Our sincere thanks to author and famed cartoonist Bob Eckstein (Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores) for this guest contribution!
Your book comes out. The champagne cork has popped. You contact your alumni newsletter. You have a spanking new designated Facebook page for your new baby. You get blurbs up the kazoo. So it can be very disheartening the first time you visit your Amazon page and see numbers you didn’t know went that high and the only review is from your mom. You cancel that subscription to “Bestselling Author Digest,” cancel the order for the indoor lap-pool and wondered what happened.
It’s important to remember that today writers have it much harder than those of yesteryear. I’ve seen this firsthand. Not because of my new book but meeting with bookstore owners and bestsellers the past two months (including at the Miami Book Fair and the ABA Winter Institute). I also previewed an advance copy of The American Writer by Larry Samuel, which in part explains the uphill problem all writers now face.
Here are five examples how we have it harder than Hemingway (…and what we can do about it).
There were not a trillion new releases every year back in Hemingway’s day. The numbers are certainly stacked against us. But remember, most of them are cookbooks or books with cats.
The answer is to maintain realistic expectations. Most bestseller lists are now made up of miscellaneous titles. Pay less attention to online rankings….unless you write a cookbook for cats.
Papa didn’t have to do social media, shoot video trailers, and I guarantee you, he never glue-gunned snowman mobiles in window displays like I had to when my first book came out (The History of the Snowman). For each book I make posters, bookmarks, and write hand-written letters to indie bookstores. And can you imagine Papa even having a Facebook page?
Today’s writers have to wear many hats but there are online resources now to learn all of this including webinars and blogs like this one. Nothing like this existed back in the day where it seems the writer’s only source of comfort was the bottle.
This sounds like a trivial thing but our appearance has never mattered so much, an annoyance the likes of Ernest Hemingway didn’t have to deal with. Now, more than ever, readers what to know as much about their favorite writer as possible. For many writers, this is way more than we bargained for when pursuing this craft.
I suppose, in this case, we have to count our blessings that the public cares enough to want to know what we look like and as a result, this public connection can be monetized in the form of public speaking engagements and unprecedented branding for our titles. Publishing is one field that has been immune to ageism (for the most part), another blessing. Besides, another advantage we DO have today is Papa didn’t have Photoshop.
In relation to the value of the dollar then, Hemingway’s generation of writers enjoyed, on average, higher advances. Advances are shrinking. It’s a matter of the pie being sliced up too many ways now, a relatively recent occurrence. It’s not easy. We’re writing in a time when there is no middle class for writers–advances are all or nothing and often you’re at the wrong end of the stick if you don’t host your own TV show.
But there are other avenues to try to make up for the sting. Ebooks…um…teaching…did I mention ebooks? Best we move on…
Now I bet you thought I was going to suggest that Hemingway didn’t have to show up and do book events. Papa actually DID do book events back in the day. That hasn’t changed. I actually researched this and learned he was so nervous doing book events he would drag a writing friend to sit up front with him. And it wasn’t until he had some swigs from a bottle of whiskey he hid under the table that he would loosen up and read with swagger.
But it was still easier back then. I say this as someone who did a few events this month, sometimes sandwiched between a pair of other book events on the same day. Do you know how hard it is to fill a room when every single person you know is coming out with or self-publishing a book themselves? Hemingway never had to deal with cell phones going off. If I got drunk during my talk I’d be thrown out of the bookstore.
But the reason it’s worst is that the day of an all-expense-paid book tour is all but over except for a handful of lucky suckers. What you can do about it? Whatever you want, because now you have a choice as publishers not only no longer pressure you to support your title on tour but many publicists would rather see you invest your energy elsewhere.
If you still like book events, good for you. The book tour can be very elastic and creative, taking the form of different shapes, like virtual blog tours. But after many decades of authors being sent on the road, it’s TV, radio and even print media that is a priority because everyone now has had horror stories of no one showing up for their book event.
The truth is, Hemingway was never armed with the ability to reach as many people outside his own books. Remember for whom the bell tweets: It tweets for thee.
Bob Eckstein is a New Yorker cartoonist and his new book Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores, about independent bookstores, is a New York Times bestseller.