What I learned from my first novel
Five months ago, my novel The Icon Thief was published by Penguin, and if it seemed at the time like the end of a journey, I see clearly now that it was just the beginning of another. In many ways, the most challenging part of the past year has been adjusting my survival skills as a writer, which had been built up by years of mostly solitary work, to the realities of living with a book in actual stores. And the transition hasn’t always been easy. Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, likes to talk about optimistic bias—the delusion that we ourselves are more likely to succeed where countless others have failed—and it’s especially endemic among aspiring writers, who are required by definition to be irrationally optimistic. Every unpublished novel is a potential bestseller, just as every unwritten page is a potential masterpiece, and learning to live with a real physical book, which won’t always live up to your expectations, is something every writer needs to learn. Here, then, are some lessons that the past few months have taught me:
1. Promotion is great, but placement is better. When The Icon Thief came out, I did everything I could to transform myself from an obsessive introvert, which is basically what every writer has to become in order to finish a book in the first place, to a tireless promoter who could sell his book in person, in print, and in all other media. What I’ve since learned is that while such activities can be gratifying for their own sake, and will sell books here and there, they generally don’t have a lasting effect on a novel’s success. What sells most books, aside from word of mouth, is placement: do readers see the book when they go into stores? Every instance of placement in the big national chains—whether a book is on the front table, in the new releases section, or in a display where browsers are likely to notice it—is a chance to reach that precious audience of readers who are actively looking for something to buy. It’s by far the largest factor in a debut novel’s early sales—more than advertising, more than promotion. And it’s something that is ultimately out of the writer’s hands.
2. Don’t sweat the numbers. During the first week of my novel’s release, like any writer with a pulse, I was checking my Amazon sales ranking every hour. After a while, I was down to every day, then every week, and now I look only rarely, if ever. The same goes with BookScan figures and other measures of the book’s sales: I used to dutifully look over the charts every Friday and wonder why sales were spiking in Houston but flat in Boise, Idaho. In time, though, I found that I was falling into the same trap of those who have plenty of data but not enough real information: I was reading too much into tiny fluctuations and seeing patterns that weren’t there. In the end, such noise only serves as a distraction from the real business of writing, which involves a lot of diligent labor without reference to how your book is doing in Baton Rouge. In the old days, writers would receive sales figures from their publishers on a quarterly or semiannual basis, and I’d argue that they were better off. Turn off the numbers—you’ll be happier in the end.
3. Play the long game. Last month, I learned that my longtime editor at Penguin, who had acquired The Icon Thief and its sequel almost two years ago, was leaving to take another job. At first, I was rocked by the news, but my agent wisely pointed out that the timing here—with one book already out in stores, the second locked and ready to go, and a third a few months from completion—was about as good as it could get, and that changing editors is something that happens to every writer at one point or another. And he was right. Unless you’re the kind of author who has exactly one book to write, you’re going spend the rest of your career in the writing game, which is just like anything else in life: the same ups and downs happen to everyone, but not necessarily in the same order. When you take the long view, you find that the rules of engagement haven’t really changed from when you were first starting out: you’re still writing for yourself and a few ideal readers. And the more you keep that in mind, the better chance you have of coming out the other end alive.