No greater fantasts exist than writers, who are able to bring an extra dollop or two of imagination to their unreality. About no subject are they more fantastic than the potential commercial success of their books. When I publish a book with the least chance of popular appeal, I am unable, even after all these years, to suppress dreams of shekels raining down upon me. (“I can stand a lot of gold,” said Henry James, who was himself subject to these fantasies.) I imagine villas in Tuscany, apartments in Paris, a nicely understated Bentley in my garage. Not, let me hasten to add, that I am in the least need or want of these items—ownership of any one of them would make me even nuttier than I now am. But a boy—quite an old boy, as it turns out—can dream, can’t he?
I once came close to achieving serious commercial success with a book. David Brooks, who reviewed it in the Wall Street Journal, declared it would be the book every intelligent person would be reading on the beach that summer. A full hour was devoted to the book by the NPR show Talk of the Nation. Presto, I found my book on bestseller lists: seventh on the New York Times, second for several weeks on that of the Los Angeles Times, and on other bestseller lists in Chicago and San Francisco.
Thrice the editor at my publishing house called to announce that they were going back to print another ten thousand copies. Radio shows and newspapers sought interviews with me. Someone told me that my book was number 11 on Amazon.com. I didn’t hitherto know about Amazon.com ratings. Nor did I know about the brief reviews from readers who fancied themselves critics, of which my book received quite a few, the majority pleasing, a few suggesting, in effect, that perhaps I would do better to quit writing and get a job at Jiffy Lube. One has only to have one’s book slammed on Amazon to appreciate the journalist Lars-Erik Nelson’s remark that the Internet is “a vanity press for the demented.”
The success of my book didn’t sustain itself long enough to get me out of the financial wars with an honorable discharge. To be the eleventh-bestselling book at Amazon.com was lovely. The problem is that the position of one’s book on Amazon.com is always changing, inevitably heading downward. After one flogs (the wonderful publishing word for promoting) a book on one NPR station or another, the book’s Amazon standing can radically improve—by ten or twenty thousand places—but this gain, too, is soon lost as the book continues its inevitable plunge.
Of all that might be said about the Internet, the invention of the age, the one undeniably true thing is that it is a momentous distraction. With a book freshly out in the world, a writer awaits Google alerts bringing fresh news of reviews, or mentions in the press, or on blogs and Twitter. He checks Amazon numbers hourly. He dreams of a dazzlingly approving review that will jolt one’s Amazon.com number to two digits. The approving review appears, yet the Amazon rating scarcely changes.
Henry James wrote of the “benefit of the friction with the market which is so true a one for solitary artists too much steeped in their mere personal dreams.” James was himself savvy about marketing his writing, but all his savvy brought him insufficient commerical success. He wanted, as most writers do, artistic and commercial success both, but had to content himself with achieving, sublimely, only the former.
As one’s book’s Amazon.com ratings fall, slowly at first, precipitously a bit later—going from the hundreds to the thousands, to the tens, then hundreds of thousands—one realizes what a dope one has been, and what a mug’s game is hoping for huge commercial success with a book. In the current day, new books have roughly the shelf life of yogurt; the shelf life of books may be shorter. With the world offering so many distractions—smartphones, iPads, cable television, social media—the book itself is beginning to take on the feel of a specialty, or niche, product. As someone a good part of whose life is devoted to writing books, I have begun to feel as a blacksmith must have done in the first decades of the twentieth century when the automobiles were beginning to crowd the streets.
As my own most recent book sinks into the west—it is at this moment number 188,812 on Amazon—I feel I can relax and let go of my fantasy of a great commercial score. What a relief to be out of the AmaZone! Now I can concentrate on the prospect of immortality for this and all my other books.