How to talk to authors

A while back I wrote a wee little etiquette thingie for authors on how to talk to booksellers. It has recently been suggested by a remainder1 of authors that the non-authors of the world also need such a guide. So without further ado here is how to talk to an author:

  • Never tell us that you don’t read or like books. Or that you only read non-fiction or John Grisham. Unless we write non-fiction or are John Grisham we don’t want to know.
  • Never tell us you haven’t read our books even if you genuinely intend to. Such information will only cause us pain as we try to figure out what it is about our books that has not lured you into reading them. Is it the covers? The titles? Our name? Is it because our ranking on Amazon is too low? Our not having won the Pulitzer? Why?
  • Don’t tell us you have read our books and then say nothing. We’ll assume you hated them and us.
  • Don’t tell us you hate our books. Most authors were born with a rare condition that makes our skin much thinner than that of a normal human being. Any hint of disapproval or criticism causes us to lose even more layers.
  • Don’t be too embarrassed to praise us. Praise from our readers is the one bright moment in our otherwise blighted lives. (You try existing with hardly any skin!). Writers live in dark squalorous warrens where editors visit from time to time for the sole purpose of beating us and telling us what is wrong with our books. For a brief moment praise makes us forget these horrors.
  • Thirty minutes is considered an adequate amount of time to spend praising an author’s work. Though an hour is better. And a day or more is best of all.
  • While it is not necessary to tug your forelock, bow or curtsy, it is very much appreciated.

Feel free to share any further advice on how best to treat us poor benighted skinless authors. But not if you are an editor. Or a bookseller or agent or publicist . . .

  1. A “remainder” is the official term for a group of authors. []


  1. dylan on #

    You must give them 50% of the money you used to buy the book so they write another novel..that’d be cool…Dylan

  2. cherie priest on #

    If you’d like to be friendly but not creepy or weird, you might offer to buy an author a drink. But you should keep such gestures limited to the bar of the hotel at the convention where you met the author. Under other circumstances, this offer might be misinterpreted.

    However, please don’t bring authors homemade drinks in a canteen, baked goods, or anything else that we can’t readily identify as “not containing razor blades or roofies.” Especially not at a con. Especially not if you’re dressed as a storm trooper and are not, yourself, readily identifiable.

    It scares us.

  3. Maureen johnson on #

    here’s one: during a Q&A, ask a question. try not to go on a rant about something that starts off having something remotely to do with the book, then veer off into a discussion of politics, or life, or the thing that lives under your bed, or a list of the medications you are on.

    For example, do not say things like: “Speaking of your book [insert title here], how do you feel it relates to Islam and the world stage, or, to put it another way, in the sense that we are literate, and literacy in a democracy is inherent to the actual causal value that is foremost and certainly part of reading, or, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “to read is to think in a political sense of thinking, especially if one reads in the nude, as I do” . . . ”

    . . . then come out of this about ten minutes later not having actually asked anything, but merely raised the pitch of your voice? like you are asking a question? and then stare an intense, unblinking stare while slowly grinding your jaw.

    this will make the author press the Silent alarm in the locket around her neck. all authors have one of these.

  4. Katie on #

    How about how to talk to authors when you are an author yourself? How do you let them know you are an author, or do you? What if the kinds of books are very different? What if you are feeling all too fanish and worry about that? What if you are shy? What if you can tell you said the wrong thing?

    Recently I was at an author signing event, asked a question about the book, which was just being sold and which I’d only read the first few pages. I was guessing what about the book I would like, and asked a question based on that, but turned out to have guessed wrong! The author thought I was a jerk. Maybe I was!

    When I went to have the book signed, he was not exactly warm and friendly. I felt warm and friendly, what should I have done?

  5. Little Willow on #

    Don’t tell an author that you bought the book on a bargain or remainder table.

    Don’t tell an author every single thing that you would have done if you had written the book (especially if it is a complete rewrite).

    Don’t “correct” an author. (If it is regarding a work of fiction, that is. If it is a non-fiction book that says, say, France won World War II by making french fries for monkeys, that WOULD be wrong.)

  6. Jenny Davidson on #

    you know, it’s funny: i am an avid reader, and very often (this is for a long time now) if i meet a novelist at some social event or whatever i go and get their novel (oh dear, from the library usually) immediately afterwards and read it, or one of them or whatever. and when i was first doing this i felt super-stalkery, i mean potentially that could seem very weird and creepy; only then i had the fortunate realization that no author i have ever met thinks it’s weird that you went and read their book and told them you liked it the next time you saw them!

  7. Lewis on #

    Justine, I know that authors need praise but spending more than 15 minutes with an author would just cause the author and the reader a lot of discomfort. Perhaps a nice letter from the reader would be more appropriate. And what can a reader say if he/she got the book from the library? Wouldn’t that be an implied criticism even if the reader loved the book? – i.e. I read it, loved it, but I ain’t going to buy it. And what’s wrong with loving a book that was unfortunately remaindered. The author may be embarrassed but the reader did like it.

  8. jonathan on #

    you could not mention to the author how cheaply you bought the author’s book. or possibly skip mentioning that you saw a HUGE pile on a remainder pile, and how neat that was. authors know these things instinctively, but prefer not be reminded. what else? don’t sympathise with an author about the terrible review of their book you just saw. think: the author may not have seen the review, and is therefore happier. knowing will only add a cold sense of dread to the rest of your meeting. what else, the author will be thinking, can this delightful person add to my day?

  9. Chris McLaren on #

    I thought we were supposed to give them single malts–preferrably Islay.

    That’s what I get for listening to Brust, I guess.

  10. Gillian on #

    Don’t look too astonished when you admit to an author you enjoyed their book. This it really important because it means the author doesn’t have to stop to work out just how bad you thought the book was going to be.

  11. Robin Brande on #

    “this will make the author press the silent alarm in the locket around her neck. all authors have one of these.”

    Maureen, you made me laugh out loud.

  12. Penni on #

    Ah but, as much as I crave praise, I find being praised immensely socially awkward and I never know where to look. This is why I never meet anyone.

    Never ever say to an author: ‘Are you someone I should know?’ unless you want to spark a simultaneous crisis of confidence and identity crisis all at once. It’s not pretty. Even when you’re as generally lavish as I.

  13. Justine on #

    So, Maureen, what exactly happens when you press that alarm? And how come I don’t have such a locket? *Pout*. Sorry for your trauma. I hate such questions. Gah!

    Penni: Clearly this is the praiser’s fault. They should be able to praise us while not embarrassing us. Perhaps instead of telling us they should simply hand over 35 page essays on the glories of us and then retreat a respectful distance from which they may tug their forlocks. Whatcha reckon?

  14. Penni on #

    Yes, that might be acceptable.

    I should also add I am terrible at meeting authors. When I met a certain iconic Australian’s children author I said ‘You don’t look at all like I imagined you!’ at which she was extremely offended, I think she thought I was saying there was something wrong with the way she looked which there wasn’t. And then I just babbled and it was like one of those traffic accidents that happen in slow motion, except my mouth was a four-wheel drive that failed to give way and my dignity was the mini minor whose responses were too slow.

    Please pardon the extended metaphor. When you meet an author you should permit them to speak in extended metaphors, because that’s what they teach you at Writer bootcamp, just before they issue you with the alarm.

  15. shelly rae on #

    Sorry Justine, my days of writing 35 page essays are over–how about I sum up with a quick, “I adore you” in a not too gushy tone? I also regret lack of said forlock. Will hand wringing do?
    One wants to have the best possible form. Your adoring fan (thanks for signing me books, mate!),

  16. Justine on #

    Penni: Without our extended metaphors we are nothing . . .

    Shelly Rae: I blush!

  17. Carbonel on #

    Ah yes, avoiding the babbling on-and-on-and-ond before one’s heroes. That’d be a nice trick: I want advice on that one.

    I’m guessing that making obscure remarks about the authors shoes rather than say, just telling her how much you lurrrrrrrrrrrrrved Magic Or Madness and Magic Lessons and Just! Can’t! Wait! for the next one is Right Out.


  18. Rebecca on #

    omg i am so glad you posted this because i am going to meet a real live author for the first time ever in exactly one week and i am so nervous already it’s insane. she sounds like she’s the nicest person ever, yet i’m still terrified i’m going to make a fool of myself. i admire her quite a bit, but i don’t want to sound fake by going on too much. also, i can’t think of what sort of questions to be asked. and should i mention anything about the fact that i like writing too? or does that just sound like i’m trying to get someone to get me on the “inside” so to speak? coincidentally it also happens to be my 20th birthday, and why that would ever come up, i have no earthly idea, but if it did, would it be weird to mention that? is it weird to bring in every book the author has ever written and ask for all of them to be signed? b/c i imagine that would just be annoying, if the author’s published, say, 40 books or something. oh, and said author is going to be at another signing the next day, so would it be considered weird/stalkerish/annoying if i showed up at that one too? how about asking to take a picture with the author? how long is too long to talk to the author, especially if there is a long line of people waiting in line behind me? and if i freeze up and the first thing i can think of to say is “so, i was wondering why you named your dogs pookie and habana” (this actually happened when i met an actress) or some equally mortifying phrase, how can i repair the blunder? oh crap crap crap crap….

  19. Mar on #

    Don’t tell them about a brilliant idea you have that you think they should write. Because we have PLENTY of ideas of our own. It’s the butt in chair part that’s the hard part.

    And although well-meaning, don’t ask them if they’re now making the same amount of money as J.K. Rowling. Guaranteed we’re not.

  20. Mary Pearson on #

    When I tell you I write “young adult fiction” don’t look at me blankly and then ask, “oh, like Nancy Drew?”

    The knot on my forehead (from banging my head against the wall) will grow to epic proportions (which is not good for thin skin as you know) if I hear that response one more time.

  21. Rebecca on #

    it really bugs me how few people still don’t seem to know what the term “ya fiction” means. a lot of them, when i tell them about my taste in books, just kind of look at me like, “duh….what?” you’d think, what w/ jk rowling and all, that they’d have figured out that, yes, it is and actually genre and *gasp* even has its own section in most bookstores. *grumble grumble*

  22. Alexander on #

    Hilarious. So true. Here’s one: Please never tell us you can’t make our readings, because, unless we’re sleeping with you or you fed us as children, we’d never notice. And then we have to think less of you when before, we wouldn’t think of you.

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