Read Her Like an Open Book returns from the Year of Living Stressfully

 

Hello book-loving friends. I’m glad you’re still here.

You may have noticed that Read Her Like an Open Book was much less active for the past year or so, with only intermittent posts. My blog was quiet because my life was not. I changed careers and was busy getting my freelance writing-and-editing business, Argus Editorial Services, on its feet. I was also developing a photography sideline, Inner Light Photography. Both my mother and my mother-in-law experienced health issues due to advancing age. (My 87-year-old mother passed away in January.)

And, frankly, I was suffering from a condition that began in 2016 and developed into a disorder in 2017. You may know it as Post-Trump Stress Disorder. As a news junkie, former high school Journalism teacher, and even more former attorney, I simply could not ignore what was taking place. But my preoccupation with keeping up with the daily drama (and trauma) took a toll on this blog, which I regret.

I decided last month that, with its five-year anniversary approaching in June, I would revive this blog, which means so much to me and has more supporters than I thought. I’m happy to report that when I approached several dozen writers about contributing to my weekly guest author feature, they responded with enthusiasm and many encouraging words. So far, I have received firm or tentative commitments to participate from over 40 authors.

In the coming months, you’ll read essays, interviews, and reviews by the following  writers: Robin Black (whose previous essay is the most-read post in the history of this blog), Chantel Acevedo, Karen Bender, Jessica Anya Blau (who will be interviewing Jane Delury), Michelle Brafman (interviewing Mary Morris), Gayle Brandeis, Siobhan Fallon, Wendy J. Fox, Stephanie Gangi, Lauren Grodstein, Yi Shun Lai, Krys Lee, Karin Lin-Greenberg, Margaret Malone, Marian PalaiaJodi Paloni, Keija ParssinenElizabeth Poliner, Anne Raeff, Elizabeth RosnerGina Sorell, Rene Steinke, Amanda SternThrity Umrigar, Ellen Urbani, and Mary Kay Zuravleff.

We’ll start tomorrow with a wonderful essay by Bernadette Murphy about reclaiming your life by overcoming your fears. Watch for a new guest author post every Tuesday.

You can also follow the social media accounts connected to this blog: there’s a Facebook page and a Twitter account, which is personal but mostly limited to book-related tweets. And I would certainly appreciate your sharing the word about this blog if you are so inclined.

This blog has always been an expression of my literary activism and feminism. My goal, as always, is to bring more attention to all the great literary fiction and memoirs by women writers. (And to encourage more men to read fiction, especially literary fiction, and even more especially by women authors.)

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Wendy J. Fox: Reconciling book sales as a debut author

Wendy_J_Fox  The_Seven_Stages_of_Anger_cover

When I found out my first book had been accepted for publication, I did not have dreams of a bestseller or fame; I mostly experienced relief. While I’d published in magazines and anthologies, suddenly there was a book of my own.

There was the sheer, beginning thrill of finally feeling like an author, and then there was the reality of how other folks, people who are not writers, ask about it.

“So, how many books have you sold?” a typical conversation might start.

It’s a hard question to answer. It’s tempting to tell the truth (south of a thousand), and it’s tempting to dodge, oh, it’s not so much about sales, and it’s also tempting to outright lie and say something about how the publisher handles all that, how you’re not really involved, how you only think about it when you get a royalty check.

I don’t blame anyone for the question.

In the current culture, where books are understood as content, where consumers believe that “information wants to be free” and forget that information also has value and wants to be expensive, people understand success in terms of compensation. The paradigm of cheap/costly, rather than an argument for open-source, in the way that it is used today, was actually a continuum proposed by the writer Stewart Brand in the 1980s.

Yet, since 2009, according to Author’s Guild, there has been a 30% decrease in the income of writers, with more than half of the 2015 respondents earning less than $11,670 annually (the set point of for the US federal poverty level). Even those who are up for big awards, like the Man Booker, might sell fewer than a thousand copies of their books annually.

Depressing as it is, within this context, my own numbers don’t look so bad.

My debut collection of short stories owes its existence to a prize, and then it was shortlisted for another prize. More than one reviewer said something nice about it. Still, stories add another layer of sales challenge. In January of this year, Megan Lynch, editorial director at Ecco Press in New York said “There have always been a few collections that have taken off, but most don’t succeed commercially.”

So, how many books have you sold?

At press time, BookScan (the Neilson rating agency, the same group who compiles TV ratings) says I have just 105 reported sales from bookstores. They gather this through POS (point of sale) data. If my book, or another book, was purchased at a retailer, including Amazon.com, it’s going to be reflected in this number.

Fox BookScan

My POS high point is 34. Those are sales reflected from two readings—readings I traveled for, on my own dime, and readings at which I had a great time, but readings that were certainly not covered in cost from selling 34 copies at $14.95.

There are also the 79 books my publisher sold in presale. There are the 90 (as of my last royalty report in June of 2015) that have been sold since. There are the 89 books I have sold myself. There are also the 76 I have given away to reviewers, to friends, to friendlies, to prizes entries and other longshots. There are the 18 copies that are out in consignment.

So, how many books have you sold?

457.

Well, maybe, if the consignments move.

439 if they do not.

363 if I subtract the giveaways (which I should, because those were not actually sales, they were only books that left my possession).

I could add in here another 3, for Kindle—remember how ebooks are supposed to be such a thing?—getting me to 366.

Even I’m shocked by the low numbers. When people have asked me, I’ve estimated, not having done the actual addition for a year. Recently, a long-time friend who has his first book coming out asked about sales, and I told him what I thought was the truth, giving him the “just shy of a grand” number, and I didn’t even realize how off I was. (Mostly, I over-reported what I personally have sold and under-reported what I have given away.)

In October, on the anniversary of my first book’s publication date, I was at a corporate event for my day job, and writing came up. My coworkers looked me up on Amazon, and they were interested, in the way we are interested when we find out new dimensions to our colleague’s lives, but they didn’t add the book to their shopping carts, and I doubt either of them have purchased it since.

A month prior, in September, the least-selling of the Man Booker dozen short-list clocked in at 604 copies. This title, Sleeping on Jupiter, belongs to Anuradha Roy, whose first book, An Atlas of Impossible Longing was reviewed by everyone from Ms. to Publishers Weekly and translated into 15 languages—an impressive debut by any measure. (Sleeping on Jupiter just won the DSC prize for South Asian literature, which will net Roy $50K and likely—hopefully—bolster her sales numbers.)

So, how many books have you sold?

75.3% as many as a short-list for one of the most prestigious English-language prizes.

0.0000806667% as many as the Harry Potter franchise.

With 840 million English speakers worldwide, by volume second only to Mandarin, breaking a thousand in sales should not be so hard—but just like my coworkers, zillions of lookers never get the book into their cart. And to be frank, zillions aren’t even required. The best-selling English-language book of all time, A Tale of Two Cities, has had since 1859 to reach 200 million copies. Modern titles like The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades of Grey that have topped bestseller lists have only approached (or in the case of Harry Potter, exceeded) Dickens’ numbers as an aggregate of a series; single titles, like The Fault in Our Stars which has done remarkably well at 18.5M approximate sales, still only represents 5.52% of the native-speaking population and 2.20% of the total English-speaking population overall.

Of course, a true creative life is not about selling, and readers certainly do not have to purchase literature to engage in it. Indeed—in the United States, there are more public libraries than there are McDonalds [PDF], Americans check out an average of 8 books a year, and well over half of U.S. adults hold a library card.

Given that books sales are slumpy even on major publishers, it’s worth thanking those fewer than 500 who have welcomed The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories to their shelves.

So, how many books have you sold?

Honestly, not so many as I would like.

Yet, I don’t think I would trade an ebook bestseller for being able to hold my own, bound words in my hands, for the experience of writing something kind to a friend on the front pages of it, for finding a typo on the back cover and then just having to accept this, because, well, it’s print. I can absolutely say I would not trade my little (short, poorly selling) book that I am very proud of for a big (long, blockbuster) book that I didn’t care about.

So, how many books have you sold?

Not as many as I would like. And also, enough.

But P.S., you should buy my book.

Wendy J. Fox received her MFA from the Inland Northwest Center for Writers, and her work has been published or is forthcoming in many literary reviews.

Her essay “Coming Clean in Kayseri” was included in the best-selling Tales from the Expat Harem, and one of her manuscripts was a top five finalist for the Minnesota State University at Mankato’s Rooster Hill Press short fiction competition. Her story “Ten Penny” was  selected as part of a series by The Emerging Writer’s Network for National Short Story Month, and her story “Maps of the Americas” was chosen as a semi-finalist for the Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards competition.

Her debut collection, The Seven Stages of Anger & Other Stories is the winner of the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction and was published in October 2014.