Notes from the Drunken Editor: You Are the Joke Here

Are you familiar with jokes at the expense of artists? Here's one:

Q: What is the difference between a large pizza and a writer?
A: The pizza can feed a family.

Ha! But as with any profession that's been around long enough, you don't need to look very far if you want jokes. They're often called "case studies" and they can go like this: "This person or company did this and got these results. Let's look at what happened and learn something from it."

Professional jokes are like universal case studies, scientifically designed to say a lot in a little. They sum up recurring problems and find common ground in different situations. Lawyer jokes are easy; writing and publishing jokes are trickier, but this one works for me:

A screenwriter comes home to a burned down house. His sobbing and slightly-singed wife is standing outside. “What happened, honey?” the man asks.

“Oh, John, it was terrible,” she weeps. “I was cooking, the phone rang. It was your agent. Because I was on the phone, I didn’t notice the stove was on fire. It went up in second. Everything is gone. I nearly didn’t make it out of the house. Poor Fluffy is–”

“Wait, wait. Back up a minute,” The man says. “My agent called?”

I cringed when I first read that. It rings perfectly true.

So, in today's cute and clever gimmick, I'm going to offer a list of don't-dos for authors entering the world of publishing.

Chapter the First:

Q: What's the difference between a large pizza and the query letter we received a couple of months ago that read: "With the proper marketing, I believe my novel could sell at least 27,000,000 copies"?
A: The pizza can feed a family. And isn't delusional.

Please never write a query letter that tells people how, with the proper marketing (a term left conveniently undefined), your book could sell millions of copies. Of course it could. With the proper marketing, we could get Bill O'Reilly to conduct some serious research before writing his biographies. With the right marketing, we might even get Bill O'Reilly's audience to consist mainly of socialists.

What does proper marketing cost? I don't know. What does a great dinosaur-catapulting adventure cost? What does a good sex life cost? It's not just "a thing," and this kind of query letter brings out the prejudiced monster in people — the human being behind the desk, not the objective professional. The person who goes into convulsions of indignation when an author's first approach is unprofessional, or weird, or just clueless.

Example: the lady who sent me a Facebook message one day asking if I'd publish her collection of erotic stories and how soon could it happen please…? When I told her we didn't publish erotica, and weren't open to submissions, she replied asking how long she'd have to wait before we were open to submissions so she could try again. Somehow she didn't seem to care very much whether the press she was approaching even published erotica. And ignored it when she was informed.

Back to the cost of marketing: if you get a few really, really dedicated fans, who spread the word and know the right people, good marketing can be pretty cheap. That's a serious way to go viral on the internet: word of mouth. Now, if you have no fans yet, but you've got a huge publisher behind you, it's also possible that by the expert use of their age-old Illuminati secrets your marketers could sell your book to the right people. They're likely to fail, too.

What is "proper" marketing in this case? I don't know. Perhaps it's just a chunk of money. Or people who are good at their job, and do much more for far less. What I really want to say is: Dude, put the absinthe down for a second: where did that 27,000,000 come from? Why not 28,040,009? Or why not worry just about selling the first 1,000 copies? This is not the right place to be the creepy writer who, before submitting his query letter, took out his abacus and carefully went over his numbers to make sure he was giving his future publisher an accurate estimation of his guaranteed fantastic sales.

Chapter the Second:

"Who's there?"
"It's Joe Sanderson."
"Joe Sanderson who?"
"Joe Sanderson…? You might remember me, I submitted a novel last week called DANGEROUS GAMES IN THE DESERT OF DOOM (WITH SEVERAL FANTASTIC SEX SCENES INTENDED TO APPEAL TO THE FEMALE DEMOGRAPHIC THAT JUST DISCOVERED S&M THROUGH 50 SHADES OF GREY)…? I was just wondering if you've had a chance to look at my manuscript yet, as I noticed that the version I submitted was the wrong one, full of embarrassing typos and — … hello? H-hello?"

Truth is, I don't know who you are, Joe Sanderson. Your book title is intriguing, but you should probably make sure you send me the "right" file before you send me the wrong file. Which, by the way, suggests to me, very frankly, that you sent me the "right" file at the time, then looked over it and thought, "Oh no! I have left many typos in here! Better rectify this as soon as I can and pretend it was just an electronic accident." The reason I hung up has nothing to do with you, by the way. It was me. I was sad for you and wanted you to be angry at my unprofessionalism so you wouldn't get upset about your own. You're welcome.

It's a serious annoyance when an author behaves like an overeager, insecure kid. It's especially annoying because we're all like that sometimes; everyone wants to be acknowledged and respected. Everyone needs other people around to say: "Hey pal! You still exist," and if you're sending out your long, social life-ruining novel, the last thing you want is to feel totally ignored. But gentle nudges are better than high-pitched voicemails or indignant 400-page open letters to the president reminding everyone that your book has not been acknowledged yet.

By the way, if you've sent a subtle nudge and you never hear back, it's probably a bad sign. Just so we're clear.

Chapter the Third:

A serious and successful author walks into a bar. Bartender pours him a whisky. An aspiring writer approaches the author, who is not talking about writing, and asks him if he'd like to talk about writing, and maybe look at his manuscript, and he truly doesn't want to bother him but if possible could they also, um, it's his first attempt at writing and maybe if the writer has some tips…

If the sadness here is not obvious, here's a rule of thumb: just don't be that guy.

Chapter the Fourth:

Q: How many frustrated writers does it take to change all of JK Rowling's lightbulbs?
A: Depends on how many frustrated writers were smart enough not to quit their jobs as electricians to write full time.

JK Rowling is the exception to the rule, and she's the reason the rule works. She rakes in many millions, other writers get silly or romantic or delusional, and hearts get broken across the world.

Don't quit your day job. But not because people keep saying it after you sing at the local karaoke night. They say it because they find it so funny they could have an aneurysm from keeping it to themselves, or because they didn't like your singing. Do it for others reasons: your writing aspirations may be partly financial (if you have a self-destructive streak and would love to see how poor you can get), but they're probably also aesthetic.

You have your own aesthetic understanding of what a good novel is (if you don't, get one) and you think you could try your hand at it, maybe give someone else a new favorite novel someday. I think this is perfectly dignified; and in any case, it's more realistic than just wanting to be a writer and maybe make lots of money from it as soon as you just find the right crowd. As soon as you find the lone agent… who "gets" it… and runs 42 km from the Bronx to Long Island where he dies on the doorstop of the lone publisher who'll put that book of yours out there. (Let it be known that I had to look on Google Maps to make sure the distance from the Bronx to Long Island was around 42 km, so that my clever reference to the origins of the marathon tradition was accurate. It's 43 km. But I did my research.)

Epilogue, with Bonus Cruelty

I asked my friend Caleb, author of a handful of published novels, to share the bitter pus of wisdom dripping from the scars of his writing. I think his title summed it up pretty well:

Nobody gives a fuck that you wrote something.

Jesus, Caleb. At least buy them a drink first.

To leave a comment Login with Facebook or create a free account.


ReneeAPickup's picture
Class Facilitator
ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading Wanderers by Chuck Wendig January 9, 2013 - 9:30am

Geez, Phil, you didn't have to tell everyone about my erotica book...anyway, I think with the right marketing your imprint's readers WOULD like it and I don't know why you have to be so meeeeeeaaaannnnnn.

Fylh's picture
Fylh from from from is reading is from is reading is reading is reading reading is reading January 9, 2013 - 10:29am


Neil Davidson's picture
Neil Davidson is reading Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov January 9, 2013 - 11:40am

I have to admit some amusement at the Notes From Underground cover. That's pretty awesome.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like January 9, 2013 - 12:46pm

The irony is not lost. However, as it goes along its course, the irony does not seem to realize that it is being watched.

.'s picture
. January 9, 2013 - 1:27pm


Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies January 9, 2013 - 2:27pm

hahahhahahahhah...sad, but true. too funny. wait, i'm crying. thanks, phil. and i thought Pat Walsh's book was harsh. well, speak the truth, brother, and the divine will persevere anyway, yeah?

nathaniel parker's picture
nathaniel parker from Cincinnati is reading The Dark Tower ~ King January 10, 2013 - 3:58am

I do not like how not a single one of those quotation marks are closed.

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore January 10, 2013 - 8:10am

Of all the many laughs (and truths) in this piece, the one I'm still grinning over is the measuring of New York distances in kilometers.