Tuesday, November 14, 2006

How the Hell Am I Doing?!?

If you've got a book on the shelves, you're probably haunted by an omnipresent question:

Am I doing OK or not?

In almost any other job, you get evaluated. There is a pay scale that usually correlates to years of experience. The harder you work, the likelier you are to be promoted. You're constantly getting feedback on whether you're doing well or not.

This isn't the case with writers.

There are reasons for this.
  1. Every book is unique, and treated differently than every other book, so comparing yourself to other authors does little to no good.
  2. You get very little feedback from your publisher, and when they do give you feedback, it's usually sugar-coated, vague, or even a lie. You never know for sure how happy they are with you, or how disappointed.
  3. You don't have access to all of the sales numbers, and those you have access to don't tell you much about your publisher's expectations and if they've been met.
  4. Everything you do to promote seems to have very little effect, and there's no direct correlation between hard work and success.
  5. Royalty statements and advance checks aren't effective evaluations because they don't list expectations.

In short, writers don't have much control over their careers, and they're kept in the dark about so much that promotion seems almost pointless.

A better business model would have the publisher keeping the writer in the fiscal loop. They tell you how much money they've spent on everything, how many books need to sell before the book makes money, and how many books need to sell to make them happy.

But very few publishers do this. And often our agents can't even tell us if our publishers are happy with our performance. Often our publishers can't even tell us, because sales has a different answer than production who has a different answer than accounting.

Like pornography, success has no specific definition, but we supposedly know it when we see it.

Since writers already have a right-brained artist mentality, the lack of specific goals and appropriate feedback can quickly and easily add to the neuroses pile.

We all want to do better, but we really have no idea how we're doing now.

We all have worries, but no way to quell them.

We search for answers, but only find more questions.

So how the hell are we supposed to function in this septic environment?

Here's your mantra:

1. Live in the present, and don't worry about the future.

2. Try your best, because that's all you have control over.

3. Learn as much as you can about this business, and set goals accordingly.

Unfortunately, there still aren't any pats on the head. So when you're looking for acceptance and approval, look to the readers rather than the industry professionals. Look to peers rather than at your royalty statement. Look to family and friends.

It's an imperfect business in an imperfect world, but worrying about it won't chance a damn thing.

Keep on keeping on, my friends.

13 comments:

Robin Bayne said...

Great reminder!

Robin Bayne said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mark said...

Yeah Joe, thanks. Since THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK came out at the beginning of October, the question I seem to be fielding most often from family and friends is: "How's the book doing?"

I suspect there's a subtext here and the real question might be: "How much money did you make on this book?"

Unfortunately, the answer to both is pretty much the same: I don't know.

I wish there were. I wish that checking my amazon ranking meant something (it doesn't) and I wish that checking my Ingram numbers meant something (it means more than the amazon ranking, but not much) and I wish...

Ah well. It's doing great, by the way and I'll know how much money I made on it sometimes in April (I think).

Best,
Mark Terry
www.markterrybooks.com

Jim said...

How is an author doing? The answer is simple. If the author is making money for the publisher, s/he is doing okay. If the author is losing money for the publisher, don't expect to get reinvited to the next party. Publishing is a business and, like every business, is driven by the bottom line.

So, is the author making money or losing money for the publisher? Here's some simple numbers to consider, even though they won't be accurate in all cases.

Take the average $24 hardcover. The publisher usually sells it at a 45-55% discount, usually 55%, meaning the publisher gets $10.80 for each book sold. Now subtract the cost of printing the book, approximately $3.00, and we're down to $7.80. From that, subtract the costs associated with editing, copy editing, cover design, purchase of cover photos, storage, shipping (a biggie) and legal. ($??) Also subtract the indirect business costs (rent, telephone, computers, accoutants, advertising, etc.) which are typically 15% in most businesses, which computes to a $3.60 deduction.

From the balance that's left over, the publisher then has to deduct the amount paid to the author and his/her agent. The bottom line is that publishers don't make that much per book.

What that means to authors is this. If your books aren't selling, for whatever reason, you're not doing good and you'll be asked to step aside sooner or later.

Of course, there are also some intangibles, such as "blue sky," meaning the value of having the author in the publisher's stable and projected future sales on the author's other books. There are other factors that go into the analysis as well. But the bottom line is that the publishing business is money driven.

Unfortunately, the publisher won't always have a good handle on the bottom line at any one point in time, since books shipped out may eventually be returned. Once a book is remaindered, however, the math is pretty well done. The publisher knows whether it made money or not on the book at that point.

Jeri said...

Funny, I just came over here looking for the # for Ingram's so I could find out how my book is doing. Again with the uncanny posting.

I was at a book fair/signing last week, mostly populated by self-pubbed authors, and several of them asked me, "How many copies have you sold?" (They assumed I was self-pubbed, too, I guess.) I said, "Um...I guess I'll know when the royalty statement hits my mailbox in about 6 months."

Until then, I'll follow your three rules and try to keep the vow I made on your post here awhile back not to obsessively check Amazon rankings and Google hits.

It's so hard to resist, but then I ask myself, "How am I going to use this information? Will my Amazon ranking change the way I self-promote? No. Will the high I get from someone's blog post praise offset the crush of someone else's snark? Probably not. Will I stop making points through rhetorical questions like Donald Rumsfeld, now that he's been fired? Possibly."

Tom Schreck said...

My book doesn't come out til September and I'm trying to learn as much as I can about sales,PR, publicity and self promotion.

My hair is starting to hurt...

Angie Brennan said...
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Anonymous said...

I Owe One to Robert Eggleton
By Evelyn Somers, The Missouri Review

Earlier this year I was contacted by a first-time novelist asking if I would review his forthcoming e-book. If people knew how many requests of this kind editors get, they would understand that out of self-preservation we sometimes . . . well, I ignored it.

Robert tried again. There was something in the tone of his e-mail. Clearly this mattered to him. So I said yes, I’d take a look, though I didn’t think we could review Rarity From the Hollow. This is all fogged somewhat in memory: in the months since then our magazine moved its office, I was hospitalized for a cat bite (yes, they’re dangerous!), we’ve published several issues, read hundreds of manuscripts, I went to Africa, etc., etc. But as I recall, Robert sent me the first chapter, which begins with two impoverished schoolgirls (from the Hollow of the title) studying together and spelling the word for an adult sex toy. It was quirky, profane, disturbing. I said I’d look at the book, not entirely sure what I could do to help.

He sent me the whole thing. I read portions of the book, which is subtitled “A Lacy Dawn Adventure,” after the girl protagonist, Lacy Dawn. I liked Lacy, who lives in a world of poverty, classmates with precocious sexual knowledge and/or experience, unemployed men, worn-down women and cruelty so casual that it’s more knee-jerk than intentional. Maybe I was just too bothered by the content, but at a certain point I knew I just couldn’t do anything. Time was nonexistent.

So I deleted the book.

Robert contacted me again, and I got soft. You see, there was something about the whole project in general. Robert is a social worker who has spent at least a portion of his career working with child-abuse victims in Appalachia. The book was partly about that, and mostly very strange. In the Hollow, Lacy takes up with an android named DotCom, from “out of state,” which really means out of this world. Under DotCom’s wing, she decides that she will “save” her family. Little does she know she will end up saving the universe. Robert was donating the proceeds from sales to help child-abuse victims.

Robert is not a kid; he’s maybe my age, maybe older. This wasn’t about youthful ambition, vanity and reputation. It was about some kind of personal calling. I believe in those. I also believe in people who are driven to get their writing out there to an audience, through whatever venue. The e-book idea intrigued me. The earnestness of the appeal got to me. Send the book again, I said. He did. It’s still on my hard drive. (I suppose I should delete it, since I haven’t paid for it.)

Robert kept after me. If I liked it, could I write a blurb? Yeah, of course. I was fund-raising for my African trip (a Habitat build), teaching, editing, raising three kids. But who isn’t busy? We set our own priorities. I put Robert and his book lower than some other things, which really wasn’t fair because I said I would do something, and I didn’t.

And it has bothered me. Here’s another thing people don’t know about editors. They sometimes have consciences about books/stories/poems/whatever that they’ve allowed to get lost or neglected in the shuffle of what amounts to thousands of pages.

So I’m belatedly giving Rarity From the Hollow a plug. Among its strengths are an ultra-convincing depiction of the lives, especially the inner lives, of the Appalachian protagonists. The grim details of their existence are delivered with such flat understatement that at times they almost become comic. And just when you think enough is enough, this world is just too ugly, Lacy’s father (who is being “fixed” with DotCom’s help) gets a job and Lacy, her mother and her dog take off for a trip to the mall “out of state” with Lacy’s android friend, now her “fiancĂ©” (though as Lacy’s mother points out, he doesn’t have any private parts, not even “a bump.”) In the space between a few lines we go from hardscrabble realism to pure sci-fi/fantasy. It’s quite a trip.

Rarity is published by FatCat Press, which has other e-books for sale as well. You can find it at www.fatcatpress.com. The blurb on the website says in part:

Lacy Dawn is a true daughter of Appalachia, and then some. She lives in a hollow with her mom, her Vietnam Vet dad, and her mutt Brownie, a dog who's very skilled at laying fiber-optic cable. Lacy Dawn's android boyfriend, DotCom, has come to the hollow with a mission. His equipment includes infomercial videos of Earth's earliest proto-humans from millennia ago. DotCom has been sent by the Manager of the Mall on planet Shptiludrp: he must recruit Lacy Dawn to save Earth, and they must get a boatload of shopping done at the mall along the way. Saving Earth is important, but shopping – well, priorities are priorities.

Yes, priorities are. I should have had mine in order. Robert Eggleton’s book deserves your attention. Check it out.

Jude Hardin said...

If you're making a living--even a modest one--doing what you love to do, and you have love in your life, then you're doing more than okay.

You're doing great.

Marti said...

Well, I'm not even making a living - LOL

But I do find that my books sell better when I portray a positive attitude (even if I'm actually feeling less than positive - LOL)

The few times I've griped and moaned about slow sales at my blog or book message boards, have hurt me...it makes me even more miserable to see myself whining in print, and buyers flee so fast, you'd think I was a flesh eating mime - LOL

So I put on a happy face. Thinking positive, writing positive, BRINGS more positive. I know that sounds really Pollyanna, but it's true.

Wanted to let you know I updated your appearance schedule at the ol' Squid - LOL.

Hope you have a wonderful week!

michele_lang said...

Joe --

You rock! Thanks for this awesome post...

Michele Lang

anne frasier said...

great post, joe.

it really spoke to me because i'm feeling completely clueless about where i stand, and i'm trying not to let it eat away at me.
years ago a publisher dumped me when i thought things were going fine. So when i got the call from my agent the bad news hit like a death. i think i'm always bracing for another one of those calls even when things seem to be going well.

Anonymous said...

Neuroses or precautionary wariness? It's a thin line, but you all look pretty sane to me! {but what would I know, with my 'alien' perspective.'
Cheers