Monday, April 11, 2011

There is no Spoon

At one point in The Matrix, Neo is told not to try and “bend the spoon,” which would be impossible, but to remember that “there is no spoon.” I have such a relationship with my Amazon sales numbers. But, unlike Neo, I have a hard time remembering the “no spoon” part.

For a while, I kept a daily written record of what my numbers were on all my books. At first I even checked those numbers twice a day, at morning and night. (In case you are unaware, I have some OCD tendencies when it comes to writing and reading.) Even I got tired of that after a while, and I also realized it was far more likely to depress than to uplift or motivate me. I filed those records and told myself I wasn’t going to write my numbers down anymore. I’ve kept to that, although I still check them pretty regularly, at least for my new stuff.

And I have to admit, I also compare my numbers against those of other writers. I wonder what I’m doing wrong when my numbers fall well below those of other authors at comparatively the same level of experience, or lesser experience. I wonder what they are doing right. And at times, to my chagrin, I feel a touch of despair. For example, I read the other day that the Harry Potter books are expected to sell “millions” in ebooks. I honestly do not begrudge J. K. Rowling her success. I loved those books and want her to succeed. But I can’t help feeling that it would be nice to cut off a little slice of that pie myself. I suppose I can’t help feeling that I deserve a little slice of that pie, or some pie.

I get irritated with myself for feeling this way, and even for making the comparisons in the first place. Yet, I do it. And even if I’m good for a week or two I find myself at some point having a look, making some comparisons that I’d be better off not making.

You can call me a whiner and I will wince because I suspect you might be right. You can tell me I’m silly and I’ll agree with you absolutely. But if you tell me just not to do it, well, that advice will only take me so far. I know some other writers who are much like me. I also know some who tell me they are not, although at times I must admit to doubting them.

Maybe the point of this is that I seem to need reassurance that my stuff is worthwhile, and sales provide one objective number to support that I am. But the very fact of this begs the question. Why? I don’t need that kind of reassurance constantly in my day job. I don’t need someone to tell me every day that I’m a good teacher. So why in writing? Is it because writing is such an intensely personal thing? I do find emotional satisfaction in doing a good job teaching, but it’s not as powerful as the emotional satisfaction I get from completing a story and realizing I’ve come close to capturing what I intended for the tale. And its not as intense as when I know my book is being read, and that at least some of those reading it are truly enjoying it. There’s nothing quite like that feeling.

And so, I watch the numbers. And I try to bend them higher. And I keep telling myself there “are no numbers.” But I seldom listen.


Ocean Girl said...

If you are looking at numbers, Miley Cyrus asset is reported to be at 1 BILLION dollars. Figure that one out.

Liane Spicer said...

There is such a huge disparity between the handful of top earners and the thousands or good writers who are equally - or more - deserving of tangible rewards for their work.

You make a decent salary as a teacher; you can live off of it and there's a lot of value built into that. Most of us are not in any way compensated for the writing work we do, hence the need for more external validation.

Liane Spicer said...

...thousands OF good writers...

BernardL said...

The only way to look at it is to count your blessings and go on doing what you love to do. Wishing you had a modicum of success in comparison to a best selling author is as natural as breathing. At the end of the day, there are very few who make it big, and the rest of us may be relegated to enjoying the journey while letting the destination fade into the background. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Ocean Girl, yeah, that helps. :) Man.

Liane Spicer, yes, very lucky I have a good day job.

BernardL, this is true, and most days I feel exactly that way. But not always.

Angie said...

Maybe part of the difference is that you get feedback on your teaching regularly. You get a paycheck, and the fact that they keep giving you one means the folks upstairs think you're doing at least a decent job. You interact with your students regularly, and seeing them participating, learning, getting it, doing well, is satisfying because it means you're accomplishing your goal with them. Having students who like you and think you're good, who take more than one of your classes or recommend Prof. Gramlich's classes to their friends, is very positive feedback. You probably get something on that list pretty much every day you're working on campus, right?

Unless you're a major seller, such feedback is pretty rare for writers. It'd be nice to get some kind of reassurance that we're doing well every day, or even a few times a week, but I for one don't get that. I get great reviews, but they're very rare compared with a lot of other writers in my genre. (OMG I'm comparing -- someone smack me! [wry smile]) I hardly ever get fan mail, and only rarely from someone I don't already know. Just seeing that someone has added one of my books to their Goodreads shelf is a major hilight for me; make of that what you will.

It's great to get some reinforcement, but most writers don't get very much, very often. Especially in this kind of business, where your popularity is directly tied to your paychecks -- often to your ability to be published and have a place in this business at all -- I think it's perfectly natural to stress out to a greater or lesser degree about that popularity. Am I good at this? Am I fooling myself? Have I lost it? Did I ever have it? Does anyone actually like this stuff I write? When I had an office job, I enjoyed having people I worked with like me, but it wasn't really necessary. My paycheck wasn't tied to it, nor was the existence of my job. Being popular was a purely social achievement -- nice but not necessary -- as opposed to one that determined whether I could succeed at all in that business.

Dwelling on sales is natural, I think, particularly if you don't make all that many. :) I cheer for every Goodreads add because every sale counts for me, in a way it never will for Rowling. It's certainly possible to obsess over it to the point where it's dragging down your life, but there's certainly a safe and healthy range we can stay inside, if we're careful.

Focusing on the process (creating new stories) rather than the products (the books we've already published) certainly helps, and also feeds into more sales and feedback. If I'm actively writing, I'm not clicking through Amazon/ARe/Goodreads/etc. [laugh/flail]


Carole said...

I think it is terrific that you have numbers to watch. Fro my vantage point that is hugely successful.

Erik Donald France said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Erik Donald France said...

Hard to add to what Angie et al. have already commented. My Q: Are the numbers you're looking at the overall "rank" or are there other numbers on Amazon, too?

Charles Gramlich said...

Angie, pretty much the way I think about it and I figure you're right about the teaching thing. I get paid after all. The other stuff. Sometimes it's just tiring, as you well know. so hard to develop momentum without keeping the nose to the grindstone every minute.

Carol, :) It's always relative. I hear writer friends with many more sales lament as I do and I think, yeah, but YOU'RE surelly a suceess.

Erik, primarily the overall rank, but depending on how you've set up your books you might be listed on speciality lists, like "mysteries," westerns, etc.

Steve Malley said...

Hey man, for what it's worth, I left some well-meaning advice for you in the comments on my last blog post.

I don't know if you're already doing most of that stuff or what, but if anything helps, I'm happy! :)

Ty Johnston said...

Charles, I wouldn't call you a whiner. Heck, to me you sound just like most authors, including myself at times.

Imagine if writing was your day job. Sounds great to a lot of people, but it has its downsides. One tends to get a bit nervous about low sales when the mortgage or rent is coming due.

David J. West said...

I have resigned myself to be grateful that I am seeing "A" sale a week of my book as an e-novel and even less as a hardcover on Amazon.

I am sure most of my sales have not even been through Amazon but I still look all the time.

In any case, I have only had fragments of feedback from people I don't know-atypically young men (the very same who usually like heroic fantasy) say, "Hey that was great, when is the next one coming?"

And thats it-no more no less.

I have to be grateful for what it is. The praise from fans has only happened a couple times and it is brief. But I also don't think they are a chatty crowd.

I wonder if a majority of your fans are relativly silent too.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Charles, you've probably been teaching longer than you have been publishing. Besides that, the tenuous nature of the publishing industry means publishing involves greater risk. Greater risk means more anxiety, and more anxiety means we want constant reassurance.

That said, I have looked at my numbers only once in the two years since publishing. I don't need the added anxiety. So like the proverbial ostridge, I stick my head in the sand when faced with anxiety and danger.

Vesper said...

Charles, it's human nature... and also a matter of perspective - I wish I had one book there to check its numbers... :-)
More than talent, I think it's a matter of advertising. You have so many blog friends. Maybe we should think of something...

Charles Gramlich said...

Steve Malley, thanks, man. I’ll check it out.

Ty Johnston, I can imagine. I don’t know if I really have the guts to be a freelancer. Especially not considering the family and all. I’m a fairly nervous guy anyway.

David J. West, I hear from fans on occasion. I certainly hope I have a lot of silent fans. That wouldn’t be a bad thing at all. :)

Jewel Amethyst, yours is probably the better way to go about it. Publishing is certainly much more iffy than teaching I should say. At least I did get tenure so that helped quite a bit with anxiety over that.

Vesper, I think I’ve sold quite a few to my blog buddies. I’d like to branch out more than that but getting the word out is always tough for a relatively unknown writer.

Lana Gramlich said...

DAMN! I posted a MASSIVE response and blogger lost it. I'll explain it to you later. said...


You are prolific.

Well, myself, I might be mediocre, but but bigod, prolific as well.
Three million words in print.

...Even our Margaret Atwood can't top that.

Which makes her an amateur when it comes to word count?
But so many amateurs get grants.

I have written largely for money, with just one grant, and that was largely for beer.

I think Ms. Atwood should do more journalism.
I have heard it said that a creative writer is person with no job...(Like a Macedonian being a Greek with no restaurant). Ergo the grant.

With me, it's been sort of Lou Grant.
No artist's welfare.
Hunt with the big cats until you can hunt no more.

Heh. Then it's real welfare.

Nevertheless, I think our Canadian writer's welfare system should be scrapped.
Good literature should stand alone, like in America.

But then they produce a lot of dreck too.

Charles Gramlich said...

Lana, thankee sweets.

Ivan, there's a lot of dreck everywhere. I always remember ARthur C. Clarke saying that 90 percent of everything is crap.

the walking man said...

You know you can write a credible story and it is readable as in entertaining. So where or what form do you want the validation to take...sales? OK I bought the westerns shorts. Feel better now?

Here is the thing for me at least...if I sell enough for a pack of smokes and maybe a 1/2 tank of gas I am a pack of smokes and a 1/2 tank of gas further ahead than I was. *shrug* that's just me though.

When I die i will be gone and no one will remember or care after a generation i was ever here so I'll take the cigarettes and gas now thank you very much.

Charles Gramlich said...

Mark, I guess I'm pretty greedy. ;) You're right, of course, and I do say that to myself.