Knowing the Numbers

by Sharon Bially on December 16, 2010

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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.

“Hear that?” Wrote John Biggs on Tech Crunch. “That’s the sound of thousands of authors’ hearts stopping mid-keystroke as they open up their Bookscan numbers and keel over dead of disappointment.”

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?

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Anna Elliott December 17, 2010 at 2:30 pm

I LOVE that Amazon has made Bookscan numbers available to authors! It’s so often impossible to drag any actual numbers out of a publisher–they’ll say, Sales are strong. Sales are steady. But what does that mean? It’s great that now authors can add that to their arsenal of decision-making tools.

Rima December 17, 2010 at 5:04 pm

I completely agree with Anna. And you, Sharon. I think Bookscan numbers are very important to authors, to publishers, to the writing industry as a whole.

Capability December 18, 2010 at 7:26 am

I do like that the numbers are available – authors are interested if not wanting to be addicted to checking them.
Is TechCrunch not everywhere right now? I just read an article about him yesterday, his name came up in (okay, in a geeky conversation, but still) last night and now here. Funny. I might have to go read him now.

Melissa Crytzer Fry December 18, 2010 at 11:27 am

Maybe it’s “not fair” that writing books has evolved from being solely an “art form” to “art + sales/marketing.” But that’s the reality today, and you either embrace it or pursue other dreams, unfortunately. I think having a tool like BookScan available to keep track of your numbers is vitally important from a business perspective. I agree, also (at least in my case) that I write for the artistic expression and the joy it brings me, but would certainly like to make a living from it as well.

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