Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Truth About The Author Caste System

I remember when I was a young babe of a writer, and I would hear wonderful authors I looked up to say things like "We are all writers with a story to tell. I'm no different from you. We all love what we do and our voices are unique and magical ponies and rainbows!"

That last part about the ponies and rainbows is made up.

But anyway, I'm not about to say that these authors were wrong. Yes, we are all writers with unique voices. Yes, we authors—aspiring or published—have a lot of similarities. We are all lovers of words and living in our own heads where infinite possibilities abound. I think feeling that kinship among writers is a great thing.

Just don't assume that kinship means all authors are treated the same way, though.

As an aspiring author I sort of knew that some authors were more popular than others because they were huge bestsellers and other authors were not. I vaguely noticed how some lines were longer at book signings than other lines. I knew realistically that some authors probably got more "perks" than other authors—I just didn't really want to believe it or face the reality of how that would impact me should I ever become published.

Make no mistake, my friends, The Author Caste System is a real thing.

Now, I'm not about to go on some rant about the injustice of this. What I want to do is give you the low down so you can be prepared and begin finding ways to cope with it. Some of the Author Caste System is built out of practicality—there are just So! Many! Authors! and not as many spots to be filled. When an event or store is looking to bring in an author, what they want is to sell books. Helping the author get exposure is nice, but conferences and stores aren't out for charity they're out for profits. Which brings us to Caste System #1 (Yes! There are many! Lucky us!):

The Monetary Success Caste System
We have basic capitalism to thank for this one. So don't go running around blaming anyone in particular for something that is just of paramount importance in publishing—money. Authors whose stories make buttloads of money, yes, are given more perks in the industry. Oddly enough, money feeds money. So publishers will favor the books already moving off shelves and throw more money at them, while giving almost no help to those that aren't moving even though their money would benefit slower moving titles.

This is why sometimes it feels like you can't stop seeing some books. Because publishers are paying to make sure they keep being seen. Not just in advertising, but in events. These are the authors who have their tours paid for by the publisher (most tours and events by the average author come out of their own pocket). These are the authors who get radio and TV gigs and big ads on Amazon and prime real estate in bookstores.

And who can really blame the publisher? Print is a tough business. They need to make money to stay viable. They've usually dropped a bunch of cash into these books up front so they have to make it back by throwing more money at it.

So if you're a debut and you're starting to notice this...I offer you my deepest sympathies. I know how difficult the realization of this Caste is. You'll start to see other debuts get this and that. You'll hear of other authors being given promo and wonder why you aren't getting anything from your publisher and they're leaving you to sink or float on your own. Well, this is why. And it sucks. And it's very hard not to tie your worth as a writer to where you fall on the Monetary Caste System. But you must try to separate the two or you'll kill your self worth.

The Publishing Type Caste System
I remember very vividly the first time I really saw the reality of this System. I was at a wedding and my husband and I were making small talk with one of his co-workers and his girlfriend. It came up that the co-worker's girlfriend was a librarian. My little debut self got SO excited! "Oh! I'm an author!" I declared proudly. "My first book is coming out in a couple months!"

The woman did not give me the equally excited look I expected. No, her look was more of trepidation and fear. I didn't understand. But I was pretty sure she wished she didn't have to make small talk with me. I already felt stupid for even mentioning it. After a marked pause, she finally forced herself to ask, "Oh? What's your book called?"

Already feeling like she wanted nothing more than to be rid of me, I felt stupid telling her about my book. So instead I pulled out a bookmark, happy I kept them on hand for moments like these. I handed it to her, and that's when things began to change. As she looked it over, her eyes lit up in surprise and relief, and then she exclaimed:

"You're with HarperTeen! Why didn't you say so?"

What I wanted to say: I didn't realize I had to say in order to be treated with respect.

But that's when I learned that people really do treat you differently based on how you published. It's not made up. You will feel it if you indie publish or work with small press. Your books will be good—you might even be selling better than many traditionally published authors—and yet some people will always look at your publisher first and your story second. And it sucks. And it hurts. And more than ever it's not even a decent way to mark the quality of a novel.

Having published through all sorts of different paths, I still don't know how to reconcile this Caste. While logically I have improved as a writer over time, my later works (which are Indie) aren't looked on as highly as my works with the ever-popular HarperTeen. So I don't have great advice, except for trying to remember that your work can be amazing even if it's not marketable.

The Award Caste System
I admit I know the least about this system, as I've never won an award. But make no mistake that winning literary awards and being on lists and all that does actually play a factor in how people treat you. Depending on the award, your presence may come with more pomp than you actually want. You might notice after winning something that people treat you differently. You'll probably get more invitations to events and you might be expected to be some fount of knowledge you don't feel qualified to embody. I'm guessing on a lot of this. But pressure—I see awards equalling pressure for those who get them (much like being a debut bestseller will kill you with pressure for the next book).

People keep track of this stuff, though. You better bet that Newberry Award winner is gonna get some special treatment over your average author. It's just the way the world turns. Those with awards are viewed as the ones who will be remembered through history, while those with the sales are "fleeting success." Very rarely do the two meet up in one author, creating the ultimate God Of Authoring.

The Conference And Event Caste System
This is where it gets fun. And by fun I mean totally non-sensical and frustrating. Depending on the event and how it values the above three Castes, you will find yourself in a weird hybrid of a Caste System at every event you attend. You could very realistically be the "top dog" of one conference and the "bottom feeder" of another. And, regardless of your skill, you will be treated accordingly. Here are some of the things you may not know happen "behind the scenes" of conferences:

1. Payment
It can be very easy to know if you're "important" at a conference—if you're getting paid you're probably up there. A lot of conferences DO NOT PAY the majority of their authors to attend. They give us the ever-cop-out "exposure" as our payment. They know we're too "lowly" to even demand payment and there are other authors who'd do it for free if we demanded it. But the Big Authors and the Special Guests get paid.

2. Covered Travel Expenses
Akin to getting paid, you can guess you're pretty fancy if an event is paying to fly you out and putting you up in a hotel. Local authors aren't getting that, even if they're staying at the hotel and not driving home each night.

3. The Keynote
This is the shiz of the con. If you're keynoting you're basically the Pulitzer Prize Winner of the conference. Everyone treats you like you're awesome even if you feel like and are, in fact, a totally normal person who is like all your author buddies around you.

4. The Green Room...Or The SPECIAL Green Room
Most events have a place for panelists and presenters to rest between their duties. But did you know some events have even SPECIALER places for the SPECIALER people? Yes, indeed. It's a wonderful way to separate the rabble "famous" people from the actual famous ones.

5. The Cool Dinners
Sometimes it will feel like there are "cliques" at an event, even if you're all authors there are "circles" of friends people tend to run in. It can be easy to be offended by these, but I think people just tend to make friends and then want to hang out with their friends. It can cause a newer author to feel very out of place, though. I felt that way, at least.

6. The "Infinite Potential Debuts"
This is an interesting one, but you'd be surprised to know that many debuts are actually treated much better than veterans with little success. Because debuts MIGHT be a bestseller and we don't know it, or an award-winner in the making. Debuts can often get into a con where a veteran gets kicked out because they aren't "cool" enough anymore and show little signs of ever being successful.

7. The Size Of The Room...
You know how much a con expects you to bring in crowds (or the topic you're talking about) by how big of a room they put you in. Some rooms are huge and for big authors only—it'd be a waste of seats to put a smaller author in there even if the topic is cool (many attendees attend for specific authors/agents).

8. How Many Books They Ordered and How Big Your Line Is
We've all been the author who had not a single person in their line at the signing. And it sucks. And you feel like you put in all this effort and gave all your work to the con (for free, in a lot of cases) for nothing. All the while that one author next to you is selling out of books and "stuck" signing for four hours straight.


So these are some of the realities of The Author Caste System. I'm not saying any of it is right or fair (nor am I saying it's UNfair)—I'm just telling you like it is. If you're just getting into being an Author, you might be hurt by this stuff more than necessary because you just didn't see it coming. You'll have thought you've finally "made it," and then you realize maybe you haven't at all. And you'll feel tiny and stupid and maybe like a "fake" author.

But you're not.

I'm not either, though I'm most often on the bottom side of the Caste System.

How we're treated as authors...that shouldn't be any greater an indication of our worth than the monetary crap. It can be very easy to get caught up in this stupid stuff, in how we're viewed and treated by not just outsiders but the industry itself.

Some events you will walk away feeling like the small fish, and others you will feel like you didn't deserve to be treated as such a big fish. Every time it will feel weird, and you'll go back to writing in your messy little office and move on.

At my last conference, I sold five books. Barely anyone came up to me to have things signed. But I didn't feel bad—why? Because one girl, one single fan, came to tell me how much she loved FISH OUT OF WATER and that it was her favorite book and it meant everything to her and I wrote about Alzheimer's "perfectly." I'm tearing up right now just thinking of it, because her words made the entire conference for me. Though I was very much a "small fish" at the con like always—she made me feel like the luckiest and biggest fish there. At that moment it didn't matter if the famous author had 200 fans saying that to them.

I had one. And that was all I ever wanted when I dreamed of being an author.

So don't let the Caste System get you down. Don't forget—there was a time when you were dying to be part of it in the first place.


  1. I had to laugh several times reading this because it's all so true. Also, 5 books at a signing is great! :) I do love your paragraph about that one fan who made the entire conference for you. I recently signed at a con with virtually no one coming to the table, but I had a similar experience with one fan who said my book changed her life. It's so easy to forget THAT's why I do this.

  2. Fascinating (and slightly depressing) post. But important for new and aspiring authors to know.

  3. Vicious! Thanks for writing this :)

  4. Vicious! Thanks for writing this :)

  5. I have always loved you and your honesty. It's so true.

  6. Such a great perspective. Thanks for this. It helps tremendously to know what you're getting into so you can be prepared. :)

  7. That is food for thought, Natalie. Thank you for sharing.

  8. I definitely agree with this post, especially the first part. At first I didn't understand why celebrity "writers," who often paid other people to do all the writing for them, got huge book deals, although there are several legitimate celebrity writers who do their own writing and have written good books. But then I realized that a lot of people would line up in a bookstore for an autograph and a picture from a famous movie star or musician.

  9. Amen and amen. I've lived so many aspects of the castes, and you're right on.

    The hardest part for me is writers who embrace the various castes when doing so is in their favor, who then treat lower-caste writers as less than. Some writers do that even if they used to be friend with the other person, or at least colleagues, or (worst of all) if the current low-caste person used to be considered a higher caste, but the roles have reversed, and the new higher-caste author uses the friend to climb to the next caste, never looking back.

    I have a really rough time respecting writers--no matter how talented, no matter their sales or awards or anything else--if they treat other authors with disdain. One author in particular has rubbed me wrong on multiple occasions: they mocked an award in the acceptance speech (an award many would have killed to get), they shared a signing with another writer and after finding out writer B was with a small press, seriously said, "Don't they publish low-quality stuff?" TO writer B's FACE. (What was WB to say, "Uh, I guess my books are crap"? Then this same writer got offended when someone else was considered for an award instead of them. And on and on. It's this arrogant, "I'm better than you" attitude that's tough to take.

    Granted, it's genuinely hard to handle seeing friend who started years after you soar past with raging success stories, but if they're genuine friends, and they aren't treating others with disdain--and they're still my friend--then I can be happy for them.

    But when I see a diva writer (male or female--I've seen both) acting as if the world owes them something for their glorious contributions, but I know firsthand that the writer has actually been a jerk behind the scenes, it's a challenge even to interact with them on a superficial level.

    On a happier note, when I meet a writer who is genuinely awesome no matter their circumstances or those of writers they meet, my respect for them shoots through the roof.

  10. Super agree (same thing is true in the game dev world, case in point).

    But what you said about that little girl... that's everything. Thanks for reminding me not to lose sight of that -- whether in writing or game development. Comparison kills. I create for me and my fans, whether they be many or few.

  11. I always find your honest articles refreshing. Please keep writing them.

    As an aspiring writer, I'd just come to this same realization from the many cons I've attended over the last 5+ years (though I'll admit your blog tells me I'd only touched the tip of the iceberg with what I'd gleaned so far).

    I'm still working on moving up from pariah in the author social caste to someone authors will actual talk to of their own volition. I realize much of it comes from the majority of us being introverts, so I won't hold it against them, but it's hard knowing that the only people I can really associate with (by some of the authors' own mouths) are the other pariah aspiring authors attending the con.

  12. Thank you so much for your honesty! I'm an author with a debut novel coming out and I've already started to feel this caste system. I recently attended a conference and experienced some of the things you mentioned. It's sad that it exists, but you nailed it.