The headline for this Kamy Wicoff article (What Makes a Book a Success?) caught my eye because I’m always looking for marketing ideas – promoting these books and my writing services has become like a second job (researching, adapting ideas to my reality, communication, execution, and networking, networking, networking). The fact that I have a blog or facebook presence at all can be attributed to promotional ideas picked up along the way. So, yeah, I’ve been at this a while, and it can be tedious and time consuming but if it helps me reach more readers and stay engaged with the readers I already have (and am thankful to have) then, hey, win.
Well, hooked and on a mission, I started reading Kamy’s article, and discovered it wasn’t about new ways to generate more sales at all. But about something much more essential.
It begins: “A year after my first book came out, a then-friend said to me, over dinner at an Italian restaurant on a cold winter night: ‘Your book was a failure.'”
I was impressed with her for putting that out there, for talking about that moment when society gives you the thumbs down, and you have to shake it off. Sometimes it comes from genuinely well meaning friends and family – “…but they’re not buying your books,” “so, is this one going to make money?”, “I thought once you books came out you’d be…”; and sometimes critics and bloggers, just doing their job, really, and calling it how they see it so you can’t be mad at them for calling your book a “failure”. But, of course, you have feelings about it; first, because while it may not be analogous to, it certainly feels like somebody criticizing a child you labored to bring into the world…second, because you want the book to do well both financially and in terms of reader responsiveness. You want to be a success. And though, the irony of it is, some might think you’ve given up the hustle because you’re “doing books now”, you know sipping mimosas and collecting royalty cheques might be Carrie Bradshaw’s dream but it’s not your reality. You are the very definition of a working writer.
As Kamy Wicoff goes on to reflect, the choice is between accepting society’s label, failure/success, or putting your journey into context and re-defining success for yourself. She wrote: “My book was not a failure. For one, I was enormously proud of it, not just of the book but of myself for finishing it. For another, while I had not turned into an overnight punditry sensation, I had crossed a meaningful threshold professionally… Perhaps most important, I had reached an audience, if not in the numbers I had hoped. Women had written to me from all over the country to tell me what my book meant to them, and readers cared about it enough to engage in lively debates about it on blogs and on my Amazon book page.”
That, too, I can identify with. I am beyond moved by the messages public and private I’ve received from readers of my books, by people embracing the books, caring about the characters (I’ll never forget the classroom of teenagers that demanded to know why I had to kill one of their favourite characters). That’s the part of this experience of writing and publishing that continues to be beyond real for me, because I love to write (I lose sight of that in the grind sometimes but it’s true, I love to write) and to think that this thing I love to do has taken physical form, books, the pages of which are being turned by readers here at home (who tell me often how much of themselves and our culture they see between the pages of one of my books) and readers from far away places, readers I’ll never meet (I once got an email from a reader in Italy. Italy!), who somehow connect with these stories anyway, give thanks for that.
For every rejection letter, I’m also lucky to have books, stories, poems, that have had as Kamy put it, “a chance at a life in the marketplace”.
But before the marketplace, there’s a writer in a room grappling with a story that has to come out and then at some point, as I did during an all nighter last night, grappling with editing that story, a process just as heart wrenching as the first go around; sewing things together, pulling them apart, cutting stray threads, crying and fussing, and bleeding, and somehow finding joy in all that, in the agency that gives you, in the pleasure and pain of putting it together, in the anticipation of holding that book in your hand, of imagining it in the hands of readers…hopefully thousands of readers. Because sales matter…otherwise why are we out here promoting and marketing and networking…buuuut Kamy’s article is a reminder that that’s not all that matters, a reminder of something much more essential: you poured everything into writing this book, don’t let anything diminish that “Because in the ways that matter most–and in the only ways (you) can truly control–it’s a success already.”
A good (and timely) reminder.