Answering the Tough Questions While Smacking Some Mockingbirds

Once you have a book published, the chances are you’re going to be asked plenty of questions. In addition to media interviews, you might find yourself being quizzed at a book signing or in an online forum. Most of the questions you’ll receive are fairly simple:

What made you want to write a book?
How long did it take you to get published?
How do you come up with character names?
Are you going to be speaking very long, because the Steelers play at eight?

However, some questions are more difficult and you may find yourself needing to be a bit creative in your responses. Here are three difficult questions I’ve actually been asked and my somewhat-truthful responses.

How many copies of your book have sold?

Most of us are very uncomfortable with this question. This is because the general public tends to associate some arbitrary number to literary success. You can try to explain that the average novel sells a few hundred copies (if that), but I get the impression some people don’t completely buy that answer. There really are people who think you need to sell 20,000 or more copies to be considered an accomplished writer. Or worse – they think every decent mystery writer rakes in money like Richard Castle. That’s right. He’s not even real, but he’s setting the bar for actual writers. Outstanding.

NPR recently did a story detailing how even winning prestigious awards does not necessarily translate to high sales numbers. Perhaps pieces like that one will help dispel the myth that sales and quality are joined at the hip. So, how does one answer the sales question without either sounding arrogant (if sales are high) or pathetic (if you are like 99% of authors).

My response is usually as follows: “More than I expected.”

Not only does this response sound humble, it happens to be true. Because whenever I have a new book coming out, I expect to sell five copies. I figure my parents will buy one. My wife will buy another. Hopefully, my brother will buy one. And I’ll buy two in case my dogs develop a taste for crime fiction. I’d probably get one for my daughter, but if she flips through the pages and doesn’t see a talking snowman or ice palace, she’ll likely give me a one-star review on Amazon. Tough crowd.
Set your sales expectations low and you will rarely be disappointed. The business is too subjective to marry yourself to sales numbers.

How Many Books Do You Plan on Publishing?

This is another tricky one, because it is likely out of your control. You can self-publish as many books as you like, but the person asking the question may be referring to traditional publishing. In which case, the real answer is probably, “However many I can get publishers to take!” I don’t use that response, simply because I’m afraid I’m going to come across as sounding desperate.

So since my third novel is about to come out, I typically say, “More than Harper Lee.

Now unfortunately, you have to get to three books to use this. It was one, but then Harper Lee decided To Kill a Mockingbird wasn’t enough and had to put out a new book. It’s ridiculous. She just had one out 55 years ago and now here she goes again. Who does she think she is? James Patterson? Chill out, lady.

How Much Money Have You Made From Writing?

I’m always surprised that people really ask this question, but they do. For some reason people find it rude to ask the salary for your “day job”, but have no qualms about asking about your royalty checks. I suppose part of it is genuine curiosity about the writing business, but it can still create an uncomfortable situation. While I never give exact numbers (partly because I don’t know because I’m not allowed to handle family finances), I do try to educate people on the realities of the business. To make things simple, I sometimes explain that a traditionally published writer only makes one or two dollars per book sold, and that most writers either have a “day job” or are retired and draw a pension. Now, if the person asking the question is astute, they will do the math and realize that to make $50,000 writing, you would need to sell 25,000 books (again, this is extremely rough math – explaining why I don’t handle the finances). Additionally, royalties are not guaranteed annual income year after year. It may be a one-shot deal because most authors have no idea if they will ever get published more than one time or if their books will sell many copies. So, what’s the short answer to this question?

I’ve been known to think on this for a while, carefully construct my response, and finally say, “Not much.”

Nailed it.

Because sometimes, you just gotta tell the truth. Today, it’s easier than ever to get published and harder than ever to make a living as a writer. The more people come to realize that, then perhaps the more the general public will come to appreciate that writers aren’t doing all of this work for the money.

Writers are sweating over their creations in order to leave something permanent in a transient world. Authors are spending months, and even years, on projects because the contents of a book will echo after the writer speaks her last words. Most writers don’t keep writing in order to get a paycheck. They do it because it allows them the opportunity to create new worlds that are different than anything ever dreamt by another person. That’s why writers keep tapping away at keyboards and pounding words into submission. That’s why.

And to stick it to Harper Lee.

J.J. HENSLEY is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service.  He graduated from Penn State University with a B.S. in Administration of Justice and has a M.S. degree in Criminal Justice Administration from Columbia Southern University. Hensley’s works include the novels Measure Twice and Resolve; the latter was named one of the BEST BOOKS OF 2013 by Suspense Magazine and was a finalist for Best First Novel at the 2014 Thriller Awards.

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