Monday, July 28, 2008

An author's tic

So, tomorrow is Launch Day, and I've been warned by my fellow writers not to take it too much to heart if the Day ends up being . . . well, pretty much like any other. The book is officially released, yes, but preorders are by and large already being fulfilled and it's not as if fireworks displays are going to go off (except, as my partner remarked, perhaps inside my own head!). I'm not going on tour and I'm not doing any book-related events that day, except treking downtown on my lunch hour to see if the book is on the shelf at Barnes & Noble. Some blogs that interviewed me will post those interviews and some reviewers will, as well; others will come later. So, while I've worked so hard to reach this Day, it can be, I'm told, a bit anticlimatic.

I figure it's just as well, because I came down with a nasty head cold this weekend. It's actually one of the worst summer colds, congestion-wise, I've had in years and so my energy level is lousy. If I had events planned, I'd be thinking of ways to postpone them :) But one authorial tic of mine that doesn't seem to be surpressed even by heavy doses of decongestant is checking my amazon ranking.

Yes, it's a well known secret among us writers -- particularly, newly published by big NY houses-- that we are obsessed with our amazon sales ranking. It's that deceptively small number in the product details section on the book's page that allegedly demonstrates how well the book is selling vis-a vis other books in the category on amazon: the smaller the number, as in #1 to 700, the better; the larger, as in #200,000 and so-on, not so good. It's of course not a very reliable measure. It can fluctuate by the hour, i.e., it goes up when a book is sold, and thus shouldn't be taken as a complete barometer of a book's sales. Authors should, if not ignore, then view the ranking with serious detachment, because: 1) amazon is one of many outlets where books are sold; and 2) trying to get that ranking to rise to ease your anxiety will eventually cause insanity.

I mean it. I know writers who literally catapult into despair over their amazon ranking; I even know of one writer in particular who went so far as to purchase multiple copies of his book over a course of a day just to increase its ranking. He succeeded, but then, the moment he stopped buying 5 copies at a time every hour for 24 hours, it dropped once more. Poor man, he ended up with over 60 copies of his novel that he paid for, including shipping, which of course negated whatever royalties he stood to make (as he spent more per book than his royalty percentage on each book sold) and a terrible depression - and all to satisfy an uncontrollable need to see his ranking rise.

I'm not saying the ranking is completely bogus. It can give you an idea of how your book is doing at a given time. For example, one day three weeks ago I got an urgent e-mail from one of my ranking-obsessed friends that my first novel THE SECRET LION was #11 in the Fiction>Mystery>Historical subcategory. I went online and there it was: #11. Ah, what a delightful feeling! I copied the page and e-mailed it with frenetic delight to my agent (who didn't reply, and rightly so). I then checked back often, like an addict, and it stayed at #11 for an entire 25 minutes! Then, when I checked for the last time, it had slipped to #177. Not such a delightful feeling. That high can be so cruelly cut short. Still, I consoled myself, those plum 25 minutes at #11 had to be good news, right?

Just how good is an enigma I've never quite managed to solve. THE SECRET LION's ranking has in fact varied so much over the past four years, it's almost impossible to say. All I've ever been able to learn from watching the ranking is that it goes up and it goes down. I get the actual number of copies sold on my sales statements every quarter, and, while almost always gratifying in of themselves, these numbers never seem to quite equate with whatever random ranking I obsessed over that month.

You'd think I'd learn my lesson and stop it. I mean, there are plenty of other ways I can occupy my time and even if I wanted to check my sales ranking every, say, 10 minutes, what good would it do? If the ranking was decent, I'd be relieved. If it wasn't, I'd fret. And I could do absolutely nothing about it either way.

Still, while I was laid up this weekend doing revisions to my next manuscript and sneezing out my brains, I found myself checking THE LAST QUEEN's ranking every hour, sometimes twice an hour - a dubious accomplishment facilitated by the new wireless system I've installed in my house, where checking the web can now occur at the speed of light. I rationalized my obsession this time with the excuse that's almost the launch date and the ranking should be high, right? It's a new book; there's been all this publicity, giveaways, reviews, etc. In the four hours I managed to compulsively click on the book's page on amazon, the ranking skittered from #124,560 to #67,054 to #33, 457, to #88,795. How many books were pre-ordered in that time? Who knows? But I bet, I lost several pounds sitting there sweating it out and hearing that evil little voice in my head saying: "Oh, it's not doing as well as you hoped. Why, just look at Philippa Gregory's latest; it's not even coming out until September 16 and it's already #71, while you . . .[FILL IN BLANK WITH NEGATIVE THOUGHT]."

Not pretty, is it? It's a tic - an authorial tic, unique to our species. God forbid we should just bask in the moment, in the lovely people we've met along the way and the readers we know love our work, when we could be otherwise stoking up the stress levels over how we think our book is selling on amazon.

Well, I'm done with it. I'm not looking at my amazon ranking again, I swear it.
At least, not today.


Susan Higginbotham said...

I feel your pain! I've got down to checking mine twice a day. Well, maybe three times. Good luck with the launch!

C.W. Gortner said...

Thanks, Susan! This was meant to be a tounge-in-cheek entry, as well as a semi-serious one: we do do it, but no one likes to admit it. I thought writing about it might be a way to exorcise my amazon demon: thank you for confessing as well!(And I still haven't checked today . . .)

J.M. Aucoin said...

I suppose it would be like a parent constantly checking on their sleeping baby every two minutes, just to make sure they're doing OK. :-)

C.W. Gortner said...

You, know, Justin, I never thought of it quite that way - but it probably does have the same OCD basis, though it sounds better: "I want to make sure my book is doing ok!" As if we needed another excuse :)

J.M. Aucoin said...

Haha, indeed. I'm looking forward to my copy of 'The Last Queen' in the next week or so.

Julianne Douglas said...


My sympathies over your cold--my whole family just had what sounds like the same thing (started off with a day or two of sneezing, moved on to runny nose, then terrible congestion. Bad news is that it lasts a LONG time--we're going on two weeks now!). But on a happier note, I wish you all the best on this special day! Your review and interview are up on my blog--I hope you can stop by periodically to check if anyone's left you a question.

Here's to a day you'll always remember!

Congratulations and best wishes,


P.S. And thanks, I always wondered exactly where the Amazon ranking number was!

Lezlie said...

I am going to cound myself as one of those responsible for the rise in The Secret Lion's rankings as that is exactly when I ordered my copy. :-) After finishing The Las Queen, I'm in a fury to finish up some other review commitments so I can get to it ASAP!

Good luck with the launch! I'll be covertly placing The Last Queen in conspicuous places at every bookstore I go to.

Books 'N Border Collies

C.W. Gortner said...

Hi Julianne, Yes, I'll stop by. I went earlier today and it looks lovely. Thank you so much for helping me to promote! Also, I'm feeling better: still congested but not nearly as bad, so maybe I'll get lucky and not stay sick for weeks. I sincerely hope so, because I've reading and signing events next week and I want to be at my best :)

Hi Lezlie, Yes, covert maneuvers at bookstores are much appreciated. And thanks for the bump in my LION ranking! I saw your review, as well. Thank you so much!

All of you, you're terrific; the best friends a writer can have. It's great to share this day with you. I'm going downtown later to see Juana on the shelf :)

Sarah Johnson said...

Hi Christopher, happy launch day! Hope you feel better soon.

Heh, I remember feeling proud when my Amazon ranking went above #100,000 (for all of 30 minutes, probably). I know, it's not quite the same thing, but all authors check it!

Julianne Douglas said...


One of my blog readers has a question, and for some reason couldn't post it. She wants to know whether the change from third to first person happened between the publishing of the two editions of this book, or whether it happened before the first one came out.

I told her I'd contact you and find out. Thanks!

Passages to the Past said...

Just picked up your book at Barnes and Noble and can't wait to start it!!

C.W. Gortner said...

Hi Julianne, The change happened before the book was published. My-then agent suggested Juana seemed too enigmatic in third person, so I reluctantly went to first. However, it ended up being a great move.

Hi Amy, Thank you for the purchase! Hope you enjoy!

Hi Sarah, oh, it's all the same thing. And I fell off the wagon and I checked it again this a.m :)