Interview with A. J. Jacobs

I am on a roll with author interviews this week!

I first encountered A. J. Jacobs on Amazon. I was buying a lot of books on Judaism, and Amazon’s magical algorithm said, “We heard you like the Bible and Jews. Here’s a book on the Bible by a Jew.” The Year of Living Biblically had something about it that appealed to me. Despite the fact that I’m religious, I’m also irreverent. I mean, I am the daughter of a professional comedian; nothing is ever so sacred that humor can’t be found in it.

So, being poor, I put the book on my wishlist, and my mother-in-law bought it for me for my birthday. It was indeed right up my alley–humorous in a self-depreciating, but not laughing at other people behind their backs, sort of way.

A month or so ago I picked up My Life as an Experiment and enjoyed it almost as much (it is hard to top the Biblical beard, after all).

Then, a few days ago, I got a wild hair, looked A. J. up on his website, and asked if he would be willing to do an interview for my blog. To my complete surprise, he e-mailed me back the next day and said he’d be happy to. He even volunteered to answer the questions himself, rather than outsource them to his Indian assistant (although I said that would be okay with me).

So, without further ado, the interview:

1. At what point in your life did you say, “I want to be a writer?” At what point did you actually feel like you *were* a writer?

I graduated college with no marketable skills. I was a philosophy major, and there were very few Fortune 500 companies hiring in-house philosophers. So I ended up trying freelance writing. And I liked it enough that I decided I would try to stick with it.

This makes me feel better about being a history major. See, liberal arts majors can find food!

2. You wrote articles for magazines before you published your first book. Were you terribly excited when you inked your first book deal, or did it just seem like the natural and logical next-step in your career? Was your first book experience everything you expected it to be?

My first book was, indeed, terribly exciting. And it wasn’t even a real book. It was a novelty book, one of those things they sell by the cash register at bookstores. It was called The Two Kings and it was a total of 800 words. It was about the eerie similarities between Jesus and Elvis.

3. You have a theme to your books: human guinea pig. Where did that idea come from? And do you have plans to write something different? A novel, perhaps?

I started doing it as a journalist. When I worked at Entertainment Weekly, I looked exactly like a B-list actor named Noah Taylor. So my editors sent me to the Oscars to see what it’s like to be a movie star. (Answer: It’s awesome). After that, I just kept going.

There’s a complete account of the Noah Taylor incident in the book My Life as an Experiment.

4. For you, what’s the hardest part of the writing and/or publishing process?

That would be the writing part. I love the research part and even the marketing part. But sitting in front of a computer alone and cranking out the words? That I find painful. A writer friend of mine once compared writing to having the stomach flu. You feel terrible and queasy until you vomit it all up, then you feel better. I relate to that.

5. In your opinion, at what point can you legitimately make a Wikipedia entry for yourself and/or your books? Or should you wait for someone to start one for you, then go in and edit it?

Great question. I have a wikipedia entry that some strangers made for me. It’s full of errors, but I’ve been told it’s a no-no to edit your own page, so I don’t know how to fix it.

6. Insert professional plug for your new book here. (Show us how it’s done.)

My latest book is called DROP DEAD HEALTHY, about my two-year quest to become as healthy as humanly possible. I revamped my diet, exercise, stress level, sex life, you name. If you don’t buy it, you will probably die!

Now, lest anyone think that Mr. Jacobs is egotistical (he’s been accused of that before) for throwing all those links into this interview, let me just say, I put all of those links in there. Part of it is a nod to my days of being a history major and having to footnote everything. The other part is rather self-serving: Google’s search algorithm likes links. Oh, and you should buy some of his books; they’re good.

Actually, I think the best advice he can give writers is this:

…As a writer, I have to accept the lack of control. Publishing a book is like having a child. You can do everything right — feed him, clothe him, show him Baby Kierkegaard videos — but a bully at kindergarten can still make him eat clumps of dirt. You have to come to terms with that. And you have to appreciate that your child is able to run around the playground at all, and is even having fun on the jungle gym when not being pummeled.

Why I Chose to Self-Publish

Author Fabio Bueno had a post on his blog about self-publishing, and he brought up a point that I’ve found myself thinking about over the last couple of days.

Self-publishing gives you total control over your book–from beginning to end. While this does mean a lot of work, it’s also strangely pleasing to control freaks–kind of like medieval flagellants who liked whipping themselves for the sins of the world. Painful, but at the same time, gratifying.

Going the traditional route is also a lot of work and also painful–albeit in different ways. I queried 46 agents over a 1 year period and got 46 rejections or no-responses. That’s nearly one rejection per week for a year. Talk about whipping yourself.

The longer I had to wait on someone to get back to me, the better self-publishing began to look. That is one thing I can’t stand: waiting on other people to do something. I’d rather do something by myself–no matter how hard–than wait on someone else. And when it came to my writing, that was the worst wait ever.  I felt like my destiny, happiness, and future success was in someone else’s hands. Intolerable.

For the most part, I’m already starting to let go of the idea that I need to be traditionally published in order to consider myself legitimate or successful. My notions of “successful” are becoming more modest:

1) Make enough money to replace my current income so I can switch to being a full-time writer. (This is less crazy than it sounds. After just a year, Catherine Howard’s monthly sales of her travel-memoir were enough to replace her modest 9-to-5 income.)

2) Build myself a writer’s cottage where I will spend most of my days writing in serene isolation. (While I have been posting pictures of fabulous, fantastical writing cottages lately, my initial purchase will undoubtedly look a lot more like a fancy shed that I have custom-built at the place a few miles up the road from us.)

3) Buy a new copy of Adobe Photoshop so I can design my own book covers. (My current copy is 10 years old; time for an upgrade!)

4) Hire a weekly housekeeper so we never have to do any housekeeping. (I think this is my husband’s favorite idea.)

5) Have enough money that I can hire someone to do my proofreading.

If I could hit all of those goals–preferably in the next two years–I’d be a supremely happy person and would definitely consider myself a success.

…Although I won’t say no to selling the movie rights.

The Future of Authors

Jon Carroll at the San Francisco Chronicle writes:

Apparently writers are now having to work twice as hard to stay in the same place. The New York Times reported last weekend that best-selling genre authors are now expected to produce two full-length books a year, rather than the traditional one.

When people want an author, they really want that author. They are unwilling to wait 11 months or whatever it would be for the next installment. Fans of whomever apparently gobble up whoever’s backlist immediately – and cheaply too; old books are so satisfyingly inexpensive.

It is also considered useful if the author produces an additional 40,000-word novella for e-book publication. This will presumably fill the void between the two books a year. All that popularity is very nice, of course, and lots of writers would love to be cursed by it, but jeez. About 140,000 to 200,000 words per year? Plus a plot? That’ll be interesting.

It used to be a commonplace that a writer who wrote too fast would create an error-filled, cliche-jammed manuscript. That still may be true, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Writers are now commodities, like corn or pig bellies. They’re measured in bulk. The more words Lee Child writes, the better he is.

Writers also need to commodify themselves on Facebook and Twitter. They need to drop mordant observations into the data stream, gathering followers and fans so they can announce the pub date of their next novel, “Honor the Blood” or “Chain Saw” or whatever it happens to be, in with their lively descriptions of their fascinating lives and thoughts.

Honestly, I could write at that pace if writing was my full-time job. But with the amount of time I spend on revisions right now, plus needing to format and design my books and cover, blog, and market everything, I’d end up pulling down more than 40 hours a week. The hope is, however, that as I grew more of a following, I could market and blog a bit less. Also, with some cash, I could hire people to do my covers and formatting for me. The goal would be to shrink my work week to 35-40 hours a week… unless I felt the overwhelming desire to write more.

Two other points to make about this article. One, it’s confirming what I’ve already said: authors need to sell themselves as much as their work. Authors need to become celebrities because, as books go digital, pirating will ensue. Unlike the recoding and movie industries, I don’t think digital is a bad thing (and I don’t lock my books up with DRM), but I accept the fact that pirating will happen. That’s where your celebrity comes in. Just as bookstores sell a lot of things other than books, so too will authors have to sell a lot of things which aren’t books (just wait; I’m already working on my CafePress products, to be released along with my first book). That’s just where things are heading for all artists.

The other striking point about the article is what’s between the lines. The link to this article was originally posted in the Amazon authors’ forums (a place where independent authors gather). People there pointed out that traditional publishers are apparently pushing social media marketing (which is, lets face it, the bulk of today’s marketing) onto their authors.

For e-books over $2.99, Amazon gives writers 70% royalty. The industry standard is no where near that amount. According to Fiction Factor, the average royalties on paperbacks is 7.5% and hardbacks is 15%. They don’t mention e-books, but I believe that authors are only making about 8%-10% on their e-books when a publisher has control of it.

70% versus 8% is a big difference.

If I understand print-on-demand books correctly, I will get to name my price above and beyond the publishing cost; I assume Amazon then takes a percentage of that. But it looks like I could make $1.00 or more per book–which is the same or more than if I went through a publisher.

As the indie authors on Amazon asked, if you have to do your own marketing anyways, why would you choose to make less money with a traditional publisher?

Even if you pay money for a book designer and an editor up front and out of your own pocket, you still stand to make more money doing it yourself because you only pay for those services once. When you contract your book with a major publisher, you will share your profits forever for the benefit of having them design your cover and do the edits.

Food for thought.