I think this is a question authors get more than any other. Probably even more than “What’s it called?” or “What is it about?”, it’s “How’s the book doing?” And the thing is, and most people don’t realize this, it’s actually a super rude question.
I mean, think about it. When you ask someone how a book is selling, what you’re really doing is asking them how much money they’re making. It’s like going up to someone in a doctor’s office and asking them their salary. Most people who ask this aren’t intending to be rude or nosy. They just don’t think about it, about what they’re actually asking.
I get this question from friends, from family, from co-workers, from customers, even from complete strangers who happen to overhear part of a conversation where it comes up that I have a book. “Oh, how’s it selling?”
My usual answer is that I have no idea, and it’s true. I don’t. I haven’t asked, I don’t intend to ask. Perhaps it’s cowardly of me, but frankly, I don’t feel like knowing a number or a range is going to do anything productive. It’s not magically going to make sense or give me context. And the thing is, while it won’t do anything productive, it is very likely to do something catastrophic.
Okay, not catastrophic, precisely, but still uncomfortable and damaging.
Because there’s a transition between writer and author, where we suddenly have to confront the fact that we no longer write in a bubble. Before publication, there’s this…serenity, of a kind, in approaching a new project. It might be scary and overwhelming and more than we think we can handle, but the only pressure (and the only perceived pressure) is what we put on ourselves as artists. Within that bubble, it’s just us and the characters, and maybe critique partners. Maybe there’s a part of our brain dreaming of bestseller lists and foreign sales, but it’s a small part, and most of our attention is fully immersed with the store. Our expectation is on what happens next to our characters, to our world, and not on what happens next to the book.
I’m the first to admit I’m a quirky writer. I mull over a project for weeks or even months before I actually open the first document to start. What that means for me is that I tend to draft very quickly. The first draft of what became A Wounded Name took twenty-three days. That being the case, I tend to write three or four projects a year. Not all of these will go on to become anything (in fact I’d guess a good half of them never will, and I’m okay with some of those) but it’s a very strange year that I have less than three complete novels written.
In 2012, I signed with an agent and sold what became A Wounded Name, but the number of people who actually saw the manuscript was still pretty small. It wasn’t out in the world yet, there was no sense of expectation, so I wrote as I normally do and never really noticed a difference. There was maybe a new excitement, a new hope, but I was still in that bubble.
Then, in early 2013, the first ARCs came out. People were reading my book, the first reviews were coming online. And suddenly no matter what I sat down to write, I was suddenly wondering what other people would think. What would readers think of this character’s action? What would reviewers think of this twist?
AND IT’S CRIPPLING.
I wrote two things this year. TWO. One of which was a strong foundation but will need a complete rewrite, and the other was itself a rewrite. But seriously, just two. Which probably isn’t weird for anyone other than me. But I kept questioning myself as I was plotting, as I was drafting, and it made things choppy and awkward and most importantly, made me full of self-doubt. I couldn’t write like that, and as the year went on, as the other stresses added on, it made it impossible to write at all. And then the book actually came out. Suddenly The Question was coming a great deal more.
Because when someone asks The Question, it isn’t merely that there’s a person asking me about potential income. Because in the moment between The Question being asked and my managing a response, there’s a steady stream of “What if it doesn’t sell enough to earn out? What if the sales are so spectacularly bad that no publisher will ever want to buy any book I ever write ever again? What if this is the only thing I’ll ever publish? Oh God, this is all I’ve ever wanted to do and what if I never get to make a career out of this and–” and then I remember that I’ve just been asked The Question and I smile painfully and say that I don’t know.
The conversation moves on but my thought process doesn’t. Even hours later, I’m still stuck on this crippling fear that I’m not doing enough, and I get home and I try to write and nothing comes out. I stare at a blank page, a blank screen, and nothing happens because where dialogue and narrative and story should be, there’s only fear and doubt.
I know what I need to do. I need to find a way to reclaim the process, to make it just for me again, at least until a story is mature enough to send out into the world by one means or another. I need to forget about the expectations, about the pressure, about the possibilities, and write only for me. It’s the only way I’m going to manage anything productive. I made a good start on that, today actually, but I know I’m going to backslide, and a large part of that is people with perfectly sweet, supportive intentions asking me how the book is doing.
If you know an author with books out, please I am begging you don’t ask them how the book is selling. Ask them how their current project is going; this is always a safe inquiry, because even if they aren’t actively writing or editing something at the moment, they’re still mulling over something. Maybe it’s only in its larval stages, but every writer has a current project. Always. Ask them what comes next- not what book comes out next, what comes next. Maybe it’s a different kind of project, a different genre, a different tense, a different age group. Maybe it’s a book of poetry, or a self-help guide, or something completely unexpected. Hell, maybe it’s a vacation, or research.
But please don’t ask how their book is doing.