Episode 325: Meghan Daum on What Happens When Your First Book Becomes a Cult ClassicAug 26, 2020
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Meghan Daum is the author of six books, most recently The Problem With Everything: My Journey Through The New Culture Wars. An opinion columnist for The Los Angeles Times for more than a decade, she currently writes monthly for Medium’s GEN Magazine and has contributed to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic and Vogue, among other publications. Her new podcast The Unspeakable launched in July 2020.
In this episode, we talked about the mini scandals you can cause when writing about either leaving New York or your feelings on PhD-ers who call themselves "Dr," what it's like when your first book becomes a cult classic and what happens after cult classic-dom, among many other topics.
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Anna David: 00:00 Hi there. Thank you for doing this.
Meghan Daum: 00:03 Thanks for having me, Anna. It's always a pleasure.
Anna David: 00:06 Sure. It's always a pleasure. The last time I saw you, I believe was in New York. Do you remember that?
Meghan Daum: 00:12 Was it in LA? I remember coming to your studio in Hollywood. Am I misremembering another time?
Anna David: 00:20 No you are remembering, cause this was slightly before that, because I remember we talked about you coming on my podcast, but I was having dinner with you, Michael Hirschhorn and Mickey Cows. And I remember, yes. Okay. These are some like serious intellectuals, like gear up. Like I read up on events and it was the day of Brexit. And we sat at this outdoor table.
Meghan Daum: 00:45 Yeah. That was at a private club.
Anna David: 00:47 Oh, we're fancy.
Meghan Daum: 00:49 No, I wasn't fancy. I'd never heard of it. It was a private club that one of those people belonged to. Anyway, your listeners can't possibly care about this, but yes, it was a private club and it was, I had never heard of it.
Anna David: 01:03 Neither had I, but you had just moved to New York and I had recently left New York and I was trying really hard to be like, Oh no, it's great. I wasn't miserable there, but I had been miserable there, but now you've escaped. You've escaped and you wrote a lovely post about it.
Meghan Daum: 01:23 I wrote a lovely post that got me completely dragged on Twitter, like beyond. So yeah, so I kind of knew it would happen. I mean, I left here in late March. I mean, sorry. I left New York in late March and the reason was that I was getting a new puppy. It just, the timing happened to coincide with that and it was going to be hard enough anyway, because I live in a big apartment building in Manhattan. And then the lockdown started and I thought, Oh, well, I'll just find like an Airbnb someplace. And I looked further and further out and it was like, Oh, who's going to take a virus refugee with a 10-week-old Newfoundland puppy. And these wonderful people rented me their farm down here in rural Virginia Southwestern part of Virginia. And I have, I thought I was only going to be here like a month and it's going to be almost six months. And here we are. But yeah, I wrote a piece about coming down here and just this sort of weird like catatonic state I found myself in for the first, at least month or so, because I was chasing this little puppy around, who's now playing with his very noisy bone. And you know, it was just so strange and I wrote about like, just how, how odd it was to be here.
02:53 And for some reason, people on Twitter interpreted as my making fun of the region. And part of it was that I didn't want to be specific about where I was. So, I said Appalachia and I just, I kept referring to it that way. And apparently Appalachia is like its own social justice identity group. So, they just like defaulted to the idea that I was somehow like dissing them and being a snobby New Yorker. Now I think it was, there is a huge stigma to admitting that you left New York because it's a sign of privilege and all that. So, I really would not have written about this if I didn't like have a column and I had to file something every month, but it's just the hazards of having to file some stuff.
Anna David: 03:42 I mean, and I think it's just, did you ever read, So You've Been Publicly Shamed, the John Bronson, classic.
Meghan Daum: 03:49 Yeah, it's a classic. It started at all.
Anna David: 03:50 Yeah. I mean, I just am so grateful. I'm not important enough to have been dragged through the mud on Twitter. It's just crazy.
Meghan Daum: 03:57 You're totally important. Anna, I feel like it's, your time is coming. Don't give up on yourself.
Anna David: 04:02 Well, don't you think we're all one tweet away from her life being destroyed?
Meghan Daum: 04:06 Oh yeah. I mean, and the funny thing is I got ruthlessly dragged for that piece, and it's funny because Katie Herzog and Jessie Single had just started their wonderful podcast, Blocked and Reported, which is all about Twitter blow ups. And I was their very first guest and talking about this. But then like, literally I recovered from this. And then two weeks later, I just like off the cuff decided to make this stupid joke about, about how I thought, like people with PhDs. I was thinking like people with PhDs and like the humanities, or like, you know, sub sub genres of sub genres of gender studies don't necessarily need to go around calling themselves doctor all the time. And I just, like, I made like a stupid joke about it and it went viral. And I got ganged up on by PhD Twitter, who was also apparently a marginalized group because they were like absolutely outraged and it still pops up. I mean, that one was like the worst of all. And I've been pretty well behaved on Twitter for years. You know, it's actually the first time I had done something that stupid.
Anna David: 05:16 What's interesting is that you were such an unafraid writer. So, you write things that could absolutely enrage and offend people. I do not find those things, you know, but you know, and your podcast is about the unspeakable things. I mean, you’re the poster child.
Meghan Daum: 05:34 Now, I'm going to get other people to say things to make people mad at them. I'm just going to ask questions.
Anna David: 05:39 Deflection. I like it. So, let's talk about you, your incredibly impressive career. So, five books, columnist for the LA Times for decades? A decade was not old enough for that.
Meghan Daum: 05:54 Not decade, a little over a decade. Yeah. From 2005, around 2015, 2016.
Anna David: 06:00 So, we focus here on book launches and so I'm, can I just bust out and say, what's your favorite book that you've written?
Meghan Daum: 06:10 Oh, gosh. You know, I actually, I have a soft spot for my novel, the Quality of Life Report, maybe because like, not that many people have read it and it's my only novel. And I hope to write more novels someday, but I just, I loved writing it. It was a lot of fun. And so, I liked that book and that book definitely, that was like one of those things that had a huge, it had a huge launch and it probably sold the least amount of copies of any of my books. These things tend to work in inverse proportion.
Anna David: 06:45 That's so interesting. Well, novels, it's a whole other thing, but you are somebody who like your first book really launched you right out of the gate.
Meghan Daum: 06:56 Well, you know, it's interesting because it seems that way in retrospect, but you know, at the time it was a very small publisher. It was published by Open City Books, which was a publishing arm of Open City Magazine, which was a literary magazine in it's got started in the nineties. It was very hip like New York City, you know, part of the like alternative literary sphere at that time. And it's, you know, it was so interesting because I was working as a freelance writer. I was writing for magazines. And you know, I had some sort of big hits, a couple of pieces in the New Yorker, like pieces of GQ, Harpers, and I just really loved essays and I wanted to do essays. And my agent at the time was always like, Oh, you need to write like a big nonfiction book. You need to like, have some high concept. And I wrote proposal after proposal for such books and actually looking back, I think a few of them could have worked, like for whatever reason my agent was just like, not digging it. And I'm kind of grateful that they didn't work because they would have been miserable to write. Like I was trying to write about kind of like, you know, this idea of these kind of, you know, hypocrisies around feminism and the branding of feminism. Even back in the nineties, I was really interested in that. So, I could have written a whole book about that. But my agent never liked my proposals.
08:18 So finally I was like, look, I'm an essayist. Don't want to do a collection of essays. That's what I do. And again, the agent was like, well, that's a terrible idea. That'll like destroy your career before it begins. And so, I was like, fine. I'll just like publish with my friends. My friends were running open city magazine and they wanted to do it as a book. And it was like a tiny little production. I mean, I got a couple thousand dollars advance. They put it out, it was in paperback. It was like this cult thing. And, you know, it's funny. It didn't even get, it got some kind of negative reviews, even when it came out. People don't like, remember this, but it did. Like, it was like, Oh, who is this spoiled girl? She's so shallow, you know? Cause I would be talking about these, you know, kind of iconography of social class and trying to, you know, kind of making fun of people who are obsessed with such things as I was, and it was taken literally by some people. And so, you know, it wasn't really until like later that it became this like, quote unquote cult classic, if you want to call it that. But you know, I think it's easy to sort of have nostalgia around some of these things.
Anna David: 09:31 Well, I mean, it's [inaudible] for all of us because publishing was if not a dream, at least not the kind of hell that it is today, but I think I, you know, so let me ask you this. First of all, you had an agent for your magazine pieces?
Meghan Daum: 09:50 Yes. And that's actually how I started out. Yeah. So, I was writing for women's magazines mostly because those were what paid the most. I never had any other source of income, you know, that's another thing I think people, this is like the dirty secret of publishing. Like, you know, you have to have independent source of income if you are going to be in the business. It's like, we talk about why it's all these white people. Well, because those are the people who can tend to afford to be in the business. So, I really like just was like hustling all the time, writing for Self and Glamor and you know, Mademoiselle, all those Condi Nast magazines. I mean, I had a job at Allure magazine. That was my first job out of college. I was an editorial assistant, so I really like sort of toiled in those minds. And yeah, I had the agent he definitely got me some really. He handled the magazine pieces and I got paid really well. Because they paid a lot back then. And so that was a way to survive. But none of those, none of the pieces I was writing for women's magazines ended up like being collected anywhere. Like those were just to pay the bills.
Anna David: 11:01 And then, but were your New Yorker pieces or things, options, I mean, your books have been optioned?
Meghan Daum: 11:07 Optioned for a film or television?
Anna David: 11:11 Yeah.
Meghan Daum: 11:11 Yeah, the Quality of Life Report was optioned for film. And you know, that went around in Hollywood for years and years and nothing ever came of it. But that, you know, I really like milks that pretty far. It was optioned a couple of times. And then at one point I wrote the script, so I was able to get into the Writers Guild, which is, I really just wanted the health insurance. That was my main. So, there was that I'm trying to think. I mean, the Unspeakable had an option for a while. Yeah. Yes and no. I mean, it's not like every book has been optioned, not at all.
Anna David: 11:49 Well, okay. And so, let's talk about, so how did it become a cult classic by Misspent Youth?
Meghan Daum: 11:55 I don't know. I think because it was just like, so little and underground, like that's the thing. I think that if my misspent youth had been published by a big publisher at that time and kind of touted as like, Oh, here's this like, quote unquote voice of her generation, which is such a douchey phrase. If it had come out that way, I think that it would potentially not have been received as well, because it would just have looked like this is like the next person that they're like, they've decided to elevate and whatever. But yeah, this way it was sort of just like, Oh, I, it was an indie band, like, Oh, people could say like, Oh, I knew, I knew her. You know, I was into this book before you were, that's kind of the thigh. So yeah. But I mean, it's never, it's not like I ever made any money from it. I mean, I did earn out my, my couple thousand-dollar advance. I will say that.
Anna David: 12:59 Having never earned out an advance, hats off. Never.
Meghan Daum: 13:04 Well, if your advance is low enough. You will eventually earn it out.
Anna David: 13:06 No, I experimented with that one too. Oh, it was the book that you were in, yes, you were in that book, the True Tales of Lust and Love. I had the honor of editing it. You wrote an essay about your then husband and how you guys watched a lot of television.
Meghan Daum: 13:25 Right. That's right. That's right. That was the glue of our marriage. We watched like high-end cable dramas, The Wire kept us together, The Wire and the Sopranos and Six Feet Under kept us together for a long time.
Anna David: 13:39 I just remember this one line in it where you're just like, we are not to put a fine point audit like, losers. Like I'm misquoting it, but I did end [inaudible]. It was just like a perfect [inaudible] phrase. So. Okay. So, let's talk about book launches, how so you've had the experience of a publisher paying you a lot of money and. Am I making it and having like all this hype? So, what is that like?
Meghan Daum: 14:06 Well, I mean, it's a very lucky thing and yeah, so I had my Misspent Youth came out in 2001. And then I wrote a novel, the Quality of Life Report and had a new agent by then and I sold it. And yeah, that was one of those things where it just, it went into an auction situation and, you know, they like really overpaid. So, they had to do everything they could to promote it. I mean they did; they were great. Like, my editor was fantastic. They did a beautiful job with it. And this was 2003 it came out and like, yeah, I mean, it was big tours. I had a big hard cover tour. I had an even bigger paperback tour. I think I went to 15 cities and, you know, one of the things with that book, you know, it's a really, it's like a very, it's a satirical novel. And it's inspired by my own experience. I moved from New York city to Nebraska when I was about 30, just for no reason whatsoever. I was, I mean, there was a reason which is that I was completely in debt, like my misspent youth, that's an accurate description of my situation at that time.
15:21 So yeah, I went to Nebraska and I just kind of lived there for several years. And so, I concocted this story about this television reporter who works for like a cheesy morning show in New York and moves to this fictional town of Prairie City to do a series of installments about how she has simplified her life. So, the simplicity movement was a really big thing back then, remember that? Like remember Real Simple Magazine, which I wrote for many times, you know, it'd be like, Oh, here's an $800 wastebasket that will cleanse your soul and simplify your life. And so, it was making fun of all of that. And it was really dark in a lot of ways too, like, it was very kind of like this high, low thing and Oh no.
Anna David: 16:09 Oh the puppy. Well, at least we know he really exists.
Meghan Daum: 16:12 What do you want me to do? Do you want to stop? Do you want me to hold on? I'm sorry.
Anna David: 16:17 I can. No worries.
Meghan Daum: 00:00 I'll pick up what was I saying? Oh, about the novel being dark. Okay. Yep.
Anna David: 00:04 So it was dark and light. It was satire.
Meghan Daum: 00:10 It was a satire and you know, it would had really dark moments in it, like it had to do with drug addiction and had to do with social class and geography. And I think that they felt compelled to sort of package it as chick lit or a beach read, you know, the cover had like feet on it. That was the big trend back then. Like it was either the bare back, like the dress where you would see the, just the back of the woman, the back of the woman's neck or the feet. So this one had feet and I think that like a lot of readers were disappointed because they thought they were getting like a fun beach read. And so it didn't get I'm not going to say it didn't get taken seriously because it got really nice reviews. But I think that it was one of those things where the publisher just thought that the best, you know, the kind of the surest bet would be to market it to women in this particular way. And so, yeah, so I would go on book tour. I mean, this is like one of those things that you just sound like, you're like, this is kind of thing that must make people who are now in their twenties, like just want to murder you. It's like, Oh God, I had to get on a plane every day and I'd just get into these hotels and my God, the Four Seasons, you know?
Anna David: 01:30 But sometimes three people show up. I hear. I've never been.
Meghan Daum: 01:35 Well, let me tell you something. Sometimes one person shows up, which is the worst. Zero is infinitely better than one. And I remember being in Saint Paul, Minnesota on this tour, I can't remember if it was the paperback or the hardcover, and I get there and it happened to be the same night that David Sedaris was doing like a huge event at the University of Minnesota. And like, he was at the absolute top of his fame. Like there was a huge piece in the New York Times with photographs from this particular event. I mean, there was an overflow of light. It was like a stadium event. And so one girl showed up to my reading at this little bookstore in St. Paul. And she was like, Oh my gosh, I am such a fan. Like, I can't even believe that I get to meet you. Like, you know, she had driven like a hundred miles from her family's farm or something. And I was like, well, I hate to break it to you. You're the only person here. And so I just took her to go see David Sedaris. And that's what we did. And it was the obvious thing to do. I wasn't going to just like stand there and read for her. And it was a lovely night.
Anna David: 02:48 That's amazing. I had to look it up while you were talking about it. You are right about the feet and it looks very odd. I would not think this was a book about somebody moving to Prairie.
Meghan Daum: 03:02 Prairie City? Yeah, PC for short. Yeah.
Anna David: 03:04 I would not think that from looking at this cover
Meghan Daum: 03:07 The feet, it's like a model's feet. And so they're huge feet. They're gigantic.
Anna David: 03:11 They're big feet and she's wearing pajamas, right. Is that what?
Meghan Daum: 03:14 Wearing pajamas, and she's like sitting on a porch, I think. And then on the paperback edition, they had just a woman like with her head cut off because that's the other thing. So the paperback edition was a woman with a bare midriff, like a black tee shirt that is not covering her stomach.
Anna David: 03:32 Wait a second. I'm looking at it.
Meghan Daum: 03:34 Just how I Gallivanted all around. Oh, well, you know, now it's been reissued and there's a really nice cover with the farmhouse.
Anna David: 03:39 No woman, no woman there at all.
Meghan Daum: 03:41 Right. Yes. The one that the new, the reissue is very, very nice cover.
Anna David: 03:46 Okay. So talk about that, getting a reissue? That's because it sells so well, I would assume?
Meghan Daum: 03:53 No that's because it went out of print,
Anna David: 03:56 But then some people wanted it. That's how it came back.
Meghan Daum: 03:59 Yeah. yeah, I actually approached a publisher, so I feel. I don't, like, I don't want my publishers to get mad at me for talking this way about my books, like you know, the problem with Quality of Life Report, like it actually it's sold. Okay. It just like was the stakes were so high that there was no way they could be met. Like you would have had to have been Bridget Jones Diary or something in order to, you know, do what it needed to do. But yeah, so I can't remember exactly when it went out of print, but a couple of years ago, I was able to bring it back with a small press. So that's, and I love it. It has a beautiful cover and Curtis Sittenfeld wrote a lovely forward to it. She was always a big fan of the book.
Anna David: 04:48 But it's interesting because novels don't tend to have forwards.
Meghan Daum: 04:52 No, they don't not as much, but you see that more and more I think. Anytime you can get like a more successful author to have their words in the book, as well as yours. That's a good thing.
Anna David: 05:05 Yeah. So okay. So, the other thing, so they sent you on these two tours. What else did they do? Did they, you know, what's it like to be a part of a big launch? Tell me and my listeners, because I don't think any of us know.
Meghan Daum: 05:21 But this is like history. I mean, none of this happens anymore. There was this thing called the satellite tour. Have you ever done that?
Anna David: 05:28 No. I'm ashamed to admit, but explain what it is.
Meghan Daum: 05:30 So that's like, where you just, again, this would never happen now, but that's like where you it's radio satellite, you just sit in your house for like hours and hours and they just patch you through to like every, morning drive, morning zoo, kind of like radio show in the country. And they're like, boom, boom, boom. And it's like these people who haven't read the book, I mean, you know, and so you just have to like, say your thing over and over again. And again, like, that's amazing. That's great. Also, by the way, like you do a lot of NPR, like, you know, so yes, with any book, obviously literary book, what you want is to book either fresh air. I mean, obviously fresh air is the number one thing you want. Yeah. Funny story about that.
Anna David: 06:19 Tell me.
Meghan Daum: 06:22 Oh my God. So, when I, this is the thing, Oh, this is like, literally I will go to my grave, like kicking myself. So, when my Misspent Youth came out, somehow Terry Gross, once you interview me, I was like, fantastic. And I had moved to Lincoln at that point and I wasn't there very long, but what happened when I moved to Lincoln, Nebraska was that it coincided with, had Misspent Youth even come out? It must have, no, that's right. My Misspent Youth came out. I was already living in Lincoln. That's right. But the title was taken from one of the essays that appeared in the New Yorker. And so the essay, My Misspent Youth came out of the new Yorker just a few months after I happened to randomly move to Lincoln, Nebraska. And at the end of the piece, the piece is all about being in New York and like the economy of creativity in New York. And it's like about a whole bunch of things. But then at the very end, I sort of mentioned that I'm moving to Lincoln, Nebraska. And so of course what happened is every person in Lincoln, Nebraska who reads the New Yorker, like called me up and invited me over. And, you know, you can imagine this is a very self-congratulatory group of people, okay.
07:40 Who, you know, New Yorker readers in Lincoln, Nebraska. So I have this, like, I had this completely inauthentic experience there, which is part of what informed the book. I mean, you know, it was, it's really all about like authenticity. So I, the second I moved there, I had like, people sort of like either being kind of irritated with me or wanting to cozy up to me or just sort of being like fascinated. So I went into the studio, the local NPR studio to do the Terry Gross interview. And I just sucked like, I was horrible. I was horrible at talking about the book part of it was that, I mean, I'll be honest with you. I was, I had a really hard time being candid at that time in my life because my parents were just like, you know, no, God rest both of their souls. They were like, really? They just took everything personally. Like they were like benevolent narcissists. Okay. And there was just nothing I could say about anything that would not have set them off. And so it was as if, you know, not only was like, you know, the, the entire, not the entire, but like many people from NPR Lincoln affiliate, like sort of hovering around the studio.
08:58 Cause they were so excited that somebody was being interviewed for Fresh Air. But like my parents might as well have been sitting in the studio. And the essays are quite personal and sort of embarrassing in some ways. And I just was unable to talk about them in any kind of interesting way. And it was like horror. It was a horrible interview and they never aired it. And I blamed the fact that they never aired it on 9/11, even though I think we did the interview in like July, 2001. And I was like, wow, they were going to run it. But then 9/11 happened. So I have never been able to get back on Terry Gross. So anyway, that's what happened there, but the way we got on that was that. Yeah. So if you have a book come out, what your publicist will want is to book you on Terry Gross. And if not that then All Things Considered or Morning Edition. Yeah. And I've done all those and other ones.
Anna David: 09:55 And do those move the needle in terms of, those are the NPR shows that that actually people go and buy the book when they hear the [inaudible]?
Meghan Daum: 10:01 Yeah. And you know what, I'm not even sure that's so much true anymore. I think that was like completely true up until a few years ago. But just the entire media landscape has so dramatically changed over the last few years that, you know, I still think like having a great Terry Gross interview will probably move a needle, but you know, just the bandwidth wasn't as wide back then. I mean, everyone listened to Fresh Air like that. You know, everyone read the New Yorker that week and they listened to Fresh Air that day. And that's what people talked about when they went to a party. Like there was a sort of, you know, limited set of conversational topics because the media was so limited. So like, and now it's just so siloed and there's so many things like, I think Joe Rogan can move a needle. I wonder if he can move a needle more than Terry Gross. I don't know. I would be, I don't know how you would even do the metrics on that, but I'd be curious.
Anna David: 11:01 I will say like, you know, I had Lori Gottlieb on this show and she had [inaudible] interview with all of the success that followed. And I have a friend who went on Joe Rogan and nobody buys his books. I don't know. I don't know. I think everything can be the exception for the rule, but look, so that is so interesting what you said. So let's talk about that challenge of people's reactions to what you write, particularly family. People ask me about this all the time. Let me ask a totally inappropriate question. Is it easier now that your parents are gone?
Meghan Daum: 11:40 Yes. Yes. I also just don't care anymore. Like I really don't. I have been writing controversial pieces for my entire career and you know, I have drifted in the last few years into this kind of like free speech kind of anti critic culture landscape of inquiry and, you know, part of the reason for that, it's not because like, I'm so obsessed with you know, it's not because I'm so obsessed with like wokeness it's because I want to keep writing the way I've always written. Like, I don't want to change my approach to my subject matter. And we are in a climate now where something that I would have written 20 years ago, that nobody would have batted an eye that would have just been considered part of the like normal liberal kind of like intellectual discourse is now anathema. Like, you know, it's completely shifted. So, you know, part of the reason that I think some people think I'm some sort of, you know, outspoken or like contrarian of some sort. And it's not that at all. I just want to stay the same. That's all. Like, I just want to keep doing what interests me. I just want to keep doing, because it's like, I'm not interested in just saying something that everyone's expecting or like, I'm not interested in saying the obvious thing because that's not why we're in this business. We're in the business to like invite the reader to think alongside us as we like, think counter-intuitively or whatever. So anyway I don't, I'm at a point now where people have been mad at me about so many different things for so long that I really don't care. And I don't read, you know, frankly, like I don't, I don't read my Amazon reviews. I never look at my, I'd say the last probably three books. I have not looked at my Amazon rank one time.
Anna David: 13:43 That is so impressive.
Meghan Daum: 13:45 Well, or it's just like, I have my head in the sand. I don't know.
Anna David: 13:50 I don't know as somebody who, you know, I had a book come out a couple of weeks ago and just constantly hitting refresh on Amazon, just constantly, you know? Not proud, but I, one day maybe I will reach your place.
Meghan Daum: 14:07 I just don't want to know. I mean, I feel like it, like, I don't know. I just, I feel like my motto in certain ways could just be like, I don't want to know. There's just so many things that I don't want to know, and that I don't need to know. Like, if there's something I could do about it. Yes. But there's nothing you can do about your Amazon rank or your review. Maybe there is, but not really.
Anna David: 14:31 Probably there's a way to game the system and you know, that we don't know. But, so you have all these expectations, tours, Terry Gross, what else happens on that big, big launch?
Meghan Daum: 14:45 Oh, well, you do your events, do your bookstore events. Sometimes their bookstores, sometimes they're in big, bigger venues. You figure out where you want to be, you have a party, they used to throw the party for you. The publisher used to pay for the party. They don't do that anymore. So now you got to pay to throw your own party or hope a friend of yours throws a party for you. And yeah, you just kind of, you know, it's, it's so different now. Like it used to be that this was kind of set up for you, that they would, if you were lucky and you had a big publisher and they were treating you well, and, you know, mind you, most people, most authors are not that lucky. Like, you know, even, you know, you could be published by Random House and still not get very much. So, I was always really fortunate. So they kind of rolled the carpet out for you a little bit. But I would say, so, you know, the big tour for the novel was like 2003, 2004. And then I did not have another book. I had this like long dry spell and I didn't have another book come out until 2010.
15:55 And by then things were starting to change. People were not buying books in bookstores as much anymore. So the, the tour, I think I only went to like three or four cities for that book. But still, you know, we did NPR, had the book was about real estate, and how housing and like, you know, being obsessed with shelter and houses and design. So I had I was on Marketplace and [inaudible], the host came to my house and like, you know, we talked about my house, you know, as I talk about my house that I bought my, my little tiny house in Echo Park in Los Angeles. And he came out there and so it was like that. But the other thing they want you to do too, is like write a whole bunch of articles to promote your book. So it's like they want articles to be written about you, but they also want you to write a whole bunch of stuff, often for no money, as a way of like supporting your book. And so I did a whole lot of that up until the most recent book, which I just, I refuse to on that one.
Anna David: 17:04 Even worse, the Q and A's where a writer ask you the questions and you are writing out the answers and that's basically like writing six articles.
Meghan Daum: 17:14 Right. Although, although I have to say that is really helpful in terms of figuring out how to talk about the book. I mean, here's another thing it's like when, when the book first comes out, you're finding your feet in terms of how to talk about it. And so, you know, and for me, it takes like several months, sometimes like a year to really figure out how to talk about it, where the beats are, like, what points are most interesting, what anecdotes are worth sharing again and again. And so when your book is first out and you're really doing a whole bunch of events, that's actually when you're at your weakest in terms of talking about it. So it's frustrating. You know, so I, yeah, so you do, so I think that like the Q and A, and I love it too, when like a lot of the Q and A's, I've had Q and A's where I actually write the questions and the answers. Like, I think there was like, I think on my website for one of the books, it was like Q and A with Megan Daum. And I just like wrote the questions that I wanted to be asked.
Anna David: 18:16 The Nervous Breakdown. They let you do that. It's called this site, the Nervous Breakdown. It's actually a great site. Go on.
Meghan Daum: 18:22 Is that a podcast also? Or I might thinking of something else.
Anna David: 18:26 It could be by now, but back when I did it, yeah. You got to interview yourself.
Meghan Daum: 18:32 All softballs. Yeah. So, yeah, there's a lot of writing and they want you to write, you know, if it's a nonfiction book that has anything to do with like current events or something, they want you to try to write an op ed for the New York times or something like that. And of course those pay like a hundred dollars, $200. And so they want that. They want to try to there's the whole first cereal business, where they want you to, they want to take an excerpt from the book and have some publication run it ahead of time. And that's actually something that the publisher usually handles. And often the author doesn't even get paid for that. That's just part of the publicity mechanism.
Anna David: 19:14 Oh yeah. I remember having trouble, you know, cause now I publish my own books and I remember getting into it with Harper Collins because they would only excerpt a certain number of words and the publication wanted more and I'm fighting with them to say this, this would be so good for, Oh no, no, no. We're only going to give a thousand words. And so the opportunity, I had a lot of dumb, unnecessary situations, which I'm still working through.
Meghan Daum: 19:40 I want to know how you publish your own books. Wow. I didn't realize that, but maybe yeah.
Anna David: 19:45 Oh yeah Meghan, it's the ticket.
Meghan Daum: 19:48 Maybe so. Yeah. I would have to learn how to like, you know, upload a file a little bit better if I was going to.
Anna David: 19:55 Yeah. Well I know someone who knows all about [inaudible]. Yeah. I mean, I basically, yeah. I just, basically, all I do is rail against traditional publishing and then I have a publishing company and these things that you think are so impossible or not impossible, you know, I was used to my publisher telling me, Oh, we can't get it in that bookstore or whatever it is. And I didn't understand that they were prioritizing other books. As an author, I can go and get my book, not in any store, but even now stores are currently closed. Like I'm able, you know, I've got it in book soup, it's at Kittson, not even a bookstore. And I was so used to my publisher telling me, no, no, no, no, don't contact them. You get in trouble if you contact them. So these are tales from the other side, Meghan, other writers. But I will say one other thing that you said about talking your book. One thing that I did for my most recent book and I recommend people do is write a sales page on your website rather than just having your book summary, a cover and, you know, reviews or whatever. Actually break it down into, this is what the reader's going to get out of it. This is why I wrote it. And it helped me because it helped me solidify those things so that I was ready to talk about it.
Meghan Daum: 21:14 That's interesting. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. And I actually found, so I have five books that I wrote and then I have the sixth book that I edited, like you, I did an anthology. And that I actually found was very different and incredibly fun. And I loved promoting that book, partly because it was, there were contributors involved. So I could like, kind of gather my flock and we could do events and I didn't have to do everything. And it was a subject that was easier to talk about. And like, I kind of got, got my talking points down pretty early on. So it was a little bit better that way, but and it was kind of lonely.
Anna David: 21:58 Yeah. And you get self conscious. Don't you?
Meghan Daum: 22:02 Yeah. I mean, I mean, it's like at the end of the day, you're just like, why should anybody care? Like there's so many books out there. There's just so much stimulation. There are so many people saying things and asking others to absorb what they say and respond somehow. It's like, I just think it's like incredible gift if anybody bothers to read your book. And so when they write and you know, the thing is it's like when they write and say that they enjoyed it, that's incredibly gratifying as I'm sure you know, because you know, for every person who hates it, if somebody's, you know, they're more likely. I knew as a columnist, like people would always send me angry letters and it's like, you know, for every, you know, person that writes a nice letter, there are probably 10 people who wrote an angry letter. I think that people are, well, I mean, maybe not so much for books, but you know, when I was in newspaper columnist, yeah. I think people are, they're much more likely to like, bother to write to you if they're mad about something like, you know, I just have to tell you you're wrong. And if somebody is just like, Oh, this is great. Yeah. I agreed. And then they just like go on with their day.
Anna David: 23:16 Right. I think with book reviews, you can get some really passionate fans.
Meghan Daum: 23:22 Yes. Yeah. That's true. That's true. Yeah.
Anna David: 23:24 And so let's, and so now you're doing a podcast. It's only as of this recording three weeks old, I believe.
Meghan Daum: 23:32 It's only two weeks old.
Anna David: 23:33 Two weeks old. Yeah. So let's talk about that. What made you decide to move into that land?
Meghan Daum: 23:39 Because nobody would, because nobody was doing it, nobody was doing podcasts and I felt that somebody needed to do one.
Anna David: 23:44 You wanted to be the first podcast out there.
Meghan Daum: 23:46 Yeah.
Anna David: 23:47 Same, same, no one does them.
Meghan Daum: 23:51 No one does them. And especially not, not in a pandemic and all that. I actually, I love interviewing people. I love talking to people. I do a lot of interviewing. When I was in Los Angeles, when I was in LA, when I was writing for the LA Times, I did a lot of events like interviewing authors and people would come in. And so that's just like something that is very different than writing. Like it's just another sort of hat. So I had really always wanted to do a podcast for several years and I just couldn't quite figure out how to do it or how to get it together. And I was literally like a year ago, I was trying to figure out, like I was, I was actively trying to figure out how to do it even a year ago. And I was talking to different people who had like existing platforms and like, should I go on their channel or this or that? And I really like, over-thought it for many months. And then finally just decided I should just do it myself, but then that well, but then we'll see. Cause you know, it's a lot, it's a lot to get going. As I'm sure you know? So yeah, it's very new and it's an experiment, but it's conversations. It's again, it's the concept is like nothing terribly unusual. It's just me like having sort of free-ranging nuanced conversations with interesting people who are willing to speak candidly about issues that in some cases may be unspeakable.
Anna David: 25:25 Yes. I think that I will tell you it's a lot at first to get a podcast going and then you just kind of get it down, and you know what you're doing and then you batch them and you've got your editor and it's just, it kind of becomes just one of the things you do.
Meghan Daum: 25:42 But they have to be timely is the problem. Like the, especially now I feel like if you try to, cause I had a whole bunch in the can sort of, and I was so excited and I was like, Oh no, this is, I can't feel so old now. Like if it's been sitting around for a month, it's suddenly stale.
Anna David: 25:58 Well, yeah. It depends on your topic. You know, if you have a more evergreen topic, like book launches, you know, publishing moves fast, but not as fast as the world. So it's easier. I, you know, but the other thing is people listen to podcasts. A lot of times I listen to a podcast and it's not, it's out of date because I discovered that podcast three years after. So, who knows, but, and we have to get close to wrapping up and look, your puppy has gone totally silent. I'm super impressed.
Meghan Daum: 26:30 Yeah. He's, he's chewing on his, he's lying on the air conditioner vent, which is really the only place with the air conditioner on.
Anna David: 26:42 So what are you writing now? Are you going to sell another book? You had a book come out in October?
Meghan Daum: 26:48 So yeah. Yeah. I had pretty controversial book come out. So yeah. The paperback of that is going to come out in November after the election. Thank goodness. So yeah, you know, I'm writing, I'm working on a couple of different things, nothing that I really want to say too much about yet, but I mean, I would just say, like, in terms of the idea of launching, I mean this last book was really, really different. In that there was just a huge Gulf between the way the media was reacting and the way people in real life and on the ground and in bookstore events were reacting. And so it was an incredible lesson and it was so emblematic of how much things have changed because it used to be that like whatever NPR and the New York Times, and, you know, the New Republic or whatever had to say about the book was consistent with what, like the people who show up at the bookstore in St. Paul or Seattle have to say. And this time, because the book was it's called The Problem with Everything and it has to do with the new culture Wars. And it has to do with these issues of speech and you know, just sort of emerging identity, new iterations of identity politics and all this stuff.
28:07 And as a liberal, I'm kind of, not kind of, I am criticizing aspects of the progressive, you know, extreme, progressive left, and was not well received in certain corners. And it was like, there was just this incredible gulf, like I would get really negative review in the New Yorker. And then I would walk into the bookstore event in Seattle and it would be packed and people would be like dying to talk about this stuff. And like so excited and thanking me for writing the book, and it's so different. And so I think that like more and more, if you're going to write a book and I'm sure you've found this, if you're yourself publishing, like you have to just do it yourself and you can not rely on these big institutions the way. And it's a lot of work, but it's also liberating.
Anna David: 28:57 Yes. I completely agree. And it's, you know, it's really nice to have control over, you know, I never had a lot of control over titles, covers, all of these things. I don't think people understand how much they're relinquishing control.
Meghan Daum: 29:11 Yeah. And I think that, you know, the idea with these big publishers is always like, well, we're doing you a favor by publishing you. So you let us kind of make these decisions and you know, yeah, they are doing you a favor by paying you. But it's hard, you know, it's a fine line.
Anna David: 29:31 And they're not trying to do your favorite. Like they are only paying you if they think they're going to make their money back and some, and who could blame them. It's a business.
Meghan Daum: 29:38 Right. But most books do not make their money back. I mean, that's the thing, and the other thing is like, you know, you talk to musicians and they'll be like, wait, you don't have to pay your advance back? Like, what are you talking about? It is kind of miraculous that it is still an industry that functions in this way, but like, you could get a million dollars. Not that I've ever gotten anything close to that, but just for round numbers sake, and you could get a million dollar advance and sell 10 copies and you don't have to pay your advance back.
Anna David: 30:04 But you will never sell another book to a publisher.
Meghan Daum: 30:07 We'll never sell another book to another publisher. But like, you're not indebted. Like you ha you got a million dollars, like. Walk away from the table.
Anna David: 30:16 Yeah. Yeah. I haven't, I haven't had the experience either, but yeah, it is, I mean, it's the craziest business. I mean, you can't know your actual number of books sold. Right. I never known the IP and everybody just sort of out how many, how many have you sold, like you should know the answer.
Meghan Daum: 30:35 Oh, I know. Don't you love it when like, people like normal people are like, how's your book selling? How many have you sold? And it's like, don't ask me that. Just don't, just have no idea
Anna David: 30:44 How is your book doing, the worst words in the English language. Not as well as I'd like, but that's actually, you know, what I've learned about doing it myself is I've now published two on my own. They go exactly as I'd like, because I'm in control. And I know the reality, I know I'm not going to, you know, make a ton of money or, and so I can only be pleasantly surprised.
Meghan Daum: 31:07 Yeah. Yeah. And I think, you know, I say this to students and people that I mentor all the time. It's like, you have to think about, what do you want this book to do for you? Do you want it to be like the biggest thing in your life? Do you want it to like, be the symbol of your whole career? Or do you want it to just lead to other opportunities? Do you want it to lay the groundwork for other things? Because the book in and of itself often is not the main thing. The book is a vehicle for getting to something else to doing speaking events or having a university teaching career or whatever it is. And, you know, I always try to keep in mind, it's like, you know, publishing these things. It may not like, you know, even you might not even make a living from it, but it affords you an interesting life. It allows you to have opportunities that you wouldn't otherwise. And whether that might be like, you know, going to Australia to speak to an auditorium, or it might be just like having dinner with like a really interesting small group of people in New York City at a private club that you've never heard of. But like, that's huge. Like to me, that's kind of worth the price of admission, you know?
Anna David: 32:25 Yeah, absolutely. And today you can build a huge career from having a book, but yeah, the book will give you a career, but you could build a huge career from it. Fantastic. Meghan, thank you so much for doing this.
Meghan Daum: 32:37 Sure. Thank you.
Anna David: 32:38 People want to find out more about you. They can go to your website. We should spell your name in case you're somebody who does know how to spell it.
Meghan Daum: 32:45 Yeah, well, there's a lot of ways to spell my first name. So it's Megan, M E G H A N Daum, D A U M. And so you can go to my website Meghandaum.com, or you can go to the new podcast website, which is the unspeakablepodcast.com. And you can also find the unspeakable podcast at any of the usual podcast platforms.
Anna David: 33:10 Fantastic. You guys go listen to that podcast. I read on the website. Dr. Drew is your next guest.
Meghan Daum: 33:17 I know you guys are friends.
Anna David: 33:19 Yes, we go back. Okay, Megan. Thank you. Thank you. And you guys thank you so much for listening, I will see you next week.