As part of the 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, acclaimed author Courtney Maum shared everything you’ve ever wanted to know about publishing but were too afraid to ask, in conversation with Sean Murphy. Her funny, candid guide, Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book, has over 150 contributors from all walks of the industry, including international bestselling authors Anthony Doerr, Roxane Gay, Garth Greenwell, Lisa Ko, R. O. Kwon, Rebecca Makkai, and Ottessa Moshfegh, alongside cult favorites Sarah Gerard, Melissa Febos, Mitchell S. Jackson, and Mira Jacob. Agents, film scouts, film producers, translators, disability and minority activists, and power agents and editors also weigh in, offering advice and sharing intimate anecdotes about even the most taboo topics in the industry.
This event was presented as part of the 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book’s Virginia Writing & Publishing series, hosted by these writing centers and organizations across Virginia: 1455 Literary Arts, James River Writers, The Muse, Randolph College MFA, Watershed Lit Center for Literary Engagement and Publishing Practice, and WriterHouse.
We invite your feedback on events you’ve viewed, using this brief survey.
Watch the video of this event and read the transcript below:
“Before and After the Book Deal is full of writing and publishing wisdom you either should—make that must—know as you plot your authorial future (good luck to you!) or wish you’d known before you got into this mess in the first place (well, better late than never), and Courtney Maum is an ideal guide for the whole loopy adventure: sympathetic, just cynical enough, and uproariously funny.” —Benjamin Dreyer, author of Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style
“This book is invaluable for the serious writer who is dedicated to publication, the rare title that’s both a reference manual and a page–turner . . . A logical next step for budding writers who have consumed Stephen King’s On Writing (2000), Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (1995), and Chuck Wendig’s Damn Fine Story (2017).” —Booklist, starred review
“Invaluable to new writers seeking advice and support in navigating their first publication.” ―Publishers Weekly
Thanks to 1455 Literary Arts for hosting this event.
SEAN MURPHY: Hey, everybody. Good afternoon. Welcome to Before and After the Book Deal, a Conversation with Courtney Maum. This is a program in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, which is a program of Virginia Humanities. I’m Sean Murphy. I’m the founding director of 1455. We are a nonprofit arts organization that operates out of Virginia. But certainly in the last year we’ve increasingly gone virtual and global, and our mission is really simply to celebrate storytellers and promote creativity and build community. You can check us out at 1455litarts.org. I appreciate being here. I appreciate you joining us.
If you haven’t read today’s book, we hope you will. For details about how to buy this book from our booksellers for this event, please visit vabook.org, where you can also explore the full schedule of events, watch past events which have been recorded, and while you’re there, please consider making a donation to support the Festival’s ongoing work, which is outstanding, at vabook.org/give.
This program right now is one of a series of six devoted to Virginia writing and publishing, presented by writing centers and organizations throughout Virginia. In addition to 1455, other hosts this weekend are James River Writers, The Muse, Randolph College MFA Program, Watershed Lit, and WriterHouse. The full series of events can be found at vabook.org.
This event has optional closed captioning, which you can turn on and customize at any time during the event by using the closed captions tab at the bottom of your window. Without further ado, I am absolutely delighted to introduce our featured author today, Courtney Maum.
Courtney is the author of Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting—and most importantly—Surviving Your First Book. She’s also the author of the novels Costalegre, Touch, and the perfectly titled I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You. You can sign up for her writing tips newsletter at courtneymaum.com. And, I will put that in the comments section later so you can go check her out online. Courtney, welcome.
COURTNEY MAUM: Thank you so much. Thank you, Sean, for that wonderful introduction. Hello, everyone. Thank you for joining us, and thank you Virginia Festival of the Book and all the other amazing writing centers for welcoming not just myself but so many of my colleagues today. I’m really excited to be here.
SEAN MURPHY: Well, I’m excited. I mean, I’m like the guy in the commercial. Not only am I a fan and a customer, but I feel like I know a little bit about the industry. And I can say to anyone watching, even if you think you know a lot about the industry, this book covers everything. If you don’t know a lot about the industry, this is an ideal entrée because it covers practically everything. So I’ve been telling everyone about this, so I’ve been dying to talk to you. So I feel very honored to have the opportunity to pick your brain a little bit.
COURTNEY MAUM: Thank you. It’s a nice thing. So often, especially with fiction, some of my novels—sometimes you have the impression the moderator didn’t like your book very much. So it’s nice to not have that feeling right now. Thank you.
SEAN MURPHY: Well, and that’s probably the best way to tee this off, right? I think your challenge in writing a book like this was manifold in the sense of I’m sure once you got started or when you were outlining it—once you start peeling back the onion of the industry, which has changed so much in so many ways—you want to cover everything. And I salute you for somehow seemingly doing it. And one of the ways you do it is it’s exhaustively researched. So full props for—and it’s not short. What is this? It’s almost 350 pages. So it’s densely packed with information. But I think the most beautiful thing that you did is that you talked to so many writers and got so much direct feedback from individuals’ experiences, and certain themes emerge.
The first two questions I think are obvious: Why were you the person to write this book, and how did this come to be? Then, what’s something that you learned about the industry that you didn’t know going into it?
COURTNEY MAUM: Gosh, so many things. To answer your first question, I actually think that there’s quite a few other writers that could’ve written this book. Rebecca Makkai comes to mind. She’s so candid and funny. Roxane Gay. I simply think I’m just the right amount of in between unsuccessful and successful. Really. I’m not making fun of myself. Because who wants to read this book from someone who’s won the Pulitzer Prize? Because then you just feel like, how can I catch up to that person? I’m not disparaging Rebecca and Roxane at all.
But I think especially that I’ve had two books with—well, the artist formerly known as the “big five,” which I guess is “big four” now. But in my heart, they’ll always be the “big five.” I’ve had two books with commercial big publishers and about to have a third book with the indies. I’ve self-published. I’ve published a chat book. I don’t have an MFA. So there’s a lot of, kind of, outsider stuff that I’m intimately intimate with. What a good writer I am—intimately intimate. No, that I’ve had intimate experience with that I think positions me to—listen, like, I’m going to give this away. Like, I’m for the underdogs. I love underdogs. I love underdog stories. And I don’t know. I’m a pretty dogged person.
Some important people in my life, notably my agent, didn’t want me to write this book. In the beginning, I was really discouraged from writing it, actually. They thought that there’d be blowback. They thought that people would say, “Who does she think she is writing this book?” But I think they hadn’t quite understood that it wasn’t going to be like my publishing memoir as a white woman, coming from a place of privilege. It’s not my memoir. I’ve always described it to people as I’m sort of a real estate agent, leading you through the different rooms of success, horror—all the different things that could happen. In every room, there’s amazing publishing professionals serving you an hors d’oeuvre or something, so.
But I think—I don’t know, it helps that I had journalism experience, and I really do like interviewing people. Also, I had to work so hard to get where I am because I didn’t have an MFA and, because I came from outside of academia, I just knew a lot of people that I could reach out to. Also, for better or for worse, I’ve often been someone at like the literary parties where people know they can come to and just b**** about things and be really candid. So people were really honest with me. Of course, everyone got to review what they had said, but I had good conversations with people.
Then, let’s see if I can remember your second question. What have I learned? Okay, so many things. But something that springs to mind right away that just blew my mind that I didn’t notice yet—I was actually in the copyediting process of this book with my agent, Julie Buntin, who’s an amazing author in her own right. And she was like you know that you’ve left out—oh my god, what are they even called? I’m going to forget what they’re called. It’ll come to me. She was like, “You’ve left out this section about how publishers pay bookstores to have events.” And I was like, “What the heck?”—I can’t remember what it’s called. It’s in the book.
I was like, “Come again?”
And she’s like, “Well, that’s why authors can’t go willy-nilly organizing their own events.” Because not every single bookstore but certainly a lot of the really popular ones that can have any touring author they want; it’s a pay-to-play thing. And I had this reel of a montage of horror in my mind, remembering all my gung-ho emails with my first and second book. Like I have a friend here. Why don’t we do this, and then I’ll go there, and then I’ll go this. And they were too polite to say, “Slow your roll. You’re going to have to pay for this.” So that was—I’m embarrassed I can’t remember. In the middle of our conversation, I’ll shout it out.
SEAN MURPHY: Sure. And I know what you’re talking about. I can’t—but I know exactly what you’re talking about.
COURTNEY MAUM: And again, it’s not for people on the call today, it’s not every single place. But it is a thing. It’s a pretty well-known fact that Barnes & Noble—that your publisher has to pay to get you on the new release table. The pay-to-play stuff was very shocking to my naïve, art-first self for sure.
SEAN MURPHY: Well, Courtney, I think one of the things—if someone were to ask me. I’ve already covered exhaustively researched, impeccably sourced. But I think the key word, to me anyway, is generous. It’s a very generous book. You talk about being a fan of the underdog. That certainly comes through. I think what I found really refreshing about this and what readers will discover is that you really are—you’re putting it out there to benefit whomever might be reading. And I think it’s very clear that your background—which isn’t to say—I think we’ve all read books by novelists or nonfiction writers covering similar topics. But you have this holistic approach, where at all times you’re kind of sensitive to: if you’re a novelist you might want to think about this, or if you’re a poet these are some of the rules that don’t or do apply, etcetera. That is definitely conveyed, and I think that adds to the import that virtually any writer—a freelancer, a brand-new writer, etcetera—is going to find a lot of nuggets. And it’s not just what they will discover, but what they’ll be able to avoid doing themselves, because they won’t have to make similar mistakes.
COURTNEY MAUM: That was very important to me. Because I’m someone—I’ve worn so many hats. I continue, actually, to wear so many hats in my life and have used writing to make money in so many different ways. There’s no such thing today as just a novel writer or just a poet. Even the most successful people, they’re running webinars, they’re Instagram stars—everyone is doing more than one thing. And I wanted to be conscious of that. Not just, okay, the person reading this paragraph could be a poet or a screenwriter. But they also might be put into a situation at some point where they’re asked to be a screenwriter when they’re a poet. I think of someone like Amelia Gray or Merritt Tierce. I think after their first books, they were really writers’ writers and then pivoted to screenwriting. There’s a lot of pivoting. So I never think that any kind of artist should, or must, identify as just one thing.
SEAN MURPHY: Yeah. In fact, I think a companion piece that is covered in the book that I read, a subsequent article you wrote, “Platform Must Be a Passion,” I think that was maybe the key takeaway. I really think that crystallizes, that if someone were to say, “How do you navigate the industry?” then, I think it’s fair to say that no matter who you are, few people at this point in 2021 would deny things have changed. And you just alluded to who can afford, literally and figuratively, to just be a novelist, poet, professor. Everyone has to wear a lot of hats just to compete in a crowded space. But I think what you point out when—
COURTNEY MAUM: I’m sorry. One second. There’s a huge fox in my yard. One second.
SEAN MURPHY: We were just talking before we came on air, that with Zoom, you never know what’s going to happen. So in case there is any doubt that this is a live event, this is a live event.
COURTNEY MAUM: I’ve got this beautiful cat I love very much, and my husband is on it. But, that was a big fox!
SEAN MURPHY: I’m glad you saw it. We covered for you.
COURTNEY MAUM: Thank you.
SEAN MURPHY: Well, what I was saying is this notion that I think that on one hand, it’s a given that this is a generous book. But you also really kind of—you demystify some of the illusions or the kind of aspirations that there really aren’t any shortcuts. It’s a slow, hard path. But I think what you do in this piece I mentioned, and throughout the book, is that you kind of subtly underscore that if you’re not really enjoying the writing or the things you’re going to have to do to be a remotely successful author, you should really question your choices. Because if you’re not passionate about it—
COURTNEY MAUM: This is something that comes up all the time because I’ve started book coaching. And joy and finding pleasure in what you do—there’s different gradations of that. Because I think one would be hard pressed to argue that it’s fun to revise or it’s fun to rewrite a draft for the seventeenth time or whatever. But that drudgery is so necessary. And if you don’t find some kind of beauty or at least you can see the beauty that’s coming in the end, it’s going to be a very, very difficult career for people.
I talk to a lot of people who wonder if they can’t just throw money at the problem and skip over the drudgery and the rewriting and the revision and the mess. And the answer that I usually give is—are you a celebrity? Then, no. Really, you have to love the worst parts of it. And there’s a lot of discomfort. I mean, I have—what?—my fifth book coming out. I have a memoir coming out. And, I must easily be on like the eighteenth draft. And that’s not like light revisions. These are complete overhauls. It started as a novel. You’d think that—I mean, I publish pretty frequently, so probably people from afar think she’s figured out the formula. She knows how to write a book. No, my process looks exactly the same. You might not see it, but it’s: writing it badly, writing it worse, writing it badly. And then, over and over until I can, by the fifth or sixth draft of whatever it is, honestly—short story, novel, potential novel—it’s only till the fifth or sixth draft that I even see what the story is potentially about. And then it really takes a lot more drafts. It’s not a clean process. I don’t know anyone that it’s a clean, beautiful process. It’s a very filthy craft, actually.
SEAN MURPHY: Yeah. I’ve always found it both encouraging and incredibly intimidating when you listen to very established authors with decades of experience talk about the horror of a new project. To me, it’s intimidating and horrifying in the sense of, gosh, this doesn’t really get any easier. But it’s also encouraging because it’s a reminder that it doesn’t get any easier. You’re not alone. No one’s figured out the magic formula, and it can be different—
COURTNEY MAUM: Yeah, it’s a funny thing, actually. Because it gets easier, in that you publish a book, maybe a second book, and you start to have contacts. Maybe you can actually write to someone at The New York Times directly and pitch something. You get invited to more festivals. You get well known. You might even have fans who are going to buy your book. In terms of access to things, it gets easier. But it’s sort of funny because the rest just doesn’t follow. The creative process is not easier, especially if you want to try to challenge yourself a little bit and switch something up. Try a new genre or write—you know, if you’ve been doing first person, try something with multiple characters. Do a short story collection instead of a novel or vice versa. You want to write a collection of essays. I found writing a memoir—well, I’m still writing it—but, gosh, is it hard. It made me long for fiction. No, it’s hard. But there’s beauty in that “hard.” It’s like doing sit-ups or something. I don’t do sit-ups anymore because now I write. I don’t need to do sit-ups. It feels the same. You know, the pain—no pain, no gain, whatever. That’s what writing feels like, really.
SEAN MURPHY: For sure. I think most writers that are at a certain level of experience can appreciate and have some insight into the craft discussion. I think one of the real services of this book is that it really talks about what happens once the project is done. It’s, I think, dispiriting for some folks, especially in an increasingly complicated world, that your work is just beginning. I know I’m dating myself, but I’m old enough to remember reading about the industry where the notion was—however illusory—you sit down and write the book, and everything else flows. And today you really could write a masterpiece, and if you’re not willing to hustle, it is not going to find an audience.
COURTNEY MAUM: The hustle—I want to have a two-part answer to this. The first is it’s a very odd industry. Hopefully this is changing. But there’s not many jobs out there where your employer is like, okay, we’re entering into this partnership, and this big thing is going to happen for you in a year and a half, and it’s the publication of your book. But we’re not going to tell you anything that’s happening up until then. We’ll just sort of spring it on you, and you just sort of sit around and worry until it comes.
So part of my hope with this book was to establish something of a timeline, so that people can see what in the world they’re supposed to be doing for the year leading up to their launch. Because, again, I hope this is changing and that publishers are thinking to do this—to make changes. And, I just want to walk them through it and say from this period to this period on the calendar, you’ll be in copy edits. This is what copy edits look like. And then we’ll start having marketing discussions, and this is what this looks like. And this is your reaching out for a blurb moment. I tried to put that in there because people get the book deal, and then they realize they have absolutely no idea what’s coming next because our education system in terms of creative writing has—I think it’s changing—but has heretofore directed people toward the book deal and then nothing. Kind of like marriage. American culture is very big on getting the ring, getting engaged, then marriage. And then there’s maybe a house and a kid, but nobody talks about—you know, when you have a bachelor party or a bachelorette party, if one did that, it’s pretty rare that they sit you down and say, “Marriage is hard. Here are the things that are hard about it.” No, you just do shots on a table.
And the book deal thing is like that. You work so hard. You try to get an agent. You get an agent. Shots on the table. You revise the thing. It sells. You get a book deal. Shots on the table. And then you sign the damn thing, and you know what the first thing that happens actually is, you get the editorial letter, which is when this editor who three weeks earlier told you that your book was amazing—they couldn’t wait to publish it—sends you a three-page thing about everything that’s wrong with it. And I think that’s the big wake-up call when all of a sudden people are like, “I’ve got to do developmental edits? I’m sorry. I got a book deal. I thought my book was being published.” So there’s so much unknown. They really don’t tell you how you are expected to spend your time.
And then the hustle. For people listening, I wrote something for Medium about platform, and I think I’m going to continue speaking on this subject because it’s something—I just can’t get my mind off it. A lot of the writers who come to me for coaching, it’s because they had a proposal ready to go. Some of them even got quite close with big publishers. And then they were just told—especially in nonfiction—you know, you don’t have “the platform.” What does that even mean? For some editors, it was because you don’t have enough Twitter followers. For many, it was that you don’t have enough newsletter subscribers. And I literally cannot stop thinking about this platform thing because I’m starting to think it only serves the publishers. What do we get out of growing our newsletters or starting a newsletter and being forced to grow, buy, beg, borrow, steal followers? What is that doing for us? Normally it’s just ending up in more time spent online, a lot more anxiety and competition and FOMO (fear of missing out) and DMs (direct messages) and just more time spent away from our projects. It’s not a request that nourishes our art, and we’re not being paid for it. Because usually this is requested of people who do not even have a book deal. So I’m talking to people who, for whatever reason, social media is not their bag, and they are being told that they can never realize their dream of having a book if they don’t get over themselves and get on Twitter. And what’s in it for them to do that? I really do start to think, well s***, self-publish. Don’t do it. What if we start saying no?
I mean, it’s not really fair to say this because I have the privilege of having books out. But I do start wondering if there’s people brave enough to start doing this and just say, “Like, you know what? No. I’m going to take my book elsewhere.” Until we start saying no and pushing back against this, they’re just going to keep demanding more of us.
And I say this with love in my heart because I had really, really good experiences with all of my publishers. I really did. But honestly, especially if you’re with the big guys now, you are absolutely expected to be a social media manager, the head of your own PR agency, a graphic designer, an events organizer, a writer, good on Twitter, and also a book reviewer, blurb—you know, all these things. And none of those—you’re not getting paid for any of it.
SEAN MURPHY: And you’re probably spending money to do some of that stuff.
COURTNEY MAUM: You’re certainly spending time. And then so many of us are then assailed by follow-up comments to our newsletters. They’re coming in through Twitter. They’re coming in through TikTok. And all of a sudden, you need a team to just manage your spam. All of that—even if you enjoy it, by the way—and I actually enjoy it. I don’t have a huge amount of followers, but I love doing my newsletter. But I have also refused to—I wrote about this at that Medium post. I had a meeting with some bigwig that wanted to make me a brand or something. And they were like, “We can’t really start working together until you have twenty thousand newsletter subscribers.” And I had just started my newsletter, and I had 1,500, which I thought was pretty good, you know?
SEAN MURPHY: Yeah, right?
COURTNEY MAUM: And I was like twenty thousand. And he’s like, “Our most successful people have forty thousand.” And I was, like, gross. I don’t want forty thousand people reading my newsletter. That’s gross. I don’t want that many people reading my dinky things about soap and my husband. No, thank you. How do you even get—I looked at him and I was like—I calculated it in my head. I was like I would probably have to dedicate myself for six, seven months to doing nothing but trying to find followers. And for the amount of money he was proposing for me for that opportunity, I was like I could write a novel in the same amount of time and get more, so no thanks.
SEAN MURPHY: I think what we’re really kind of getting into here—and I think, again, where your book does such a service—and I’m kind of thinking this. I’m articulating this in real time. It’s clicking for me the difference or the differences between a writer, which I do think used to be this—however naïve and illusory it was thirty years ago—but a writer. And then what you’re describing throughout this book is the writer’s life, which are very different concepts. And you’ve already been articulating this. But talking about how you’re already in an uphill battle. You put it perfectly earlier. You’re like, even if you’re good/lucky enough to get the book published, that’s a huge deal. But then the work is just beginning. And whether it is all the things you just talked about—that’s why I keep coming back to the whole platform must be a passion.
COURTNEY MAUM: Right, right. Because there is a way to enjoy it, but not if you take for granted or take verbatim what the gatekeepers are saying to you. That platform is this. This is what platform is, and you either do this, or you’re screwed. Platform can be—in the article I wrote, I wrote about a friend who’s really involved in the knitting community. And a lot of his audience comes from the knitting community. Or, I have friends who they’re writers, but their newsletters are all about painting.
Again, it’s naïve to say that you don’t need the leverage of these extra things. At this point, unless you’re some wunderkind, you do need that leverage. I’d be remiss to say that you don’t need some kind of presence in the digital world. But it shouldn’t be something that makes you miserable. It really shouldn’t. No one will win, and your art will suffer.
I think that to the extent that we have to compromise, and it can’t always be about our art, and it can’t always be about our writing—and sometimes we do need to show up on Twitter or we do need to do the guest blog posts or whatever it is—that ratio of time spent doing those things has to be a ratio that’s not taking away our soul. It’s just sort of like—sometimes it can be fun. Again, sometimes it can be really, really fun. And if it’s mostly fun and then sometimes just like, eh, annoying, I think that’s fine. That’s an okay ratio. But if it starts like you have this lingering feeling afterwards that you’re less than or you feel like a loser, then there’s something off with the ratio. You’re doing the platform thing wrong.
SEAN MURPHY: Yeah, and it gets to a kind of point of diminishing returns. You talk to a lot of people and really kind of discuss and explore speaking of the writer’s life—this notion of side gigs—which very few of us can afford to not involve. And you, in particular, mention a brief stint as a branding expert for farmers.
COURTNEY MAUM: Oh my gosh. I can’t believe you remembered that.
SEAN MURPHY: And everyone tried to pay you in milk, which I thought, not only is that hilarious, but there’s a parable somewhere.
COURTNEY MAUM: Yeah, we had—it was called Little Bully. When I moved out to the countryside, which was a while ago now—probably twelve or thirteen years ago. I have many decades’ experience as a copywriter. My husband is a filmmaker. And we teamed up with another couple, a graphic designer and a producer. We were like, we have everything it takes to start a branding company. And there’s all these fledgling farmers and stuff. We’ll help them with their logos on their raw milk and all this stuff. And client after client, they were like they’d give us a chicken. And then we had to divide it between the two couples. Or they’d give us raw milk. And my husband was like, “I don’t know about raw milk.”It was just—I mean, we did it for five or six months, and we were all like, we need to make money. So we had to break it off. I’ve had so many jobs.
SEAN MURPHY: Again, I think—and maybe talk about what surprised you. Because I don’t know if I would say I was surprised. I mean, we should talk about—this book is very real. I find it to be, like I said, very generous and very encouraging. But we shouldn’t gloss over—like I was struck by how little money there is. Let’s just put it out there. I figured I wasn’t that naïve, but just even when you talk to authors that have had some—I don’t know how you even—what normal people would define as significant success—very few people can quit the day job. In fact, very few people wouldn’t feel fortunate to have a day job. But this notion of even when you’re successful, the money is challenging.
COURTNEY MAUM: The problem with the money is that it’s never constant. So it comes in like you’re a squirrel, and all of a sudden there’s a hurricane of acorns. And if you’re not told by someone to put them away for a rainy day, you end up like a friend of mine who I profiled in the book, who he got like three hundred or three hundred and fifty thousand dollars in a book deal. A lot of money. And he thus assumed that that would be coming—like that was his yearly salary now or something. And it’s almost ten years later. He hasn’t written another book. He assumed that he’d be able to repeat the process, but he kind of forgot that in order to keep the money coming, you need to keep writing.
Also, I had a funny argument with my agent in the copy editing stage of this book. She’s like red-lined this area where I had written something like if you get such-and-such an amount for your first book deal, do not assume that the second is going to be higher. And she red-lined it and said like this is dumb, everyone knows this. And I said you think that, but no one has told us. All writers think it’s only up from here. All writers think that. They’re not told this number depends on how this book performs. Or the market could shift. For instance, a white man who was writing about white man problems, who maybe was doing really well, no one cares about that anymore. No offense, sorry. You’re not going to get the same amount of money. We’re in a business of trends.
So that’s the really hard thing, is that no one sits you down, talks to you about financial planning. And sometimes the money is so small with the independent presses or even first book deals at some of the commercial houses—the money is so small that you can’t really save anything. Of course, there’s some people that are making lots and lots of money. But if people look back at the #PublishingPaidMe hashtag thing that happened last spring—I can’t remember when it was. What is time? But when you saw people like Roxane Gay coming out and saying for her memoir, which was an instant New York Times bestseller, Bad Feminist, she got fifteen thousand dollars. Fifteen thousand dollars. Now she’s not getting that kind of book deal anymore. But of course, that was contrasted with white authors who were getting a million dollars, five hundred thousand dollars. The whole advance thing is an absolute mess. But it really—nobody—the MFA programs, people don’t talk about money. It’s such a taboo.
And thus, these poor writers, especially the ones who come out of the MFA program where they’ve read the New York Times profile about the ingénue who came straight out of Iowa with $500,000 for her short story collection. And you think I’m in an MFA program, so probably that’ll happen to me. And it’s not going to happen to you. And even if it does, it’s paid in four parts over multiple years. A lot goes to your agent. A lot goes to the IRS.
I mean, listen, I’ll take a half million-dollar book deal. Absolutely. Not going to complain. But it doesn’t last forever if you don’t know how to save it, invest it. And also, invest it in yourself so you can write another darn book. That’s why I have after the book deal—before and after the book deal. Because you really do need to understand how to do the whole thing again.
SEAN MURPHY: So the other thing I wanted to point out is—and I think people are getting this from talking to you—how real and refreshing you are. It’s very funny. There’s a lot of humor which is, I think, necessary in life but is necessary in this discussion. And we can talk a little bit about that. But before I forget, I want to mention—because you just touched on it a little—I think this is the first such book I’ve read that very seriously, without sarcasm, mentions very seriously exploring getting a financial planner. And also a therapist. It talks about mental health in a very real, genuine way. Like your mental health is something you need to be very cognizant of after your book goes to market because of all these vicissitudes of things that can and will happen. I wanted to give you a shout-out for mentioning that because I think it’s very—talk about a taboo or whatever word we want to use—but a topic that is not readily explored because we want to focus on the craft and the art.
COURTNEY MAUM: The thing is that a lot of my peers who are really struggling or have struggled with depression are the ones who had some splashy debut or a big prize. And sometimes in our industry it’s the success that can break you down. Of course I’m generalizing here, but some of my colleagues who are doing the best are ones who have some sort of other job or form of income. They’re teaching or maybe they’re copywriting. A lot of tutors. Hey, everyone listening. You want to make big bucks? Be an SAT tutor. Oh my god. I have a friend making $400 an hour.
SEAN MURPHY: Wow.
COURTNEY MAUM: Yeah. I know, we all hang up. But my colleagues who are really doing well are the ones who understand that their creative writing is not going to be bringing in the money, right? So they have not quit their day jobs, and they’re kind of doing the day jobs and putting up with the BS, and then they’ve found the pockets in their life where they can quietly work, and they’re working for their ideal reader. They’re not working to rehit the New York Times bestseller list or earn back a colossal book advance. Of course, this makes me sound like I’m not telling people to shoot for the stars. But I’ve been in a situation where I was given a very big book advance that I felt like, oh my god, I’ve got to earn it back. I’ve got to hustle, hustle. And I’ve been in a situation where I earned out a book advance a year before the book came out because the book advance was very small. And I will tell you money is important. We need money. But the way it feels to promote a book that you’ve already earned out on or you don’t have that far to go—
I remember going to book events and instead of looking around and being like, oh my god, I’m going to sell one book tonight. Or my friend, that jerk, it doesn’t look like they’re buying my book. Instead of feeling like that, I was just like, whatever. I’m just here to have fun, make friends, and talk to the bookstore owner. Because I’ve already earned out my rinky-dinky, you know.
Now, what that looked like was, I had to have a gazillion freelance jobs on the side to make up for it. It wasn’t easy, but my soul felt good. Mentally, I felt good. I felt in a solid place. So the mental health thing is no joke, and I think that people truly think that having a book come out will make them happy and will solve everything. And it is a wonderful thing, and it’s a big privilege, but it’s not easy. It’s really hard to have something that’s been so intimate and quiet become a public thing that can be picked apart with, even people you know, leaving nasty things online about it. Or you get a nasty review that everyone can see. It’s just such a public industry. And of course, social media makes it so hard. Because you look at other people’s timelines, and you see their book events. And they have a signing line around the door, and you’re like, oh god.
But the thing that I tried to get across in the book is that that’s all smoke and mirrors. You choose the angle. Like sometimes I think people even have people sign up. There’s some major, major smoke and mirrors in general in our industry. Most people are having some great days, and then a lot of days where they feel just not good and like an imposter and creatively blocked. And you just have to understand how roller coaster-y it’s going to be. But, yeah, therapy. If you get a good book advance, put a lot of it into therapy.
SEAN MURPHY: Well, I think the other thing that can help kind of inoculate a creative person from all these both predictable and unpredictable slings and arrows—and you talk a lot about this. 1455 has a lot of programming where we inevitably discuss the notion of being a good literary citizen.
COURTNEY MAUM: Yeah. Yes.
SEAN MURPHY: I could talk all day and often do. I would love for you to talk a little bit about, you know, for those that are like, “What? A literary citizen?” How do you define it?
COURTNEY MAUM: I’m so glad you brought that up. Again, I do sort of— in the outside work I do, sometimes I work with people as a book coach on a long project and sometimes just speak to people for an hour. And a lot of the people who I just speak to for an hour were like myself. They’re not in the MFA program. They kind of come out of nowhere, and they’ve written a book. Now they want to know what to do with the book. And I say to them, “Well, what are you reading right now?”
“Oh, I don’t have time to read.”
“Well, when you do read, where do you get your books?”
“Do you subscribe to a literary magazine?”
“What’s a literary magazine?”
So this is just sort of not rocket science. You wouldn’t try to be a mechanic for sports cars if you didn’t maybe own a sports car, right? But in America, at least, we’re kind of taught to believe that everyone has a book in them. Everyone’s story is worth telling. And apparently worth publishing without doing the hard work. So part of that hard work is not just revising your story. You have to engage in the community and the industry that you want to support you.
Literary citizenship looks, first of all, as if you one day dream of reading in your hometown independent bookstore. You’ve got to be buying books from your hometown bookstore so that it is there for you when your book comes out. It looks like showing up to Zooms and joining the virtual literary festivals and attending them when you can, maybe going to the big conferences like AWP. Going to your local bookstores and libraries when there’s readers there. And if you enjoyed it or you’ve just got some extra cash, buy the book. Maybe put a little money in the library—a donation box. These are not huge amounts of money, right?
Because people—listen, we all have to watch our money right now. Very much. But don’t forget if you’re actively trying to be a writer—maybe you are in an MFA or you’re a teacher working on a book—these things are tax deductible. So all of a sudden, that twenty-six-dollar hardcover—which, listen, that’s a lot—but it becomes a little less when you start to think of it as a textbook.
One of the best things I ever did for my career was volunteer at a literary magazine as a reader. They call it reading the slush pile, where you’re reading the non-solicited work that comes in. And it was amazing. Within the end of an afternoon—three hours of reading stories where the writing was pretty good, but it opened in the same way with one person thinking angrily about something that had happened to them in the past. I called it the tea stories because someone was just inevitably drinking tea and doing nothing else for the whole story. And I was like this is terrible; there is no plot. Then I looked at my own short stories, and I was like, oh my god, no one is doing anything. They’re just sitting there angrily, thinking about things.
So volunteer for literary magazines. And of course, engage in a respectful way. If you read something, even someone’s op-ed online, you read a book that you really like, leave a review. This is sort of where it gets funny because we want to not buy things on Amazon, but all writers need Amazon reviews. So you’ve got to, do that dance. Amazon and Goodreads reviews are still really important. But you can also share a tweet, take a photo of the book next to your coffee. It doesn’t have to be pretty. We don’t care. We just want to see our book mentioned. And say like, “Gosh, I’m really loving this. Who’s read it?” Send fan mail. Again, respectfully, without asking the writer for anything. I get a lot of mail that starts off so nicely, and they say, “I’ve attached my 190,000-word novel. Would you look it over?”
If you’re going to compliment someone, don’t follow it—for the first time—if you don’t have a relationship with the writer. Literary citizenship is just complimenting them. Unless you buy the book. If you’re in line, post-pandemic or whatever—I do believe that in a signing line, if you buy someone’s hardcover, you’re entitled to a little bit of their time. We’ll give it to you. Because you spent twenty-six bucks. But you really need to buy books. You need to read books. You need to thank books.
And literary citizenship, by the way, is not just that I’ve got to publish my own book. You can put together an anthology. You can write a book review. Everyone desperately needs book reviewers. You can moderate something like you’re doing today, Sean. You can interview someone. You can volunteer at a literary festival. At the in-person literary festivals, there’s always someone who comes and picks you up at the airport. And that person—inevitably, they’re doing it because they love it. But they get to meet people. So it can never be just writing your manuscript and then getting it published. You need these people. You need to make friends. You do need to network because, if your dream comes true and your book comes out, you’re going to need to blurb it. People have to blurb it. If you have been living as a hermit and haven’t been nice to anyone, and you never buy books, the booksellers are going to be like, “I’m not taking this person. They’ve never bought anything from us.” So you really do need to put money into the community that you want to support you. It’s so important.
SEAN MURPHY: Thank you for that. That’s beautifully put. I would go so far as to say, Courtney, in my experience—with obvious exceptions. There’s always going to be exceptions. But regardless of the number of sales, the people that I have interacted with or know about that are most content are people that are not necessarily always putting other writers first, but people that are not only doing all the things you just talked about, but the people that are genuinely trying to lift up the literary community and be a part of something that is at once bigger and different than they are. That maybe starts to veer into kumbaya. But I can assure you—anyone watching this—that I could not be more sincere when I say that the people that seem most grounded, most fulfilled, and most inspired somehow are the people that understand a lot of this agony that we talk about—I won’t say self-inflicted. But a lot of it is a result of an isolated kind of exclusive environment. And the more you’re able to connect, especially in this crazy digital world where ostensibly, we can connect with anybody. But we’re still alone behind our computer a lot of the time. Maybe talk a little bit about the many, many, many authors you spoke to, does that bear out? In terms of like—
COURTNEY MAUM: A hundred percent. Because we are in a culture—not just a moment, but a culture. I think this is true of a lot of places. But we’re seeing this right now with the royal family and Meghan and Harry. Ours is a culture where we love to have people propped up and then watch them crash, right? So you can be the most famous writer in the world, but if you’re an American writer, you’re not going to stay on top. At some point, you’re coming down. Look at the Jonathans, for example. Jonathan Franzen. This is someone who’s not even online, ostensibly. I mean, I’m still pro—I really like his writing. But in my cohort, everyone thinks he’s a loser. I hope he’s not on the phone today. Jonathan Safran Foer, right? Darling of literature. And then, like, canceled.
So if you’re not out there—if you pull the Jonathan Franzen thing—again, I say this as a fan of his literature. You know, you don’t have to be online, but you can’t go parading around like really the only person whose writing is worthy of reading is me, or I can’t really recommend anyone else, and I wouldn’t go on Twitter because no one has anything interesting to say, and everyone sucks but me. That’s exaggerating his attitude a little bit. But, yeah, people will remember that, and they’re going to shun you from their awards ceremonies, and they’re not going to invite you to the festivals. Your moment will pass, and you’re going to need some friends for when the spotlight moves off of you.
Also, we’re here, most of us, because we love to read. So don’t forget that. Don’t forget to read. I say this in the book, but when people ask you what you’re reading, work hard to remember some underdog title to tell them. If you get lucky enough to be invited to a podcast and you’re stressed out, and so you’ve been reading this major bestseller that just soothes your brain, don’t mention that book. Mention your friend’s experimental short story collection. You don’t even have to have loved it. Just give them some props and mention—I don’t know. There are so many ways to lift people up. Take time to read other people’s work and work in progress.
SEAN MURPHY: For sure. For sure. I think I am a typical denizen of the literary community and the push and pull of 2021 reality. But I find it very much an antidote to Twitter and even Facebook by engaging on those platforms. And that’s where the algorithms help, I think. I find that I’m drawn into these conversations or people’s feeds that are constantly celebrating literature. And I’m not talking at all about superficial feel-goodism, but basically I think what you and I are riffing on, which is this notion of, if you’re around happier people, it’s going to make you feel more generous. And maybe more generous toward yourself and your own writing. But the writers, it seems to me, who are able to do this—it’s not a calculated career move. It’s that most people have experience. Writing is hard, and even for the ones who are significantly successful, rejection is the standard. That just never goes away. So other than the Stephen Kings and the Franzens, right, and a handful, all of us are always acquainted with rejection. So you either become embittered, or you recognize my brothers and sisters in arms are all dealing with this.
COURTNEY MAUM: Yeah. Again, another way—one of the reasons I like coaching so much is, if I’m having any doubts or ennui or angst about my own work, I can pivot and work with other people, especially those who are really trying to break through. I get all riled up and excited and think like, god, this is an amazing thing I’m doing. What a freaking privilege to just live inside my head. It’s amazing. I just want to get back to my desk and work. And sometimes you need to help other people with their writing in order to help yourself. I think that’s true.
SEAN MURPHY: Yeah. So I think it’s constitutionally impossible for me to not at least mention COVID. But I’d be remiss to not say this book—if I’m not mistaken—was, if not completely finished, largely executed before this past year. I would be curious—so how churlish of me to talk about this exhaustively researched—but what has maybe for those watching and that will watch this—what are some things you think have changed or will change post-COVID? Good, bad, ugly, neither, both?
COURTNEY MAUM: For writers?
SEAN MURPHY: Yeah, like for the industry. What are some trends you think might—or are we just going to kind of shake it off and sort of go back to normal?
COURTNEY MAUM: No, I don’t think in writing that we can. I think humanity in general will probably go back pretty quickly to, you know, they want their normal back. But in writing, in the publishing world, I think the biggest thing that will change is what we’re doing right now. To what extent will virtual events—if not replace—meet the in-person events halfway. I think that will be the big thing. Because for so long, if you have ten touring writers, there’s probably only one of them who’s actually making it financially—like there’s return on investment. For most writers who are lucky enough to be toured by their publisher—and by that I mean that the publisher is actually paying them to travel from point A to B. They’re paying for their hotels, and they’re paying for their meals, and they’re paying—this thing. I still can’t remember. It starts with a C. When they pay the book shops to host them. You have to sell a lot of books to cover plane fare, a hamburger in an airport, and a hotel.
So, I certainly think that the publishers now will probably want—the virtual tour is incredible. Plus, I think the virtual tours and festivals are really inclusive for people who have any mobility concerns or who cannot afford to get to a major metropolitan area, or who certainly can’t afford to stay for four days where AWP is being held or to travel to New York, whatever the heck it is, or who have kids. This is so great. It’s so great. It’s so much more inclusive. And I find, too, that I don’t enter any of these events with the fatigue that I would normally get.
I love going to meet new people. You go to a festival in a different town for three days. For me, I’m not a great sleeper. I’m away from my family. I’m away from my little daughter. Obviously you’re going to go out with people at night even if you’re being a good person. You stay up late. And the whole thing—sometimes you end up at this festival event just kind of like, “Oh, god, I got to make my plane.” And personally I feel grateful actually that I’m able to step in, talk to you, an amazing organization like 1455. You know, be here with other passionate writers in this space. And then, like, watch a cartoon with my kid. I think that’s really great.
So I think the proof that virtual events can bring big audiences together—that’s very positive. The question going forward will be how to also get them to buy books. Because certainly when we started out a year ago, most of the Zoom events were free, and people would kind of pop in and pop out and not buy the book. But I think people are starting to do mandatory purchases of—I’m talking more about bookstore events. But I think the virtual commuting to things like this will be the most positive. It’s really good for the environment.
Now what does that mean? I think it will just be a hybrid going forward, which is great. It’s a bigger audience. You can start—it’s open to the world, really. So I think that’s beautiful. Other than that, listen, COVID is really affecting the media and journalists. You see so many layoffs. So where are all those people going to go? Magazines. The magazine world—that used to be somewhere you could really turn and try to place a nice essay or something. Or even copywrite. I remember writing a book review for Oprah, and I was like this is really a decent amount of money for a paragraph like that. And a lot of us won’t be able to turn to those outlets anymore. So how are we earning money? What are writers’ hustles going to look like?
I mean, a lot of my friends are doing Substack. So they’ll have newsletters that people pay for. Or they’ll have Patreons. I wasn’t clever enough to do that, so my newsletter is free. You can get it on Mailchimp. But people are going to start asking themselves what’s the value of my time and what should I be paid for this thing or that thing. I don’t know. I think I feel pretty positive.
Because I will say I don’t think we’ve ever been living in a time like this. Things are getting optioned left and right. Not for everyone. But there is a need for content. It’s not always quality content. But, hey, I’m not a hater. You want to sell out and make some money so that you can then fund your really highbrow—like I’m all for that.
SEAN MURPHY: Yeah. There’s myriad people that would love to sell out if they had the opportunity, so.
COURTNEY MAUM: Absolutely. And it’s not even selling out. I don’t know. Listen, it’s hard. Publishing is hard. But I just always tell people don’t get caught into thinking that a book deal is the only way to get your story out. Because today, with podcasts, newsletters, YouTube channels, IGTV stations, TikTok—my god, the amount of people you can get to watch your TikToks. I’m missing a hundred things. Travelogues. Radio, audio journalism. There’s so many ways to get your story out there. YouTube channels. So just believe in your story and the fact that you really are equipped to tell it. And then give a little bit more thought to the form. Does it really need to be a book? Maybe it’s a cooking channel, while you talk about your childhood.
SEAN MURPHY: Sure. I think what you’re talking about and what I talk about a lot at 1455 is this notion that it behooves you to lean into the time you’re living in and not tilt against the windmills. And I do think—I genuinely believe that we are in a time where inclusivity is the goal for so many individuals and organizations. That’s a positive thing. And you just wonderfully articulated what I say a lot. You said it a lot better than I usually do, which is there’s not just one path. And I think that’s probably the takeaway from this book. And there’s a lot of takeaways. But there’s not one path, and I find that incredibly liberating and encouraging. I think for some people that are type A or whatever—like, “I want the formula.” Well, A, there is no formula. But, B, depending on what your skill set is or your interest level is or your geographic space, like there’s a lot of different ways to make that work. And what I would say is the real value, not only for a first-time reader to read this and put it away—I think this becomes a real guide, a real how-to book to navigate that. I’ve got a collection of poetry coming out this year. I’ve bookmarked dozens of pages. So I can say, talk about the most genuine shout-out and endorsement. I’m going to use this book throughout 2021 to help me navigate. But I can’t recommend it more highly, in all seriousness.
Anyone watching this now, get a copy. Support an independent bookstore. Buy a copy for a friend. Your writer friends are going to appreciate it. Pay it forward, and join me in celebrating this achievement, Courtney. It’s a wonderful addition. I think it’s a very necessary one. Again, I ,really on behalf of so many writers, appreciate the extraordinary generosity and the time it took to really organize all these different threads and make it manageable. And I think it’s going to end up giving a lot of writers some confidence that they didn’t maybe have before.
COURTNEY MAUM: Well, thank you. The organization wasn’t that hard because it turned out I was holding it all in my head—lots of grudges—for four or five years. So when I sat down, I outlined this thing in like two days. But after that, yes, I was very precise and everything. But it all just streamed out. I was like all the things I’ve been very upset about and resentful about, [bluhluhluhluhluh]. So, you know.
SEAN MURPHY: Listen, here’s the best thing I can say about you as a writer. To have a book that’s very exhaustively researched, as I’ve said, extremely detailed, full of humor, full of practical advice, full of self-deprecation—that is a tightrope, and you walk it beautifully.
COURTNEY MAUM: Well, thank you, Sean. Well, I’m excited about your launch. When is it? Tell us when it’s coming out and the title.
SEAN MURPHY: It’s a chapbook of poetry called Of the Blackened Blues, and it’s coming out from Finishing Line Press this summer.
COURTNEY MAUM: Fantastic. Well, congratulations. And I am a huge—I think the chapbook—I have a little chapbook from Mexico. Chapbooks are amazing. They’re so portable. They’re easy to get around. They’re not expensive. People will buy them because they’re not twenty-six dollars. They’re like five or six. So don’t forget the humble little chapbook.
SEAN MURPHY: I know, right?
COURTNEY MAUM: That’s great. Well, congratulations.
SEAN MURPHY: Thank you. Well, no. The focus is on you. Congratulations to you, again. Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book. But I think even if you have a book or are going to have more books, this is going to come in handy. So, Courtney, it’s been a real pleasure talking to you, and I certainly look forward to more conversation.
COURTNEY MAUM: As do I. I’ll text you and let me know if my cat is alive.
SEAN MURPHY: Yeah, that’s a cliff—again, a master storyteller. You’re leaving us with a cliffhanger for our next conversation.
COURTNEY MAUM: I think he—I mean, I think my husband—
SEAN MURPHY: You would’ve heard some noise.
COURTNEY MAUM: I think my husband would be wailing. He’s very attached. We love our dude. But that was really a big fox—he was like half the size of my car. I have a very small car. But to be continued, everyone. Next year at the festival, I’ll let you know.
SEAN MURPHY: That’s right.
COURTNEY MAUM: Oh, and I’m going to see everyone next weekend, I believe, if I can shout-out my own. I’m doing a short story—right? Or is it—no, the 23rd. Hold on.
SEAN MURPHY: Yeah, lay it on us.
COURTNEY MAUM: The 23rd, right? What year are we in?
SEAN MURPHY: 2021.
COURTNEY MAUM: The 22nd at 7:00 p.m. my time—East Coast. So for some of you, it might be 6:00 p.m. I’m moderating a discussion on short story collections with two incredible authors. Their books—one is digital ghost stories, and the other are just incredible stories about Chinese-Americans—it’s just amazing. So join me in ten days or something like that. Less. A week. I’ll be there.
SEAN MURPHY: Okay. Well, listen, you and I will connect after this. Folks, what I’m going to do at the 1455 Facebook page and the Festival of the Book page—I’m going to put links to Courtney’s website. Please consider buying this from your local independent bookseller or use the link provided at vabook.org. Again, you can also check out the other events. I will put the information of this upcoming event, which people should check out—I know I’ll be there. And maybe we’ll even have a picture of your cat safe and sound, which will make us all sleep better.
COURTNEY MAUM: Thank you.
SEAN MURPHY: Courtney, thank you for being here. Folks, thanks for tuning in. Again, this is recorded. We’re going to put it on the page. So once you see the video, share it with everybody, and let’s get behind a wonderful addition to our libraries.
COURTNEY MAUM: Thank you.
SEAN MURPHY: And thanks for supporting the Festival of the Book. It’s an absolute honor, as always, to be associated with this wonderful annual program. So we will see you all soon. Bye.