Today is Wednesday.
To those outside of the publishing industry and those authors who don’t have a recent release, it’s just hump day—the day where people are usually posting pictures of random dude butts. I’m not going to share a random dude butt, but here is something infinitely better.
But to those in publishing and those authors who’ve had a book come out within the previous week, today is BESTSELLER LIST day. A day where wildest dreams can be made and dreams can ultimately be crushed—crushed in a manner which is akin to having your lady parts’ hair removed with rusty pliers. This is the day where publicists and editors and agents all around the world are hastily refreshing the USA Today Bestseller’s list page, and authors are waiting to see if their phones will ring anywhere between 4:00pm EST and 6:00pm EST to see if they’ve hit the New York Times List.
Getting that phone call is a pretty amazing experience. I’ve been lucky. Out of the thirty-some books I’ve published, I’ve had that phone ring over a dozen or so times. Sometimes I was shocked. Hell, there has been times when my editor was shocked. There were times when I knew the call was coming. And there have been times when I just knew that call would be coming and it didn’t. There have also been times when I just knew that call wasn’t coming and it didn’t.
Hitting a list is an outstanding, wonderful accomplishment, one that should be celebrated with posts and tweets and dinners and drinks, but this post isn’t about hitting a list. This post is about when that call doesn’t come. When that email doesn’t hit your inbox with “congrats!!!!!” and attachment to a list.
Let me get this out of the way. I don’t have a recent release that would qualify for the list. The reason I’m clearing the air is because talking about not hitting a list sometimes gets chalked up to sour grapes and bitterness. Like with advances and print runs and sell-through numbers, bestsellers’ lists are not something we’re supposed to talk about unless it’s about hitting them. To acknowledge disappointment is tantamount to admitting failure or something far worse. What, I haven’t figured out, but authors are groomed in very strange ways when it comes to bestsellerdom. We are told constantly by, like, everyone in the industry that hitting a list doesn’t matter. We are told that no one really pays attention to those lists anymore and publishers/agents are more focused on long term growth, but—and there’s a very large but here—when we do hit the list, we’re praised, new contracts are easier to secure, sometimes invites to super awesome-special events come through, and you get to update your bios on all your social media accounts. The thing is, what everyone is saying before you hit the list and when you don’t is true. And how you may be treated after hitting a list is also true. It’s a weird thing.
But you’ve got to have your I-just-lost-the-Oscar-and-these-damn-cameras-are –in-my-face smile on. If you’ve hit lists and then don’t hit them again or if you never hit them, publicly you’ve got to be all gracious and cool while inwardly you may be panicking that you’re career is over and everyone hates you. Worse yet, you’re told constantly that writing isn’t a competition when there are lists that literally pit books against one another, and it sort of feels like a competition. And if you feel like it’s a competition, you feel like a douchebag because everyone is constantly saying that it’s not. When it comes to not hitting lists, you’re groomed to not feel bad about it, but you still might.
Hey, some of you might not even care about those lists. If that is you, stop reading right now. This post isn’t for you, you damn unicorn. Okay, you’re not unicorn. You just have your head on straight in a world where everyone else’s head is on backwards. But again, this isn’t for you.
This is for the ones who feel bad.
I’m here, as I am sure many others are, to tell that it’s okay to feel that disappointment. It’s okay to have that mini-freak out. It’s okay to feel like writing sometimes is the Olympics and you’re the guy whose sitting on the couch eating cheese fries and scribbling in your notebook while watching the ‘true’ writers pass you by, hyped up on Starbucks and typing away on their shiny Macs.
Most of us feel that way at some point and sometimes quite often.
Even those who’ve hit lists multiple times. And this isn’t a case of the pretty girl crying because people hate her because she’s pretty kind of thing. There is a whole different set of pressure that lands on the shoulders of authors who hit lists and are expected to keep doing that—expected to stay on the list and expected to hit higher and higher with the next book and then the next. That pressure keeps mounting until it’s all you focus on and you forget why in the hell you’re doing this anyway. And sometimes that pressure isn’t coming from any outside influences. Your editor, your agent, your friends, and your team of cool people really mean that they still think you’re awesome and want to work with you even if they book didn’t hit, but you don’t believe them. That’s not on them. That’s on you, because that pressure is coming from inside you.
The pressure to hit a list, to stay on one, to be all that you can be (you sang that, didn’t you?) keeps building until you lose the joy.
You lose the love of writing.
And how do you know that’s happening? I can tell you. Because I’ve been there, lived that more than once or twice… or thrice. I wanted to say ‘thrice’ just so you know. Anyway, here’s how you know you’ve fallen down a Bestseller Rabbit Hole of Doom. I’ll list it out for you.
- You’ve had a pretty awesome week of sales, but you didn’t hit any bestseller list, therefore you’re convinced you suck donkey butt.
- Your second book has more sales than your first and you see growth, but still no list, so you’re like everything was all for nothing.
- You’ve had a pretty amazing week of sales, but you’ve ONLY hit the USA Today Bestsellers list and not the NYTiimes, therefore you’re of the Ricky Bobby frame of mind, and scream, “If you ain’t first, you’re last!”
- You’ve hit USA Today and New York Times, but… it wasn’t in the top 10, so you’re just a loser who kind of got the pity-date. You find yourself making a run for the # 1 spot and if you never hit the # 1 spot then somehow you’ve never achieved success. (Take it from someone who has hit # 1 here and overseas, nothing changed. Like legit nothing. Hitting number one didn’t mean I was going to be a career bestseller.)
- You’ve hit USA Today and New York Times, but you fell off both lists like a comet speeding to earth the second or third week, so you’re success wasn’t real. It was a fluke. Only real successful authors stay on the list for 1268 weeks.
- You find yourself making career decisions based on whether or not (did I use that right, bc seriously that’s a tough one) it will increase your chances of hitting a list. AND MAN, THIS IS A MAJOR RED FLAG OF FUCKDOM LET ME TELL YOU.
- You find yourself paying attention to what is hitting the list and deciding that’s what you need to write, because without a byline, you’re no one. Yeah, most of us have probably done that in some sort of fashion. But you’re forcing yourself to write something you publicly made fun of a year before AND SOCIAL MEDIA IS FOREVER, MS. AND MR. AUTHOR.
- You start to realize that none of your friends what to be around you during the release and the week after because they’re actually kind of afraid of you. And they really don’t have it in them to tell you just one more time that you, your book, your goldfish, and your great-aunt-betty lou are amazing.
- You find yourself doubting why you’re even writing. You give up. You give up on your passion and joy because of a ranking. That may sound drastic, but it has happened.
- You find that normal career jealousy, which most everyone experiences, turns into something more, something bitter—something that destroys you from the inside out, laying waste to friendships and sometimes even your career.
I could keep going. There are more examples, but if you’ve experienced any one of these things, it’s time to prioritize. It’s time to remember why you’re writing before you find yourself chasing the NEXT LIST AND THE NEXT LIST AND THE NEXT LIST.
And it’s hard to pull yourself out of the funk. Trust me. I think it helps to remember, though—to remember when release day simply meant a book birthday. That the work you sweated, bled, maybe cried over, and most definitely hated and equally loved at some point was finally out in the world? You weren’t looking toward the following week, stressing if you sold enough units in the right format from the right vendor to trigger a list. Remember what it was like to just know that people were spending their money on something you created?
Remember what it was like to know that someone was actually reading your books. Someone who wasn’t a family member or someone you forced to read. That there are people out there actually buying your book and spending the evenings engrossed in the world you created.
Remember that shock and awe when you received your first reader email or first review or first ANYTHING that was such a hugely important milestone? Remember how it felt, how it made you feel like you truly pursuing a dream?
Remember that humbling feeling you experienced when the first reader told you that you helped them get through something?
Remember what it was like to look forward to writing simply because you needed to write. You had this desire burning through you to tell stories that didn’t necessarily include hitting a list, rankings, and all that other noise? When writing was about losing yourself in your work so others could lose themselves?
It’s hard to remember these things. Even more so on days where peers and strangers are rightfully celebrating successes. On these days, on a hundred Wednesdays, getting wrapped up in hitting lists can steal the joy of writing and interacting with other authors and readers right out from underneath you before you even realize it.
And I want to tell you that it’s okay to want to hit the list once, twice or a million times. There is NOTHING wrong with that being a goal or caring about hitting a list. Do not let anyone shame you for that. But I think you have to be careful if the goal overrides your joy and passion.
So I guess the purpose of this post is not just for the author out there stressing what will happen if their next book doesn’t hit a list or doesn’t stay on a list or just for the author who is stressing over any number of things (marketing, rankings, units, preorders, advances) it’s also a good reminder to myself to become more aware of when I’m going down that dark and dank rabbit hole that can be so incredibly painful to pull yourself out of.
As cheesy as it sounds, we all sometimes need a reminder of why we do this. And sometimes we all need to make more of effort to remind ourselves, because most readers, they really don’t care about any of that noise. They honestly don’t. They just want your next book. That want your next story you had to tell, and at the end of the day, the feeling a reader has when they close your book and hold it to their chest is going to have a hell of a more impact on someone’s life than hitting a list is going to do.
And in closing, be like Jensen.