Thursday, May 20, 2010

(My) Last Word on Numbers

I don't know anyone who's published a book during the last few years who's happy with his sales numbers. I'm often surprised to hear this, as it includes writers who have sleek, professional websites and big-brand publishers and have done the kind of media that has other authors thinking, "If only I could be on that show..." It's tough out there and we know the reasons for it and yet we each take lower-than-hoped-for sales as a personal shortcoming. We've gotten the message that, once we've written a good book, if we just get out there, becoming marketing machines and creating this nifty new entity called "Brand Moi", we will be successful authors. But not everyone is suited to the on-all-the-time salesperson mindset, particularly once you reach a point of diminishing returns (and these days diminishment seems to come before the returns even begin.)

I'm lucky in that I have a gregarious streak that does lend itself to marketing, at least for a while. But it's liberating to acknowledge that it can get tiresome. The Web has given authors many new vehicles for marketing their work; however it has also created a situation where you're potentially marketing all the time. You've always got to be ripe for that adrenalin surge; at any moment of the day, you can see how well you're doing -- or, more typically, not.

Since my small, personal artistic/publishing experiment does not lend itself to by-the-numbers success, I'm going to come up with my own metric -- one that allows me to succeed. And that would be...the "Raves to Readers Ratio". My book isn't out there in major commodity-level quantities, but I get a lot of phone calls and "wow" emails and even the occasional person stopping me on the street to say, "I have to tell you what your book meant to me..." This amounts to a high Raves to Readers Ratio. I can feel pretty good about that, right? And the world is so full of figures and statistics and ways to measure this or that, what's wrong with adding one more?

Here I am on top of a sand dune in Israel, about to dash down.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Resisting the Numbers Game

As with so many things, “success” as an author is determined by how many books you sell—at least according to publishing’s business institutions. But sales are determined by so many factors that may not have anything to do with the quality of a book (the publisher’s marketing and PR, timing, distribution, etc.) And I believe what happens between a book and a reader is too personal to reduce it to mere figures. If you’ve written a book and someone reads it, loves it, thoroughly embraces your literary vision, isn’t that meaningful in a way that transcends a mark on a sales statement? I think so. Or at least I wish I felt that way. For if I really believe that, why do I reflexively check sales rankings a zillion times a day? Readers have reached out to me and said those things that an author dreams of hearing: “Your book is everything I want a book to be”; “I want to personally thank you for writing it”; “The writing is beautiful”; and, one of my favorites, “I kept thinking throughout—I wish you were my therapist!” Shouldn’t that be enough?

When I write “resisting the numbers game”, it’s not that I have resisted, but that I’m actively in the process of trying to resist. I straddle the two sides: part of me believes that connection matters more than cold figures, while another part says, “Darn! Can’t I just sell more of these things?” A part of me looks for integrity in a work of art; a part of me is impressed with plain old success.

So I’ve sold, I don’t know, a few hundred books. That’s pretty significant, and the thought of all those people investing their attention in my work should, more than anything else, humble me. True, when I know someone has bought my book my first thought is to hope it proves worthy of his/her attention. But as much as I fight it I was born into a world dominated by numbers, and so I look to the numbers to validate me.

When I feel myself sinking into the numbers trap, I often turn to the memory of a friend and writer who I admired hugely, Lynn Luria-Sukenick, who I got to know in California and died fifteen years ago now. Her work was never commercially successful—no big numbers there—but she had a unique sensibility and her writing stays with you, like a heartfelt song. In one prose poem she writes, “A deer leaps her slanted script over the field.” Touching a dolphin at Sea World is “like stroking a giant olive”. To me her writing is still alive, and a reminder that beauty and meaning can’t be measured.Here's Brendan, ecstatic, tearing down a sand dune in the very South of Israel.