Between writing workshops, interviews, bookstore events, school visits, social media, and other talks, authors often find themselves answering a lot of questions. Some of those questions, they hate to hear come out of someone’s mouth. Like, hate.
Since authors are constantly promoting themselves and need all the goodwill they can get, they’ll almost never say it and try very hard not to show it. They’ll just gripe about it with their writer friends later. And they’ll definitely tell me when I ask for an article and offer anonymity.
1. “How much money do you make?”
Almost every author I spoke to about this article included this in their most-hated list. This is a pretty rude question in almost any industry, especially if asked in front of a room full of people. “I would never walk up to someone at their job and ask how much they make,” Laura Heffernan, author of America’s Next Reality Star, says. “For me, it’s basically the same thing.”
2. Sequels, Adaptations, Translations, Additional Formats
“I hate when people ask when the movie is coming out,” said one author. For the most part, these are not things the author has any control over, no matter how much they’d like it to happen.
Funny enough, readers actually have more control over this than the author. If you want to see a sequel or adaptation from your favorite book, you can help increase the odds by reviewing and promoting the book.
3. Questions that Insult Other Authors or Genres
I’ve seen event attendees phrase questions in a way that insults romance books, speculative stories, E L James, kidlit, Twilight, millennials, and even the entire publishing industry. This always makes authors uncomfortable. When you do this, you’re putting them in the position of either having to publicly admonish/disagree with you or apparently agree with your insult. Neither is a good option, and only the most skilled of public speakers can navigate this with grace.
While we’re at it, if you could avoid insulting the genre the author writes or their books, that would be just peachy. This includes asking kidlit authors when they’re going to “write a real book.”
4. “More of a comment than a question.”
To be fair, everyone hates this, not just authors. Just listen to the exasperated sighs all over the room every time this phrase is uttered. No one came to an author event to hear a rando drone on about their theories or feelings. We came to hear the author. Don’t take their time or ours.
5. “How’s the book doing?”
Authors know this is the most well-meaning question on this list. It comes from a good place.
No one knows how to answer this question. Do you want sales numbers? Authors don’t usually know that until months later. Also, see #1. Do you want to know how the reviews are? Well the author might have just read a review that said their book had “no merit whatsoever” and even though there are 50 positive reviews for that one bad one, their brain lingers on those three words.
Each author defines success in different ways and asking this question may either lead to wide-eyed stammering or a two-hour lecture on how the publishing industry really works.
6. “Can you introduce me to your agent?”
Especially, especially if you’re a stranger. This is always something that an author should offer, not be asked of an author. They can’t recommend something they haven’t read.
No, this is not your opportunity to ask the author to read your work. Many of them can’t read unpublished work for a variety of reasons, and even more simply don’t have the time to read everything they’re asked to. “I wish I could help all the people who ask and I hate saying no,” Stacey O’Neale, author of The Shadow Prince, said. “Plus I’ve had a few who didn’t take it well.”
They also can’t vouch for something they don’t think is amazing, so you’re putting them in a very awkward spot if your work isn’t up to snuff.
7. Personal Topics Unrelated to Books or Writing
Refrain from asking or telling authors anything that doesn’t have to do with books or writing. Even if you think it’s a compliment. I hate when people comment on my weight, for example, even if it’s because I’ve recently lost a couple pounds.
Some authors may be open to some topics, especially if they’re known for talking about them. For example, my Instagram is 60% meals that I cook, so asking me about cooking or food would be fine. This is something that requires good judgement to decide whether or not your comment is okay. If in doubt, err on the said of not mentioning it.
Comments/questions on age, relationship status, physical appearance, children, their home, or politics are especially unwelcome. It’s creepy and uncomfortable. This goes double if the author is a woman or from any marginalized group, as they are more likely to be victims of stalking or harassment.
Finally—and I can’t believe this has to be said—refrain from racist, sexist, ableist, and otherwise bigoted statements. Saadia Faruqi, author of the Yasmin series, reports she’s often asked, “How is your English so good?” That is not okay on any level.
8. “Have you thought about self-publishing / writing xyz genre? I heard that’s where the money is.”
When the self-publishing question is asked, it’s almost always with an implication that the author has never heard that was an option. Always assume authors possess basic knowledge of the industry and have made their career choices carefully. If you want to ask why the author has pursued one publishing path over another, that’s an entirely legitimate question.
Writers write the genre(s) they do because they have a deep connection to and love for that genre or age group. Writing for the money is most often a lost cause. As is chasing trends.
9. “Oh you’re an author? Written anything I’ve heard of?”
For one, the logistics of this question are a nightmare. How in the ever-loving world is an author supposed to know which books and stories you’ve heard of? Stop and think for a second about what you’re saying.
Second, what a snotty thing to say. As if the only way the author’s life work has any value is if you, random person, have heard of it.
10. “Where do you get your ideas?”
I don’t think this is a bad question, so much as it gets asked to almost every author or author panel and authors are tired of answering it. In addition, the answer is often abstract and nebulous because writers often don’t really understand it themselves.
Relatedly, Chudney Thomas, author of Full Circle, says she dreads hearing “I have a story/idea you should write about in your free time and we can split the profits.” Most writers have more ideas than they have time to execute. Writing the book is the hard part and where the magic happens.
Many thanks to the authors, named and not, who responded to this question, providing more insight than I could put into a single article. What questions have you heard asked of authors that made you grimace? On the flip side, have you heard any great questions?