The Etiquette of Talking To Writers

As writers, we are often viewed by “normal” (read: non-creative types) as strange and exotic creatures, something in a zoo to be studied, fascinated.  People ask us all kinds of questions.  I am always split on how I feel about these questions.  If I’m being asked about my work, the world I created, the characters, what I’m working on now, etc. by somebody who obviously is genuinely interested, I get excited, because, like anybody else, I really enjoy talking about all those things.  This is my passion, and I love to share it.   I mean, that’s why I write, after all.  I want to share these stories.  If I’m asked the same stuff by someone who’s asking because they feel like they ought to, but whose eyes immediately glaze over two sentences in to an explanation of how I just got to the first pinch point and hero and heroine are getting their butts kicked, I wind up feeling bad, like I’m boring them, and then I wished they hadn’t asked at all, but instead just said “that’s interesting” and moved on to safer conversation waters.

I tend to have more of the latter conversations in real life.  Which is why when those isolated truly interested folks pop up, it’s such a joy.  One of hubby’s BFF’s was in town with his wife and kids over Christmas and we went out to dinner with them.  First thing out of her mouth was to ask how the work was going and what I was working on.  I totally wanted to hug her neck and cry because she was honestly interested and not just paying it lip service.

But there is one area of the whole writing gig that I feel is completely off limits.  Something I feel falls into the same dicey bracket as politic, religion, and exes.

Sales.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I have no problem whatsoever discussing sales with people who are IN the industry.  People for whom ranking and number of copies sold and profits actually MEAN something because they have a frame of reference for interpretation or because they’re using them in their pitches of your awesome to other people (that would be my agent, yo).  I talk about sales with my CP all the time as we discuss marketing strategies and such.  I’ve even made periodic reports talking about sales in general here on the blog because I know I’m a hub for a lot of indie authors and it matters to us.  But these are effectively intimate business relationships.  That’s where it ends for me.

Sales are not something I think is an appropriate topic of conversation with writers.  There is a family member in my life who only EVER asks about sales.  Every time the subject of my writing comes up.  Down to wanting specific “How many have you sold this week?  How many today?  How much money have you made?”  This, to me, is tantamount to asking to see into my bank account, which is just flat no one’s business but my own.  It’s never asked in conjunction with how the work is going, what I’m working on, or any of the legitimate questions, which generally makes me feel like, to her, my writing has zero value outside the dollars and cents that it makes.  It makes me really, really angry.  I’d rather she ask nothing at all than ever bring up sales again and it makes me never ever want to talk about my writing.

I don’t write because of the money.  Obviously, I love doing it and I hope to be able to do it for a living someday.  But the money is absolutely the least important part of the equation.  The value of my work is not measured by profits.  Not by me and not by my legitimate fans.  It’s measured by good reviews and fan mail from people squeeing over how awesome they thought this or that story was and OMG when is the next one coming out.  It’s measured by the joy and pleasure I get writing and by the improvement I see in my craft from book to book.  To ask about nothing but sales, to me, devalues all of the important stuff.

So writers, weigh in on this.  Do you agree that sales are a taboo topic to be asked about by non-writers?  Or am I being overly sensitive?

24 thoughts on “The Etiquette of Talking To Writers

  1. As someone who works in accounting, I’m probably more comfortable talking about sales and other numbers. I don’t really mind sharing with close friends and close family. But I think it’s kind of rude, unless you’re really close, for someone to ASK about this if you didn’t volunteer the info. And if numbers are ALL they are interested in, I think you definitely have a legitimate beef. This is your passion and the creative part of what you do should be the first thing someone asks about. So, no, I don’t think you’re being overly sensitive. If they don’t care about the creative part of what you do, then the numbers are definitely none of their business.

  2. I agree. Talking detailed sales w/ non-writers is flat-out taboo, in my book — akin to discussing detailed sex. ::shudder:: It. Is. Not. Done.

    I had a friend, also a writer, who is very competitive. Always wanting to compare sales numbers & see whose books had done better — which was stupid, since we wrote in vastly different genres & appealed to vastly different audiences. I refused to play the game. When asked, “how were sales THIS week,” I’d just say: “Good enough to let me keep on writing.” Then I’d ask about something in the friend’s genre & give her the option to talk about herself… which was really all she wanted.

    Good luck in dealing w/ Clueless Nosey Relative!

    Onward & Upward!

  3. My day job is as an Executive Assistant to C-level executives. The companies that I work for are typically mid-sized, public companies, so there is a lot of information that must be divulged to the public. It is common practice for local newspapers to print executive salaries, including those of my bosses, when discussing how the company is doing financially. So here’s where it gets awkward. My last two bosses have both been approached, multiple times, at their kid’s weekend sporting event about it. A random stranger will walk up and say, “Soooo… I read in the paper that you make X-dollars per year.”

    Um…

    What in the hell is someone supposed to say to that? As far as I’m concerned, this topic is taboo. It shouldn’t be broached. Period. Now, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious to know how many books you sold or if some of your marketing attempts worked better than others and what kind of boosts you saw from those different marketing attempts. But to ask about incoming dollars? Not okay.

    If you asked about my income, you may as well lift up my skirt and take a peek as to what I’ve got under there. And quite frankly, unless your name is Mr. Kirchner, you shouldn’t be doing it.

  4. Once upon a time…
    A tragic beginning. The mother dies. After the funeral, through the numbness of shock and grief, the daughter comes to realize that she’s going to have to leave her home and go live with the father she’s never known.

    Naturally, it’s a rocky relationship. He’s not evil–it wasn’t even his fault he wasn’t in her life, not really. But he sucks at being dad. And let’s face it, even if didn’t, he still would. Because everything sucks right now. He’s trying, alternating between trying too hard and giving her too much space. Total instability in a time when everything is chaotic.

    At the new school, the one thing she has is…basketball. As soon as she met the dad, she could see where the height DNA came from. She doesn’t tell him she tried out for the team. She forged his signature on her forms. He doesn’t need to know. It’s not his business. And he ends up finding out from another parent who saw her awesome performance in a game. Awkward…

    But, you know, he’s just going to let that slide because hey! common ground. He doesn’t get this parenting thing, he doesn’t get adolescent girls, but basketball? He gets basketball. He can help with basketball. And at first, it’s kind of okay. There’s something they can talk about.

    So blah blah, the story goes on, but the relationship doesn’t get better. Where at first it felt kind of good to have him be proud of her for this thing she can do that makes her special, now she decides that all she is to him is basketball. She’s merely a vessel for him to relive his glory days, etc etc and trust me I could go on with my drama here.

    But the point is not the girl’s drama, it’s the dad’s. Because he’s faced with this personality he doesn’t get, one with whom he’s desperate to connect and yet he can’t. And then he finds a part of her life that he gets and that’s the part he latches onto.

    Unfortunately, his narrow focus on the part he understands and identifies with backfires. It makes the girl feel reduced to this one aspect and her worth conveyed by a scoreboard. But the rest of us who are watching this relationship get that that is the farthest thing from truth and are writhing in the agony of our own understanding: the girl can’t help it, she needs more…He can’t help it, and she’s just that way.

    Oh no, wait, that’s Journey’s understanding.

    This parable has a point! Which is that the possibility exists that this person is just trying to love you and is not good at it. I wouldn’t say you’re being overly sensitive. I would say annoyance is justified. But if you could believe my scenario, then when those annoyances happen, you could feel like this person is just trying to show an interest in what they don’t really understand except that it’s very important to you, that they’re trying to connect with you on your level, and they’re stumbling. Redirecting the conversation and appreciating the effort will be better for your ulcer.

  5. Kait, I actually get why the woman asked you about sales. I’ve had the same question posed to me when I’ve discussed my desires to write for a living. Like her, most people judge success by the dollar amount that they earn or can earn. I’m sure that in her mind, it seemed a logical question though a bit ill-mannered. I, myself, would never dream of asking any of one what they earned at their prospective jobs unless I was considering entering that field and even then I’d be reluctant to pry into the matter of their personal earnings. But, maybe she’s considering throwing it all away to follow in your footsteps?

    • No, this would be someone who totally was unsupportive of writing entirely as I was growing up because it was not a practical thing. And I get asking once, but continually asking when I have flat out said that I wasn’t going to discuss it because it was none of her business really crosses a line for me.

      • Yikes! Well that puts a whole different spin on things. Perhaps you can look at this situation as one of envy, long standing. Sometimes, those that are too afraid to follow their dreams don’t like to see others pursuing theirs. It may be just as simple as that. She’s jealous and envious of you. Take it as a compliment and the next time she asks you about sales just throw the question back on her and ask her what her current earnings are. Let’s see how comfortable she is discussing her own finances. Make her squirm a little, that should shut her up.

  6. As a pre-published writer, I found it so refreshing when someone—a little farther down the path—was willing to share numbers with me.

    Now I know this is entirely different than what you’re referring to, but for me it was something I desperately wanted to know, but was afraid to ask. I didn’t want to come across as nosy, but did want to have a realistic expectation of what someone could make doing what they love, what I love. Writing.

    Is it as offensive if another writer asks the money question? Of course I’m not talking about a random person on your blog, but a writer you know, have coffee with etc.?

    • I think it’s totally reasonable to discuss sales and royalties with other writers. This is part of our business and we either have or need to develop a frame of reference so we don’t get hosed. This is a whole other thing.

  7. I agree with you Kait. I never talk about sales with people who are not invoved in the business. Mainly because I have found people to be incredibly judgemental. I have had several conversations with people at work and when they ask about sales they seem to expect me to come out with numbers that suggest I am only a few days away from retiring from the day job and lounging on a beach all day long armed with a laptop and mobile that rings non-stop of contract offers and book tour requests.

    A lot of my relatives are only interested in money and sales. They ask the very same questions your favorite relative does. It annoy me greatly and so I feel your annoyance. Good luck wtih training them in the ways of writer conversation ethics.

  8. I have a similar family member who really only care about money. For example, when I told them I wanted to write for a newspaper, they told me that writing the horoscopes would be a good gig to get into… No thanks.

    I suppose it’s alright to maybe ask how book sales are doing once, but definitely don’t drone on about it. Writing books isn’t about money. Would getting rich off our books be fantastic? Of course! But writing has a much deeper meaning for many of us.

  9. It’s funny how few people would, upon meeting a lawyer, accountant or clerk, ask how much money they make or whether they’ve produced popular work. In the arts, though, it’s the near-opposite. When I worked in fashion and entertainment, people often started the conversation with, “Hey, you’re an actress? What have you been in? Have I see you in anything?” Similar case for writers. I’ve had to learn tactful ways of answering, without answers. LOL

    “I love getting paid for what I do,” works, whether you’re making money (yet) or not. 😉 So does answering with a question, such as “Why do you ask?” or “I’m doing awesome. How much do you make?”

  10. I get the asking about sales, because that’s what we can all relate to – the almighty dollar. But I wouldn’t like it. It frustrates me that most people outside the writing blogosphere don’t understand that sales aren’t the only measures of success, and that just because you don’t have a ton of sales right out of the gate, you’re not a failure. Most books and authors take time to build steam, and sometimes it seems like we’re the only ones who understand that.

  11. Great post!

    Frankly, I never talk about my sales because I’m kind of an ostrich when I come to sales. I can’t influence my sales except by talking to as many readers as possible via book clubs (in person; phone; Skype) and social media, so thinking about the topic gives me agita. I check in with my agent quarterly. I discuss sales solely with the people who need to know: my agent, my accountant, my partner. That is all.

    People will always ask about sales because people will always ask inappropriate questions. “How much do you make?” This is essentially what they’re asking. They want to know if you’re in a viable profession. I guess it’s to be expected because writers *do* take a chance: unlike much of the working world, we don’t work on salary. So people are fascinated. However, would you EVER ask anyone in any profession how much she makes?

    For years I’ve thought asking a writer “SO, what do you write?” “SO, what’s your book about?” “SO, anything I might have read?” “SO, you want to hear what you REALLY should write about?” should be off-limits. “What’s your book about” *might* be kosher IF the person’s really interested. Over the past ten years (it truly has taken a decade) I’ve perfected an elevator pitch for both of my novels, and I have a business card with their covers on it along with my website, Facebook page, & Twitter handle. Now I can say, “I’m a writer,” hand them the card, & change the subject. 🙂

    Happy writing, all!
    Jenna Blum

  12. I agree. I struggle with how to respond when these questions come up, because I don’t want to be offensive or closed off. However, this is private…to a degree.

  13. If I were to be published (like right now)… I’d bet that would be what my dad would ask me every. single. day. Though more out of concern than anything, I believe. You know, now that I’m almost 20 and all, what am I going to do to support myself? That sorta thing.

    I think having people who genuinely like what I write (fans, as we often call them), are way more important. I know, because as a teen I obsess over every thing I read. (Okay not everything. But still.) So if there was a… fan base of my work, I dare say the sales would go up too. Win win! 😀 YAY!

    Now off to write because I’m so distracted by your website. <3

    • If I were making some kind of radical change like saying I was going to quit my job immediately, then I might understand it, but I’m 32 and I work 3 jobs, so…no signs of irresponsibility here…

      • Guess being a student makes your parents worry more. D: Haha.

        3 jobs? *claps* I really admire that. 🙂

  14. I agree that talking about sales is pretty taboo. I would only feel comfortable talking about that with my significant other, my parents, and maybe a close writer friend or two. It’s CERTAINLY not something I think strangers, acquaintances, or even non-besties should ask about. In my opinion it is, as you put it, akin to asking about the contents of one’s bank account. Off-limits. Verboten. NEIN, darling.

    • I’m 32, married, and fully independent, so IMO, it’s none of my parents’ business either.

  15. I suppose it would matter who’s asking and in what way. What you describe almost sounds like someone wanting to know whether your “silly dream of being a writer” is actually making any money. If that’s the motive, yep, insulting. I do have people ask me about for tangible numbers at times, almost to prove that I’m a real writer because I have X books out at Y price and have made Z dollars. That stuff mostly rolls off me, though. I figure it’s hard to understand someone else’s industry.

  16. authormarieandrews

    Thank you, this is a frustrating topic. I feel like I should introduce myself as a unit sold. You know, go out to dinner and say, “Hello, I’m seventeen units sold today. Check back with me tomorrow when that number may differ.” It’s like they put a value on you as a person based on what you make, not what you do, not on your work. Or if you didn’t sell anything one day – you should feel terrible about yourself, you’re not really a writer, it’s all about how many books, who cares what the book is about.
    Frustrating.

  17. katecopeseeley

    I talk sales all the time with my family. They tend to be easily impressed. If I tell them I sold into the thousands last year, they would be just as excited if I sold in the hundreds.
    I guess I’m lucky. No one that I know of is like that toward me. But then again, I rarely talk about sales, because it’s kind of like bragging about how much you make. Which was your original point. 🙂
    I have to shy away from those conversations on kindleboards, too, or I get all caught up in my personal numbers and forget why I’m doing this.

  18. I wouldn’t consider it entirely taboo—but I also have non-writer friends who actually ask me questions about the industry and how it works. Granted, a lot of my friends are art hobbyists—painting, drawing, writing, poetry, acting, etc.

    I actually was chatting with an actress friend last night who said she never submitted her short stories anywhere because she didn’t want to have to pay the submissions fees. We’re going to get together for me to introduce her to the wonders of Duotrope.

    Some friends ask directly about sales, usually nebulously, but that’s because I’ve already interested them in the industry. (I’ve been told I’m an interesting conversationalist. Some folks even walk up to me to ask technical questions about grammar or tea.)

    For some random person to just ask me about sales numbers and amounts, and to only ask about that? Yeah, that’s inappropriate.

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