This week I went to the local chain bookstore to see about setting up an appearance there so I could do a little promotion for Broken Fate. You know, the usual: Sign some books, meet readers, do some giveaways, and have a little fun. I was turned down flat because, in the words of the manager, “You are not significant. We reserve our appearance times for significant authors.”
Let me just say this up front: I understand what the manager was getting at. Broken Fate is my first book and I do not have a massive fan base. Yes, in the literary world, my book is insignificant and I can understand why I was turned down. It was fair and I’m not going to rage about that.
What bothered me was the wording: “You are not significant.” Now, let me say that I’m glad that I’m the age that I am because ten years ago, I would have taken that personally, crawled into bed for four days, and wailed, “He said I was insignificant. I suck as a person.” These days I’ve seen enough of life to say, “Whatever,” and move on to the next thing. (And thank God for it because I don’t have four days to waste feeling sorry for myself.)
The conversation stuck with me anyway. Not because my feelings were hurt or because I was angry, but because it served as a chance to reflect on something that I think a lot of authors suffer from and that is, “I Am My Book,” syndrome.
By having a novel published, I have voluntarily chosen to enter the thunderdome that is publishing. It’s a weird place where I am but a tiny speck in a sea of specks, all clamoring to be heard in a place where it is nearly impossible for any one voice to be heard. Furthermore, there are many who view this place as a fight to the death, instead of a place where there is plenty of room for anyone. Suffice it to say, it’s not an easy place to be and authors tend to make it even harder on ourselves because we get confused about where the book ends and we begin.
Significance in the publishing thunderdome does not speak to anything about you or me as people. Publishing is a world where significance is determined solely by sales, reviews, likes, followers, clickthroughs and other metrics. In other words, significance relates only to the books and their numbers, not to the people who write them.
You can be out there every day rescuing animals, adopting homeless kids, saving the rain forests, building houses for the homeless, and dedicating every waking moment to activities that make you a significant person in the eyes of the world. However, if you publish a book and it does not sell, you are insignificant in the eyes of the publishing world. Yet, you know you are not insignificant because you’re making a difference in the world every day. The book is insignificant. You are not.
Significance relates only to the books and their numbers, not to the people who write them.
It is very important to keep that straight and repeat it to yourself over and over. Don’t buy into the idea that the book is you and you are the book. You are two separate entities. One is a living, breathing person. The other is an object. One is a collection of the wonderful things that make up an identity. The other is a product.
Think of it this way: How many horrible people (think criminals, shady politicians, reality stars without a brain in their head, etc.) do you know who have published books that are considered “significant” by the publishing world? Yet would you want to really get to know these people in your real life? Would you want to make them your friends or, heck, invite them into your family? Probably not in a million years. Are they doing anything that makes the world a better place? Not unless you count selfies of overly-large butts as making the world a better place.
And there’s the crucial difference that authors must remember. The books written by these people are significant to the publishing world. However, the personalities and deeds of these people do not make them significant in the wider world, or even to publishing. Much of publishing does not concern itself with the question of how significant anyone is as a person. Like any business, it is only concerned with the significance of the product. I’m sure there are publishers who would prefer that the two mesh in some way, but if a really crappy person can crank out a book that sells, then most publishers aren’t going to turn down a couple million dollars on principle.
Now, I’m not about to argue that I’m significant to the wider world in any sort of Mother Theresa-like way because I’m not. However, I do know in my heart that I’m a good person and that I have value, admittedly to a very small circle of people. (Hell, my dog thinks I’m the most significant person on the planet). That is my identity. I am not my book. Whether Broken Fate sells ten million or ten copies, that book has no bearing on me as a person. So when a bookstore manager declares me insignificant, I know in my heart that this is not true. It is my book that is insignificant to the publishing world because it hasn’t generated a million dollars and a drooling fan base (although if you’d like to start drooling, feel free).
This is what every author needs to remember because, too often, we think of our books as ourselves. And that’s odd, because I don’t know of too many other occupations where this happens.
We take everything to do with our books and internalize it like it’s somehow a slam on our identity as people.
I can’t imagine the guy who makes Cheez-Its getting all twisted up if I said to him, “Dude, those Cheez-Its sure are insignificant.” (Although, for the record, I would never say that because Cheez-Its are totally significant to my snacking regimen.) He’d probably just look at me like I’d lost my mind. Cheez-Its are his product, not his identity. I assume that if Cheez-Its went away, he would find something else to make or turn to some other fulfilling piece of his identity for validation, not off himself because he equated Cheez-Its with self worth.
But authors get this all backwards sometimes. We take everything to do with our books and internalize it like it’s somehow a slam on our identity as people. Bad review? I suck as a person. Publisher dumps you because your sales aren’t great? I suck as a person. You get rejected by an agent? I suck as a person. Again, I doubt our mythical Cheez-It guy gets warped about a bad review or if someone switches from Cheez-Its to Cheetos. He probably just shrugs and says, “Whatever.”
Here’s the thing: I could sell a million copies of this book, go on talk shows, and travel around the country, but I am still the same person when it’s over and, in the grand scheme of things, selling a million copies would have contributed nothing of deep significance to the world. (My bank account might feel differently, however.)
Most books, even bestsellers, come and go in the blink of an eye. Today’s number one is on the freebie table at the library tomorrow. If the book fades from view and you feel like you still have a life worth living, then that speaks volumes. And if that book never hits it big, but you still feel like you have a life worth living, then that speaks even more to your “significance” as a person.
It’s like this exchange from one of my favorite movies, Cool Runnings:
Irv: Derice, a gold medal is a wonderful thing, but if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.
Derice: Hey coach, how will I know if I’m enough?
Irv: When you cross that finish line, you’ll know.
Remember this when someone makes an offhand comment about your book. The book isn’t you. You are not the book. The book is a thing, not a person. Whatever happens to the book has no impact on who you are as a person. (Unless, of course, it sells billions of copies and you become some fame-crazed moron who starts acting like the world should bow at your feet.) If the book sells ten million copies and you are a puppy kicker, criminal, or pervert? Guess what, you’re still a crappy person and insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But if the book sells five copies and you have meaning in your life, people who love you, and you’re contributing to society in some way as to leave it better than you found it, then you are a significant person.
And I’ll just throw out this one last thing: If you’re a bookstore manager and you need to tell an author that you can’t accommodate them, try to find a better way than telling them that they are insignificant. Try saying, “I’m sorry, but your book doesn’t have the sales volume that we would like to see.” It’s the book that isn’t significant to your store, not the person. Remember that and speak accordingly.
(Photo courtesy of geralt)