Monday, May 20, 2013

So How's the Book Doing? (And how many books have you sold? And what was your print run?)


My amiga the crackerjack memoirist and writing teacher Sara Mansfield Taber has posted an oh-so-true toe-curling but chuckle-worthy blog post over at She Writes: "Writing Is a Humiliation Banquet."

It reminds me of how gallery owners complain that customers (more often lookyloos) don't know "gallery etiquette." It's the same with writers. People usually mean well when they ask, "So how's the book doing?" Though alas, this is often followed by the more knife-like, "How many books have you sold?" What they don't realize is that (in most instances) this is akin to asking someone who was just turned down for a long overdue promotion, or maybe even fired, "So how much do you make?" because, as Sara Taber so eloquently points out, the book is almost never doing as well as its author had hoped it would and for most literary books, earnings hover well below the level at which one might cobble together a non-food-stamps-worthy living. Furthermore, publishers report sales with such a long lag, one never really knows at any given moment. (True, one could check sales reports but I have never done that because it's a self-torture fest and, for anyone focused on writing the next book, a mega time-suck.)

Herewith some of my favorite replies (and if you're an author with a book out, may they serve you):

(With a wink): I'm getting away with it... How about you?
(This is thanks to Paul Graybeal of Marfa's Moonlight Gemstones, by the way.)
(Breathily, Nancy Reaganqesque): Why my dear, that's like asking a woman her age! How have you been?
(Beaming, ready-to-judo): Oh, great! You know, I think everyone should write a book. Do you have a book you'd like to write?
(Shrugging, Jimmy Fallonesque): Well, I haven't moved full-time onto my yacht-- yet. But thanks for asking. How are you?
(Gleaming stare, revealing teeth): Very well... in fact... my doctor has been able to... reduce my meds... (Continue staring silently for three beats...) Just kidding! How are you?

Notice, the trick is to lob that conversational ball back into their court. Unless you might have something for them, e.g.,

Wonderfully! Thanks for asking! Oh, and by the way, I'll be doing an event at the bookstore next Thursday at 6 pm, it would be wonderful if you could come!
It's been such fun! Oh, and by the way, if it works for your book group / workshop / class, I'd be delighted to come talk about the book! 

The thing is, I don't think most people really care about one's answer; they're just asking to be polite, as they might ask about your kids (whom they don't know) or your kitchen remodeling project or even just chatting about the weather. And some friends really do care, they do mean well-- they're delighted to know a real-live-published author! They want to bask in your literary glamour and talk books! For those folks, the "I'm getting away with it," or "wonderfully, thanks for asking!" works fine. But then there are those, usually with a toe in the publishing business, or ambitious to write / publish themselves, who persist with the outrageous, "What was your print run?" Well, I say, bless 'em. Because they need blessing. I answer, "You know, I have no idea. I am so busy with my next book... " and when they insist (yikes, some of them do), "What do you mean, you don't know what was the print run?" I put on the Scarlett O'Hara:

"Why, golly gee, numbers just go in one ear and out the other."

When a writer has spent several years working on a book she has more emotion invested in it than the casual reader would guess. So if it's another writer who is asking and your book is doing splendidly, why rub in the salt? Or, more likely, since your book isn't selling anything like Dan Brown's latest, make your neighbor (the divorce lawyer who is going to write a thriller "one day") view you with head-shaking pity?

But I don't find writing a "humiliation banquet," quite the contrary. I am grateful that I have the skill and (most days) focus to write and that, in one way or another, my work finds readers. I'm always happy to see more royalties but I don't measure my success as a writer by numbers alone. A single  reader who approaches my work in a spirit of respect and intellectual curiosity, and to whom my book makes a meaningful difference, is worth more to me than 10,000 readers who just want a beachside page-turner.

(Bless you all who write beachside page-turners! May you all live happily ever after on your yachts! But I don't read such books and wouldn't have the wherewithal to write one, and anyway, even if I had a hundred bagilliwillion bucks, I couldn't be bothered with a yacht. To start with, I'd have to insure the darned thing. What a bore!)

So how does one make a living? All I can say is, if you want to make a living writing literary books you'll need to be (a) very lucky (b) very persistent (c) very productive (d) very hard-headed and (e) totally flummoxed by shopping (except for books, of course). And by the way, most literary writers don't make a living from their books but from teaching, freelancing, editing, and/or other work / income.

The "humiliation banquet" comes with the promotion part... and for that, thank goodness for the vast and ever-growing literature on sports psychology!

P.S. Check out my podcast interview with Sara Mansfield Taber about her fascinating memoir on "Conversations with Other Writers."