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.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your thoughts about the numbers game, Judith. It's too easy to judge success as a author solely by how many books are sold (or downloaded in this new era of eBooks).

    I have to admit it is heartening if the sales/downloads graph sneaks upwards, but your thoughts remind me that I need to think beyond the numbers. The words in your post are a timely reminder and a help to remember why I write.

    Many thanks,