When Amazon launched its Neilsen BookScan feature last week making real-time sales numbers available to authors at the click of a mouse, the writing community collectively cringed.
It’s also the sound of authors turning inward to ask a difficult, uncomfortable question: “Where do I draw the line between writing as a business endeavor, and writing as a craft or an art?”
At the risk of getting booed off the screen, here are my two cents: there is no line. And Amazon’s BookScan move was a well-needed wake-up call for those who disagree.
By definition, a mainstream, published author is involved in a business relationship with his or her editor and agent. Agents work on sales commissions. Publishers’ mission is to sell books. Their product selections (yes, books are products) are driven overwhelmingly by the preferences of commercial booksellers. As author Timothy Fish notes on Rachelle Gardner’s blog, “it is a business decision, based on what publishers believe readers want to read.”
Creating a book that meshes with these preferences requires a conscious, intentional effort. In making this effort, authors are weaving sales imperatives into the very essence of their work.
Authors also receive advances upon signing a publishing contract, entering a financial agreement based on projected revenue in which both agents and editors take a cut. If that’s not a business commitment, I don’t know what is.
Some may deny this. Others may simply not realize it, or reject the concept altogether along with the responsibilities – and burdens – it implies. Many claim that the business side is simply not a writer’s job. But the clawing truth is that most people need to earn a living. Ultimately, writers who can’t sustain on the crumbs of low advances and poor sales leave the field.
Those who stay in despite this are often lucky enough to have spouses who support them or other sources of funding. Perhaps it’s easier for this group to shrug at numbers and deny the business imperatives defining their craft. That, however, skews the industry’s natural selection process. And it all but relegates authorship to the status of a prestigious hobby with token compensation accessible to only the nobly impoverished or the financially elite.
I wouldn’t want anybody to become obsessed with knowing the numbers or with checking them constantly throughout the week. As with any online tool, you have to know how to turn BookScan off. But like it or not, its availability is an honest reflection – and a vital reminder – of what being a published or aspiring author today is really about.
What do YOU think?