The numbers are lying to you – Laurel Saville

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By Laurel Saville

Being an author is all about words, right? Well, these days, it seems to be more and more about the numbers. Publish a book and the discussion is less about the quality of the writing than the quantity of your metrics. It’s not just how many books did you sell – apparently it’s still somewhat gauche to ask or share that number – but what’s your rank and how many ratings, reviews, stars, followers, comments, and likes do you have. And those are just your personal figures. Try to understand the publishing industry itself and you’ll quickly get completely bogged down in conflicting, contradictory, and incomplete statistics. ♥

While these numbers can be empowering, most days they’re overwhelming, confusing, and worst of all, distracting. Almost makes you long for the days when agents and publishers held all this information in a tight fist, and authors were expected to simply stay in their garrets and fill yellow pads with longhand scribblings.

As is the case in so many aspects of our modern, digital world, we authors are facing an avalanche of information, but still have very little intelligence. All these numbers can make us think we know more than we do. For example, the media often reports, with great authority and equal doom and gloom, sales figures of various authors’ books. But check the source of those figures, and you find its Nielsen Book Scan, which does not include e-books. For me and many other writers out there, probably most other writers out there, e-books make up the majority of our sales. Why else would publishers want to raise e-book prices, if they weren’t selling tons of them? In fact, Nielsen stats don’t even include all the print sales.

NPR recently aired a story depressingly titled, “When It Comes To Book Sales, What Counts As Success Might Surprise You.” According to literary agent Jane Dystel, “A sensational sale would be about 25,000 copies.” Washington Post critic Ron Charles is quoted as saying that a new author selling 3000 copies is considered “not bad.” When you calculate how long it takes to make a book and what a tiny fraction of each sale goes to the person who actually wrote the damn book, the lesson is clearly don’t quit your day job.

However, I would argue that this is no reason to despair. Oprah’s Book Club has led us all to believe that writing a book is less about the hard work of word wrangling, and more about getting on daytime television. While that sort of success is for sure something to strive for, it’s certainly not something to expect. Sadly, too many good writers measure their worth not by the quality of their creation, but by the quantity of their sales. Then, when the latter doesn’t add up to their unrealistic ideals, they stop writing.

I remember all too clearly the guy attending a lecture I was giving at a writers conference who told us, head hanging, that he’d sold “only” one thousand copies of his self-published children’s book.

“Only!?” I said, incredulous. “Do you realize most self-published books never sell more than 100 copies and most conventionally published books never sell more than 1000 copies?”

He should have been skipping. Instead he sat there shrugging. He should have been celebrating the hundreds of people who were reading his story to their children at bedtime. Instead he was wallowing in not-good-enough-itis. He should have been writing his next book. Instead he was wondering what went wrong with his first, and maybe last, book. The answer is, nothing was wrong with it. Clearly, very much was right with it. The only thing wrong was how he was measuring his writerly self-worth.

The truth is, only a tiny fraction of authors have ever been able to make a living with their books. There’s a reason so many writers are professors and MFA programs are filled with people who are there less for the craft than for the credential. I’ve often wondered why it is that there are plenty of “Sunday painters” thrilled to pursue their work evenings and weekends and overjoyed to sell a few pieces at a local art show. They don’t take their work any less seriously than we writers do, but they seem to invest a lot less in their stats.

I’m certainly not arguing against aiming high. I’m not saying that reaching some version of bestseller status on Amazon isn’t thrilling, even if the truth is that you get there selling far fewer books than most people realize. Quite the contrary. I’m saying that the only way to get to these bigger successes is by celebrating, learning from, and being encouraged by the smaller successes.

After years of trying the traditional route and getting praise but no takers, I sold “only” 600 copies of my self-published memoir. But it took only one copy, in the right hands, to get me a publishing contract with an incredible team that has made that book, and two novels afterwards, into best sellers. For sure, read your reviews. Take note of your numbers. Then, do a happy dance, close the tab for “Author Central”, and get back to writing your next book.

Laurel Saville is an award-winning author of numerous books, articles, essays, and short fiction. Her work has appeared in the LA Times Magazine, The Bark,, The Bennington Review, Ellipses, House Beautiful, POL/Oxygen, Room, Seven Days, and other publications. She holds an MFA from The Bennington Writer’s Seminars and lives and writes near Seattle. Her new novel, North of Here, is out now.

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