I've written four books. My advice to people who want to ask an author, "How are your book sales going?," is the same advice I'd give to someone who wants to ask a woman how much she weighs. Don't do it!
Unless the author is Stephen King. Or the woman is Claudia Schiffer.
Five weeks ago I self-published my most recent book, Break Free of Dogma. (Amazon delicately calls it "Independently published," which does have a nicer ring to it.)
Currently my book ranks #2,098,091 on the Amazon best-seller list.
At first glance that struck me as pretty damn low. But then I remembered that my book is called Break Free of Dogma, not Break Free of Rationalizing.
So I just Googled the question, how many books does Amazon sell? I came across a wide variety of answers, so picked the highest number I could find: 58,407,108 as of December 1, 2016. There's got to be at least 60,000,000 now, so that puts me in the top 4%.
And if I bought a couple of copies of my own book, hey, I could easily make the top 2 million best-seller list.
My first book was published in 1995, though Amazon shows it in several places as 1765 for some reason. Back then, getting published was even more ego-deflating than it is now.
I had to mail queries to dozens of potential publishers, then endure the agony of getting replies with painfully brief rejection notices. Such as "Thanks for your submission. It doesn't fit with our publishing plans. Not now. Not ever."
I eventually found a publisher who offered a pitifully low royalty and did next to nothing to promote the book. A spiritual organization I was a part of did buy thousands of copies for resale, but I got exactly zero royalties on all those books.
Things are much more efficient now, thanks to Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing. A writer can get a book published quickly at little cost, which means they can see how few copies of their book are being sold much more rapidly. Progress!
It's always exciting to get that first printed copy of a book in the mail. I eagerly flip through the pages to see if it looks OK. At which point my eye hits upon a typo that went unrecognized even after several close readings of the manuscript. That marks the beginning of reality replacing fantasy.
I always think that people are going to flock to what I've written with as much zeal as I felt while composing the book. That fantasy would make sense if everybody was me. Sadly, they're not.
A friend recently told me that he heard an author say, "I write books that I'd want to read." That resonates with me. I've been slowly reading through Break Free of Dogma. I love it. It's fashioned out of 93 posts from the early years of my Church of the Churchless blog, 2004-06.
I was struggling to make sense of the doubts I had about the spiritual path I'd been an ardent traveler on for 35 years. Re-reading what I wrote about some fifteen years ago made me realize how glad I am that I've made the jump to being spiritually independent.
As I note in the Introduction to my book, currently there have been about 4,600,000 page views on my Church of the Churchless blog. That's a lot. So I've had many readers, albeit ones who paid nothing to read what I've written.
I don't write for money.
Few authors do. That's why book sales don't matter much to me. Sure, I'd be happier with more copies of my books being bought. But as with most things in life, satisfaction has to come with the doing, not with how others react to what's been done.
A quilter may spend a lot of time making a bedspread that few people ever will see. A jogger runs for the pleasure of exercising, not for the roar of a crowd at a finish line. A parent puts decades into raising a child, uncertain how their progeny will turn out, content simply to have done their parenting best.
I write because I like to write.
If someone enjoys what I've written, so much the better. However, if no one reacts to my literary product -- the number of Amazon reader reviews for Break Free of Dogma now stands at precisely zero -- my heart is mildly disappointed, yet in no way broken.
After all, I can always turn to Vincent Van Gogh. While there's some dispute about how many paintings he sold while alive, a reputable number is... one.
Thus Van Gogh serves as an exemplar for every person whose artistic expression wasn't recognized in their own time. I like to envision my book becoming a best-seller. Sure, it'd be nice to have this happen while I was alive.
Which is why you should head to Amazon and buy a copy of Break Free of Dogma now, since there's a good chance I'll still be breathing when my sales ranking falls under the 2,000,000 mark, thanks to you and others.
Just think: every person who buys a copy of my book assures that I've sold more books than Van Gogh sold paintings during his lifetime. I'm not saying that I'll cut off my ear if my book sales don't perk up. But wouldn't you feel bad if that happened? (I'd feel worse, of course.)
UPDATE: As chance would have it, right after publishing this blog post I came across a New York Times piece, "Steal This Book? There's a Price." It says:
Since 2009, when eBooks and book piracy became a phenomenon, income for full-time authors has declined 42 percent, according to Rasenberger, with the median income from writing now so low — just $6,080 a year — that poverty level looks like the mountaintop.
Half of full time writers make less than $6,080 a year, while half make more. This makes me feel a bit better. Amazon sends me about $90 a month in royalties, so I'm hauling in a bit over a thousand dollars a year in my decidedly part-time book-writing "career." Which keeps me in occasional non-fat vanilla lattes, but not much else.
Here's another all-too-true excerpt from Richard Conniff's opinion piece.
I tried to explain: Authors need to eat, too, and we get by (or not quite, these days), by showing up at our writing places at a designated time day after day and staying there till we have fretted out our quota of words, to be sent off, after a time, to a publisher, in the hope that, two or three years down the road, a few pennies may come trickling back under the ludicrously grandiose name of “royalties.”