That was the basic gist of the email from the third-party publicist I opened today. I get a bunch of these – well-intentioned advertisements from career ink pimps more than happy to go shill your book for a percentage. I toss most of them, but this one included an embedded five-question quiz, which I found very interesting. And enlightening.
The ‘juice’ question was as follows: would you rather sell 100,000 copies of a two-star book or 1,000 copies of a five-star book? From the perspective of the publicist, of course, that’s a self-serving screener question. He wants to know if you’re a perfectionist that’s going to provide him one salable property every ten years with every last character descriptor vigorously screwed down and every participle neatly tucked into place, or a bulk paperback every eight months that the trades can press into service. He makes his money from the latter, and I respect that. What I found interesting was that, to him, this was a natural dichotomy – that nothing that reviewed well could possibly sell well, and vice versa. (Given my druthers, I suppose I’d rather sell 100,000 copies of a five-star book, but that would have been the undisplayed Choice C.)
The question within the question, from my perspective, was equally simple: how will I know if I’m a success as a writer? I don’t know, actually. But now that Reswyt is out there, and the second book is underway, I can take a momentary breath and ask that question. When you’re writing, there is always a Large Operational Stage waiting for you after the current one is completed, and that road of work limits your time for – or interest in – plumbing the depths of self-awareness. For the longest time, it was all about finishing. Then it became all about editing. Then publishing. Then promotion. There’s not a lot of room for introspection along the way…but now that I’m back on the road, for the second time, I can see that the question does merit some thought.
Maybe I’ll know I’m successful if the Literary Community(R)(TM) embraces me. That’s possible. I got solicited to be reviewed by Kirkus, who is the eight-hundred-pound gorilla of book reviewing, and I pressed the Send/Receive button on Outlook to ship Reswyt to Kirkus with a level of trepidation bordering on junior-high telephone date inquiries1. So maybe I’m a Big Literature review whore. Maybe I’d like to see Reswyt acknowledged somehow on a Grand Level. I suppose that’s true. But I don’t think it’s a top-level consideration. Plenty of my favorite authors are awash in midgrade reviews, and plenty of stuff I’ve thrown aside as unreadable has been broadly praised. If I don’t think like a Literary Community(R)(TM) reviewer, do I want such a review for myself?
Or, maybe I’m an Amazon review junkie. That’s true, too, at some level; it’s important for me to know that the book made a difference in somebody’s week, maybe yours. Although I agonize over small details, like who the fuck steers Ra’s solar barque2, I realize that – in the end – this is an entertainment product, designed to get you through a shit weekend with your mother-in-law or provide a nice literary scaffold to rationalize an additional umbrella-festooned drink at the beach. (“You go along, hon. I’m to the good part in this. Waiter?”) I’ve gotten a few nice Amazon reviews. (I’d like more. Yes, I’m looking at you.) I’ve gotten a few emails from people, too, who aren’t willing to hang their opinion out there on Amazon, but had some nice things to say. I like those, too. But, again, I’m not sure that’s how I’m going to know if I’m a success. I’ve gotten other emails I like a great deal better (see comment below).
Money? Probably not coming, not in circular-drive-with-a-vodka-spouting-fountain-in-the-center fashion, anyway. I’ve spent more promoting the book, to date, than I’ve made from it, and I acknowledge that doing so’s a part of pushing the new-novelist rock up the hill. At some point, it’d be nice to be able to earn some form of income for the work – it would make a spiffy alternative to other retirement work options, for instance – but for the moment, that’s not even on the table.
So if sales aren’t the most important thing, and review stars aren’t the most important thing, what is? And doesn’t that neuter the dichotomy I got presented with originally? In other words, aren’t I supposed to want one or the other? Well, maybe not.
Reswyt began with a kernel of an idea – that in the dreaming state, our souls are elsewhere – and grew from there. But it’s one of a double-fistful of ideas that have merited something between a one-page treatment and a bold couple of chapters in my life. Reswyt was different; it progressed very quickly, almost frighteningly quickly, from a premise piece to a passion piece. At some point in its creation, its creation itself became the most important thing, for a very specific reason.
God knows I didn’t write the thing for the mainstream audiences; I’m aware of that, in spades, and I have an Outlook folder full of agent correspondence telling me so. I think what’s important, from my perspective anyway, is finding readers that I could connect with, and setting forth something that would elicit an organic emotional response. A route to what Neil Peart once called “…the secret well of emotion…buried deep in our hearts.” And those are the emails I really value – the ones telling me that some small part of the book awakened something beautiful, or sad, or passionate, or sympathetic, within them. I wrote Reswyt with hands that sometimes shook, eyes that sometimes teared. If any of that went through the Great Conduit of Creation and came out at your end, I did my job: connecting with readers – and putting forth an opportunity to feel something.
In this Godforsaken world, I’m not sure anything’s more important than that.
1 Did I, in my junior-high days, attempt to script first-date calls on index cards? I did. Might have been the first storyboard attempt ever on my part. (Note: acting partner often seemed disinclined to follow storyboard.)
2 Yes, I really am currently wrestling with this. It only took two large glasses of wine before I realized that, if the Egyptians themselves didn’t fucking care who drove the boat, I could probably take license. So I did. Hardcore trolls and detail fanatics can suck it.