Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Numbers

I recently met my agent for dinner in London to discuss “the numbers.” I like my agent. To begin with, he looks like an agent, albeit an agent of the old school: distinguished grey hair and immaculate attire, with a hint of eccentricity to his dress. He’s also kind and loyal and great company, so meeting him for dinner is always a pleasure. Curiously, he bears a startling resemblance to the actor Ian MacDiarmid, who plays the villainous Senator Palpatine in the Star Wars prequels, or to be more accurate he bears a startling resemblance to the Senator Palpatine action figure. I presented him with his plastic doppelganger last year. He seemed a bit perturbed, but I suspect he was secretly flattered. There can’t be many literary agents with their own action figure.

Actually, we were supposed to meet first for a drink at the Ritz, which is very posh indeed. Now my agent is not a particularly Ritzy man, but I suppose that he remembers the days when he couldn’t afford to drink at places like the Ritz and now rather likes going to them occasionally as a treat and, since I’d never been there and it was across the street from our restaurant, it seems like a good opportunity to visit.

Unfortunately, I still haven’t been to the Ritz as the doormen wouldn’t let me in. I was, apparently, inappropriately attired. I was wearing jeans, and jeans, even in association with shiny black shoes, a black velvet jacket and a crisp white shirt, are clear evidence of the decline of western civilisation as far as the Ritz is concerned, so that allowing me into the bar would have been an act of barbarism on a par with admitting the Visigoths and allowing them to run rampage among the imitation Louis Quinze furnishings

Actually, I saw their point. I would just have made the place look untidy. I simply don’t do posh very well, although I felt a bit sorry for my agent who, after all his efforts, is still lumbered with a client who can’t be brought anywhere respectable. Instead, we discussed “the numbers” in the Wolseley, which is actually very respectable but is more inclined than the Ritz to value its customers’ comfort over its own.

Authors live or die by “the numbers”, the quantity of their titles bought over the counter by paying customers. At least, writers of popular and commercial fiction do. Literary authors have a little more leeway, I think, and a significant few have enjoyed quite respectable careers based more on the strength of their names and the kudos they bring to their publishers than on any actual sales.

There was a time, in the dim and distant past, when the numbers didn’t matter quite so much. The main reason for this was that it was probably a lot harder to find out what the numbers actually were, since it was much more difficult to determine what happened to books once they left the warehouse for remote stores across the country. Now POS (point of sale) information and the main book tracking systems have made it significantly easier for publishers, retailers and, for better or worse, authors to track their sales. A bookseller in a chain store can log on to a computer and tell the author exactly how many copies have been sold that week not only in that particular store, but right across the group (and it always sounds like a lot less than it should be, let me tell you). Those number are carefully recorded, and will determine the quantity of the author’s next book that will be ordered by the chain.

Meanwhile, Nielsen Bookscan, using information gathered from the stores it monitors, can come up with a pretty accurate weekly tally of sales nationally, and it’s their figures that most of the main newspapers use to compile their bestseller lists. (In the US, the situation is a little more haphazard, to the extent that a placing on some lists is based on a combination of copies ordered, rather than copies actually sold, and what various bookstores choose to admit to selling when they are asked for their weekly figures.) In a nutshell, though, the numbers rule.

Authors can be divided roughly into three categories. The first includes those who care about nothing but the numbers. They want to sell like John Grisham does and woe betide anyone who gets in their way. They are, needless to say, kind of irritating to be around, mainly because they’re not as good as the rest of us at hiding their obsessive quest for success. They also tend to talk about money a lot while pretending to their fans that it’s the last thing they think about, and the only people who talk about money a lot, in my experience, are those who have too much of it rather than too little. Most authors with an ounce of common sense stay away from the number fanatics.

The second group consists of those who claim not to care about the numbers at all. They are either a) liars; b) liars who used to be published but aren’t any more; or c) poets. Everyone cares about the numbers. I suspect even poets care about selling more than other poets, but I don’t want to spend more time with poets badly enough to find out.

The third group consists of everyone else, those who care about the numbers but also care about doing good work, maybe even creating art, and who try to balance the two demands as best they can.

So there is no escaping the numbers. Thankfully, the numbers for the paperback of The Black Angel are good, both in the UK and the US. (The US figures, once again, are considerably more difficult to interpret than the UK figures, to the extent that I’m tempted to recruit a passing genius child to explain them to me, but my editor’s scribbled comment above them to the effect that they’re “great” ensures that my blushes are saved. Don’t ask me what they mean, though. I just don’t know. This is why I’m a writer and not, say, a rocket scientist, or even a checkout clerk.) The book has made the list in both Ireland and the UK, and is also on the Publishers Weekly list in the US. This is as good as I’ve ever done and I’m very pleased, if only for a couple of minutes.

Because this success raises another issue. Most writers, if they’re honest, want to make the bestseller list. If the numbers aren’t high enough to do that, then they may feel a little let down. (For “a little let down”, read “almost suicidal.”) Meanwhile, if the numbers are good enough to enable the author to make the list, then that brings a whole new set of problems. How high did it go? How long will it stay there? Who else is publishing over the next week or two who might knock me down a place or two? In Ireland, a fellow crime novelist is about to see her first book published in paperback. I want her to do well, but preferably not while I’m in the list. Can’t she just wait a few weeks until I’m gone? Is that so much to ask? There’s a new Kathy Reichs paperback on the shelves too. Couldn’t she have held off? I mean, doesn’t she have some corpses to attend to somewhere?

So I’ll watch as the numbers inevitably drop as the weeks go by. I’ll console myself with the fact that I made the list once again, and the numbers are up on the last book. The numbers mean that my career lives to fight another day. I’m not being facetious either. Walt Disney used to say that he made movies so he could make more movies. Art and commerce are inextricably linked, and to continue doing what I want to do I have to sell enough copies to make it worthwhile for my publishers. It’s the dilemma that all full-time writers face if they want to remain full-time writers, and I’d be a fool to ignore the realities of the marketplace.

In an odd way, though, perhaps the only writers who are free from this quandary are those who don’t rely solely on their income from books to support themselves. There are some of them who may want to be full-time writers, which is another issue entirely, but having another income, however ordinary, brings a certain freedom. Wallace Stevens once wrote, in a letter to a friend:

“A writer faces a point of honor that concerns him as a writer. He must apparently choose between starvation and that form of publishing (or being published) in which it is possible to make money. His problem is how to support himself while engaged in the most honorable capacity. There is only one answer. He must support himself in some other way.”

Does this mean, I wonder, that it’s dishonorable to care about the numbers? Was I ever as free in what I wrote as I was when I was a journalist, struggling to find time in the evenings to write my first book?

In the end, perhaps it’s a question of balance. Even Stevens wanted to be published, I think, and to be read. The income that he earned from sitting at his office desk in Hartford almost until the day he died enabled him to achieve the balance that he sought. I’d like to think that I too have achieved a balance with which I’m content. I’m fortunate that what I want to write, maybe even what I need to write, has so far appealed to enough readers to enable me to continue doing it.

So my agent and I ordered a nice bottle of wine to celebrate books written and yet to be written. But under the table, I touched my fingers to the envelope containing the numbers.
Please, I prayed. Just a few more weeks. Just a few . . .

This week John read

Shepperton Babylon
by Matthew Sweet
Good News, Bad News by David Wolstencroft

and listened to

by Keren Ann
Morph the Cat
by Donald Fagen


Marcus said...

"But I don’t want to spend more time with poets badly enough to find out."

You know Joolz is a poet don't you? :)

John said...

Joolz is the exception . . .

Marcus said...

ah you say that now :)

have fun

tex said...

Johnner!!....get a haircut;-))
Give me shout next time you're in London...we WON'T go to the Ritz.

Jeff said...

If it helps any, John, here in the U.S. I always turn your books face out when I'm in a Barnes and Noble or Borders bookstore. :)