Not to be rude, but…

Not to be rude, but… June 4, 2012

Can we talk?

I mean about something so personal you probably haven’t divulged the truth to your very best friend. I’m not talking about sex. Heck most of us know more about our friends’ sex lives than we ever needed or wanted to know.

I’m talking about that thing that we often aren’t even honest about with our spouses — I’m talking about the very verboten matter of money.

No, I do not want to know all the details of your financial affairs. Please, please, please, don’t tell me how much money you made last year, how little/or much you owe on your mortgage, or how much you tithed, or didn’t in the past year.

Honestly, I don’t want to know about your financial standing at all. Suze Orman, I’m not.

You see, I care about you but I really don’t care about your money.

Or whether you have any or not.

Unless you are my son,

In which case, I’m praying you have enough.

The reason I want to talk to you about money is because so many people keep bringing it up to me.

Why is it that perfectly reasonable, educated and otherwise mannerly people feel like it’s within their right to ask an author how much money they make?

I am one of the most curious people you will ever meet. I will ask you a dozen questions upon meeting you. I will want to know if you grew up here, or came from somewhere else. Are you doing the job you always hoped you’d do? Did you serve in the military and if so, thank you very much. I will want to know who your mama’s people are and do you like collard greens or turnips best. I want to know if you have a grandchild and if so, do you have any advice for me? But the one thing I am never ever going to ask you, not even on my death bed, or yours, is how much money you have.

Or don’t have.

I was raised in a trailer park by a mama who failed to teach me certain things but the one thing she didn’t forget to teach me was that a person’s financial doings is their own private business. I couldn’t to this day tell you how much money my mama has, or doesn’t have, and I’m okay with that.

Never when I worked as a journalist did anyone approach me and ask what my annual income was, or how much I had socked away in a 401-K.

But I swear to the barefooted Buddha that ever since I became an author, people have asked me every way to Sunday and back how much money I make and have socked away.

I asked my brother, an engineer, how I ought to respond to such questions.

“Tell them it’s none of their dayhum business,” he said.

My brother is frank like that. (Pun intended for those who get it.)

I can’t do that.

Usually, I just smile and say something silly.

Here’s the truth of the matter, I was writing long before I made one red penny for writing and I have more than earned every penny I have ever made from writing. I work dayhum hard at this business. They can’t pay me enough for what I put into it because I put my heart into it.

This isn’t just a job for me. It’s a calling.

It’s what I was created for.

Sometimes I wish I could do something else. My husband thinks I would be great at stand-up comedy. I’d rather be governor one day. Or maybe a nun. I’d like all that routine, I think.

At the very least, I wish I could write the book that everyone loves, but I can’t. God called me to the hard places. He took all the brokenness of childhood and crafted a passion that runs deep in my veins.

One of the highest rewards I have ever received as a writer came to me recently when a former neighbor, a woman who considers herself an agnostic, said, “I can’t think of a more genuine issue for you than as an advocate for children.” It moves me to tears even now, knowing something she saw in me as a neighbor bore witness to all that God is doing in my life and through my work.

She has never asked me how much money I make, or have made off of writing. We take turns paying the bill when we go out to eat.

So if you are the sort of person who would ask such things of an author, please don’t take it personally if when you ask how much money I make, or how rich I am, or if my publisher pays for my upkeep the way some men do a Wall Street mistress, if I just smile and ask in return where your mama’s people are from.

I’m just trying my best not to be rude.




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  • ladydiole

    I don’t think Tim would vote for the change in career to nun-hood!

    • Karen Zacharias

      He might be tempted some days.

  • Tim

    So good, Karen. So very very very good.

    I get asked what I make sometimes. I’d like to respond by giving a kind kind of “You tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine!” response and then see how they react. But since I’m part of government, I end up telling them because even though I was raised like you (none of their Frank’s-expletive business) I realize that the public has a legitimate interest in knowing what my position pays. I also realize that the person asking at that time is more likely than not motivated by idle curiosity and nothing so exalted as concern for the public fisc, but still I tell them because it really is public information. Bummer.

    Nice job bringing this one forward, Karen.


    • Karen Zacharias

      Thanks, Tim. Yes. I know for public figures this is really bothersome. We do have to know this information for all sorts of reasons but it is rude to ask you outright. That information is available and easily accessible.

      • Tim

        It’s not only easily available, but gets published in the newspaper every time a new judge is appointed to office. There are 17oo+ judges in California, so that happens often enough that people I know can see what I make repeatedly since all judges are paid the same state-wide.

        Here’s how it was printed up in my local paper back in 1995 when I was appointed to the bench:

        Local attorney Tim Fall is the newest judge at the courthouse. When asked how he felt upon receiving the telephone call from the Governor’s office informing him, Fall said he was “excited” to learn he had received the appointment to the job which pays $—— per year.

        Yep, that’s almost verbatim. I was portrayed as being excited at receiving a job based on pay. What a public servant I am!


  • zippygirl

    You know, Karen, I personally think it’s a combination of two very different, yet very related, things:

    First – it’s been my experience that people generally assume writers are Stephen King gazillionaires who pre-sell 500,000 copies of their books – and are curious about how they get in on it. Doesn’t everyone have a story to tell? How in the world are YOU managing to make a living doing it? And how can I?

    The second one, however, speaks to what our national economic situation, and the idea that my purchase funds your lifestyle. I am paying for your book, I am putting money in your pocket – so tell me, how much is the public paying for you to sit around in your jammies making stuff up? (Or, in your case, reporting on stuff.)

    This has actually been on my radar a lot today, as I’ve been reading some things about the Pioneer Woman (Ree Drummond). She’s an insanely famous blogger who has a Food Network show and scores of fans who adore her “city girl to ranch wife” style. But it turns out that both she and her husband are quite well off (his family is known as “the Oklahoma Kennedys”)… there’s a small but not insignificant portion of her followers who feel like she’s portrayed herself as someone who went from a city girl lifestyle to a hard-working country girl who just happens to blog when she’s not herding cows, etc. It’s a level of betrayal for them, feeling like they were reading about someone who was (possibly) “just like them,” when in fact, most of us don’t have millions of dollars to sink into a guest house remodel.

    All of that to say – I read a story on a well-known public figure (wish I could remember who it was – maybe Truman Capote?) who said something along the lines of once you give your work to the world, they “own” a part of you – and you’re obligated to return the favor. I think it’s apt for many positions (such as government work – we, as a public, are entitled to know what politicians are making, as they are paid from our collective tax dollars), but “public figure” does not equal “freedom of information about my life.”

    BTW – when I’m asked this question, I usually say something along the lines of, “Let’s just say my bumper sticker reads, ‘Will write for food.'” 🙂

    • Karen Zacharias

      I need that bumper sticker. Send it to me. RE: Ree Drummond. I am familiar with her and her work. And while I am not up on the controversy, I believe, correct me if I’m wrong, that she was in marketing long before she was the Pioneer Woman. Her skill set was in how to sell a product to the masses. She’s obviously very good at that. But I can understand why, given how she sold her brand, why some folks would be put off by that. Turns out tho, that many farmers are far more like J.R. and Ree Drummond than they are like Billy.

      RE: Public figures — an issue that Tim raised — I think if the public wants to know what a public figure makes they ought to march their hinneys to the courthouse and/or newspaper and look it up. It’s their right to know, but they should have found that information out before voting someone into office.

      And I don’t agree that authors ought to be held to the same standard. If you want to use that line of reasoning then we have the right to know what nurses make, why bus drivers make, what the janitor at the high school makes, what the preacher makes, what the oncologist makes…

      Scripture clearly tells us that we ought to be paying a fair wage to workers and we all know in this nation, that ain’t happening. We aren’t paying fair wages. We are paying insane wages to entertainers while the elderly can’t afford their monthly meds.

      I still maintain that asking the question is inappropriate, no matter who you are asking it of. The only person who has the right to ask that question is the one employing you.

      My contract is with my agency and my publisher, not the general public. If the public doesn’t buy the book, I don’t get another contract. If the public wants me to write more books, then they need to buy the ones I do write. But they are not my employer. I don’t have a contract with the general public.

      • Tim

        “they ought to march their hinneys to the courthouse and/or newspaper and look it up.”

        If only I could tell them that with a straight face! But what do I do once the lazy/rudebody has alreayd asked me?

        • Karen Zacharias

          I know, right? That’s the dilemma I face as well. I can divert the conversation. It’s a little trickier for you. Perhaps you could say that you make a “fair wage” and that it’s a matter of public record?

          • Tim

            I confess that I end up taking the easy way out and just tell them. It’s quicker and usually ends the conversation and I’m lazy that way. 😉


            P.S. Thanks for checking out my piece over at KWK’s site. I was gone all weekend (at that conference where I ran into Ken Wytsma and fam) so I finally had a chance to respond to you at Keri’s place. I’m jazzed that the converstaion there is getting going!

          • What conference did you meet Ken at?

          • Tim

            The Church and Human Trafficking, held Fri-Sun at Mount Hermon near Santa Cruz. My son Kyle and I went, and Ken was one of the seminar leaders. He and Kyle had a chance to talk for a while. Late Saturday night I was in line at the ice cream counter with Ken, Tamara and the four girls. Great family!

      • zippygirl

        Oh no, no, no – in no way at all do I believe that authors ought to be held to the same standard. I was just pointing out that it’s a public perception that if “I give you money, I have a right to know where it goes.” You’re absolutely correct, it’s none of anyone’s business what you make – but, for some reason, everyone thinks it is because you’re “a public figure.”

        Every year, PARADE magazine (the one that comes in the Sunday paper) publishes a “What Does ___ Make” piece, where they show the wages paid to different people in different jobs in different areas. It’s a bit incongruous, because people in different parts of the country can earn vastly different wages – a medical professional in Houston will make more than a medical professional in Duluth – but it speaks to people’s curiosity about others’ financial status.

        And yes, I was hoping my point of #2 was made – it’s fine to inquire about the wages paid to people in high government positions, because we are, in effect, their employers. It’s ridiculous that a one-term senator gets a lifetime pension and medical, while medical benefits for the elderly are cut again and again.

        • zippygirl

          Oh, and to add (clarify?) – I work part-time for a church. Our books are transparent – anyone within the church can see what I make. The church – and by extension, the church body – employs me, and we make those records available within the church. But if Joe Somebody came and specifically asked, “What does she make?” – sorry, no answer, and um, “Why do you ask?”

        • Zippy: I knew what you meant. I was just clarifying some points of concern for me. I still want that bumper sticker.

  • Didn’t want to know how much money you made, but was remarking that it must be enough to afford you the ability to travel as you do. Love to read what you write and so glad that you are good at it and are called to do it!

    • Karen Zacharias

      Or maybe the travel is part of the mission and as such the finances are dedicated to that?

  • Peterp

    I understand how you feel about this and it has raised some interesting questions for me.

    You see, I was just today looking up online how much Iron Maiden (the band) have made in their careers.


    Because it’s a measure of success.

    I know Iron Maiden are world famous, but how many people actually pay to listen to their music?

    IF I was to ever ask an author how much they make (which I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t), it would be so I could see how successful they are in the business and whether or not being a writer at their level can actually make one a living.

    I do regularly ask people indirectly how much they make – as in.. “You do WHAT for a living? and you can actually make a living at that?”

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      It’s okay, Peter. You’re a Brit. We expect that sort of thing from those from other cultures. LOL!

      I have a friend who grew up in the Sudan. He said he was surprised to get to America and find out that nobody was going to give him a house and a car. He was going to have to work for it.

      But as to your broader question — does money really determine the success of a person’s work? Because if so, artists in general are screwed like rabbits in the springtime, to quote a favorite creative soul I know.

    • Peter: You’re a Brit. We know the rules are different for you. 🙂

      I have no idea who Iron Maiden is but if she can clean house, I could use her. Send me a phone number. It’s okay if she doesn’t have a green card.

      And I as routinely tell others when they ask about whether they can make a living as a writer, Don’t Quit the Day Job. You’ll need the insurance.

  • Spearseng

    To correct my response I said to tell them “nunya, as in nunya damn business”!

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Writer’s liberty. It’s what they pay me these big bucks for.

    • Writer’s license. That’s why they pay me the big bucks.

  • T11publius

    I’d prefer it continues not to pay, because then she wouldn’t have any use for a sponsor. 😉

  • The Original Zippy

    Law, this subject has “got my back up.” FYI, I am not the “Zippy Gal” on your thread, but the real Zippy, Author of In the Garden with Billy, and Stress-free Marketing: Practical Advice for the Newly Published Author. I have been asked point blank, “How many books have you sold? What was your advance? What was the first print run? (among other questions). These questions came before the printing of SFMarketing. The rudeness of those who ask these questions prompts me to blog about proper manners often. (In fact, with your permission, I may just plug this blog entry…obviously, my work about “proper manners” is not quite done).
    That being said, I think the misconception some have is that while you are on a book tour you are actually “playing.” The reality is that you are working your tail off. You spend months (literally) away from your family. You are hold-up in a motel room. YOU schedule all of the arrangements down to coordinating events and bunking with friends (because you must tour on a budget). You live out of a suitcase and do not get homecooked meals; and-if you have children, need I ask what your home looks like upon your return?
    Oops. That’s just me.
    Add to the equation new authors who WRONGLY believe there is a short cut to success. They want to be an “overnight” sensation, without realizing that it takes years (plural…as in about 10 years) just to get your name out there. What these fledgling authors are really asking is “how can I be everywhere, all the time, sell a million copies and do it without actually leaving home? How can I be number one on Amazon (whose sales figures-by the way-are NOT an actual indicator of actual sales)?
    Mercy. I am working myself into a sermon.
    Karen, as you know-and advised-I offer marketing workshops to authors in the south. I recently had someone say to the coordinator, “I will not register for her event until she tells me how many books she has sold and why the workshop will benefit me.”
    My response: “Real authors have done their homework and know that it is uncool to discuss sales with anyone.”
    By the way, the gentleman came to the event and is now one of my biggest cheeerleaders.
    And before anyone asks, I do not receive the full workshop amount. I split the fee 50/50 with the small business (usually a bookstore) who hosts the event.I think you mentioned travel as being “part of the mission.” Part of my mission is supporting small-indie bookstores. So when someone who isn’t educated about the behind-the-scenes process of writing, and the subsequent tour mistakenly believes that I receive the full amount I tend to smile in that bless-your-heart way.
    This, Dear Ones, is a life lesson. There are always two sides, seek to know them both before asking rude questions or making rude comments to or about authors who are busting their hind-end to bring you books.
    Still, many emerging authors believe that a book tour is all “glamour.” No one I know has worked harder to birth a book than you (and your publisher) have with Mockingbird. Every single author I have spoken to spends all (or at least part) of their advance on their book tour. Those who ask these rude questions have no idea how much blood, sweat, tears and effort authors put into delivering a quality book. Karen, next time someone asks about your salary or sales, kindly direct them to The Original Zippy and I’ll give them a reality check, without the proper Southern manners I was raised to display.

    • Well said, Original Zippy. I think it’s those misconceptions that prompt so many of those questions. I also think that manners is part of the issue. In this day of reality TV people feel entitled to pry into the affairs of others. We have no sense of propriety.