Wednesday, December 06, 2006

A Little Luck

After three solid months of touring , I'm now home. The edits for the next book are spread over my desk and I'm working through them very slowly, but part of me is still tied up with The Book of Lost Things.

Some writers, and I am certainly one of them, always wonder if there was something more that they could have done for their book, if there was some extra push they could have given to it that would have helped it to be read by a few more people. Looking back, I'm not sure that there was in this case. I'm bone weary from travelling. The book was beautifully packaged by my publishers. I spoke about it to just about anyone who would stand still long enough to listen. The reviews, with two exceptions, were the best that I've had for any of my books. Maybe there could have been a little more media, but it's hard to get time on radio and, especially, television, and even newspapers are restricted in the amount of coverage that they can offer to books.

So, frankly, I'm not sure what more could have been done. Was the book a success? Well, it's a little early to tell, but ask any writer and he or she will almost certainly say that the book in question could have done better. Well, almost any writer, as I don't think Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling would provide a similar answer to the rest of us. (Then again, maybe even Dan looks at the sales for, say, Boise, Idaho and thinks, "Hmmm, they're a bit low. Wonder why I'm not liked so much in Boise? Perhaps I'd better go there for the next book and try to motivate the book troops . . .")

What is the measure of success? It rather depends upon which side of the artistic scales you choose to put your weight, although, in truth, the measures all tend to blend together at some point, complementing one another. From the writer's perspective, was the book one of which to be proud? Did it achieve what the writer set out to do artistically? (A third question, albeit one that can't be answered immediately after publication, is one of influence. There are a great many influential books that may not have sold in huge quantities, but affected the way that others viewed literature, or even the way that subsequent writers approached their work. In musical terms, it was said that only a handful of people bought copies of the Velvet Underground's first album, but all of them went out and formed bands afterward . . . )

Then there are the rather less esoteric issues: was it read, and did it sell? (These are two different things, incidentally, albeit rather subtly different.) Answering 'yes' to the artistic questions won't keep a writer in Grape Nuts and Cheerios, just as answering 'no' to the commercial questions will have a similar result. Then again, if you can't stand over the book with pride, why was it written? (There are clearly those out there who write from purely mercenary instincts, but it's probably better not to think about them too hard, or to encourage them by buying their books.) In the end, the ideal result for the writer would involve massive artistic satisfaction and massive sales, but that rarely happens, with the result that the bestsellers sometimes envy the critical acclaim of the literary writers, while the literary writers envy the bestsellers their sales.

But the hardest part, for me, has been coming to terms with the fact that, while I can write the book, I can't make it sell. Even publishers and booksellers can't quite manage to make a book sell, not alone. Each book needs a little bit of luck. Some books don't have any luck at all, and some seem to be gifted with luck out of all proportion to the quality of the work, but that element of luck is out of everybody's control. A writer can lay the groundwork for it by writing the best book that he can. The publisher can package and promote the book, and send the writer out to hustle his wares. The bookseller can put it front-of-store, or face out on the shelf, but all involved can then only sit back and hope for a positive reception, and some luck. That luck can take many forms: TV or radio book clubs, an endorsement from a celebrity, a big movie deal, a well-known literary prize or - the best kind - simply a slow building of word of mouth praise, an accretion of support that lifts the book up above its peers. Luck can come suddenly, or it can come gradually, but every book needs it. You can plan for it, but you can't make it happen.

We're all looking for a little luck, but it is available only in limited quantities. Perhaps that's true of all things, and not just books. For now, I have wait and see if some of that luck comes the way of The Book of Lost Things . . .

This week John read

half of one book, then gave up and picked up Hannibal Rising by Thomas Harris instead

and listened to

So Divided by . . . And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead
Songs for Christmas by Sufjan Stevens
Chainsaw of Life by Hellwood