Writing by the Numbers?

I confess: Every morning, often before I even drink that first longed-for cup of coffee, I feel besieged by numbers. As a writer with a manuscript out with editors, and an editor trying to help other writers publish and market their books, the sheer number of numbers that have become critical to my professional life keeps multiplying.

Our agents, our publishers, our colleagues insist that if we want to be successful in the current marketplace we must build a platform, create and nurture a brand, grow a readership, have a daily and engaging Internet presence. We must blog and tweet, bring traffic to our web pages, amass Facebook friends, gather Pinterest followers. Whether we are doing any of this well is measured by numbers, numbers that change on a moment-by-moment basis. And if these numbers are not in the thousands, preferably hundreds of thousands, many of us begin to feel that we've failed.

Authors have always had to contend with weekly bestseller lists and regular accountings of books sold. For years now, many of us have tormented or amused ourselves by watching our Amazon rankings change by the hour. But now, many mornings, I feel like an old movie image of an industrial baron standing by an open window watching the stock market tickertape, trying to decide whether to jump. Too often now, our feelings about ourselves and our work hinge on these sorts of numbers:

# of Facebook friends

# of Twitter followers

# of Linked-in contacts

# of Pinterest followers

# of Tumblr followers

# of Likes or Comments to our Facebook postings

# of retweets of our tweets

# of blog readers

# of positive comments from blog readers

# of visits to our websites

# of YouTube viewings of our book trailers or promotional videos

# of Amazon reader reviews

# of Goodreads followers and reviews

The internet has made it possible for a writer to attract thousands of followers, viewers, and fans. It has created the viral video, the self-published book that begins as fan literature and becomes a sensation. It has enabled first-time authors to achieve instant celebrity. But the truth is that these are relatively rare phenomena, and impossible to predict. The video of a cat falling off a table or of a baby laughing is as apt to attract millions of YouTube followers as a gorgeously (and expensively) produced book trailer. A poorly written book about kinky sex can sell in the millions while a carefully researched tome reflecting the life's work of a learned professor languishes unread.

Chasing the numbers hasn't led to success for the majority of us, and it certainly hasn't led to better writing. Yet we all feel compelled to follow the current conventional wisdom: blog frequently, if not daily, publish your work on every possible internet site even if you have to give it away to do so, add new content to your website as often as possible, Tweet wittily, and maintain a presence on every possible social-marketing site.

Doing all this can constitute a full-time job. Who has time to write?

For most of us, good writing takes time to incubate. It requires solitude, reflection, lots of revision, and the kindness of strangers (or friends) in editing. It doesn't happen instantly, it doesn't happen daily. In the rush to put out a blog post every day or publish something provocative in response to every news event on internet sites, writers who are otherwise capable of much better put out unedited, overwrought verbiage. In the pressure to maintain sites, the editing that could refine such writing has fallen by the wayside.  Good writing is rewriting, and rewriting cannot happen consistently in this overheated environment. Though some writers can thrive in this environment, not everyone who thinks fast thinks best. In our Tweets and Facebook postings, we tend to be reactive when we should be thoughtful. With no training in graceful marketing approaches, we're driven to unseemly self-promotion that can lead to our own and our colleagues' burnout.

Writing for the numbers can bring out some of the worst traits in writers: competitiveness, public bitterness when the social media equivalent of Look at me! Look at me! doesn't work, and endless procrastination from the real work of writing. It's hard to give ourselves the unpressured time it might take to find the perfect word, let a character take off in exploratory directions, tweak that new, better ending, when we feel that if we turn our heads away for even a minute, the numbers that may determine our professional fates are mounting or failing to mount all around us.

So here, as a corrective, I offer some other numbers: the truth is that the average book today, whether published by a large publisher or a smaller one, sells about 300 copies a year and 3000 copies over its lifetime. There's no evidence that all the Tweeting, posting, blogging, amassing of friends and followers will change that. But just because a book sells only 300 copies doesn't mean it has less value than a book that sells 300,000 copies. We cannot measure the value of our work or the value of ourselves solely by the numbers.

Here's another number: In 100 years, the books that sell the most copies today may well be forgotten, just as many of the books that sold well 100 years ago or even 20 years ago are largely forgotten today. If your goal is just to make a lot of money, or have your 15 seconds of fame, that may not matter to you. But I suspect that most of us have loftier aspirations. We want to say something significant, something that will have some lasting resonance. Many of the books that have turned out to have this lasting resonance weren't especially successful when first published. Many couldn't even get published. Only 13 of Emily Dickinson's thousands of poems saw the light of day during her lifetime. Thoreau had to give away copies of his now-classic works. When I look at the numbers and start to despair, as writers are wont to do, here's another number I try to remember: the Talmud teaches that to save one life is to save the world. Surely there must be value in reaching even one reader in a deep way. If we can change one reader's perspective, introduce one brilliant image into the world, question one piece of received but fallacious wisdom, that has value too. In his “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” which Nabokov wrote to accompany his daring text, now considered a work of genius but then under attack, he likened a book to a “pilot light steadily burning somewhere in the [author's] basement. . . . This presence, this glow of the book in an ever accessible remoteness is a most companionable feeling, and the better the book has conformed to its prefigured contour and color the ampler and smoother it glows.”

The strength of that pilot light's glow has nothing to do with how many people see it.

Believe me, I get it. In a world with fewer of the traditional mechanisms for marketing books (bookstore readings, newspaper and magazine reviews, national TV appearances), these new Internet-based approaches are necessary. Somehow we have to let readers know our books exist. Somehow we have to help readers find our work, and buy it.  But if we put too much stock in the numbers or let them dominate our lives or determine what or how we write, most of us are going to be disappointed.

The value of our own work is not something we can instantly know or immediately assess. We have to trust in the glow cast by our own pilot lights, which cannot be measured by the numbers.

© Deborah A. Lott. To reprint this work, please contact the author at deborahlott@earthlink.net

Deborah A. Lott, MFA
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