Cross, cord, and arrow, ancient contrivances of man, nowadays debased, or elevated, into symbols: I do not know why they should astonish me, when there is on Earth no single thing oblivion does not overtake, or which memory does not alter, and when no one knows the images into which the future will translate all things.Jorge Luis Borges, from “Mutations,” translated by Anthony Kerrigan, as appearing within Materials for the Study of Social Symbolism in Ancient & Tribal Art: A Record of Tradition & Continuity, Vol.1, Book 1, (New York: Rock Foundation, 1986), epigraph.
It seems to happen so often: I work my ass off and get caught up in all sorts of things that make me forget about selling books and I find that I’ve sold one. This time, a U.K. paperback, yay! Nothing beats a sale. And while the spottiness of sales drives me to distraction and proves a delicate, relentless torture (except for the twenty-four hours of bliss that a sale bestows) it’s as if the cosmos is determined to respond only to my authenticity and wholeheartedness. Otherwise, the idea that authors sell not one or two copies a month but one or two copies an hour, or many more than that, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year just seems to me incredible. What must that be like?
I’ve enjoyed almost two weeks off from the job with only one shift, seven hours, I think, in between somewhere but tomorrow my schedule ramps back up again. It has to do with the seasonality of sales, I think, when my hours decrease and that’s verified by the fact that the home improvement does their annual inventory gig this time of year. I’ve worked in more than a few retail environments in my day and I have to say that taking inventory is a miserable experience even when the company uses an outside service to expedite things. Outside service? Yes, there happen to be companies out there that send a crew of folks with data gathering devices (scanners & keyboards in the same unit) into a facility to literally scan or otherwise process the “sku” or product identification number present on anything with a damn barcode. The keyboard is for entering the “sku” when the barcode fails to scan or (and this is the part that drives you crazy when you work for, say, the Sam Goody music store in Greenwich Village – long since disappeared – where I worked back in the day) it’s missing.
Have things changed at all since my first experience with this some thirty years ago? I’m thinking not. Counting every little thing is a crazy and maddening way to spend a workday. Mostly because there’s far too much shit that isn’t in the right place. Or is somehow otherwise uncountable. To say nothing of the mind numbing tedium of it all.
My short time at Zingerman’s Mail Order – Zingerman’s I can tell you, for all their fine efforts at providing a good work environment is lacking in resources and common sense when it comes to the idea of streamlining things like taking inventory, I will say no more – involved at least two miserable sessions of all day inventory, one of which required me to reside for at least an hour in the pitch dark and literally freezing cold counting bread loaves by the weak light of a single bulb. Loaves that were buried in racks which were subsequently stacked higher than a man on top of each other in a freezer semi-trailer. Miserable. Impossible. Stupid, silly, frustrating work. Wearing my winter coat, hat and gloves in June. A nightmare.
Meanwhile, I’ve reached the halfway point or so with editing the second draft of TC2. My stretch goal remains to publish the thing this September or, at the very latest, October. I took to heart the comment by an editor at Locus who found it maddening that anyone would release a book at the end of the year, especially in December because that almost guarantees its exclusion from competition in year-end “best-ofs” or recommendations and other such opportunities. Not that I’d ever make the cut for any of that stuff. But I nevertheless do my best in the professional sense to maximize the opportunity for exposure and minimize the risk of obscurity based on avoidable technicalities.
I’m not one, however, to get all wrapped-around-the-axle (I term I borrow from an ex-boss of mine) with pre-release promotions and pre-orders and ARCs (advance reader copies) and all that mess. I see books advertised with publication dates at least six months out and I think what’s the point except to perpetuate the historically lethargic methods and means of the traditional publishing industry? I think Locus suggests sending ARCs something like three months in advance of publication. Huh? As if I’m going to sit on my hands, book written, edited, designed and proofed until all the magazines and media outlets are done ignoring my gratis copy? Screw off, I say. When the book is ready I’m damn well publishing it.
Add to it all the loony business of scrounging for advance reviews to slap into the book or plaster all over the cover and into the Amazon description, ugh, horrible. “Gripping.” “A must read!” “New York Times #1 Best Seller.” Whatever that means (it seems to me you see that before the book is even released). Anyway, no. One of the singular joys of being an indie author is being your own publisher and maintaining complete authority over what goes into and on the cover of your work. I’ve picked up books, fiction and non-fiction, stuffed with page after shameless page of so-called “reviews” or “blurbs” as the front matter, the first thing you come to when flipping through a book. I’m all for marketing (my obsession with reviews is obvious) but what can I say except the marketing angle becomes too pushy and sleazy and, again, shamelessly commercial when you use the book itself as the billboard.
The exception proves the rule, however, and a legitimate, well known award – Hugo, Nebula, for instance – would be something I’d be certain to plaster, tastefully of course, upon the cover of my novel. And then the collectors would have to scramble to find a first edition, first state copy without all that. How great would that be?
To achieve the 12,500 copies per year that ALLi (the Alliance of Independent Authors) uses as the threshold differentiating “author member” from “authorpreneur member” you must sell 35 or so books a day, every day, all year. If you allow yourself a two dollar profit on each book, give or take, that just about covers the cost of indie publishing yourself in all formats. Which is to say even then you’re not anywhere close to anything like a significant profit, let alone a living. The sixty or eighty or one-hundred thousand dollar salary you were earning while dutifully employed? Forget it. $100K in book sale profits translates into 50,000 books! That’s 137 books sold per day for a year. It’s almost impossible to comprehend that anyone actually sells like this. Lord of the Rings, published in 1954 has apparently sold 150M copies worldwide. That averages out, in the series’ sixty-seven years of publication, to over 2.2M copies a year. That’s an incredible average of 6,134 copies sold per day. Amazing.
The numbers involved in so-called remarkable success like that of LOTR are, in a word, staggering. When I try to imagine what a pile of 150M books looks like it’s damn impossible. Likewise the perennial nature of such staggering success; for it’s one thing, after all, to publish a hit novel that racks up a million copies sold in a year – an incredible feat – but then not to endure inevitably becoming passe and watching your fame and fortune fall off a cliff and disappearing into the bulging ranks of the whatever-happened-to authors? Some successes indeed remain in a class by themselves.
What’s reasonable, then? What kind of life as an indie author can be said to involve a reasonable risk of failure and a reasonable expectation of reasonable success? What can be said to involve strategy versus mere fantasy? Most books don’t sell more than one hundred copies. I read this somewhere and something tells me it’s probably close enough to the truth. Which merely points out that there will never be anything reasonable about writing and indie publishing your book, at least in statistical and economic terms. It’s a hard reality.
Nevertheless there are more books than ever being published, indie or otherwise. The statistics have never been more lopsided, then, against getting noticed and getting liked and getting sold. So be it. A writer writes, regardless, that’s what I’ve learned. I bang away at editing TC2 and I post blogs and I write in my journal and don’t publish it. What the hell am I doing? Writing my way through it.
But there’s no real hurry, I don’t think, despite the sense of urgency that permeates the whole otherwise interminable experience. Life is irony. Get that next book out while the iron is hot, while that other book has yet to descend into the oblivion of the void! I read of these authors who can crank out a book a year for ten years straight and it reminds me of how rock bands back in the 70s used to release a record every year, sometimes more. And they usually sucked. They were chock full of so-called filler. As if getting out something, anything, was better, somehow, than taking one’s time and doing one’s best to craft a thing of lasting value. It isn’t. Sure, when I post a blog I get hits on my website. And perhaps that leads to a sale here and there of a book. When I don’t post a blog, nothing at all happens. Though I suppose that eventually I’d manage to sell a book regardless of keeping myself out there, as it were.
Hey, I appreciate productivity out of my authors and musicians and even filmmakers as much as the next person. I enjoy getting caught up in the rush of the new, too. But I’m also the first to dismiss a thing as worthless dross and to complain that the legacy of an artist-craftsman I otherwise respect is being diluted and diminished by a rush-it-to-market shamelessness.
Three years. Experience has demonstrated to me that at least three years between releases – book, record album, film – is about right. Less than that and, in the end, things seem to pile up too fast in someone’s oeuvre and substance is lacking and then I’m on to the next thing and stuck with sorting out a bunch of detritus that I’d wished I’d never bought and I’m throwing things away and all that. Too much of a good thing, at best. Less is more, indeed. So, three years is good. I really don’t see anyone working within these genres producing things of lasting quality any more quickly than that.
Blog posts? Video posts? What about folks who garner YouTube advertising dollars and avail themselves of subscriber income from services like Patreon? Don’t they have to crank out product at least every week? Yes, I’d say they more or less do. The genre lends itself to that. In the rare case they might be able to profit from a monthly release schedule. But the three years? Impossible. Hell, in three years the technology will have changed so much and this or that company will have gone out of business or been bought or sold and, well, the nature of journalism and news media and blogs and newsletters is that of what newspapers used to be: throwaway daily reporting upon momentary, inevitably trendy, inevitably forgettable chit-chat and sociability and, well, look at the hideousness of Facebook. I’m on there. And all I can say is, Ugh. Of what real use is it, our tidbits of this or that commonplace interaction with pedestrian existence? It seems that’s all most of the social media thing ended up amounting to, but I’m not here to decry social media.
Rather, I think I’m here, today, to write my way through my anxiety over not perhaps having TC2 ready for this year. And to let that expectation and accompanying anxiety go. Guides help. J. Campbell seemed a fellow quite adept at taking the time something took and otherwise not fretting about it. He landed a contract for The Hero With a Thousand Faces, for instance, and took five years – five years! – to deliver the book to his publisher. By which time everyone in the publishing house had since moved on and he was told nobody there was interested and Campbell could come pick up his manuscript, thank you very much, we’re sorry. This is a story I’ve often referred to in my journaling, namely, that (and you have to recall that for non-fiction authors it’s often the case that merely the idea for a book is sold, a quite different thing compared to what is required of novelists) here’s a guy so keen on doing the job right and possessed of such self-possession that he could grind away at a thing for that long, all the while maintaining faith in his publisher sticking by him until the time came to put the book out. Which didn’t happen. Things changed, too many things, and there was Campbell, advance in hand and back on the street with his manuscript. I’ve often tried to imagine this scenario and I simply cannot put myself in Campbell’s position. What psychological tortures must have the man endured? It turns out his friend, Henry Morton-Robinson, himself an author (who had one of his novels turned into a film), when Campbell was intending to return the advance, told him to keep it, Morton-Robinson helped him edit it one last time and, eventually, the Bollingen Foundation accepted it and the rest is history. J.C. then went on to a contract with Viking and every three years published a volume of The Masks of God tetralogy, a great work that I highly recommend that has very much withstood the test of time.
Every three years. Perhaps that’s fine for deeply researched non-fiction titles, you say, but it hardly ought to apply to novels which are typically completed well within a year. I would agree (the first drafts of TC1, TC2 and TC3 each required nine months or so) except to specify that only novels that are extemporaneous – thought up and composed on the spot, as it were, sans anything besides incidental, after-the-fact fact checking – and then hastily edited can be expected to thrive under such expectations. Perhaps I’m wrong. Frankly, I don’t read many novels. I read non-fiction, virtually all of which supports the background of the novels. Hence, I wouldn’t characterize my novels as extemporaneous.
Three years between TC1 and TC2, then? Is that really what I’m proposing? Well, if the first draft takes nine months and any decent amount of self-editing (three additional drafts) requires perhaps three months and then a last run-through with a professional editor requires two or three weeks – let’s just give it a month – then, 9 + 3 + 1 = 13. Thirteen months not counting book cover design and interior formatting and, in the case of Time Crime, the month it took me to obtain permissions for all my citations. So, fourteen months. Barring any crazy life interruptions and having the funds available for all this expenditure. So where does the extra year and a half come in?
It doesn’t. But just as a first record album is essentially a compilation of one’s entire previous life’s work, there is more to the TCT series – much more – than the writing of the manuscripts might otherwise imply. If you write novels yourself you might get a sense of the backstory and life experience and decade of intense reading and all the other writing that went on prior to receiving the “call” to begin writing that first fiction manuscript. That, and if you’re not the amazing type who holds down a demanding job like, say, a heart surgeon who still finds time and creative energy to somehow crank out worthy novels. Or these folks who publish ten books in ten years while working full time at anything. I don’t get it.
Somewhere, then, outside the fourteen months required to get a manuscript from its first word to something publishable, reside the nagging indeterminacies that beleaguer any significant act of creation. Shit happens. For example, there I was in 2019, finally primed and prepped and ready to get my book cover designed and slapped onto my book and shot into the KDP and Ingramspark systems and into anxious readers hot hands and my book designer said, sure, the earliest I can schedule you two months from now. Two months from now?! But I’m ready to go NOW!
Lesson learned. The zillionth lesson. This time, for TC2, I’m planning to reach out at least three months in advance regarding the cover and I’m thinking as I write this that I ought to check in with my designer perhaps four or more months in advance. After all, I don’t have to be done with the final, professional edit or even with my drafts to get the cover worked up. Interior formatting? Yes.
Anyway, given that the first draft of TC2 was already written when I committed, near the end of last year, to the second draft, it seems entirely reasonable to allow for three months on three self-edited drafts, another month working with a professional editor and then another month, more or less, to have the book up for sale. That’s five months. And here I’m already at perhaps three months slogging through this second draft. What gives?
Well, I’ve found that even the part-time job, especially as it presents an unpredictable work schedule, has slowed my re-digestion, so to say, of the TC2 story. That, and a second draft of TC2 is not the same as the final draft of TC1 where I was capable of burning through a chapter a day because the writing didn’t require much in the way of substantive editing. In other words, I’m only now, halfway into the second draft, managing to not only get any sense of momentum but to get the story back into my head, back to front. Because it’s been at least four years since I wrote the damn first draft. And the start-up shenanigans involved in becoming an authorpreneur type involved so many things besides just waiting for readers to find my novel. So be it. TC2, as yet, has not revealed any glaring, impossible plot glitches or disastrous technical flaws. I don’t have to start over. The patient is breathing and has a heartbeat. The story holds. My substantive editing, then, will not require organ transplants. This will save time. It may be also that I won’t require as many permissions. But I’m nevertheless burdened with a sense of having to pick up the pace. Why? Why can’t I just try to enjoy the process and take my time?
I can’t answer that. A sense of urgency seems somehow part of my genetic nature. That, and the process of self-editing is such a burdensome one, psychologically. The constant second-guessing of oneself, of my writing and my purpose for writing and why in hell would I ever think anyone would read my writing. This kind of thing. It’s a torture to get the book out as such. To fix things, tweak things, make the writing better, better, always it can be better. To trim, embellish, tweak and hone. To craft it.
The story itself is probably the only thing I don’t fret so much because I really can’t imagine writing any other story. This is the story, the TCT is, in my own mind at least, my magnum opus, my life’s great work of fiction. If I manage to subsequently or somewhere in between write and publish The World as Personal & Cultural Mythology it will not replace the sense that the novels are my children and I’ll always love them in that pained way that apparently parents love their children. Ugly. Untalented. Doomed. We love our novels, come what may, if we’ve put our life into them.
September of this year, then. TC2 copyright 2021. Stretch goal. Boy, I’ve got my work cut out for me.