It is a silly man who spends his nights worrying about his problems, for in the morning he is tired, and his problems remain unchanged.
– Old Icelandic Proverb
It’s practically a fact that writers are among the most insecure people out there. Which, really, is quite understandable. After all, writers spend weeks and months of their lives working on something that can be consumed and judged in a matter of hours. They painstakingly research and create whole, very realistic characters that they like and would like you to like too. They’re architects of places where they will spend at least 30% of their waking thoughts for days and days and days, and they want you to enjoy your time there as well. Really, the entire undertaking of writing leaves you vulnerable: your position is indefensible, all soft underbelly on every possible side.
So many of the luckily-published writers will attempt to alleviate this endless sense of insecurity by poring over Amazon rankings and, very frequently, pestering their agent and editors for sales figures. Yet those numbers are very difficult to get: it takes a lot of time to publish a book, but it often takes just as long to figure out how it’s performing. This is because the numbers that the publishers initially see are only the numbers of the books they’ve sold to retail outlets, like Borders, Barnes and Noble, and all the fun little indy shops. It is the number of books on shelves, not the numbers of books being taken off the shelves by eager readers. To really see how the book’s performing, the publishers will need to marshal all the sales figures of each of those independent outlets (along with e-books, naturally), and judge them against the returns (books unsold that are returned to the publisher, if there are any), and then they compare that number to the overall print run. Then they have your sales figures.
But the delay is considerable: any figure you get is usually about three to six months old.
In sum, the performance of a book, that figure so desperately desired by so many terrified authors, is a constant moving target. It’s not unlike space travel: you are moving, and your target is moving, and by the time you’ve figured out where your target is then the distance between you has changed hugely.
But now authors have a brand new shiny tool in this endless war of calculation: Bookscan. Whereas before it cost a cool two grand a year for an agency to use it, now we measly authors can get four weeks for free. Amazon has just given us confused explorers an astrolabe with which we can find our fixed stars.
Except not really. Bookscan records an estimated 75% of all sales, and those exclude both e-books and a lot of big grocery store chains, which are becoming more important every day. (I can attest to this personally – one of my biggest buyers was Walmart, of all people.) This blog has some great warnings about exactly what the Bookscan development means, and how it should be used. But it will not scratch that ever-persistent itch: it will never make an author feel truly safe.
On the whole, the best perspective I can ever advise any writer to take about sales or reception – including myself, when I listen – is something close to Zen. Submitting a story or getting it published, be it a short story, a novel, or a comic book, is surrendering an enormous amount of power. People can suddenly say anything about you and your work. Worse, they could not say anything, a death-knell if ever there was one. Or maybe they’re saying things, but you’re utterly unaware of it. It’s like sending your child on a dangerous trip and never hearing back.
But the biggest problem is that there is so very little you can do about it. You cannot change what reviewers or readers are saying, and arguing with them is an exercise in embarrassment; nor can you go to a book store and begin personally hucking books on the corner out front. (Well, you could, but I don’t think it would mean much, depending on the size of the print run.) You could jump on a whole lot of social programs and begin spamming everyone and everything about your work, but unfortunately A. this is more irritating than persuasive, and B. even done in great numbers, studies have shown that it doesn’t really work. Unless your ties are strong enough in online social communities, telling everyone about your work will probably not translate into sales or good reception; and if you do have strong ties in social communities, then it’s likely they know about what you’ve done and, if they were going to buy it, they already have.
It reminds me of something Neil Gaiman once said about his first graphic novel, Black Orchid. He and Dave McKean thought that it wasn’t selling because the price was too high. So, they convinced the publisher to lower the price… and the sales did not change one fig. It didn’t matter.
This is the truth: almost no one knows what makes a story sell. Because at heart that question is really, “Why do you like this story?” but applied to hundreds and thousands of people. And the answers to that question are as infinite and varied as there are readers of the story, and you cannot hope to predict them all.
You can talk all you want about marketing and cover art and blurbs and sales tactics. And that will account for some numbers, yes. But eventually the issue is going to leave the realm of business and enter that of art: what makes a book good? What makes it readable? What makes people tell their friends about it? And, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, these questions deal in subjects so abstract and ephemeral that almost no answer is satisfying.
And here is the crux of it: at first you may hate it, but you will have to accept not knowing. You will have to learn to shrug, and come to embrace your constant vulnerability. And no matter where you sit in the Amazon rankings, or what digit Bookscan returns to you, or how many kind words you hear about what you’ve submitted, it’s not going to give you any more insight into what makes people come to love a book, or any work of art.
You can almost never change a story’s reception, whether you are waiting for sales numbers, for critical reviews, or to hear back on whether or not a submission has been accepted. Nor can you predict what will happen. And what you cannot change or predict in any way is not something worth worrying about.
It’s somewhat like that parable of the tree falling in the forest: if you did happen to hear it falling, would it mean any more than if you hadn’t? Could you have prevented it if you heard, maybe propped it up all by your lonesome self? It’s very unlikely, I think. So it would be a waste of time to go around listening for trees falling down, when you have so many better things to do.
The only thing that matters is that which is changeable. And very little is changeable. So, really, very little matters.
Change what you can. You have written the story. Presumably, you did it to the best of your abilities. And hopefully you have learned something on the way, something big or something small.
Now write the next thing. Don’t spend your precious hours with your ear to the glass of a window, trying to listen to the entire world outside. Do what is in front of you. That’s all that you can do. And frequently, I find it is more than enough.
Robert Jackson Bennett’s critically-acclaimed debut MR. SHIVERS arrived in bookstores in January of 2010. His next novel, THE COMPANY MAN, will be coming to stores in March of 2011. He currently lives in Austin, Texas, where he spends most of his time wondering what happened to all of the time he once had.