How Many Books Have You Sold?
I have been writing an occasional series of relatively lighthearted blog posts looking at some of the questions I get asked as a writer that I don’t enjoy answering. It’s a very individual thing. The first six questions in the series were all personal bêtes noirs and I recognise other writers may and do feel differently about them.
Initially, I had intended to limit the series to just six posts, but then I asked some fellow writers what questions caused them to squirm. Of the questions suggested that I hadn’t already addressed, some caused me to go, “So what’s the problem with being asked that?” Which demonstrates just how personal negative responses to such queries can be. However, at least one of the questions caused me to suck my teeth and go, “Oh no, I hate it when people ask me that!” So, as the conclusion to this series, I give you the seventh question now on my list, “How many books have you sold?”
The degree of squirm accompanying this question depends on who is asking it, but, before we go there, let me establish a couple of basic facts (and I do mean basic).
Writers earn their living (or contribute to it, however meagerly) by selling books. Many of us, rightly or wrongly, judge our success by the number of copies sold (and if we don’t, our publishers certainly do). Would you walk up to a total stranger and ask them how much they earn? What about approaching an unknown man and asking him if his pride and potential is between six to nine inches? No? So why do a surprising number of people feel it’s okay to ask a writer they don’t, or only barely, know how many books they’ve sold? It’s kind of the same thing. And yes, I do know it’s socially acceptable in China to ask strangers how much they earn, but I don’t live in China.
So, having ascertained the question, however innocently framed, can be unduly personal for many writers, let me acknowledge there are some people with whom we are okay being up close and personal. Nevertheless, I still squirm when I am asked the question, even if it is by one of these good folks.
As I said before, writers frequently judge themselves, or are judged, on the size of their book sales. Unless we are J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown, however many books we sell we will never have sold enough. You have to be a best-selling author, or supremely confident, before you are happy with the size of your sales and are willing to share the figure publicly. Also, possibly because many of us feel we are lacking in, shall we say, volume, we actually choose not to know exactly how many books we’ve sold. Sure, I could go back through my royalty payments and add up the numbers, but I have never done so (and don’t want to) because I’m convinced the total will be disappointing, if not soul destroying, and what I need most as I slog through my current work in progress is comfort, confidence and a little self-belief. I’m fearful that knowing the exact number of copies sold will not provide this, so I wimp out and don’t look.
Other writers I’ve come across don’t know their sales figures for exactly the opposite reason. The figures are of absolutely no interest to them because what matters to them is their art, not the business side of things, which is fine too. The trouble is, regardless of a writer’s reasons for not engaging with the numerical side of the business, the person casually asking the size of your writing ‘potential’ always seems to expect you to reel off exact figures without a moment’s hesitation. The best they’ll ever get from me is a vague roundness of numbers, but then, do they really expect an honest answer when they’ve just publicly queried a very personal size? Believe you me, in this instance, size does matter.
Rest assured, if an author is happy with their sales figures they will probably tell you, possibly ad nauseum. If they don’t choose to mention it, it’s best not to ask.
There you have it: seven questions I don’t like answering, but I find I often get asked. The existential angst and resultant incomprehensible squawking when I try to respond are mine and mine alone. You shouldn’t assume that all writers will react in the same way, although a number have admitted to me that they do.
I’m not planning on writing any more posts in this series because I’m seriously hoping I’ve exhausted all of the questions that make me squirm as a writer. Having said that, if you catch sight of me at a party or other form of social gathering looking like I’d really rather be anywhere but where I am, it’s possible that someone’s come up with yet another question I don’t like answering.