My first book published a year ago this month, and since then, I’ve grown accustomed to certain questions. Like how long it took (about two years factoring in writing, research, and ulcers). Or whether I went on a book tour (eh, kind of). But the most frequent one after publication, and the one I answer on the train, at the urinal, and at least 12 times a week from my mom, is how my book “is doing.”
I know most people who ask this question mean well. I asked the question plenty myself before I became an author, and it’s just an innocuous way of acknowledging a book’s existence even if you haven’t read it or even know its name.
The main exception is when the question comes from other authors, because either:
A) They’re looking for subtle assurances your book is not doing better than theirs.
B) They’re looking for a convenient entry point to slip in their own updates (i.e. “How’s your book doing? I just sold the audio rights to my book and IT'S BEING NARRATED BY JAMES EARL JONES!”).
In the early days after my book’s publication, I could give you hard figures on how the book was doing. I knew where it ranked on Amazon, where it fell on various obscure bestseller lists, and how many copies it had sold in the greater Des Moines area the week of Jan. 9-16. I knew how many reviews it had generated on Goodreads, the exact window location it occupied at the bookstore in town, and which media outlets were most effective for spikes in sales (hello, national radio!).
I also knew if I kept monitoring the day-by-day and occasional hour-by-hour progress of my book, I would lose my mind.
So how is my book doing? The answer for the past few months is . . . I don't know. No clue. I have no idea where it ranks on Amazon, no idea whether it's still taking hold in Des Moines, no sense if I should start expecting those big royalty checks that will render my day job irrelevant (educated guess here: no). I have stopped checking. The one vice I still allow myself is the occasional Google search of my name and book title, just to ensure I'm not badly misquoted or there’s not a picture of me with spinach in my teeth.
If these type of avoidance tactics seem like a feeble attempt at ego preservation, the answer is no shit! What I had discovered in those early manic days of studying sales charts was that nothing about it felt good -- not when things were going OK, and not even when things seemed to be going great. While writing the book, I was fine wasting an hour debating the use of a semi colon versus a comma. But when it came time to stuff mostly outside of my control, I had neither the stomach nor the patience.
Mostly, though, the decision to shut myself off from the results around my book was a nod to something I had emphasized in the book itself, that happiness is born not from results, but from the journey we take along the way. I learned the definition of success is all relative, which is why someone who finishes 400th in a race can walk away more satisfied than the guy who finishes fourth.
Having written the book while working full time, coaching my boys in various sports and trying to maintain some semblance of sanity, I had allowed myself all sorts of caveats. I told myself I didn’t care how much the book sold as much as I cared that it was good -- that it satisfied some type of internal quality gauge while hopefully resonating with the people who read it. I knew I did my best, and since the advance ensured some money to make it worthwhile, I told myself I already succeeded. Of course there were parts I would do differently if I started over today. But the reality is it was done, it was on time, and the finished product wasn’t something I cringed at when I heard it read back to me.
The problem with book sales is it provided a metric to something I'd actually prefer not to measure. You know how when your kids are young, they hold their hands apart wide and say, “I love you thiiiiiissss much”? It would be as if now you knew precisely how much. And if the answer was anything less than the maximum amount, well then it doesn't feel like quite enough.
Now before we go any further, let me acknowledge that this approach is highly impractical and entirely unsustainable. A book publishing endeavor is essentially a small business, and any falafel vendor on the street knows you gotta be aware of the money coming in or you won’t be selling falafels very long. Besides, even if I prefer to be evasive indefinitely, everyone from my wife to my accountant will be peppering me for answers eventually. At some point, perhaps by the time you read this, I will put the appropriate question to my agent or publisher, and I'll either be pleasantly surprised by the answer, or perhaps a little disheartened.
At least then though I will have provided myself the cushion of time, and therein lies another valuable lesson from the past few years. When it comes to disappointment, there's great value in having enough space to separate emotion from reason. When my book was first published, its fortunes were so closely tied to my overall self worth, I struggled to determine where the book ended and I began. Now after a few months, I'm able to see it again as words on a page. Those words matter to me, of course, and I relish hearing they matter to others as well. I'll get an email from a stranger or I'm stopped by another parent at a ballgame -- a frequent enough occurrence where it feels substantial, but not so much that I ever expect it. Those are the brief flutters of a reminder that a book’s resonance can be measured a hundred different ways. And when I'm asked how my book is doing, I can report it's doing just fine.