Writer Humiliations (updated)

Because of late I’ve been all—look how well my book has been doing! award nominations! foreign sales! good reviews! la la la!—I thought I’d write about the less fabby side of being a writer. You know, so you don’t all think my life is nothing but caviar and champagne and flying foxes at dusk. Time to talk about writer humiliations!

There was a book out a while ago, Mortification: Writers’ Stories of Their Public Shame. Part of me wants to read it; the other part cringes at the very idea of its existence: way too close to the bone! The vast majority of working writers never get anywhere near the level of J. K. Rowling or Dan Brown fame. Every writer I know—no matter how well known in their field—can tell stories of doing signings or readings for an audience of no one but the bookshop staff. We’ve all had conversations like the following.

Typical conversation at a party:

    “So you’re a novelist, huh? That’s cool. Will I have heard of you?”

    “Well, so far I only have one novel out—”

    “Dan Brown has only one novel.”

    “Ah, doesn’t Dan Brown have—”

    “So, have I heard of you?”

    “Well, what kind of novels do you read?”

    “Oh, I don’t read novels.”

    “Then, no, you won’t have heard of me.”

Conversation with casual friend while checking out some stuff online:

    “So, your book’s published in America? That is so cool.””Thanks. I’m really excited about it.”

    “Hey!” says the casual friend, rapidly typing in a new URL. “I can look up the review in the New York Times!”

    “No need, there hasn’t been a review in the New York Times.”

    Casual friend continues looking me up in the Times.

    “Not many books get reviewed in the Times,” I say.

    Casual friend looks at me with incomprehension, presses the find button, and stares at the “no hits” result. “I thought you said your book was published in America?”

    “It is,” I say, rapidly typing, pointing to the Amazon listing.

    “But no review in the New York Times?”

Conversation with the clerk in charge of kid’s books at a Sydney branch of a chain bookstore which has twelve copies of Magic or Madness prominently displayed face out:

    “Hi, I’m Justine Larbalestier the author of Magic or Madness.”Clerk stares at me blankly.

    “Uh, I was told you were in charge of kid’s books?”

    “That’s right. Do we have your book?”

    “Er, yes, quite a few of them. Just over there.” I point.

    “Huh. I haven’t read that one. Are you a local author?”

    “Yup that’s right. Sydney born and bred. I’ve been away for a bit, so I was just stopping into bookshops to see how it’s going.”

    “Oh, I don’t think we’ve sold any of that one. I can check it for you if you like.”

    Heart sinks. “No, no, never mind.”

    “So, what’s it about?”

    I blurt out an over-detailed and incoherent version of the plot.

    “Huh? That sounds complicated. What age group is it aimed at?”

    “Twelve years old and up. But the book’s not really that complicated, it’s just about a door in a house in Sydney that opens onto a street in New York City.”

    “Your book is about a door? That’s unusual.”

    “Um, yeah, I guess.” I leave before I can do any more damage. “Thanks so much for your time.”

If anyone else has some writerly humiliations to share, I’d love to hear ’em. And yes, by all means choose the cloak of anonymity.

Update: Tobias Buckell shares one of his here. For the record, I’m not L. Ron Hubbard either.

And now Diana Peterfreund has joined in (but she doesn’t mention whether she’s L. Ron Hubbard or not).


  1. punkrocker1991 on #

    Well there was this party a few years ago, when I was standing with Robin Pen.

    Anonymous: I’m –, who are you?

    me: I’m Russell Farr, and this is Robin Pen.

    Anon: Oh, so no one important then.

    (anon breezes past as I fade into the furniture)

  2. Justine on #

    Oooh, I wonder who “anonymous” is?

    But yes I’ve definitely experienced the not-famous-enough-to-talk-to diss. It’s especially frequent at cons . . . They look at your name tag see that you’re not Connie Willis and they move on.

  3. tobias s buckell on #

    Heh, try cutting your shoulder length hair, thus becoming unrecognizable unless someone reads your nametag. You learn a little something…

  4. Justine on #

    I bet!

  5. Tim Pratt on #

    I go into a bookstore, see they have a few copies of one of my books, say “Hey, I’m the author of this, would you like me to sign your stock?”

    Clerk’s reply: “Um… we’d really rather you didn’t. If you sign them, it makes them non-returnable.”

    I don’t even know if that’s true, but either way, ouch.

  6. Justine on #

    You’ll like this: I did indeed like that! Meg Cabot’s fabbo. I just read Ready or Not and chortled muchly.

    Tim: Very ouchy! I had that same experience at the bookstore I mention in the post. There were 12 copies of the book and she reluctantly let me sign two.

    Barry Goldblatt (I think, Barry? Am I remembering right?) says the non-returnable thing isn’t true. But many others swear by it. So who knows?

  7. Brent Hartinger on #

    I was speaking at a library and a group of teens was discussing my whole “oeuvre” within easy earshot. One said, “Oh, don’t get THAT one, this book is by far his best!”

    I wanted to say, “Helloooo! Author is IN THE ROOM WITH YOU!!” Ordinarily, I love to make self-deprecating humor, but there is self-deprecating, and there’s just plain humiliating. This was the latter, so I stood mute.

    Brent Hartinger

  8. chrisbarnes on #

    The first time I had a short story published, I proudly announced the fact to all and sundry. More than one friend responded “Ah, so you’re getting a novel published? When does it come out?”

    “Er, no,” I’d reply. “It’s just a short story.”

    “Oh,” they’d reply, clearly thinking ‘what is this short story thing of which you speak?’ before changing the subject.

    Alternatively, they’d ask how much I was being paid for it and be surprised that it wasn’t $$$.

    I’m sure we’ve all been there.

  9. John Scalzi on #

    I think you really ARE L. Ron Hubbard. But we’ll need a sailor’s cap to be sure.

  10. Sherwood Smith on #

    Well, let’s see…when I sold my first book, my brother said, “Really? How much did you have to pay?” I replied, “They paid me.” He looked genuinely astonished. “You mean you got someone to pay you for that crap you’ve been scribbling all these years? Jebus what a scam! How can I get into it?”

    Then there was the single time I got up the nerve to call the local B&N to see if they would do a signing. I hate that sort of thing, but friends had been insisting it was good PR so I did, and the young woman said, “Really? Who ARE you? I’m sorry, I’ve never heard of you, and we simply haven’t the time for everyone who calls wanting to have a booksigning.” ‘idiot’ implied instead of ‘one’.

    Um, then there was a writer whose blog I’d been following, seemed a likeminded sort and I’d been nerving myself to stop lurking and introducd myself when one day out of the blue blogged trying to read the opening of my book and it was so horrible the person tossed it right out–my book was obviously by far the very worst of the line, and blah blah…getting my name wrong at the very end. (A year later we did end up on the LJ verse, but I strongly suspect the person still despises me.)

    Want any more? I have plenty!

  11. claire on #

    well, this is sort of humiliating in a twisted way.

    so far, i’ve only published one (ONE! 1!) short story in my entire life. anyway, i was a “featured” artist at a small-time local community arts festival. before my reading i was hanging with some friends and this bizarre guy came up to me and was introduced by a mutual friend who told me the guy had been wanting to meet me. i assumed it was because i was “featured artist”. our conversation went like this:

    bizarre guy: YOU’RE getting an MFA?

    i: … yeah … ?

    bg: why are YOU getting an MFA?

    i: … um … well …

    bg: i mean, with all your credits it’s not like you need one!

    i: … ???

    later, backstage, i introduced myself to a performer who said, “YOU’RE claire? oh, have you met bizarre guy? he’s been soooo excited to meet you! you’re one of his favorite writers!”

    it took me another 24 hours to realize what had happened: bizarre guy had mistaken me for another writer! i have absolutely no idea which writer he mistook me for, since his questions weren’t very illuminating. but somehow, in some way, i resemble, physically, psychologically, or stylistically, some other, famous, accomplished writer, who doesn’t NEED an mfa. i don’t know which is worse: to be insulted for the work you’ve done, or to be praised for work you haven’t done.

  12. Cherie Priest on #

    “Jesus, what are you, fifteen years old?”

    (would have been flattering, but was drunkenly declared at a con a couple of years ago by someone who followed this up with, “no way in shit she’s written anything worth reading yet.”)

  13. jason erik lundberg on #

    Not so much humiliation as confusion:

    Upon the sale of my first short story, I announced it to pretty much everyone in my office at the time, also through email. The big boss of the company came into my cubical at one point and said, “That’s wonderful about your article.”

    “Well, it’s a short story, actually.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “It’s a short story, not an article.”

    “I’m not following.”

    “I’m getting my first short story published, not an article.”

    “What’s the difference?”

    “One is fiction, and the other is not.”

    “I still don’t get it.”

    After about five minutes of this, I could tell he just wasn’t going to get understand, and he changed the subject.

    “So how much did you get paid?”

    “Well, it’s a small semi-prozine, and they can only afford to pay in contributor copies.”

    “What does that mean?”

    “I get two free copies of the issue in which my story will be published.”

    “So, no money then?”

    “No. Just copies.”

    “Well, that’s all right. You’ll get ’em next time.”

    I’ve also gotten the question, mostly at parties, of “Have I read anything by you?” when I mention I’m a writer. And the exchange pretty much goes like Justine’s above, except substituting “short stories” for “novels.”

  14. Lauren McLaughlin on #

    So far, fiction world has been kind. All my humiliating writer stories come from movie world. Examples:

    Director: “So Lauren is this yet another one of your jokes I don’t get?”

    Me to Producer: “I’ve just written a new script but I’m not one hundred percent happy with it.”

    Producer to me: “Yeah, well you get what you pay for.”

    For a project whose script I wrote based on a very short outline by the director, the producer omitted my writing credit. When I asked her about it she told me that writing a script from an outline is really “just formatting.”

  15. Justine on #

    Wow! Thanks everyone for sharing.

    Brent: Well, at least the kid liked one of your books! I just don’t see why they can’t love all our babies equally. I think you were right to stay schtum.

    Chris: Sigh. Sometimes I just think we should all just lie. Short stories are better paid than novels. All writers are rich. I only dress like this because it seems cruel to flaunt my wealth.

    Scalzi: Maaate, Hubbard was a redhead. Oh, hang on . . .

    Sherwood: Your brother said that? Ouch, and yet, so his problem, not yours. I think that’s true of most of these anecdotes. Why should we be humiliated by others’ stupidity, ignorance, and occasional downright rudeness? That said I have a strong desire to punch all those people (especially your brother) in the nose. (Note for the impressionable: violence is wrong.)

    Claire: that’s just weird. I wonder if he ever figured it out . . . Oh, and on which is worse—definitely being insulted for your own work!

    Cherie: I will never understand why people are so hung up on age. (Not that I’m not myself.) I mean big deal. It’s not like it’s a permanent state of affairs. So what if people are younger and have achieved more than you? (which is where I’m assuming that mean comment came from.) Raymond Chandler didn’t start writing till he was in his fifties. Whatever age you are there’s a writer’s trajectory that will give you hope. If you’re young think Rimbaud (except the horrible end part) or S. E. Hinton; if you’re older think Chandler or Elizabeth Jolly.

    Jason: How surreal! I’ve never come across that one.

    Lauren: The more you tell me about your Hollywood experiences there more I’m glad I’ve never tried to pursue the whole screenwriting thing. That’s just horrible. Especially the formatting comment. Either she’s venal or she’s a moron.

  16. Rachel Brown on #

    until recently, my best writing credit was that I’d been a staff writer on a Tv show. This is Los Angeles, so everyone knows what a staff writer is and why that’s a good credit; that wasn’t the problem. The problem was two-fold: 1) nobody in the entire world had ever heard of the show, let alone seen it, as it aired on a cable channel and was cancelled after three episodes. 2) The title of the show was “The Fearing Mind.” You have to say it aloud to understand why that was so bad– it’s hard to say and no one can understand what it means.

    So every time anyone asked me what I’d written, the answer was a show they’d never heard of and had to make me repeat the title of three times. I finally started saying, “A show on cable, it got cancelled after three episodes, you won’t have heard of it,” because that was LESS embarassing than just saying the title.

  17. Justine on #

    Rachel: It’s so ridiculous that you have to feel embarassed about something so very cool. Who cares if the show was on cable (as are pretty much all my fave shows) and only lasted three eps (again many great shows were axed early)? You were a staff writer for a TV show!! Very bubbly indeed!

  18. Rachel Brown on #

    The embarassing part was having to repeat the stupid name of the show five times, then spell it, then have to explain why no one had heard of it. Much more fun to be able to say, “I wrote a book!”

  19. Justine on #

    That’s one of my fave sentences. I shall never tire of it. Even when my books are long since remaindered and can only be found at alibris or wherever. Even then I’ll be able to say, “I wrote a book!”

    “The Fearing Mind” is a pretty awful title . . . I can imagine the exchanges: “The Farting Mole?” The Faffing Mine?” “Your Father’s Mind?”

  20. Cherie Priest on #

    Thanks Justine – but now that I’m thirty, I postively *lurve* it when people guess me for a mere babe 😉

  21. Justine on #

    Oh, sure. It used to drive me crazy people thinking I was younger than I am. Not so much now though!

  22. margo on #

    Nowadays I try to keep my book-writerly life right out of my day-job life unless someone springs me, or I’m just about to leave the day-job (as a contractor, I leave day-jobs quite regularly – but oops, sometimes I come back). Anyway, I had just been sprung by my fellow technical writer when a suit (a very young suit) walked by and my FTW called out, “Hey, did you know Margo’s written a book?”

    “Written a book?” Looks at me astonished.


    After a few wordless moments: “I don’t know why anyone would READ a book, let alone WRITE one.”

    Not really a humiliation, just a sighoverable moment.

  23. marrije on #

    hahaha, margo, that isn’t so much a sighoverable moment, that’s just plain hilarious. read a book, indeed, why the hell would anyone want to do that??

  24. Justine on #

    Margo: What a sad wretched life that suit lives. Loser!

  25. parker on #

    reminds me of one of my favourite bill hicks jokes: man spies girl reading book in booth at diner. man says, “hey, whatcha reading… for?”

  26. Corey on #

    “I’m writing a book about ‘insert an original idea, or at least one original to me'”

    “–Oh, don’t they already have a book out about that?”

    “‘insert my there are only three manuscripts in Gutenberg’s study spiel'”

    “–you need to come up with something totally unique, like Stephen King…”

    “‘insert sounds of me punching person in face'”


  27. Steve Clackson-Sand Storm on #

    From my earlier post
    The Season’s First Christmas Cocktail Gathering

    Tis the Season!
    “So what do you do”?
    “I’m a writer”
    “What kind”
    “I’ve written one novel working on another”
    “anything I might have read”?
    “I’m unpublished at present”
    “So you might as well write in a journal”
    “well so far it’s had the same result”
    “except then you would be a Journalist”
    Me smirk as I notice someone, anyone trying to get my attention.
    Oh look there’s the bar!

  28. Thomas Roche on #

    These are hillarious.

    I’ve experienced too many writerly humiliations to count, mostly at the hands of my family. Two of my least favorite:

    Stranger: “What do you do for a living?”

    Me: “I’m a writer.”

    Stranger: “Have you been published?”

    Me: “Yes, that’s how I make a living.”

    Stranger: “What do you write?”

    Me: “Erotica, mostly.”

    Stranger: (snickers with contempt, walks away).

    or its lovely variation:

    Stranger: “What do you do for a living?”

    Me: “I’m a writer.”

    Stranger: “What do you write?”

    Me: “Erotica, mostly.”

    Stranger: (eyes like saucers) “Damn!!! I would love to write porn. That Jenna Jameson, she is AWESOME. I love that, what’s her name, Linda Lovelace too, she’s awesome. Maybe I’ll do that one of these days. Become a famous porn writer. Got to be easier than working, right?”

    (I fall asleep)

  29. shana on #

    For what it’s worth, this week’s issue of Publishers’ Weekly has a response from John Grogan, author of MARLEY AND ME (which is at #3 on PW’s bestseller list). PW had called his tour “successful.” He wrote back to say:

    “Did no one mention Atlantic City, where I showed up but the books didn’t? Or being marooned in Cleveland, killing time?”

  30. Robert Hood on #

    Issues of identity are always fun.

    Once, at a convention, someone came up to me with great enthusiasm and humbly asked for my autograph. They lost their enthusiasm, not to mention their humility once they discovered they’d misread my name tag and I wasn’t actually Robin Hobb…

    On another occasion, at an event for Creepers (a series of nine comic horror novels for kids I co-wrote), a young fan asked me if I’d sign his book. It was one of the Goosebumps series. I pointed out that I wasn’t R.L. Stine. “Really?” he said, shrugged and suggested I should sign it anyway… so I did.

  31. margo on #

    I’ve had a schoolgirl pick up my book, look inside, go ‘Eeww!’ and put it down again, as I stood at her elbow, conspicuously the only visiting author in the room.

    I’ve also sat at my author signing table at various conferences and litfests next to John Marsden’s, Geoffrey McSkimming’s, Paul Jennings’ and Morris Gleitzman’s tables, wildly waving my free bookmarks at the uninterested thousands queuing for their autographs. I invariably find book signings either vaguely or outright humiliating like this. But since Glyn Parry came up to me and said, “One day you’ll look back and wish the queues were like this again” I’ve felt better about them.

  32. Jim Cambias on #

    My personal unfavorite is the well-meant but utterly damning reaction from my family.

    Me: “I sold another story to F&SF!”

    Them: “That’s good. When are you going to try writing, you know, _real_ stories?”

  33. claire on #

    “Oh, and on which is worse—definitely being insulted for your own work!”

    justine: written like someone who’s actually published a book! if you’re insulted for work you *have* done, it means they *read your work*. if you’re praised for work you haven’t done, then pretty much all you are is extra skin hanging off of another author.

    robert hood: i can’t decide who is more fabulous, the kid for wanting you to sign the book anyway, or you for doing it! 100 years from now that book might be legendary and worth a lot of money.

  34. Diana on #

    I am not l ron hubbard. I did, however, grow up not five miles from what is basically a hubbard theme park. So there’s that.

    The only time I was mistaken for another writer was when I posted on the Harlequin boards under the name ‘Diana P’ and was asked if I was Diana Palmer. I really should have let that one ride a little longer…

  35. A.R.Yngve on #

    Humiliating Moment:
    I stood in my publisher’s small booth at the big annual book fair in Gothenburg, Sweden — proudly hawking my debut novel “Terra Hexa” — when suddenly…

    1. An old, unshaven man in a dirty overcoat asked me whether the title “TERRA HEXA” had something to do with witches (“häxa” in Swedish means “witch”).
    I gently explained that “Hexa” is Latin for “six”(pronounced “sex” in Swedish). Then he said, wide-eyed, that the book must surely have “sexy” content. I asked him (not so gently) to leave.

    2. A strange, fat young man said I should hire him to draw a comic-book based on my novel. He showed me drawings that would have embarrassed a 7-year-old. When I gently (honestly!) told him I’d prefer a more experienced artist, he walked three steps to the booth right next to ours, and *repeated his sales pitch!*

  36. Chris Barzak on #

    I don’t have many embarrassing writer stories because I knew right off the bat, from growing up with a family of non-readers, and from then going on to a university and working with the organization that brought poets and writers to speak at my university where not even many of the literature professors had heard of said writers, that the best thing to do when asked “what do you do?” and other queries that might elicit “writing” as a response, is to just say I was a teacher or freelance writer (which isn’t as weird for most people surprisingly, hence Jason’s “article” mixup with his colleague). But now I have to deal with friends who introduce me to other people as a writer, and then I backpeddle and pretend like I’m not, which then makes my friends look at me oddly and say, “Yes you are! I’ve read your goddamned stories!” then turn to the person and tell them I am. This, in the end, receives about the same strange curious desire to know and understand more about this “writing thing” from the listener. Which always makes me feel like an oddity, so I do my best to convince them it’s really uninteresting. I’d rather not talk about being a writer in most situations where I’m not talking to other writers.

  37. Lewis on #

    I have written a few short articles for a newsletter published by a small
    computer club. I made the mistake of showing my first article to my folks.
    When they saw it they made only one comment, “How much were you paid?”
    (I wasn’t paid for the article but was just incredibly happy to see my
    name in print and to be congratulated by friends and club members.)
    I have written some more articles that were published but have never let
    my family know about them. what a bummer!

  38. anghara on #

    Okay, I’ll play.

    When the paperback edition of “The Secrets of Jin Shei” came out I went to local bookstore to do reading. WHile we were gearing up for the event, these four gangly teenage boys walk in – with notebooks and pens in their paws! – and a couple of them sit down, a couple wander off but the ones ensconced are careful to point out to other people drifting in that these seats “are taken”.

    “That’s not my usual demographic,” I murmur to my husband.

    “Maybe they think ‘jin shei’ means some strange kind of kung fu,” he said, being only half serious.

    You know what? I started the reading. Boys are sitting there with their pens at the ready. Less than five minutes into the reading, looking utterly disgusted they got up and filed out. You could almost see them shuddering at this too, too close brush with Girl Cooties.

    And I’ve given readings for audiences of one plus a handful of bookstore staff.

    And then there was the time when I came upon an earnest young lad shelving an earlier book of mine – non-genre, contemporary fiction, an e-mail novel (consisting entirely of an email correspondence between two people) – in the non-fiction section.

    “That’s a novel,” I told him.

    He looked up at me suspiciously.

    “How do you know?” he said.

    “Because I wrote it,” I said.

    “Are you sure?” he asked.


  39. Justine on #

    I wonder what those boys were after . . . Crib notes for an exam? The mind boggles.

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