Who's more blogged about than I?
Whose tweet @-mentions number high?
Which is my editor's true favorite book?
How did I so annoy this Avid Reader from Chinook?
Let's all push the elephant out of the room quickly and efficiently:
I don't just happen to be blogging at Powells this week. I do have a new book out, here, and I would appreciate it if you'd go buy a few and then come back. I'll wait. Go ahead now.
Thank you! I'd be glad to sign those for you? No? I quite understand. Let's just move on. Really? You prefer her books over mine? Well, yes, I suppose mine aren't for everyone...
When I started writing my first novel (Oh? Really? Well perhaps you'd like to read a page or two here?), the deal was quite straightforward, and but for a few details hadn't changed in a century or more, I imagine. One took as long as necessary (forever, perhaps) and wrote one's precious little novel, with trembling hopes but scrawny expectations of publication. If luck smiled, and you got a book deal, there was a little publicity, or maybe in very fortunate cases, a book tour. You got paid either virtually nothing or a little bit or, in rare cases, enough to take the heat off and write another one. If, like most writers, you didn't make enough from the books themselves, you reviewed your peers as honorably as you could, wrote ad copy, taught young hopefuls, toiled for Hollywood in speculative hopes of your own. That was how it worked. Work yourself into a lather, rinse, repeat.
There were, of course, diseases one was likely to catch in the literature business. They were chronic but controllable. You would certainly suffer, at a minimum, insecurity, jealousy, thin skin, and related neuroses, but there were limits to the pathways of those infections, and if you cared to take certain precautions you could manage your condition for years, even decades before becoming an intolerable ass. You could, for example, torture yourself by looking at a bestseller list once a week, reading slowly in case you missed your name the first few times, but they only updated once a week. Reviews would be clipped and sent to you by the publisher, but you could opt out of receiving the bad ones, or any of them; you'd really only see the one in your hometown paper, most of the time. You'd meet a few of your readers at events, but if they'd bothered to turn up, then they were usually satisfied or had come by accident and had never heard of you. You could of course work yourself into a fuss about how many people came to the event, how many of them were homeless or insane. You might unavoidably hear rumors of what other writers were paid in advances. But you only learned of your actual sales months after the fact, if at all.
Who knew that this was actually psychic peace, the halcyon days?
If I had been asked, those years ago, to devise a way to make authors more self-doubting, twitchy, insomniac, and peculiar, I don't think I could have done as exquisite a job as time and technology have done for us, apparently without a malevolent designer. There is now in place a system that provides writers nearly constant negative feedback (even the lack of feedback is negative: "Why is there nothing posted yet about my book???"), real-time sales figures, real-time reader disgruntlement, endless information by which writers can compare themselves against one another, and infinite numbers of other authors to learn about, most of whom sell better, are better reviewed, photograph better, have higher ratings online, and are mentioned in places you aren't: a gossip page! People and Us! The TLS! A blog about Brooklyn real estate... Do you tweet? How many followers? How often do you check for mentions? Does Google alert you to spikes in your name's appearance? Your sales number has shifted in the last 24 hours, multiple times. Maybe your overall rank is no good, but compare your number in Literary Fiction (about men, by men in Brooklyn) to... oh, never mind.
(Best of all, let's put all this information on the same machine you are meant to use to write your books. Let's also fill that machine with all the sports news, family gossip, letters from your mom, smut, dwindling bank accounts, bookstores, and smut that exists. Now get some work done.)
(Speaking of online ratings: eventually, like the laws of entropy dictating the inevitable cooling and death of the universe, it seems all literary fiction ? given enough readers posting their comments ? heads towards a cool, stable three stars out of five. If a particular novel isn't at entropic stability yet ? if it's still blazing high at five or not yet achieving ignition ? that's only for an insufficient number of commenters. In the long-run aggregate of all human opinion, everything's not bad, but nothing's great.)
And, of course, on the macro end of the spectrum, writers are daily told that there are fewer readers, fewer bookstores, fewer outlets for publicity, fewer review pages, fewer publishers, fewer books, less money for advances, less money for tours, less, fewer, fewer, and less. Except for e-book piracy sites, which proliferate like roaches/rabbits/E.coli. (As do, perversely, those giddy and sexy MFA programs, the Playboy mansions of the writing life, which show no signs of reacting rationally to the reality of publishing.)
This job ? which once consisted of sitting quietly for a few years, making stuff up, then going out to meet a few nice people in bookstores to answer a few questions ? now demands blogs, tweets, Facebook-keeping, and whatnot in pursuit of the ever more elusive, rare (and economically worried, like all of us) Reader. We are meant to flirt and woo in the hopes of winning a book sale, constantly reminding readers we exist, dropping hints of our worth and talent and skill, like handkerchiefs fluttering from a flirt's faux-forgetful fingers until the mountain of handkerchiefs almost obscure us, and we spend our time embroidering and perfuming and flinging handkerchiefs, hoping, hoping, hoping the next one will be swept up by an interested suitor. But it's hard to be a good courtesan when more and more time is spent on the seduction and less and less is spent on practicing our actual skill at putting out. For which we are paid less and less...
There! That's the basic, standard complaint from the literary world, and yet... And yet...
And yet: I have never been happier in any sort of work in all my life than I was in writing my last book. (Did I mention you can get it here?)
And yet I worked (again, for the fifth time) with dedicated and talented agent, editor, copy editor, publicist, marketers, designers, publisher. I can name names. Five books with Random House, and every step of the process is still a joy for me, from the first hiccup of inspiration to the last reading in a great bookstore or a hipster bar in the East Village, to discovering the brilliant Jill Owens has liked my book. A day hardly passes that I don't marvel at my good fortune: I am a published author! People read my books! I get to spend a portion of my day thinking up stories and writing them down! Those exclamation points are not ironic, they are as sincere as any punctuation can be. In this at least, I am still a child, and no plunge in sales or stars or hits can mature me.
(Which is why, of course, they can offer to pay us writers less and less and we all still say "okay!")