For the last couple of years, I’ve looked forward to the publication of The Bookseller magazine each week. In the same way that scientific publications made me feel part of the wider cardiological community when I was working as a physiologist, the publication of a magazine dedicated to the publishing world, creates a sense of being part of the bigger picture. Writing is a lonely, often isolating vocation, and personally doing it so far away from a central hub like London, means that The Bookseller offers an opportunity for insight that is not to be overlooked.
The magazine and articles published on the website provide a snapshot into activity behind the scenes, such as mergers, takeovers, and jobs. But it also represents the wider publishing experience for a writer. Every time I log in it seems there are deals taking place, new six figure pre-empts being offered, and titles celebrating sales in a gazillion territories. Certainly, this idea is supported by figures from The Bookseller issue dated 22nd May 2020. In an article concerning titles moved from summer to autumn publication secondary to the outbreak of Coronavirus, there will be a total of 10,069 new titles released this September. My next book is not due to be published until November 2020, in hardback in the US, where I suspect there will be even more titles fighting for shelf space. But in all honesty, when I saw the UK figures for September, my first thought was that I was glad that my book wasn't one of them. Over ten thousand books in a month. I had no idea there could be so many. Yet, in the same breath, I was already reminding myself that November is unlikely to be that different. So, if this is close to the average number of books being released each month, give or take a bit, how on earth does a book go on to find coverage in the press, garner reviews, or find its way into the hands of readers?
Of course, some big titles will have the weight of a massive publicity campaign behind them, but the sheer volume of new books released each month means that it is impossible to provide such support for all the books that are scheduled for release. Other books will benefit from word of mouth, Goodreads and Netgalley reviews, and perhaps a favourable thematic association with one of the big names. But many books will struggle. Perhaps some of these titles are coming from smaller houses, where even the survival of the house itself is at stake. So in an environment where there are so many books stacked against so few places on the bestseller lists, how is it that we are supposed to measure success?
When my first book was released back in 2017, it was as a trade paperback in the UK. I had little idea of what to expect, having never experienced a publishing day before. Back when I was self publishing it was easy to celebrate because there was nobody relying on it but me. I knew the way the market worked on Amazon, and knew not to expect a rush in sales on day one. On my first traditional publishing day I spent the day in a bit of a slump. I lost count of the hours I spent on twitter, thanking people for retweets and positive comments. I watched Amazon rankings until my eyes hurt, refreshing the page, wondering when they would climb. I got flowers from my agent and publisher, and that was nice. But the overall experience was a bit of a let-down. It felt like Christmas day, but one where you wake up with a hangover, where your presents are substandard, and where even though you play the right games and eat the right food, by the end of the day, you’re just sort of pleased it’s all over.
The catalyst for my slump in mood came in the form of an email from my publisher. It was upbeat and full of congratulations, but there was a simple, and clear indication that the sales were not as expected. It wasn’t going to be in Waterstones, and we were waiting for the MMPB for the supermarkets. My sister in law then text me to say she couldn’t find it on her high street either. So, I had a book out, there had been quite a bit of fuss, including some great mentions in magazines, and yet it didn’t seem to have done the most important thing of all; sell. I don’t know what I was expecting exactly, as I had no precedent against which to judge it, but I know the sales reported didn’t reach my aspirations. In short, even though nobody said it, and even though the reviews were pretty good, I felt kind of like a failure.
Without much conscious thought on the matter, I had decided that I was going to judge the success of the book like the publishing house did, which is to say by sales figures alone. But I wonder now in that week, just how many books were released. Should I have expected with such naïve certainty that my debut novel would strike a note on the bestseller list? As a writer looking for a long term career, and enough money to live off without having to get another job, selling well is essential. But is it the only metric of success?
It took for the release of the paperback, in both the UK and several foreign territories before I decided that the book wasn’t a failure after all. I received an email from a reader in the Czech Republic which changed the narrative I had been telling myself. She had just read the Czech edition, and contacted me to say that the story was a reflection of her own life. After being abandoned by her mother as a child, they had recently reconnected, and she had found the courage to ask the necessary questions about her past after reading my book. This moment felt much bigger and much more important than a place on a list, at least on a personal level. This very outcome was the inspiration behind writing the book in the first place, knowing that I would soon begin my own journey with adoption not long after the book was published. After this email, although sales mattered, and still matter, this reader's message was a reminder that the stories we write are not sold to our readers for industry accolades and financial compensation alone.
Writers write in order to connect, to share stories and ideas, and promote conversation. In this instance, my book sparked a very important conversation, which I know will always remain a highlight in my career. We write because people need stories, a lot more than any writer needs a position on a chart. Perhaps never more so than now, when we are all so distanced from those we love, stories allow us to share parts of ourselves with people all over the world. They bring us closer together, and help us understand the time in which we live. This is why stories from BAME and LGBT+ writers must also be told by those qualified to tell them, and why barriers to the publishing world for those writers must be brought down.
So, this begs the question that when my next book is released, do I not care about chart success? Don’t be silly, of course I do. May Little Wishes sail into the lofty position of being a chart topping bestseller. Both in the UK and the US, and everywhere else it sells. But now I know well enough not to expect it. To celebrate the launch irrespective of sales. Because now I also appreciate that being read, connecting with the lives of readers, can be just as rewarding as finding a place in the charts.