The Nature Of Numbers

A few weeks ago, Lev Grossman, the book critic for Time, had this to say about literary fiction:

"There is a certain brokenness among American literary publishing. I find it quite incredible, the energy and attention given to publishing books that are bought by only 10,000 people."

You walk into a bookstore -- assuming there is still a bookstore near you -- and you see all of these books on the tables in the front and on the shelves and do you, like me, wonder: who's buying these books? Someone is certainly buying them, or else these authors wouldn't continue to be published. But if you're not buying these books, and I'm not buying these books, then who is?

You know I hate to always be cynical but it's difficult, especially when talking about publishing and writing. I mean, we spend all our time writing stories and novels and submitting those stories and novels and getting those stories and novels rejected until, hopefully one day, an editor(s) likes them enough to actually publish them. And so then we wait and wait until the stories or novels come out, and then ... then what?

If we're talking about a short story being published in a print journal, well, good luck on having it read by a lot of people, not unless it's The Paris Review or some other venerable journal. And online, well, you're going to have better luck getting people to read your story, but after the first couple of weeks, then what? A new issue comes out and pushes the issue with your story off the main page, and it keeps getting pushed further and further away.

If we're talking about a novel being published, well, good luck on having it read by a lot of people, not unless the publisher paid you one million dollars and is doing everything it can to earn back its investment. Most likely, the bulk of the promotion will be on your shoulders, and sure, it's cool seeing your book in the bookstore, but wait a month or two and check the bookstore again. See your book there? Probably not.

Again, I hate to be cynical, but this is the reality of writing and publishing. Not that it should dissuade you from doing it. Nine times out of ten, you're a writer because you want to be a writer, you need to be a writer, and so what if only a handful of people read your stuff -- at least someone other than your parents are reading words you created, and that, honestly, is something special. Sure, we all want the big advances, we all want to be read by millions and millions of people, but the reality is all of that will probably never happen. If we're lucky, we'll maybe get read by those 10,000 people Lev Grossman mentioned.

But numbers, man, they are important, aren't they? Especially in publishing, where your numbers follow you around for life. Your first book doesn't sell well? Good luck then on trying to get a second one published, as hardly any publisher will be willing to take a chance on you.

That's one of the great benefits about doing it yourself -- numbers don't matter as much, at least not in the same vein as they do with major publishers. I mean, yeah, the more units you sell, the better, but if a book isn't doing well, it's not the end of the world. Those numbers could stay the same or they could go up or they could go down -- whatever happens, it doesn't mean you will have to scramble to try to get another book published.

Recently I've been seeing some writers make statements like "I'm not going to write the second book in the series until this first book sells 5,000 copies," as if it's some kind of threat. And the thing is, even if it is some kind of threat, who are they threatening?

I actually asked one of these writers why they just don't start writing the second book now, as some series don't take off right away and it's only after the second or third book that they do. After all, I reminded this writer, The Girl With the Dragan Tattoo sold terribly at first. Here was the response (I've Xed out the book titles for obvious reasons):

I've been on this train before, even if it's the first time I've self-pubbed. I was writing a sequel to a novel I hadn't sold yet (XXXXX), and it was a frightening time. If XXXXX hadn't sold, then the follow-up XXXXXX would've had an even harder time selling, making the whole exercise pointless.  I don't want to spend another 8-10 months on series books while the series isn't selling well. Many in regular publishing get lucky enough with the 2 book deal, so they have freedom to not care. But when it's a self-pub, I'd rather sit back and wait. I'm busy writing other books right now.

At least this particular writer is busy writing other books. That's the most important part of being a writer -- always writing something, not matter if it's the second book to a series that, so far, isn't selling very well. Sometimes, though, I just feel that these writers aren't writing, and that they're just waiting for their sales to improve to give them the excuse to start writing again. That seems like an odd motivator, and maybe I'm way off base here, but there you have it.

Actually, I do know where this particular writer is coming from. Years and years ago, I'd written a novel (I mentioned this one before, the 90,000-word novel I wrote in a frenzied three weeks). It's the novel I got my first agent with, the novel that got me into the wild and wacky world of publishing (at least on the agent side of things). At the time, it had only been meant as a standalone novel. But then, as I began to think about it, I realized that it could actually be the first book in a trilogy. So what does the young and naive Robert Swartwood do? He starts writing the second book, just hoping for the best. And, obviously, the best never happened. Only maybe that's not the case. Because, well, now I have two books already written in a proposed trilogy, and ...

Well, I don't want to get too ahead of myself. It's been years since I looked at them last, and I know they need some work, so even if I were to release them at some point, it won't be any time soon.

But, yeah, numbers. The important numbers aren't the amount of e-books you sell a day (though that is important in a way). The important numbers are the words you write a day. Even if it's not a lot, only a few hundred, or even a few dozen, just as long as you're writing.

Also, is it just me, or did Sesame Street pave the way for a lot of kids to use psychedelic drugs?