Tuesday

Author Emily St. John Mandel's 5 Questions Never to Ask at a Bookstore Reading

Emily St. John Mandel is the author of two novels, Last Night in Montreal and The Singer's Gun. She's a staff writer at The Millions. She has an essay in the recent anthology The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of the Book, and her short fiction will appear in the forthcoming Venice Noir collection. You can find her on the web at www.emilymandel.com, and on Twitter at @EmilyMandel.
Let me first be clear: I love touring. I love bookstore events. A great many of my favorite memories transpired in independent bookstores and at festivals from New York to Calgary to California. (I also have a lot of memories involving airports at this point, but that's neither here nor there.) It's an absolute pleasure to meet booksellers, and readers, and I like the reading itself.
I even like the post-reading Q&A. That's the wildcard part of the evening, where you might be asked interesting questions about your work or your writing process or what great books you've read recently or how you tied your scarf in that nifty way, or, on the other hand, you might be asked whether you and your husband plan on procreating any time soon. This is what makes Q&As exciting: it could go either way.
That being said, a brief list of questions that ideally I'd love to never be asked again at a post-reading Q&A:
1) "So when's your next book coming out?"
My NEXT book? I have no idea, but it'll probably be a while. In the meantime, allow me to introduce you to my current book. It came out a week ago. It took me two and a half years to write.
2) "Are you planning on having kids?"
Um. As much as I enjoy discussing the nuances of my marriage into a microphone before a sea of inquisitive strangers, could I maybe get back to you on that? Also, while I'm typically the last person to notice gender bias, I'll confess that I can't help but secretly wonder whether you'd ask that question of a male novelist.
3) "Here's my copy of your book. Please sign it and also draw a cartoon."
I'd love to, but I have no idea how to draw cartoons. Would you like a shakily-rendered outline of a penguin? I can also do fluffy dogs. Thanks for the idea, by the way -- the next time I go to a cartoonist's book signing, I'm going to ask if they'd mind doing a signature plus a quick dash of literary fiction.
4) "Is your book on Amazon?"
It is! But you know what? That's perhaps not the best possible question to ask at an event held in an independent bookstore. Actually, it might be the worst possible question to ask at an event held in an independent bookstore. Amazon is what puts bookstores like this one out of business. You can't see it because she's standing behind you, but there is a bookseller glaring at the back of your head.
5) "How many books have you sold?"
You know, the last royalty statement was a few months back, so I'm actually not entirely sure. But while we're on the subject of our personal finances, what's your checking account balance?

51 comments:

  1. Man, this is so great, and a testament to how growing up in America does not socialize you to think before you speak NEARLY as much as it should, or probably, actually, at all.

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  2. Excuse fans for being excited about your work and wanting to know about your next book.

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  3. Wondering why anyone cares if an author plans to have kids...

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  4. 1) When is your next blog post?
    2) Have you decided yet whether you do want kids?
    3) What cartoon would you draw, if you had to?
    4) Is you book on Amazon.co.uk as well as .com?
    5) How many hits has this blog post had?

    :P

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  5. Amazing, that has happened to me! At one book signing I was asked if I was related to Forest Whitaker. I'm white with a redneck grilling tan. Then I was asked how much I made last year. And then if I've ever killed anyone with my culinary delights. Other than that, it was a great signing!

    I really enjoyed your post today.
    - Kent Whitaker

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  6. There's also my personal favorites (all of which I have been asked at events):

    "How much do you make?"

    "Can you read my book and show it to your agent?"

    and the absolute winner:

    "I've got a great idea. Can you write it and we'll split the money?"

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  7. Love your post. Some people ask the most ridiculous questions at book signings. Others have the audacity to attempt a "debate" on the subject. Sheesh.

    Andy Logan author of Plugging Into Real Worship
    http://aplogansr.com

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  8. Could be testament to your relaxed style. Please feel comfortable enough with you to ask nosy questions that are none of their business.

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  9. When hosting a reading and signing, I'm always worried about two things: amount of people who will show and what those people will ask afterward. I'm so conscious of what an author might think but also about how often they must get the same questions over and over.

    As bizarre as it is to ask how much you've made or when your next book is coming out, I think many people are either anxious to ask anything so there's no silence or excited for your next project or wanting to write themselves and wondering what it's like. Even asking for the cartoon - I guess they want something more personal than just a signature. On the other hand, asking when you'll have kids...yep, that would be me cringing on the sidelines, mortified as the host! And the customer who asks if the book is on Amazon or at Chapters or whatever...that customer gets a spanking!!

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  10. Wow. I'd just be happy that people used their gas, time and money to hear me speak. Some people just do not get the old saying, Don't bite the hand that feeds you.

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  11. Why is that cartoon thing so common?? I never even heard of someone doing that.

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  12. To all the obnoxious anonymouses--because I'm sure that you've never, EVER, stated a preference about how you're treated, I guess you wouldn't understand.

    As to the people who actually ask these ridiculous questions (how many kids? really? would you even ask your neighbor that?)--::headdesk::

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  13. Wow. I'm amazed AGAIN. What I believe about the world and the people in it is rocked by what people are capable of and have no shame about doing.

    Let some passive-aggressiveness out. Draw a cartoon of the hangman game.

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  14. i have to reply to the comment of anonymous, "don't bite the hand that feeds you." well, yea, unless that hand is feeding you gruel. and don't make the assumption that everyone in the audience has bought the book. they may have just stumbled into it.

    i used to be a CRM at B&N, and, although it's not an indie, i'm sure the same etiquette should apply.
    please buy the book at the store where you are seeing the author. b&n might be able to take the hit, but the indie, not so much.
    please don't bring your 7 or 8 dog-eared copies of the author's backlist wishing them to sign those too. please.
    please don't bring YOUR book (manuscript, napkin writings) to give to the author. they had a hard enough time getting their own work together.
    instead of a question, maybe a comment. tell the author how much you enjoyed the book (or elements of it). he/she will love you forever. and so will your bookseller.

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  15. The most common question I've been asked at a reading: Why are you a self-hating Jew?

    The absolute best question I've been asked: How could you eat a meatball touched by Yasir Arafat.

    I kid you not.

    jen
    @propjen

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  16. Love the one about the cartoon!! That made me laugh. Sadly, now I think I might really like a shaky penguin outline scrawled in my book (done preschooler style with your non-writing hand) just so I could tell a dramatic story about it's existence.

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  17. Wow, that's a rude comment. Emily's post was just a little venting done in a light-hearted, humorous way, and helpful both to authors who know these questions all too well, and to readers who may have foot-in-mouth moments they want to avoid. Your comment was just attacking and mean. Talk about anger and anti-social...

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  18. I found this post to be honest and refreshing. My friend, Nancy Olson, of Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh NC, was delighted to read it also. I can't tell you the number of times the AUTHORS in her store suggest that the audience buy their books at Amazon! I once had the privilege to sit with Charles Frazier who wanted to know what kinds of questions audiences would ask him. My answer? Nothing you can't answer! After reading this, I realize I should have added that there might be some he wouldn't WANT to answer!

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  19. Readers and fans are always looking for the next book. You may want someone to come to your next signing as well.

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  20. I just went to a reading tonight and thankfully no one asked any of these questions! Although someone did mention Amazon and it was a total elephant in the room.

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  21. I have my first book signing coming up. I think it would be amusing to have those kinds of thing happen. But then again, I usually find humor in just about everything that isn't tragic.

    Thank you for your very insightful words. And the heads-up!!

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  22. These are tests we readers ask authors to determine if you're legit. For your benefit, correct answers are below:

    1) "So when's your next book coming out?"
    Any day now. Return to this independent bookstore daily until it appears. Buy a book everyday, just in case.

    2) "Are you planning on having kids?"
    Yes. As soon as within 9 months, if possible. *wink*

    3) "Here's my copy of your book. Please sign it and also draw a cartoon."
    How big would you like the penis?

    4) "Is your book on Amazon?"
    Yes, but if you buy my book here, you are orders of magnitudes less likely to die at the dinner table at the hands of a handkerchief or roof shingle. If you doubt me, please consult the Wheel of Time novels, all thirteen of which are also available here.

    5) "How many books have you sold?"
    My last royalty check was for thirty eight cents. I'm a writer, not a mathematician, but I believe that calculates out to eighteen thousand, six hundred million, and thirty eight third copies. Don't ask me to explain why someone would only buy a third of my book. I recommend you buy the entire thing.

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  23. Does that fart come in pink?

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  24. Oh my, I'm embarrassed for whoever would ask questions like these ones. Eek!

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  25. As the owner of a bookstore and host of most store events, I usually moderate the question & answer session so I can intercede when someone asks a really inappropriate question. Interestingly, as a children's bookstore, I've found that 95% of our authors are working on a new book or have one slated to be published in an upcoming season by the time the book they're promoting has been published, so they're pleased to be asked about "what's next." But perhaps the time between finished manuscript and published book is longer on the children's side of the industry. As a picture book author myself, I know I've waited up to three years for an artist to just start on illustrating my picture book! I should hasten to add -- it was well worth the wait!

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  26. As a publishing vet, though not an author, I'd think "can you read my manuscript" would be a solid #6.

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  27. LOVED this post. And I have been to your events, Emily, and you are always gracious--and your readings are perfect. I always cringe when it is time for the audience to ask questions at book readings--some are so rude and silly. I do need to comment on the "don't bring your dog-eared backlist" though. I always buy the author's new book and usually extras for gifts--and I do sometimes bring my much-read backlist copies, and I have to say...several authors have been happy to see I love their books and are happy to sign!

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  28. Dear bookstore event organizers,
    Please post a copy of the above blog at your events, along with a helpful list of appropriate questions for the author, to aid the clueless.

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  29. Perhaps you should invite this dude to a reading? http://insultedbyauthors.com/blog/

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  30. Would answering the "Is this on Amazon?" question with "My short story collections are on Amazon and Smashwords, but this one is available right here." Work?
    I just finished my first novel and this post was very insightful. Thank you, Emily.

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  31. I can't (no wait, I kinda can!) believe people actually ask these questions!

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  32. Ann Patchett has a great essay from 1998 (?) about how worse than showing up at a reading with five people who don't buy your book...is not doing anything at all for this book you've worked so hard on.

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  33. Actually, I'm rather stuffy, reserved, and not terribly good with people, and I get asked odd questions too. I don't mind "when's your next" and will happily give a quick rundown of what's coming across the next couple of years (mostly because there have been periods when there wasn't anything). Nobody's asked me about kids but I've been asked if I'm single, which indicates something about the level of desperation in the general population.

    Fans at readings generally overrate themselves as income sources and underrate themselves as human beings; most of them are more interesting than the three bucks or so I might make off them. So I tend to ask them questions, quite deliberately slowing the line and turning things more conversational. It's better than facing a crowd of anonymous buyers, and honestly, a person with an interesting occupation or life story is very often more interesting to me than a book I've been living with for months or years.

    I'm fairly tough with bookstores about not requiring that the book have been bought there, and I welcome a chance to sign the dogeared backlist. It's about connection with readers (even if I'm not awfully good at it); maybe for bestselling authors it's really about sales, but not down at my end of the literary swamp.

    Since one of my several occupations is book doctoring, when someone turns up with a manuscript or a request for critique, I give them my email and tell them to request a rate sheet. I have never acquired a client through this process but I've also never had to continue the conversation beyond that point.

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  34. I once heard Dave Barry talk about bookstore events; "hey. is that you", customer points to poster of Dave Barry event. Dave Barry said, "Yes". Customer; "good, where's the men's room."

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  35. People are strange when you're a stranger...

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  36. Emily, I'm male and was asked at a book event whether we were going to have any more children. (We have four.) My wife was in the audience and called out, "It would have to be with his second wife."

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  37. Thanks for sharing. I found the questions funny, because WHO would ask them? But also so very sad, because it is fact, not fiction, that people do ask them.

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  38. LOVE IT. Been there, heard that. Along with, "Can I get it on Amazon," there's "I'll reserve it at the library." When I was writing job-search books, people asked, "Isn't there a lower price for those are unemployed?"

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  39. I'm amazed at the absence of my most-hated question: "Where do you get your ideas?"

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  40. You got it, Bob - that's what I get asked, without fail. I go on to say that everyone gets ideas, and that I just pinch someone else's, because no one can write about an ordinary idea like I can.

    I did get the 'is there a lower price for people who can't afford twenty bucks' question. I had no idea how to answer that one, but the venue manager had something to say.

    I'm glad I read this just now - I'm having a big exhibition launch for According to Luke in a fortnight and it's been a while since my last signing, so this is great preparation.

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  41. I'm often asked #5. Fortunately, as a fiction writer, I don't feel obligated to answer truthfully.

    (Although some people may wonder why, if I've sold 10 million books, I'm not on the NYT bestseller list.)

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  42. I feel like asking an author what they're working on is a little like asking the unemployed how a job search is going. If it's not a reading for a paperback re-release, chances are the writer either hasn't thought much about their next work, or is pretty deep in the weeds and far from a finished product. Either way, they probably would rather not talk about it. At least, that's how I feel when family or friends ask about what I'm working on! Glad they asked, stressed I have no good answer...

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  43. My least favorite is "Where do you get your ideas?" If I knew I'd have more of them.

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  44. But aren't all these actually very good questions? They provide you an opportunity to educate your audience and demonstrate what exactly it’s like to be a writer. But then I’m a teacher as well as a novelist….

    Also, there’s no law that says you have to be “honest.” Too-personal questions can be a great starting point for telling an absurd story….

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  45. Thanks for the insight. I've never asked a question in all my years going to readings because I was afraid I'd ask a stupid one. Now, I'm about to go on my own book tour, and wonder if the Q&A session will just 30 seconds of silent awkwardness before moving on.

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  46. This post is very insightful. Thanks for posting.

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  47. I have to say, I really hate the "I have a great idea, do you want to write it and split the money" question the most, though "I have this great idea, but I don't want to discuss it with you, 'cause you'll steal it" is a close runner up. x_x

    Those five questions are definitely horrible, though. Why do any of those questions matter? Dang, if I was asking an author a question, it would be about writing craft, but that's just me.

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  48. At a recent event, Rick Bragg was asked "Nook or Kindle". He explained that he is not into e-readers and detailed in a most amusing way how hard it must be to hold one poolside in the south. Now that some indie bookstores sell e-books through their websites, my answer would be "Anything but a Kindle"!

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  49. It has taken me ages to discover your site. Finally. This is just the information I was looking for.

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  50. Shut up, Emily St. John Mandel. Just be glad you have a small group of semi-excited readers lined up to see you, and answer (or rebuff) their questions with as much charm and aplomb as a writer can muster.

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