“So How’s the New Book Going?”

Today, I got asked this question three times before ten o’clock: “So how’s the new book going?

It’s a well-intentioned question, and it comes from friends. I don’t know how to answer, in part because I don’t know the answer. It’s not like I get daily phone calls from my publisher, “We just sold seven in Maine!”

I guess I could say, “Um, no word from The Today Show or Oprah just yet — though my publisher did send an ARC to a blogger in Boise, Books I Feel Like Blogging About . . . And Other Stuff! So we’re hoping!”

Though I first published at age 25, in 1986, I don’t have a lot of experience in the hardcover world. My first hardcover, Cardinal and Sunflower, went to HarperCollins and sank like a stone. “Temporarily Out of Stock” on Amazon for the past nine years. It did not earn back the modest advance, was never picked up in paperback. I don’t think that’s an atypical story. How’d that book go? Um, it went, but thanks for asking.

For ten years, I wrote Jigsaw Jones books — and there was never any professional reaction, other than the letters I’d get from kids (fabulous!) or random comments I’d receive from teachers and parents. But hey, let’s not forget the ultimate measure: royalty checks. All that creative work gets reduced to simple mathematics. If it’s a big number, the book went well; if it’s a small number, disappointing, worrying. Those Jigsaw Jones books were never reviewed. Series paperbacks, you know. The kids seem to like ’em, but. If one was better or worse than another, nobody said so. After a while (read: after the first book), the publishing folks at Scholastic didn’t much read them either, other than those young editors who did so as part of their job description.

The furnace beckons. If sales go well, my publisher asks for more. If sales go down, the furnace grows cold. They try burning something else. It’s almost entirely outside of any concept of quality. (Perhaps that sentence was too generous, I’m not sure.) The numbers don’t lie. And again, this is a business. I get it. Chug, chug, chug. The train has got to keep moving down that track.

I want to be clear about this: This doesn’t make anybody a bad guy. It’s reality. I don’t curse the sky when it rains. But I’m not going to pretend the sun is shining, either. Books are products, after all; they must move. For most of us — who don’t land on the New York Times Bestseller List, or who don’t somehow cut through the clutter, as they say — it’s just how things go. Don’t cry for authors, Argentina.

Now, of course, writers today can get another helpful number over at Goodreads — if they dare. At the present moment, four people read Bystander, two reviewed it, and the score is 2.67. Or something close to that. I’m guessing that somebody didn’t care for it much. I have a nervous disposition; I generally don’t read reviews.

So how’s the new book going?

No parades yet. One official review, which was brief and mildly positive (read: bums me out they didn’t love it), and that’s about it. I think, in truth, that’s the way things go for the overwhelming majority of authors. It’s not like the world changes. Or even stands up to take notice. With Six Innings, I was lucky. Some good things happened. A blog review here, another there. A starred review, then another! It took time for the book to find an audience, and it was astonishing to me when a year later it hadn’t fallen off a cliff. Miracle  of miracles, it was named an ALA Notable Book. I mean to say: It kicked Cardinal & Sunflower’s butt up and  down the block.

With Bystander, who knows. I wrote the book, it’s out there, it’s out of my hands — like a little craft I built of balsa, cork, Krazy Glue, and dowels. A boat I pushed out into the water. I don’t control the journey. It floats, it sinks, it gets caught up in a current and travels hundreds of miles. I’m that kid staring helplessly at the edge of the pond. Swim, boat, swim. Go find readers.

I also get useful advice, like that same boy, now at home plate, after he swings through a fastball. “Elbow up, head in, lay off the high ones.” In this case: Hire a publicist, get an agent, promote yourself, go on Twitter, make a Facebook page, film a book video and put it on Youtube, etc.

Do you blog? Oh boy, do I ever!

Anyway: Please check out this short, satiric piece in The New Yorker, “Subject: Our Marketing Plan,” by Ellis Weiner. Every author should read it. A tip of the hat to Deborah Kovacs for bringing it to my attention. The one-page article begins:

Hi, Ellis—

Let me introduce myself. My name is Gineen Klein, and I’ve been brought on as an intern to replace the promotion department here at Propensity Books. First, let me say that I absolutely love “Clancy the Doofus Beagle: A Love Story” and have some excellent ideas for promotion.

To start: Do you blog? If not, get in touch with Kris and Christopher from our online department, although at this point I think only Christopher is left. I’ll be out of the office from tomorrow until Monday, but when I get back I’ll ask him if he spoke to you. We use CopyBuoy via Hoster Broaster, because it streams really easily into a Plaxo/LinkedIn yak-fest meld. When you register, click “Endless,” and under “Contacts” just list everyone you’ve ever met. It would be great if you could post at least six hundred words every day until further notice.

If you already have a blog, make sure you spray-feed your URL in niblets open-face to the skein. We like Reddit bites (they’re better than Delicious), because they max out the wiki snarls of RSS feeds, which means less jamming at the Google scaffold . . .


  1. Kurtis says:

    Have you seen this? It’s terrific.

  2. Jimmy says:

    Yes, I’ve linked to it twice on this very same blog, once about a year ago, the other time was last week. A classic.

  3. Kurtis says:

    Doh! Sorry I missed it just last week.

    Anyway, thanks for the entry. I was hoping eventually I’d learn how to answer that “how is the book doing?” question, but if a 20-year vet doesn’t know, maybe nobody does.

  4. Don’t forget to obsess over your Amazon “sales rank”. That’s always fun and not fun.

  5. Jimmy says:

    I think Jeff Kinney knows.

    All of this goes to the public disconnect most people — even people who care deeply about books — have with the life of an author. People think you’ve made more money than you did, sometimes a lot more. The big successes are so huge, many folks tend to lump us all into that stratosphere. Like we’re writing hit singles. But the model, I think, is one of slow gains, modest successes, a single a stolen base a bunt and a sac fly.

  6. Kurtis says:

    “Are you going to be the next J.K. Rowling?”

  7. Thanks for the honest, but now could you write a post chock full of lies in which you discuss the daily phone calls you get telling you how successful you are? I would feel much better after reading that.

    Parker P

  8. jimmy says:

    Parker, I believe I addressed that in today’s “Fan Mail Wednesday.”

    Again: I think we get flooded with these out-sized examples of success — the megahits that occur once a book crosses the tipping point, the acclaim, the movies! — but for most us, we’re looking for a career. A chance to write for a living. A book, another book, another book. There’s triumph and dignity in the steady, well-tended glow, though, of course, it’s hard not to dream of the raging fire.

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