signings (hardly ever do them, because I’m self published), and I especially LOVE to meet and talk to my readers. I get and respond to emails from readers once in a while, and I am thrilled.
    Thanks for writing this article; maybe some prospective readers will read it and come to your next book signing.

  43. Wow, this is tragic news! I was hoping that when I finally get my first novel done and published, I could rely on family and friends to buy it, and read it!

  44. Thank you for putting the experience into words. I attended my first book event, Untitledtown, this year. How To Be Safe drew my interest and I attended your reading. I was blown away by the sections you read, your openness about the process and good humor regarding 8 people in a room set up for 100. You impact lives by writing. Thank you!

  45. The comments are as insightful as this terrific article. I have read my poetry in public. The good thing about multiple readers is that they all invite their friends so the experience is generally not as lonely as those mentioned.To my surprise, a fellow poet saw my photo in a poetry magazine and wanted to fly from a distant city to sleep with me. I never did find out if he liked the poetry.

  46. After a career in marketing and advertising, I knew a lot of the stuff you describe so accurately was going to be true, but I denied it as I set out on the fiction trail.

    This was brought into focus when I had a chance to speak in public. A story of mine was included in a print anthology to be launched in a local bookshop. Unknown to me, my launch coincided with that of a memoir by a famous Canadian public figure. Same date, time, & store. I was in the wee little launch space in the back and the memoir was in the larger main event area. Only family & friends showed up for the little one, except, I noted with dismay, for my wife! She attended the packed-out big one, getting there early and per her text, “saving you a good seat. Exciting!” A miscommunication, she hadn’t ditched me, but just didn’t know there were two ‘launch pads’ in the shop.

    Alas, I fear this was a sign. Earning the right to tell my stories in today’s overmessaged world is gonna be as hard as blue steel – cat can’t scratch it.

  47. I know this feeling all too well. The first book I wrote, I actually co-wrote and it was a friend’s memoir. It was packed thankfully, due to a combination of people who knew me and my friend. I co-wrote a fiction novel with another friend and maybe 10 people showed up. I’ve written two novels since then and the feedback and purchases have been via social media. The current novel is getting a lot of Kindle Unlimited readers, which gives me a royalty deposit but it’s not huge. And you are so on point about family and friends. No family member has purchased my last two novels and only a few friends bought copies, but they promote the daylights out of another friend’s book. I keep writing though because I love writing and telling stories. And the characters won’t leave me alone.

  48. Boy, did this hit home, but I’ve gotten to the point where I’m looking at those events as the single drop in the pond that might reach out to influence others. And that one person who showed up took time out of his/her life to come see lil ol’ me, so I’m going to talk to her/him as if that person was an old friend I hadn’t seen for forty years.

    I’ve been writing for a long time, and I’ve had people run into the room as soon as the door opens to buy my books — and I’ve also sat all by myself at the front of a bookstore as readers walked by, sometimes only stopping to ask me where the rest room is. Often it hurts (especially when it’s a family member) when someone ignores what you’ve done, but then there’s that woman who thinks you’re a goddess because you wrote a book that stirred her soul — and that makes every moment worth it.

    Thanks for writing about something that’s hard for all of us to talk about!

  49. Hey Tom–I love your line, “The book industry is partly kept afloat by a shadow economy in which the main currency is bullshit.” As a writer/musician, I am reminded of Hunter Thompson’s dire warning: “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”

  50. Tom, I had read about these disappointing outcomes before publishing my first novel. Even my publisher was a writer turned publisher and had faced disappointments regarding sales. So he and I agreed to print just 200 copies and wait for the reaction of the public – mostly facebook friends. Thankfully, 150 books were sold and we published my second novel. I happened to come across an invitation to submit my book for a prize and won it. It is a prestigious award in India. Soon a friend created a Wiki page for me. But sales did not go up. Thought of sharing this with you and your readers.

  51. Well, you see what an impact you made in an article about how hard it is to make an impact! Another problem is that less and less people are reading books these days, but that does leave a devoted and hopefully not too small hard core.

    I have often hesitated to write letters to writers whose books I love, but now I can see the impact it makes, especially with newer or less known writers. Thank you–I will be sharing your article with my writers group.

  52. Painfully true! A friend was bragging about their upcoming signing at a Chicago bookstore. I replied, oh yes, the time-out table. There you are sitting at a desk behind a stack of your books. As people come close they often avert their eyes to avoid contact and subsequent commitment to engage–and they scoot on by as you sit at forlorn at the time out table.

  53. Thank you for describing so articulately the experience of so many writers. Hard-to-swallow pill: A book succeeds because it finds readers who don’t know the writer. I’ve learned to focus on finding readers rather than buyers.

  54. I enjoyed your essay. I feel your pain. I write contemporary romance, so a genre that many enjoy; however I found no matter what genre you write – the people you meet always seem to prefer another genre.
    I gave a presentation at my local library and loved their set up. Although not many showed up, I didn’t have empty chair – the guests pulled up a chair around the large table. Felt like a gathering of friends. Best of luck, Tom.

  55. Thank you, Tom. So much of this hit home for this fledgling author of two novels. Commiseration helps. Thanks again!

  56. Thanks for this, Tom. Incredibly insightful and honest.As a musician, you could have replaced the word “book” with “record” and “book reading” with “show/concert”, and would have perfectly described my struggles as well (and most musicians I know).

  57. Hi, Tom! This is a fantastic article about being a writer. Could totally relate to every. single. line. Thanks! Shared and tweeted! Best of luck!

  58. I love this observation near the end: “Whatever project you’re working on now doesn’t derive value from your friends’ approval, but rather from the love and energy you pour into it.” Absolutely.

    I’ve had the slim-pickings reading experience you described, which is definitely awkward and a little depressing. I’ve also had readings in which it seems everyone in my life showed up — our butcher, our dog groomers, my kids’ old teachers (and one teacher my kids never had, but we struck up a friendship), my kids’ piano teacher, etc. It’s always interesting to see who comes out to support you. The two women with whom I’d been in a writing group for years have never come to a reading. Go figure!

    Thanks for these insights. I wonder if we could just forego holding readings altogether. I’m intrigued with the idea of going to weddings to sell my books, perhaps even crashing a few. I’d still get some cake even if I didn’t sell any. Always an upside.

  59. Wow, that is sobering. It’s true that you write for yourself, but if that were entirely true, then why publish and distribute? We write for ourselves, we publish for others. I am about to publish my maiden novel and I hope someone cares.

  60. Everything in this piece is SO TRUE and has happened to me, including the library reading where no one came (though in my case there were no late stragglers, just one unresponsive elderly couple). I’ve learned not to expect much from family and friends, too. I do book collaboration and book doctoring, and the first thing I do with a prospective client is break down their fantasies (or try). Sometimes that means no client, but it’s worth it.

  61. This is an absolutely spot-on post. I have had 12 non-fiction books published over the years. My latest -Crafting A Patterned Home – just came out in April. I am so tired of talking about it on my blog, FB, IG….. I went to an event at a very good bookstore where I previously had over 30 people attend a lecture. Three people showed and two of them travelled from my hometown to see me. It is/was demoralizing but then sometimes it isn’t.
    I like this line from this post – so true – “You can do the work, and you can keep showing up, and that’s all you’ve got.” I’m not sure why I keep doing it – and I always say this book will be my last. Then someone comes to me with an idea and I sign on again for the long slog.
    This last book I dedicated to my 4 sisters and not one even noticed. Guess it wasn’t worth all the worry about who to dedicate it to. Next time, I won’t bother.
    Thanks for telling me that I am not alone.

  62. I feel you, Tom. This reminds me of a time when a book I wrote flopped miserably here in the States, but did well overseas. So my agent got the brilliant idea to translate the book back into English, thinking that we could preserve what captivated them and draw in an audience here.

    So I gave a reading at a bookstore in NYC. And — I confess that this was really dumb on my part — I didn’t read the retranslated book before the public reading.

    Well. It went poorly and most of the audience drifted away before I was done. I wish everyone had, because I was inundated with questions from one gentleman who had taken copious notes and wanted to know, for example, what the “yum yum clown monkey” stood for.

    I’m retired and living in New Hampshire now, and every time I feel the urge to write another book, I recall that debacle and firmly put my pen down.

  63. What a great read and 100% my experience with my first cookbook. Those library reading were the hardest but most rewarding; it does feel almost heroic to sell even one book at a time sometimes. After all the time spent in solitude writing the book, the rest is engaging and engaging with people from the rest of its lifespan.

  64. Tom, that is so true. I published my first book over 2 years ago. Thankfully, it’s non-fiction (memoir) so I have an hour long power-point program. But I’ve given my talk to two people as well as 70. Like you, I believe if readers come out, I will give them a show. Turned out that both of those attendees bought a book and then one invited me to her book group which meant I sold another 8 books.
    It’s hard work to get people to spend money on my book but then to devote hours to read it. I’m about to go through that all over again with my second book. Except this one is historical fiction. It will be a lot tougher to sell.

  65. I can’t agree more with this essay, as I’ve had much the same experience. My book won an award, and neither of my two sisters has even congratulated me. I’m in love with my book, and most people who bought it directly from me have come up and told me they loved it. This is gold and makes it all worth it. But it is a slog.

  66. I enjoyed reading your piece so much and found it so true that I will read your book. Thank you.

  67. I’ve been writing for over 50ty years with drawers and now electronic files full of manuscripts, none of the published. Now that I’ve given up and only write for my own comfort, I’m writing better than I ever have before. So feel good about what you have received.

  68. Hi Tom. I fully share your thoughts. After the pleasure of doing the things that we like, we must take away all expectations and relax.
    Bukowski called him, “to get out of the human grinder of existence,” I say that we must let go of the things we can not control. Greetings!

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