Magic Sprinkles?


Monday, March 2, 2020. Another birthday. More importantly, the first month has passed since the publication of the book and the big lucky break has not happened. Where are the magic sprinkles that will generate readers and sales? What’s the trick to this? You know, akin to where the young author blogs about how they couldn’t believe how their book just “took off” when they published it. And husband and wife are now quitting their day jobs because, gosh, this indie publishing thing is just so damn lucrative…. Yes, I’ve actually read that somewhere. And then there was something about a young novelist, and this was twenty-five years ago when traditional book deals were still a thing, describing how she “couldn’t believe how much they were paying me for my book.” “They” being the publishers. I mean, really? Yes. And that it still happens – look at Jeanine Cummins and American Dirt, my god. What crazy hype. Am I jealous? Of the attention, yes. Writers write to be read. And that woman is read. But I’m old enough to understand that Cummins is paying a heavy price for winning the publishing lottery, as it were. Besides the unholy fame and money which will attract the money-grubbing flies of this world, the ones who will be keen to package the woman’s so-called brand and milk the cash cow for all it’s worth, until the teats are dry or she manages a second book, may the gods help her if it isn’t already written and then more so if it doesn’t sell. The first signal of remarkable success, after all, is the appearance of a militant group of critics seemingly possessed with the idea of wrecking you; as if it’s their divine mission to recontextualize your work into their own image of it, one that mercilessly focuses upon your weaknesses.

Anyway. I’m just frustrated. Just like any so-called emerging author. Translation: newbie nobody author. Without a platform. Without even a single review on Amazon, let alone anywhere else. If Amazon’s statistics are to be believed (who knows if they’re feeding me a line?), I’ve generated, via the campaigns in U.K. and here in the U.S. (my little campaign in France is just for laughs) something like ninety “clicks.” This from a hundred-thousand or so impressions. I won’t go into the boring details. Suffice it to say that, according to the online “experts” my click-through percentage is weak and it ought to be more like 0.5% or what have you, blah, blah. If you’re getting clicks but not purchases then there must be something wrong with either your cover (not) or description (perhaps) or price (probably). I ain’t changing the cover, that’s for certain and I’m really struggling with the idea of changing my pitch and synopsis (though I’ve asked Angie to reword at least the pitch to see what she might come up with as a non-fan of sci-fi). The prices? Having ran my food cart into the ground not least by way of drastically undercharging for my food – $5 for a meal that cost me at least that to make? – I’m determined not to make that mistake. I’d rather overcharge and go out of business this time. And I’m keying on the idea, promulgated by the folks at ALLi, that some readers care about price and some don’t. Hence, I’m focusing on those that don’t. Why not? I’m not trying to gouge anyone – hell, I’m pricing my hardcover in the ballpark of what hardcovers have cost retail since before I can remember. The paperback? Entirely reasonable given the competition. And the eBook, well, frankly, I don’t like them and I don’t foresee any future in them and hence I don’t really care whether it sells or not at $12.99. Meanwhile, I’m not participating in the race-to-the-bottom bullsh*t regarding pricing so that it amounts to giving one’s work away. I’m not doing it. My work is too important to me to schlepp into the world for nothing. Oh, please read me book… here, just take it for free, please… oh, and can you please write a nice review for it? Ugh. It’s all so hat-in-hand and humiliating.

Don’t be so arrogant, right? I’m not. I’m just proud of my work and I believe in it and I’m not going to sell it short. I’m not in this for “likes” or even reviews. Neither am I in it for the money – heaven knows I’ve read all about how no author makes a living on their writing alone, blah, blah. My sales goal is entirely reasonable, not too humble, mind you because that would be disingenuous but it’s based on my research: 12,500 copies per year. Year after year. Ramping up to hundreds of thousands and then, millions. I’m kidding. But a film? Oh yes, it’s part of my stretch fantasy, let’s call it. Not my strategy. A strategy has to do with pragmatism, rationality, statistics, data and a general, common sense reasonableness. Given the audience for the type of sci-fi I write, how many copies can I reasonably expect to sell per year? The 12,500 seems entirely reasonable. Hell, that’s close to a successful academic non-fiction title so clearly I’m not asking for the moon.

Why then, haven’t I generated even a single sale based on the advertising? What’s not working? Is it just statistics? Is my zero purchase problem simply the nature of the beast for the single-book, first time novelist? Who cares? I’ve already learned to both do the research – get the numbers, read the advice – and take it all with a grain of salt. People say you can’t do this and you can’t do that; you must do this and you must do that. In Campbellian (Joseph Campbell) terms, thou shalt and thou shalt not. All that really helps is to remind myself that the outliers – the Jeanine Cummins of the world – are to be disregarded. My month has passed whereby the world-of-action had its opportunity to jump on the book like the Holy Grail that it isn’t, to welcome my boon with open arms and wallets. Now, it’s the same marketing grind that everybody else who’s written a decent book has to endure. While it seems an utter failure of a book launch I really don’t think I could’ve done anything differently besides mail advance copies to, say, Locus and then to what end? I figure if they can’t get it together enough to read what I sent them post-indie-publication – like I told them, for indie publishers it seems to me that a compressed time frame is a reasonable part of the process – then, well, it’s going to have to be other means and even the next installment of the series, if I can ever afford to publish it, that cracks the seal of success. What else can I do besides do my best to heed the advice, try to be creative with breaking the rules and keep at it? From what I’ve read, it can take two years to compile anything like a respectable number of sales. I just read that it took Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams eight years to sell out its first print run of 600 copies. That’s non-fiction, of course. What freaks me out, however, is how the world sometimes just never warms up to a project: William James’s father’s work, for example (more non-fiction) – William, by then a successful author himself, tried editing and publishing a collection of his father’s efforts and it sold something like six copies. Well, fiction or non-fiction, that’s pretty much where TC1 is at. A dead fish. Starting to stink.

What to do? Beg everyone I know to write an Amazon review for it? The advice is, first off, to not appeal to family and friends because like as not you’ll get folks reviewing your book who don’t like it, or at least don’t like the genre and therefore can’t provide anything like a legitimately knowledgeable review. So don’t ask them unless you’re prepared to suffer the consequences. I get it. Likewise, I’m not about to pester folks like Jeffrey Kripal or Robert Richardson or Tilo Schabert, non-fiction authors whom I respect (hey, I don’t know any novelists) and with whom I want to maintain my acquaintance, with requests of that self-serving sort. It comes via authentic initiative or it doesn’t come at all. Perhaps I’m a fool that way, perhaps not, we’ll see. I have to live with myself, for f*ck’s sake, after all. What am I prepared to do to get from where I am to where I want to be? Compromise, yes. But not shamelessly. What’s the limit? What’s my bright line between legitimate, getting out of my comfort zone compromise and shameless exploitation of my limited resources? All I can say is that I know it when I see it.

Maybe my book sucks? It doesn’t. Well, you can’t expect your first novel to be any good, nobody writes a good first book. This is the common advice. I disagree. I liken my first book to a band with a first record: it’s all in there, all the life experience and all the years and tears and all the concerted, devoted, wholehearted effort and it just may be the best thing I ever do. I don’t know. Who in hell writes a lousy first novel? If it were lousy, wouldn’t you know it early on and dump it and strive to get going on a manuscript that shows some potential? You can’t effectively evaluate the quality of your own work; hence beta readers and writing groups, blah, blah. Wrong. If you can’t evaluate the quality of your own work, let me tell you that there isn’t anyone else – no buddy, parent, teacher, professor or paid reviewer – that will do it for you. Yes, they will indeed provide an opinion. But if you’re invested at all in what you write then frankly I don’t see what somebody’s half-baked, off the cuff, cursory read of your life’s work will benefit you. You ought to be capable of evaluating the raw quality, the substantive essence of your story – its beginning, middle and end – your characters and their arc, and the snappiness or jazziness of the whole thing. In my opinion, a novel better have a robust mythological core or it won’t possess substance that registers at least on the reader’s unconscious level. Invent everything from scratch, that is, on the fly, on the run, without research into ideas or historical or scientific facts and you’re walking a high-wire – you better be a really, really revelatory type of striking talent with your prose or forget it, it won’t be compelling, let alone lastingly compelling.

What about an editor? Yes, we all need a professional editor. But I wasn’t referring to editing. I loved working with my editor, by the way, and not because she never edited me. No. She edited the hell out of me. And I almost always approved every change she suggested. Because I could see my work from her perspective once she presented it to me. I often tend to hitch up my sentences, confounding the sought after idea or image, with clumsy structure. Looking back, I don’t recall my editor, Veronica Marion, ever suggesting that I make a sentence lengthier or more stylish. No. She usually clipped the extra or merely rearranged what was already there. She was great at replacing a fussy word with a better one; with tweaking a good image or compelling intention into a sentence that better expressed that. She didn’t hack and slash at the manuscript. She seemed to honestly like reading the story. May all writers be graced with such an experience. Because some editors – I received sixty-some responses from editors when I posted my ad on the Editorial Freelancers Association (I didn’t yet know about ALLi, and a couple of them seemed keen to wield a saw-toothed broadsword against things just on principle. Your writing needs me, kind of thing. No, Veronica read and tweaked deftly. That’s how I describe her talent, which is indeed a talent: deft editing. Frankly, I couldn’t edit professionally if it meant reading stuff I don’t like, from genres to styles, I just couldn’t endure trying to tease the story out of the fabric of somebody else’s vision. There’s a job for everybody and that’s not mine. So, here’s to finding your deft editor.

Meanwhile, I suppose I could panic and pull my amazon campaigns and save the money and start looking for a job again and give up on the book, give up on being a novelist, fold my wings, as John Gardner wrote, and drop. But I’m not ready. Clicks are clicks and that means somebody out there in the U.K. and America is at least seeing and investigating and otherwise being compelled enough to acknowledge my novel’s existence. If I quit with the advertising then what? Nothing. Nothing at all has a chance of happening besides me somehow, by happenstance, encountering a person of influence or a reader desperately seeking out new reads in one of the two bookstores in town stocking my title. And that will soon enough fade away, too, I’m willing to bet. I need a review by Locus Magazine, yes, one that includes an image of the book cover, of course. Boy, wouldn’t that be a break? That would be my tribe legitimizing my work, assuming the review wasn’t a bad one, heaven help me. But I didn’t see TC1 listed in the latest edition of the magazine even in “Books Received.” Who knows? It’s stuff like this, the sought after appearance in a notable publication that I have to let go. I might have to indeed publish TC2 before I discover the combination to that lock and others like it.

Meanwhile, patience, right? It’s difficult. I’m not patient. But I just need to keep at it, keep searching out somebody else, some other organization, readers group, sci-fi review site, some other potentially interested soul, some tribe and tribe member whom I’ve yet to discover, a warm body who would enjoy reading the book, enjoy reviewing it online and enjoy suggesting it to their friends. Hello out there, dear Time Crime tribe member! What you seek is seeking you, those famous words from Rumi, oh how I long to legitimize the idea. Wherefore art thou magic sprinkles…?

And here’s my birthday bonus offer for the first person who reads this far and emails me: I’ll ship a free copy of TIME CRIME to you if you live anywhere in the continental United States (elsewhere and it will have to be just be a free eBook, sorry). Hello? Anybody out there…?