:: A few thoughts about what it means to work as a writer and in publishing, and to speak out as a woman, and to come from a family that has some money or a family with none, and to have good intentions and to fail to communicate those intentions, and the consequences of that.
This is an essay inspired by another essay, The Essay on Publishing and Losing Money that was viral, briefly, in September of 2019. If you are reading this essay in, say, 2021, then you will have no idea what essay that is. (Hopefully the internet hasn’t melted by 2021.)
My essay, here, is about publishing, and gender, and class, and money. Those things are timeless, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective.
When I started to write this essay, my head was full of all of the negative responses that The Essay received. The Essay was by a white woman novelist, who wrote about spending through the large advances she received for her debut novels and about failing to anticipate that money and publishing are unpredictable.
So many of the responses to The Essay seemed to miss the points that I saw, or to dwell on things that I thought were minor flaws at best. I’m not saying that my reading of The Essay is the right reading. No: I’m saying I couldn’t understand why the things I fixated on were so unlike the things that other people—other people who are smart, other people who are my close friends—fixated on. So I set about trying to understand.
Here’s what I came up with.
Along the way, I‘ve also come up with a few thoughts about what it means to work as a writer and in publishing, and to speak out as a woman, and to come from a family that has some money or a family with none, and to have good intentions and to fail to communicate those intentions, and the consequences of that.
NB: I am not writing a defense of The Essay or The Author who wrote it. The Essay is flawed (as I show) and The Author has made some mistakes (some of which are serious).
First, about The Essay. Here is what I read when I read it.
Heather Demetrios, a novelist, published an essay in a publication on Medium about how she signed some rather big book deals. (I’ve been around publishing for a while, so these deals weren’t Big-big, but they were debut-big.) The title of the piece, “How to Lose a Third of a Million Dollars Without Really Trying” captured my eye after someone shared it with me, insisting I read it. I was on a plane with limited internet, but I clicked over. As I read, I immediately identified with the writer despite the differences in our experiences as authors.
In her story, she won the author lottery—the lottery I didn’t win—when she was relatively young. She doesn’t specify her age when she signed her book deals—but she had few responsibilities beyond taking care of herself, and she was just starting her MFA. She had a college degree and student loans to pay, but that was about it.
She came from an impoverished background—one that involved food stamps—and suddenly she had hundreds of thousands of dollars and five novels under contract.
For an author, her position is like being drafted in the number one spot by the NFL. If you aren’t in publishing, that’s the best comparison to make.
So she acted like it—by her own acknowledgment—she was feeling “fancy.” The essay the provided a litany of her financial mistakes. She moved to New York. She stopped paying attention to prices in restaurants because she thought she was in a place in her life when she could. She paid for a glossy author website and swag to give away at readings because she thought that was what she was supposed to do. She quit her day job to write her five books. She did the math; her money was equivalent to four years of the salary of a NY public school teacher.
She believed she had a career.
But, as seasoned authors know, nothing is certain in publishing.
The advances on her next novels shrank and shrank. Suddenly, she didn’t have enough money to live on in New York. Worst of all, her self-efficacy took a hit. “Added to the financial despair was shame and depression and fear. All I could think was that I had wasted the one opportunity the universe had given me…”
As I read, I knew, I knew, that if I had been in her shoes, I would have done the same, or similar things. I had immense empathy.
She opened and closed her piece with a plea to those who work in and around publishing to mentor debut novelists about the reality of publishing. She herself is a mentor, and she wants others to do the same. She wrote her story, she said, as a cautionary tale.
My visceral response to the essay was positive.
After I read Demetrios’s essay, I immediately wrote a response to it on social media (Twitter). What I wrote went something like this.
Writers need to talk about money.
I give talks about writing and publishing, and in every talk, I talk about money. I have a pie chart I use that shows where my own money comes from. It’s my “How Do I Make a Living” chart, and shows specifically where the different parts of my income come from.
I use this chart because I don’t want to be a mythical creature, someone who makes a living as a writer. My audiences know I write novels and trade nonfiction. But they need to know that the vast majority of my income comes from the textbooks I write. (I’m a law professor—formerly full time, now adjunct—and I’ve written four textbooks, and have a contract for three more.) They also need to know that I’m writing something all the time. I publish 3-4 books a year. When I was a professor I worked 60 hours a week. As a writer, I work 80.
The point is, demystifying where the money comes from is crucial for our industry. I took a class on freelance pitching and writing from the immense and amazing Virginia C. McGuire a long time ago, and in that class she had some of her freelance writing friends share (anonymously) what made up their annual incomes. I learned that they didn’t earn a living from the $400 here and $300 there that Slate and the Atlantic paid their freelance writers (if that). It’s impossible to make a living on the bagels these venues pay. No—these writers did far less sexy work to earn far more solid incomes. And McGuire knew we needed to learn that.
And I want others to learn that, too. My author newsletter is titled “Writing Isn’t Sexy,” and I’m writing a book with the same title. Because, friends, writing is not sexy. It’s an anxiety-producing mess of a job. The only part of my job that isn’t a mess is the part that is the least sexy. Textbooks. How boring.
What I loved about Demetrios’s piece was how she showed how shattering it can be—not just to your bank account, but also to your sense of self—to work as a writer. There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of them is this: (Big?) Publishing thrives on keeping writers in the dark. On our insecurity. On the fact that getting a publishing deal feels like winning the lottery.
Of course there are exceptions. In fact, I created one of them: I founded a small, traditional press with author and bookmaker Lauren Faulkenberry, called Blue Crow Books, in 2017. One of our founding principles is to maintain transparency with our authors. I’ve been published with many different presses, large and small, and transparency has always been a problem. We wanted to change that from the get-go.
If you work in publishing, it’s possible that you don’t even realize how insecure authors feel. Or perhaps you do realize it, but you have become inured to our insecurity. Or the perpetual insecurity of authors irritates you. But if any of that is the case, you shouldn’t work in publishing. Authors are anxious because we work in a field that is anxiety-producing. If you work in publishing, we need you to help us manage that anxiety through mentoring and advice and good communication, depending on where we are in our careers.
I’m an author on sub. I sent an email to my agent that said this: “I’m feeling anxious about this book. I need you to email me updates even when there are no updates.” She wrote back, saying she was afraid she would be bothering me with emails about nothing. Now, however, she emails me weekly. One sentence emails like this: “No response yet. Still feeling good about things.” That’s enough for me to know that things are still on track.
If her response had been, “No, I don’t have time for that,” telling me I‘m too high-maintenance or whatever, I would have found a new agent. I’m worth a weekly email.
Now, for the other point of view. As a publisher, when one of my authors emails me feeling anxious, or with another kind of crisis (they happen a lot), I do my very best to reply quickly and in a fashion that soothes the author’s anxiety. Sometimes I fail, but I try. Good communication, transparency, honesty—those are in Blue Crow’s mission statement for a reason.
That reason is straightforward: as an author, those things were not given to me. I’ve experienced obfuscation, abuse, IP theft, and deliberate lies from publishers of all sizes through the years. I’m a lawyer, and still, when facing publishers who held all the power, I couldn’t win.
It’s easy to say that Demetrios made a lot of bad financial decisions and therefore she deserves what happened to her. But I don’t think that’s true. The paradox of publishing is that you rarely get what you deserve. Sometimes, you get the opposite. Demetrios did her job, and she did it well. She won awards. She didn’t blow deadlines. In another field, she would have received a promotion.
And, by her account, she didn’t receive much support from her publisher to make sure her project succeeded. That’s another strange aspect of publishing. You write a book, and then your publisher turns your book loose into the world with little support. When your book fails to sell, they blame you. Over and over, I’ve seen this happen. Then, they make you feel grateful for signing you to a second deal at a pittance because they caused your lovely book to sell poorly by giving you no marketing support.
Anyways, sure, Demetrios should have put her money in a savings account or paid off more student loans. She shouldn’t have moved to Brooklyn. She shouldn’t have counted on Publishing. She should have known better.
I guess. What I mostly feel is lucky that I got my first big publishing payday when I was essentially An Old. At that point, it was Too Late To Move To Brooklyn.
The most important thing that I hear Demetrios saying is this: Talk about money. Talk about it all the time. Talking about money is not impolite. It’s critical.
After I wrote my response, the plane moved into its landing pattern and cut off my internet. It took me an hour to move through customs and get to baggage claim. By then, Demetrios had responded to me on Twitter, and we DM’d a bit, and she let me know that things were pretty crazy for her. I flipped back over to Twitter—and indeed they were. Her essay had gone viral, and not all—not most, in fact—of the response was positive.
Responses in my feed—responses from my friends, people I admire—looked like this:
Demetrios should have known better, any author could have told her, she should have googled, no daughter of mine would have, stop whining, she’s so entitled, even her small advances are bigger than mine so what is she complaining about?
I’d expected to see more about how Demetrios’s whiteness mattered more to her story than she acknowledged (it did, and she doesn’t), but mostly the responses focused on responsibility and blame:
So entitled, so irresponsible, nothing is guaranteed, I don’t feel sorry for her at all, so whiny, such bullshit, take responsibility for your own mistakes, show humility, be more humble, stop blaming other people for your problems.
Some of these reactions were from people I admire and like, and so I felt confused. I’d felt none of these feelings when I read the essay. I wanted to figure out why.
In ancient rhetoric, there was a word for a rhetorical device in which a person deliberately uses the same words over and over in a speech (or other public address; ancient Rome didn’t go in much for the printed word). The device is called “repetitio.”
The purpose of repetitio, then and now, is to use the repetition of certain words or phrases to draw attention to a certain point. Here’s an example, by Winston Churchill (Imperialist, colonialist, and Prime Minister of Britain), delivered during WWII:
We shall fight in France,
we shall fight on the seas and oceans,
we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air…
Apparently, Britain was not only going to fight, but they were also going to be doing so in a bigger and bigger fashion. At least, that was what Churchill was trying to convince his listeners of. This was a rallying cry, a war cry. You’ve heard many of these types of speeches if you watch movies because Hollywood loves its war speeches, war speeches love repetitio.
Repetitio stirs you up. It gets you going. And, best of all, it calls attention to something.
Writers: use it carefully.
Let’s look at the Demetrios’s piece. The repetitio is precisely where things fell apart.
Many readers pointed out the many times when the essay placed blame on others. “She kept blaming others.” “She didn’t take responsibility.” “How many times did she say ‘nobody told me’?”
Here’s a relevant excerpt:
Did anyone working with me — agency, publishing team — tell me that a staggering advance was not something I should depend on or get used to and that, in fact, it’s extraordinarily common in the publishing industry for untested debuts to be paid large sums they will never see again? No.
Did anyone in the publishing house take me under their wing and explain to me how the company made decisions about future book deals? No.
Did the publisher tap a more seasoned author on their list to mentor me, as many major corporations encourage within their companies? No.
Did the MFA in Writing program I was part of in any way arm me with the knowledge to protect and advocate for myself in the publishing world? No.
Demetrios deployed repetitio to point out the lack of mentoring she received in her publishing journey. You don’t need to count the number of times she repeatedly puts blame on others; she’s doing it on purpose.
But I don’t think she intended this passage (and the other places where she says similar things) to be read that way—as “putting blame”—so much as a call to action. She’s calling for more mentoring in publishing. She was trying to point out places where we can intervene to help future debut authors not go off the rails like she did. I believe that was her intent, really.
Indeed, immediately after the repetitio, she writes a paragraph where she talks about the mistakes she made:
It had happened twice in a row, these six-figures: surely I had somehow become one of the chosen few. After years of research and struggle to break out in such a ferociously competitive industry, I’d somehow come out ahead — and somehow missed several critical aspects of the business. That was on me, to some extent. Surely there were writers who had gotten the memo about how advances worked, and the ins and outs of publishing. But so much of an aspiring writer’s life — and so many of the resources available to them — is focused on getting that first book deal. What came after the deal was beside the point. It was putting the cart before the horse. All I’d cared about was the horse.
She acknowledges her hubris in believing she was “chosen.” She acknowledges it was “on her” that she missed “critical aspects of the business.” She acknowledges that all she “cared about was the horse.” None of this reads, to me, like she’s blaming others for her mistakes.
Plus, there’s the overall purpose of the piece. She’s laying out her thought processes, the ones that led to her ruin, in careful detail for a reason. Not to gain our sympathy—obviously she could have painted herself with a rosier brush if she wanted our sympathy. From the outset she tells us that her goal is to urge the the publishing industry as a whole to create a system for better mentoring.
But: The problem is that only some of Demetrios’s audience had the reaction she hoped to provoke with her piece. Only some had my reaction. The rest—smart readers who actually agree with a lot of what she has to say about publishing—had such a negative reaction to her tone (whiny, entitled, placing blame on others) that I looked immediately to the essay itself to find out why.
I found the repetitio. Over and over, doing what it is supposed to do, the rhetorical device crashing like a wave, the words that could be interpreted in two, equally valid ways.
One way, my interpretation: a plea for mentoring.
The other way, that others read: the casting of blame.
Whoops. That is not good writing, especially if you do it professionally.
Let’s talk about financial literacy and class. Demetrios explains in her piece that she came from an impoverished family and lacked financial literacy.
One of the most respected publishing houses in the world gave me a hundred thousand dollars to write two books, one of which was already finished, and I was feeling fancy.
As a kid who’d once stood in line with her mother to get food stamps, I could not believe the figures in my bank account.
Financial literacy is the possession of knowledge and experience to make smart decisions about money. A person isn’t born knowing how to be smart with money. Adults teach their children how to handle money. And in order to learn from your parents how to handle money, you have to come from a family that has money to handle.
If you come from a poor family (like my mother did—seven kids in public housing in a major city with an addict father), then you only learn a certain way to handle money: how to stretch a dollar. And when you come from circumstances like that, and you have a windfall, you quite literally cannot “believe the figures in [your] bank account.” Many people lose that windfall money, and quickly, because the amount seems endless. Infinite. Unquantifiable.
But Demetrios didn’t take the first book deal for granted. No, that happened after her second book deal:
I didn’t know if this was a one-time thing or not. But when I sold a trilogy to another publisher the following year for over a quarter of a million dollars (even now I cannot believe I wrote that sentence and, furthermore, that it’s true), I thought I had made it — forever.
And honestly, who wouldn’t? Who wins the lottery twice in two years? Like literally, who? In publishing, to have two six-figure advances in two years as a debut? That’s inconceivable.
So when I say I would have done the same things she did, I mean it. Because I would have believed what she believed. That I was a winner. A shiny penny. King forking Midas. I would have believed it. And why not? Past patterns predict future outcomes.
Like Demetrios, I would have quit my day job. I don’t think it’s so unreasonable for an author with five books under contract to quit her day job. I do realize it’s a gamble to quit your day job to write full time.
The thing is, I did it, and my gamble paid off.
But the reason my gamble paid off is because my mother, who grew up in public housing but somehow, against all odds, made it, taught me how to handle money. Financial literacy is what allowed me to quit my day job and write full time. Quickbooks, spreadsheets, mutual funds, and planning: I quit my day job because my parents taught me how to manage money—twenty years before I ever publishing anything.
Here’s what I learned at my mother’s knee: I know how to talk to a financial advisor. I learned about CFPs because one of my mother’s best friends (Hi, Carter!) is one of the most successful CFPs in the state I live in, a woman who founded her own financial advising company (commission-free, by the way, and I know what that means). Her company became my financial advisors, and they still are.
I have always had an accountant, a good one, because my parents did, and he became mine. He came to my wedding, along with my CFP and my estate attorney—also a friend of my parents. I had a will before I got married. I know how to use Quickbooks because my mother does. I knew what a Roth IRA was before I finished college, and I had one when I started my first job. And then, to top all of that off, after I finished my master’s in creative writing, I went to law school. Because I have a law degree, I could form my own LLC when I started making real money writing, and then I could convert that LLC into an S-Corp when the money grew larger. Because I have an S-Corp, I could create an i401k (which is managed by my financial advisors, the ones that I have because of my parents).
People: I have a whole, hell of a lot of privilege because my parents aren’t poor. Also: because I am white, so I got an excellent mortgage rate (twice), excellent rates on auto loans, and all of the other small and large financial breaks that white people get and don’t realize they’re getting.
(By the way: This is what talking about money looks like.)
Here’s another way to understand financial literacy: If you got an allowance as a child, then you are miles ahead of everyone who didn’t. If you blew your two bucks on Monday and you had to wait till Saturday again to have money, then you suffered the pain of financial loss early. That’s what an allowance is for—to teach you that pain of loss when the stakes are really low. You get to cry about not having your two bucks with your parents, and they explain to you about a budget, and then you learn.
But if you don’t learn about loss and budgets and CFPs as a kid, when someone writes you a check for $350,000 and you go from having nothing to having what seems like infinite money, you will not know what to do. You are financially illiterate.
Some people will luck it out and not end up with no money.
Some people, like Demetrios, will end up with no money.
Flip a coin.
So yes, we do need more mentoring in publishing, for everyone.
I was raised by a financial grizzly bear, and then I went to law school. Today, I teach people how to do money and publishing. I wish I had more mentoring.
Let’s talk about honesty and publishing.
In response to Demetrios’s essay, an agent on twitter, one who is senior and secure with their stable of authors, pointed out that junior agents are sometimes loathe to speak real truths to their authors for fear of getting fired by said authors.
Similarly, I know small press publishers who are afraid to speak money truths to authors for fear of losing them to other presses. As a publisher, one of the hardest things for me to say to a prospective author is the truth about how little money they will likely make. Every new author thinks they’re going to make money. But there is (usually) very little money in fiction, especially small-press fiction. We do what we can, and we hope to have a bestseller, but the numbers are usually small. And I tell authors the truth. Some stay; some go. Some go, and then they come back. That’s life.
At our press, we are so fierce about honesty because we’ve experienced so much dishonesty as authors. I was told by publishers both big and small that my sales would be great—when of course they turned out not to be.
One editor at a large press told me, “This book will put your kids through college.”
I am completely serious. I had a small baby at the time, and I didn’t know any better than to believe him. Why wouldn’t I believe my editor at one of the most prestigious presses on the entire planet? Truly: imagine a prestigious press. This one is more prestigious. And my editor, the one who signed me, who stayed with me through the entire publishing process, said those words. Thinking back now, I still can’t believe it.
But I believed him. Mostly.
I only mostly believed him because I was raised by my mother, and because I went to law school. Law school teaches you to “think like a lawyer,” which is shorthand for to “be paranoid.” Therefore, I counted on nothing. But what if I were someone, anyone else? What would you have done if those words had been spoken to you when you were early in your career and you weren’t trained to be paranoid?
Another press told me everything was simply amazing up until the day they fired me. Another press breached my contract, then hired a very fancy lawyer to write a letter that essentially said that they would litigate me to death with their limitless funds. I couldn’t afford to fight. Besides, they were my publisher. They still are.
It feels terrible to be over a barrel. I refuse to treat my authors the way I’ve been treated.
The only way to make publishing better is to make it better. So I started a press.
Friends, writers, editors, publishers: Let’s do better.
I understand where the negative reactions to Demetrios’s essay are coming from. She should have written the essay better—the purely verbal mistakes are there on the page. She’s also made some big missteps on social media since the piece came out. Recognition of those social media mistakes and a real apology would go a long way to helping her cause—and her cause is valid.
Financial literacy is a worthy goal. Mentoring and transparency in publishing are critical.
Also: I’m an imperfect writer and an imperfect reader. I’m not saying that my reading of the essay is perfect; hardly. And I’m sure I’ve made my own mistakes in what I’ve written here, as I’m sure I’ll notice as soon as I press publish.
Before I sign off, I want to return to the common criticisms of Demetrios’s essay:
She didn’t sound humble enough; she sounded entitled; she was whining; she should’ve known better; she placed the blame on others.
As I’ve explained, many of these criticisms are valid, especially given how she wrote her piece. But I also think that criticisms like these don’t arise in a vacuum.
So, setting aside the essay and speaking in general, these are my final thoughts.
I think that saying a woman should more humble and that she sounds whiny are criticisms that are gendered. I think that, when a woman is critiquing a giant industry such as the publishing industry, the last thing we need to tell her is to be more humble.
I think the last thing we need, as women writers, is humility when we are trying to change the world.