Books are everywhere. You can buy a book and read it on your phone. You can download almost any title within a matter of seconds to whatever device-of-the-week you own. Never before have books been so accessible. Yet, this article states the shocking truth: The average U.S. book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 3,000 copies over its lifetime.
Considering most authors make less than 10% off the cover price of a traditionally published paperback and 25% (if they're lucky) off of their eBooks, that doesn't add up to very many mortgage payments.
The new (and somewhat proven) theory in publishing these days: most books are purchased by someone the author has a personal connection with - friends, relatives, colleagues, a Facebook acquaintance. The market is competitive (some would say flooded) and often the only leverage an author has in securing sales for his or her new title is familiarity.
I am now working on my tenth novel. To some, this is impressive. To others, I need to catch up. To most who are not writers, the myth is I must be independently wealthy or, to paraphrase one of my favorite quotes from Susan Seidelman's film Smithereens, I must be "sitting in a swimming pool, eating tacos, and signing autographs all day."
My reality is not one of fame and fortune. When I'm not writing or working on three to five projects at a time, I teach courses in writing and the arts for three colleges part-time. In between grading papers, responding to emails, editing, revising, engaging in the now-required social media, and maintaining some sense of a home life (including paying bills and the always-dreaded grocery shopping), I am writing. At 5 a.m. I am up and I am writing. On Friday nights at midnight, I am awake and writing. On vacations and holidays, I am writing. Whenever or wherever a sliver of time presents itself, I use it because I have to.
I am writing because it is my passion. The ability to tell stories and create other worlds populated with characters that have been born in my imagination is something I cannot describe - and I recognize and respect its power daily. In regards to its origin, I have no idea where it comes from other than from my true love for the written word.
My books do not sell by the thousands because my name is on the cover. I do not have a huge fan base anxiously waiting for my next book to come out. What I do have is a small (but growing) group of readers who recognize the importance of supporting artists - even literary ones. To the people who do buy my books: your support really does mean everything.
Do I expect everyone I know to buy one of my books? No. I don't. I realize how full people's lives are - how much is demanded from them in a given day. Why would I want to add to that? Also, let's be practical: my books aren't for everyone. Not every person in my social network is the intended audience for my work. For every stranger who writes to me and tells me how much they connected with something I've written, there are many people I have known for years who never ask about or mention my work. I remind myself that writing and literature might not be a part of their world. Yet, through our connection, it is. Not everyone has someone in their life who writes books for a living. No matter what anyone tries to tell you about suffering for art or the fulfilled life of the starving artist, what we do - our art, our lives, our creativity, our dependence on the public to sustain our careers - none of this is conventional. We are forced out of necessity to try and sell our work to everyone we come in contact with. We are literary hustlers. That's how important book sales are.
I want to provide some food for thought here. Most of my novels are less than $15 in paperback. Many of the eBook versions are priced as low as $2.99 - cheaper than most cups of coffee. Affordable to most people I know in my immediate social circle. In the large scope of my career, does that sale of a $2.99 eBook make a difference?
Yes. It absolutely does.
Like most industries, publishing is a numbers game. This is a business. Like me, my publishers also have bills to pay. While awards, great reviews, and a gazillion Twitter followers can certainly help to shape a career - they certainly don't sustain one. Only sales can do that. Only sales can guarantee that independent literary artists can continue to publish their work - usually by a small press that took a huge chance on them whose very existence is dependent on sales.
Someone asked me a few days ago (their question is what prompted this post) if my feelings get hurt when those friends, relatives, colleagues, and Facebook acquaintances who I think should be supporting my work don't. I'd like to lie and say No, but I can't. Ten novels in and I know firsthand the incredible amount of work, time, people, and sacrifices it takes to get a book into print these days. In my line of work public support is everything - and that support is shown by and translated into sales.
To answer the question that was posed, I offered some (what I thought were) parallel scenarios:
If your friend/relative/colleague were a musician, would you buy their CD?
If they were in a film, would you go to your local theatre opening weekend?
If they were on a television show, would you tune in faithfully each week?
If they were a painter, a sculptor, a photographer - would you buy and display their work?
Being the friend/relative/colleague/Facebook acquaintance of an artist can be taxing. How much are you expected to actually do? What do you want in return? Where's the line? What if you can't offer the support you want to simply because you can't afford to do so? Or - which happens frequently in my life - you love the artist but don't connect with their work? What to do?
Great, I say, please tell them about my work.
And when they do, I say thank you.
And then, usually, I get back to writing - because it's really what I do best.