Monday, June 27, 2005

I'm Certain that I'm Uncertain

Nothing in life is certain, but few things are more uncertain than publishing.

A lot of stars have to align in order to become a successful author.

First off, you have to write a book. But that's not enough. It has to be a good book. But that's not enough. It has to be a good, marketable book. But that's not enough either. You have to write a good, marketable book that an agent will fall in love with. But that's still not enough. The agent has to make an editor fall in love with it, and the editor has to make the sales reps and the marketing department and her boss fall in love with it.

My sources tell me that happens about once in 13,000 times (I've blogged about this in my earlier BEA post.)

If you reach that stage, and your book is published, then the hard part begins. You have to get readers to discover your book and fall in love with it.

Writers and publishers have various ways of trying to make this happen. Advance reading copies, reviews, blurbs, ads, tours, library talks, conferences, signings, radio and TV interviews, awards nominations, widespread distribution, newspaper articles, movie options, foreign rights, websites, email campaigns, snail mail campaigns, co-op, discounting, catalogs, newsletters, and more.

No one is sure why some books sell and others flop. No one knows what works and what doesn't. People can't even agree on if a book is a good book.

If you're an author, trying to figure out your part in all of this, you can wind up a little overwhelmed.

Some authors just concentrate on writing they best book they can, and leave it up to fate to decide if it becomes successful.

Some authors spend a lot of time and money self-promoting, but even if they visited one bookstore a day for an entire year, and sold twenty copies of their book (a decent number) at each store, that's only 7300 copies a year, which won't get them on any bestseller lists.

How many books become bestsellers? Let's do some quick and dirty math to find out. The current top 15 NYT bestsellers in hardcover fiction have spent a total of 259 weeks on the List. If we average that, each book spends 17 weeks as a bestseller. That seems high, because of The Da Vinci Code and The Five People You Meet in Heaven (both over 91 weeks). If we remove them from the List, it seems to be the average bestseller is in the Top 15 for 4 weeks.

At 52 weeks in a year, there are 780 bestselling slots available (52 times 15 for the Top 15).

If we divide 780 slots by 4 (4 weeks for the average bestseller), that means there are roughly 195 hardcover novels that make the NYT Top 15 every year.

According to MJ Rose's blog, the top 12 NY publishers put out about 5100 fiction titles a year.

So, if you're the 1 in 13,000 that gets published, you still have to face odds of 1 in 26 to make the NYT Top 15 List.

Altogether, the odds are 338,000 to 1 that you'll write a bestseller.

Pretty daunting. And those odds are skewed because many of the folks on the NYT List have been on their previously. I'm sure it's much harder for a new author to crack the List.

I did an event with an award-winning and very popular author, whom I respect. He believes that writers are artists, and that the book is more important than the buzz. But he also understands the need for promotion, which he gladly does and is very good at.

Over a beer, he suggested that I stop worrying about what could happen and try to appreciate what is happening. Why drive myself crazy, when the future is largely out of my control? Shouldn't I appreciate the success I've already attained? I've sold a few books, been nominated for a few awards, gotten some decent reviews. Shouldn't that be enough? It's more than most writers ever have.

Another author at this event, one who has many books in print, is currently without a book contract. He believes that writers are craftsmen, and reminisced about being a young author, speaking to older pros without contracts, and swearing that it would never happen to him. But it has. Over a beer, he lamented his career, wondering what went wrong.

I couldn't help but think that a few years ago, when he was doing well, he hadn't been worrying about his career as much as he should have been.

I'd love to say that I'll be in this business for 30 years, and that someday I'll make the bestseller list. But all writers believe that. It's what keeps us going.

The numbers tell a different story. A discouraging story. Writers get dropped by publishers. They spend years in the business and never make the NYT List. They tirelessly self-promote and still have to keep their day jobs.

You can write a wonderful book, have a publisher that's behind you, get great reviews, win awards, do a lot of promotion, and still fail.

Scary thing, uncertainty. A very scary thing.

But today I'm going to take a little break from worrying. Hyperion just sold the Czech rights for my first two novels, and tonight I'm doing a reading in front of a crowd of friends.

I'll panic tomorrow.