Dancing for Dinner: Fame, Publishing, and Breakout Books

Fame is a funny thing, because it used to come with a certain dollar amount. Or, that’s what I’d always assumed, anyway. By the time you became generally known via one of the four publishers, or three TV channels, or big record labels, there was an assumption that you were making a living wage, at the very least. With the proliferation of niche audiences now, though, you can become famous to a great number of people long before generating the income you probably need to protect yourself from that fame. This piece on how most Youtube “stars” have to struggle to make ends meet in retail and food service jobs while simultaneously causing a ruckus for being famous is one of the best summaries of this weird 21st century dissonance.

In my own life, I find I have to remind people often that I have a day job. I actually had a client email me after a conference call one time and ask, “Are you THE Kameron Hurley?” and I had to admit that I was. I had to have a conversation with my boss about online harassment, and how the release of my upcoming essay collection, The Geek Feminist Revolution, might create some pushback at my job, and how we should handle that should it happen. The whiplash you get in going to an event where people literally scream with happiness when you walk into a room and back to private life where you’re just another cog is really weird (to be truthful, I greatly enjoy my anonymity in Ohio, and don’t want it another way, but the dissonance is weird).

Yet this balancing act between public and private life, or public personae and private day job, is something that many thousands of other writers and artists struggle with every day. I was reading that Joe Abercrombie kept his day job for a lot longer than you might have thought (and even then, picked up freelancing jobs until a few years ago), and Gene Wolfe has had a day job his whole career. Most of us have to do this. It’s just… increasingly awkward to find that the fame part comes so much faster than the money part (if the money comes at all). There’s this strange assumption that by being an artist, you have traded away your private life in exchange for money. But what about those of us who never have the money to keep ourselves safe from the fame? I’m reminded of the Charlaine Harris interview where fans showed up at her house one day, and she realized she needed to move somewhere even more remote just to protect herself. Because yeah, sure, those particular fans weren’t a problem, but when you get the number of threats that authors get just for writing a book, well, yanno… you want to stay isolated in your down time (the negative fan reaction to her final Sookie novel actually made her consider getting a body guard for the first time).

I was at the Nebula Conference last weekend, and also did a signing for The Geek Feminist Revolution at Book Expo America (BEA)and it was… weird. At the BEA signing, I expected maybe four people to show up. My longest line ever was at Gencon last year, which was maybe twelve or fourteen people, with another half dozen trickling in later. But at BEA folks started lining up forty-five minutes before the signing, and we were out of books in about forty minutes. That signing was particularly crazy because most folks who came up after were folks who’d seen others with the book, and were so excited by the title that they were like, “THAT IS ME! I AM A GEEK FEMINIST I MUST HAVE THIS BOOK!” The young women managing the lines for BEA even came up once the line had cleared, and asked for copies, all of them totally gleeful to find a book that so perfectly described them. It was the best real-time example of word of mouth that I’ve ever seen.

That experience also put me on notice, because though much of that book exists online in some form, it still has a fairly narrow audience. Launching the full book as a collection of essays always had the potential of breaking out to a bigger audience, and though it’s yet to be seen if that happens, that signing made me think that the possibility was very real that it could either perform pretty well, or scarily well. And yes, sure, we all want that! Big books! Sell lots! But this is a collection of essays. It’s more “me” than even a novel, and though it’s certainly a very curated version of my life containing only those topics I’ve carefully chosen to write about over the years, it’s still putting your life and your choices on offer to a larger audience, and then you have to sit back and watch them savage you, and make assumptions about you, in a way that’s far easier to take personally than in fiction. I was reading a (very positive!) review last night that made a flippant remark about something in my life and I was like, “Oh wow, I need to stop reading all reviews for this book now.”

Living publicly, in any capacity, is an act of bravery. This is especially true if you’re from a marginalized group. I often wonder how I would have handled where I am now if I hadn’t had to do the long slog, and you know what? I’m in a much better place, emotionally, to handle what comes at me now than I was when I was 25 or 26. Near-death gave me a lot of perspective, and age gives me the ability to give no fucks.

Writing is a private act, but publishing is a public one.

People ask me how I persist in the face of public living, and over a decade of online BS. But as I said, there is a dissonance there. You aren’t actually living publicly. Here in Ohio I’m pretty under the radar, so far. I can still go to the beer lounge without anybody knowing who the hell I am. It’s only when I’m actually doing public events that I have to present a public face. But I know that could change at any time, and that I may not have the money to insulate me from that. Yeah, you prepare for it. You get ready. You steel yourself, like you’re getting ready for battle. Because I know there’s a potential for a great battle around this book. And yeah, sure, it could tank! Nothing could happen! We could sell 10 copies! (OK, probably not 10, I don’t know what pre-orders are, but suspect they are larger than 10). But I’m ready for it, the same way I was ready when I wrote that Atlantic article. Get your mute button ready. Prepare your talking points.

Writing is a strange profession because the writing itself is done in absolute seclusion. I get my best writing done when I’m holed up in a cabin in the woods somewhere. But then you have to take it to market, and you must engage a totally different skill. You must batten down the hatches. You must play the part of a Famous Writer. And if you play a role long enough, you know, eventually you start to live it.

I don’t know that public living is fair, but nothing in life is fair. Out here you do what you need to do to survive, and the last few years I’ve come to realize that there is a certain amount of face time that goes into this game. It’s not all words on the page. It’s not all battles on social media. You have to get up to the podium. Book the bookstore event. Drive to a lit fest in Chicago. Say yes to the library. Then you need to get back to writing, and strategizing, and leveling up the skills that actually got you into this profession in the first place.

Artists have always had to sing for their supper. I had just hoped to do less singing in person. That’s why I chose writing over acting. Yet here I am, booking stuff on video and doing in-person events. So much for that.

I know there have been a lot of people following this blog since 2004, back when I’d only published a few short stories and my greatest success was in going to the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop four years before. It was 7 more years until my first novel, God’s War, came out, which was 11 years after Clarion. Last year – 15 years after Clarion – was the first time I’ve made what I would consider a living wage writing. When people ask why I keep the day job, I remind them that that bare living wage will be much less this year, and much less next unless I sell something new or a book takes off. Day jobs give us the stability that the market won’t. This is a long game.

I’m 36 now, and it has been 21 years since I sent out my first short story.

Long game, folks. Long game. Will there be a breakout book? Maybe. Will there be more long slog ahead? Always.

If you are going to play this game, remember that there is a long road ahead. Remember that it’s not always a straight path. Remember that those with the aura of fame probably still have day jobs. Remember that they are still people. Remember that they are dancing for their dinner, just like the rest of us. Remember the slog.

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