Something happened Friday that deserves mentioning in a blog post. It was an example of so many truths which are important for writers and readers alike. And even though, just today, I read a post advising authors NOT to talk about how hard it is to sell their books, I’m going to write this anyway.
Writing a good book does not, by itself, translate into many sales. So the idea that low sales imply a book is terrible, therefor authors shouldn’t mention it, is problematic. Sure, you shouldn’t walk up to potential buyers and say, “My book sales are shit, please buy one.” That would be terrible advice. But right here, right now, I’m talking to authors, readers, and writers. I’m not trying to sell you anything (though I’m not going to be offended if you buy something anyway.) So here it is.
Last week was the one year anniversary of the publication of my first book. I had officially been an author for one year. And despite having four books on the market, all available at multiple booksellers, and despite those books having received no negative feedback, they were simply not selling well.
Last week, for the first time since becoming an author, my sales chart on Amazon flat lined. That means, for an entire month, I had ZERO book downloads. Sure, I had stopped marketing my books because of some things that happened this summer. (You can read about that here.) But, it’s still an unsettling feeling to see a straight green line instead of spikes of red.
In addition to sales flat-lining, I had run into some snags with the book I am currently working on. Mostly, they were problems all in my head, brought on by a combination of unfortunate events which I won’t go into. Suffice it to say that I just didn’t feel up to writing the story. I didn’t feel like I was the person to do it justice. I also didn’t feel like my current works would make enough money to pay for the cover of the next one. I had no confidence the current book would sell enough copies to be worth the effort in writing it, even if the final product was awesome.
Then this buzzing insect of doubt multiplied. I began to doubt if I was a good writer at all. I thought maybe it was pointless to keep writing, even if only for a handful of people. I wondered if my stories were truly capable of helping anyone. Were readers really understanding what I was trying to say or did my words fall short? I felt completely disconnected, like my books were calling out into the crowd and no one was answering.
Last Thursday, I contemplated quitting. I thought, “I’ll quit writing. Instead, I can help my daughter set up her ebay account. We can sell vintage doodads and make a couple hundred dollars a month.” I had let myself settle into this idea of changing my daily writing routine, giving up, letting it all go. Maybe I’d sew some patchwork dogs or quilts or whatever. It was depressing, but felt necessary.
I didn’t say any of that aloud. I never would do that before my decision was firmly made. I have always jumped into things with both feet and given it everything I have until I’m drained and empty. I don’t beg to be filled up if it isn’t happening on its own. If it doesn’t happen, I just walk away and never look back. I am never going to say, “You have to do xyz for me or else!” No. I prefer honest achievements, not pity money.
I only tell you now about how I was feeling because something happened to change my mind. I am not going to quit writing.
Friday, I was eating pizza at home with my kids when my phone vibrated to signal I had a notification. It was an email from Openbooks.com saying my book, Silencer, had been reviewed. I set the phone down and finished eating my slice of pizza despite a lump in my throat. I knew in my heart the review, good or bad, would either solidify my choice to quit writing or complicate the matter. I wasn’t sure if I wanted it to be complicated. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read the review at all.
After taking a sip of my tea to wash down the last bite of pizza. I picked up my phone and clicked through to see the review. (You can also read the entire thing here, but first stick with me for this tale.) I noticed it was written by another author, but one I had never had contact with at all. He definitely owed me nothing. If anything, I was competition to him.
I read the beginning sentences of the review:
I downloaded this book on a Friday morning expecting to finish it next week but I made the mistake of reading the first couple of chapters and could not put it down, so I ended up finishing it in a day. In other words, it’s a page-turner. I had to know how things would end up for Rhoda, Ben, and Nanshe because I started caring about the characters ….
I stopped reading and covered my mouth to hold back the sob I was about to make while I hurried into my bedroom and shut the door so my kids wouldn’t see my cry. I crawled into bed and cried harder than I’ve cried in months if not years. I couldn’t even read the rest of the review for trying to process the conflicting emotions I was feeling. I had felt so alone, defensive, exhausted from the pressures of self-promotion, doubtful about my message or my right to spread it. I had felt hopeless, alien, and nearly mute despite the hundreds of thousands of words I’d published. I was terrified to pick up my phone and finish reading the review, but I did. Here it is in its entirety:
I downloaded this book on a Friday morning expecting to finish it next week but I made the mistake of reading the first couple of chapters and could not put it down, so I ended up finishing it in a day. In other words, it’s a page-turner. I had to know how things would end up for Rhoda, Ben, and Nanshe because I started caring about the characters and despite Rhoda and Ben’s personal struggles, their endearing nurturing instincts trumped everything, a common thread they both share and recognize in each other, so I needed to know what happened to them. Julie Roberts Towe is a really gifted writer, she has a special way of drawing you into the scene where you feel like you are in the setting with the characters and you want to speak to them or act on their behalf. I think she could do wonders even with a more mundane storyline. This is a very fast moving book because it is a novella so it’s designed to be that way, and while it fits in the psychological, historical and drama genres it is also an action story, so expect a quick moving plot and some intense uncomfortable-ness. It’s meant to bother you, and it should bother you. I’ll just say without throwing out spoilers that from the moment the dryer is turned off I became pissed off at this story, because it was right about that point that I fell into the trap of wanting a sappy ending, but instead I got what the author intended, to show the desperation of the situation and its wild outcomes.
I could barely breathe. I know, at this point, you non-writers may not understand why. This may seem like the surest sign of my mental breakdown, but it was not a breakdown. It was the kind of tears a person sheds when they see their spouse return from war. It was the release of pent up fears that can only be let loose when the danger has passed.
I cried until my pillow was wet, and I left my face buried in it to cry more. The reviewer understood what I was trying to do. My words alone, not my book promotion or my sales pitch, but the story itself and only the story got my meaning across. Every single nuance I hoped to add was noted and appreciated. My message was received and valued. It was *everything*, EVERYTHING, ever.y.thing!
It was, ultimately, a validation of my purpose.
It is now Sunday, and I still get tears in my eyes when I think about how close I was to quitting.
Readers, there are books you love. And I am 100% cool with those books not being mine. I’ve had many people say to me, “I could not finish your book because it was too difficult emotionally”, and I get it. But, there *are* books you love so, so much. If you feel that way about a book, please tell the author. Please, please, please. Most of us have no chance (or desire) of ever becoming wealthy off our work. But we do it anyway for one reason: to connect with you. Our books are meant to be read, enjoyed, felt, thought about; all of which are invisible things to us unless you tell us.
Sometimes a single, sincere clap from the audience is enough to help the musician perform the next ballad.
And authors, you don’t always know the effect your book is having. We can convince ourselves of anything, so maybe we should relax and give things time.
More than anything, this week has taught me that maybe I’m an okay author, but I could certainly do better as a reader. I am very behind on promoting the books I have loved this year. Look for some posts about them soon.
And thank you, Stanley Laine, wherever (whoever) you are for not keeping your thoughts to yourself. ❤