Or rather “Etiquette when talking to a writer”, but that made an awkward title.
It doesn’t matter who you or your circumstances are. If you are a writer and you’re neither J.K. Rowling nor Stephen King, you hear this all the time. You meet someone for the first time, and it goes something like this. They greet you. You greet them back. To be polite, you show interest and ask what it is they do. They tell you, and thinking they are returning the courtesy, they ask you the same question.
Now, it doesn’t matter if you have a day job or if you’re writing fulltime. If you really are a writer, that’s what you say. “I’m a writer.” Then they drop the question. “Are you published?” Or a variation thereof. It doesn’t matter, the idea is the same. They want to know if you are successful.
It does not matter that today everybody is published. A select few are published by publishing houses; the rest have taken it upon themselves. Truth is, making a book—even a print book—can be done just by anyone nowadays. The writing didn’t change, neither did the editing or the proofreading. But the making of the actual book—the printing or the compiling of the e-book—is a child’s play. (Don’t listen to publisher out there who tell you it’s hard work to build a book. It’s not. It’s an afternoon’s work, if you’ve never seen a computer in your life. The hard part is getting a story worth selling, editing and proofreading it, then designing the cover. The computer does the rest. People who say it’s hard are just trying to justified overpricing the stuff.)
What really baffles me, though, is not that the general public don’t know this. Why would they? It’s not their job. No, what knocks me on my arse is that people seem to think it’s OK to ask whether you are successful or not.
Say I meet a guy and asks what he does. “I’m an eye doctor,” says he. Do I follow with, “Oh, are you making any money with that?” No, I don’t. ‘Cos obviously that’s bloody rude. Maybe when I know him a little better, I’ll venture, “Eye-doctoring sounds really hard. Is there any real demand for it?” But I would never lead with, “Hey pal, you making any money with that shit?”
Next time you meet a writer, folks, please don’t ask if they are published. It’s rude. And if they’re not, even if they are self-published, it might make them feel uncomfortable, because the general public is rather candid about self-publishing, thinking it is still as it was, the last resort of those who failed. It’s not so any more, but it’s not gonna be pleasant for them to explain it to you.
So, what may you ask?
Well, why not show interest in our work? Ask if we are writing novels or non-fiction. Ask which genre. If it’s a genre you don’t like or don’t know, just smile politely and nod, or simply ask if we can explain it to you. Don’t smile at us as if we were a simpleton or a child showing you their drawing. Writing is our life. It’s more important to us than your rosy children are to you. We would without a moment’s hesitation slaughter your rosy little children on a demonic altar, if that would get us a few more readers or a positive review on Amazon.
And if you really want to know if we are serious about writing (I mean, why not, we’re all naturally a bit nosy, aren’t we?), ask, “How many books have you finished?” or even better, “How many stories have you finished writing?” That’s a pretty OK question to ask, because even if we have only written just the one, we’re damn proud of it. It’s our baby. Writing books is hard; it’s an achievement. So, even if it’s just one, we’ll be beaming with joy at the question.
Writing’s our job. It’s how we hope to, one day, pay the rent. But it’s also what we are, on a deep, personal level. When you ask, “Are you published?” what you are in fact asking is if we’re financially successful at it. We’re writers, chances are great we aren’t, even if we are published, one way or another. The names you see at the bookstores? They are struggling, most of them. But we love it. It’s who we are. But when you ask that question, you sort of equal the net worth of our very soul to that of our bank statement.
That is not us. Our souls are weighed in books written, not in units sold. Our souls are dragons and romance and the sweat of giving birth to them. Don’t be that rude guy at the party.
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