Andromeda: Amazon analytic craziness, ebooks, and other distracted-author thoughts

Last night at the 49 Writers Crosscurrents event, I was so gratified to hear that Snow Child author Eowyn Ivey, now at #8 on the UK Bestseller list and #27 on the New York Times Bestseller list (what must that be like? I still can’t quite imagine) admit that she is obsessed with–or shall we say, occasionally distracted by– her Amazon analytics. I suppose I’d gathered, maybe from the last time I privately grilled her, that she was known to take a peek. But I didn’t quite expect her to tell a full Anchorage auditorium how much the book-launch rollercoaster invades her every waking hour. Even her mother, wonderful poet Julie LeMay, admitted to being a little hyped-up and frazzled by the excitement — and she’s just on the sidelines. But thanks to the internet, even a more distant onlooker can feel like they’re at ground central, searching for the latest reviews, tracking the ups and downs, antennae tuned to all the buzz.

Personal historical/ insomniac footnote: I had my first Facebook dream last week. It was one of those boring, confusing fog dreams and it took the form of me trying to post a status report that my 17-year-old son needed to see, or trying to click on something, at his insistence, that he had posted. (He’s been dealing with college applications and we’re both constantly checking websites related to that, so it’s all mixed up in my subconscious, I think.)

Our fiction has not quite caught up with the way we really spend our days, or the ways our brains are being rewired by technology. Certainly, there have been some novels that self-consciously include emails or social media issues. But it hasn’t seeped deeply into fiction yet, becoming enmeshed with how we understand everyday routines, how character is revealed, and so on. (Just as in 1910s books, the mention of cars was foregrounded at first — I’m thinking of scenes in The Magnificent Ambersons [1918], in which reckless driving and accidents and early automotive technology and auto-related investments all factor into the story in a more obtrusive way, while in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, published seven years later, a car accident is crucial but somehow more integrated with the entire tone of the book. And many decades later, we finally have Rabbit, John Updike’s narrator, making a run for freedom in his car, with the 1950s highways still a magnificent transformative symbol, and maybe two decades after that, the narrator of Richard Ford’s Independence Day toodling along the highway, staring at other drivers, his day realistically framed by holiday traffic, in a way that feels simply balanced and real. Sometimes, a banana is just a banana, and sometimes, a car is just a car.)

But can I return to the Amazon analytics issue? See how short my attention span is this week?

Today was the first day that I could access “author central” sales records for my first week (ok, 6 days) of my new book, The Detour. If you’ve never had a reason to peek behind this particular insidious curtain, the author central feature lets you see how many book copy sales have registered each week on Neilsen BookScan, and even divides them up by geographical regions, so you can see if that friend in Baton Rouge did really go online and order your book.

If I was crazy before, I’m really crazy now, waiting to see if any small review or online mention creates an uptick (this single published paragraph seems to have done so), and watching with horror at how quickly those little (and I do mean little) bumps settle back down, book numbers falling along with my hopes for being able to afford my son’s fall off-to-college airplane ticket. We all know how Virginia Woolf ended her brilliant life. Would she have ended it a few years sooner with access to online metrics like these?

But what surprises me perhaps more than anything is what information is not included in BookScan, and therefore left out of the Amazon reports. Library purchases don’t count, and from the map, I can’t tell how or whether Alaska gets lumped in. Most surprising of all, ebooks aren’t being tallied so far. And yet — those ebook sales keep rising. It took four years following the release of the Kindle for ebooks to surpass print books on Amazon, and 2011 ebook growth was the fastest of all.

I’ve been enjoying the fact that readers–including cross-country friends who I might email about a new book launch, for example–can immediately go online, buy my book, and start reading. (With luck, they’ll post a review somewhere!)

And then, just at the moment I’m thinking that the ebook revolution will be more helpful than harmful, I watch Ann Patchett charm Stephen Colbert as she explains how she just opened a bricks-and-mortar bookstore in Nashville, Tennessee, because she still believes in the old-fashioned notion of bookstore as place of community. (First thought: Maybe I’d like to open a little bookstore! Second thought: What am I nuts? I can’t handle my somewhat flexibly-scheduled life as it is. Third thought: Does anyone think that Ann Patchett looks a little bit like Carrie Fisher?)

But back to Amazon etc, which will not be going away anytime soon. With expectations for ebook sales rising, I’m forgetting to offset them with realism about declining print sales. It took me years to figure out what acceptable, modest book sales figures are, and now, those Holy Grail numbers are imprinted in my brain. I’m aiming at a target that shifted. A lot.

But allow me to be a little whacked-out and alternately hopeful and fretful for just a few weeks more. Then it will be time to move on, to think of the real target, which has nothing to do with sales or media exposure, or anything else but the writing. I envision those days like a lovely, smooth-surfaced pond, framed by birch trees, no sound but perhaps the call of a loon calling — laughing at me for getting so caught up in this sales and marketing stuff.

5 thoughts on “Andromeda: Amazon analytic craziness, ebooks, and other distracted-author thoughts”

  1. Good wishes for the new book, Andromeda. I look forward to reading it.

    Your comment about social media novels brings to mind Gary Shteyngart's most recent novel, Super Sad True Love Story, which for my money is twice the great American novel that Franzen's Freedom is (although I admired that one, too.) It's an email dystopia novel, but despite the parody and layered hyper-texty feel, it has a deep, resonant heart. I highly recommend it for Luddites and techies alike.

  2. Wow, that Author Central feature sounds like it would be deadly for my productivity! (And so much fun…)

    Great clip from Ann Patchett, and your inner process on opening a bookstore made me laugh. I'm eagerly anticipating a friend's memoir on this exact experience: Wendy Welch's "The Little Bookstore in Big Stone Gap" (2013) Seems like a temptation that all of us bookophiles can relate to!

  3. Congrats on your new release, and hope you're enjoying it when you're not obsessing over nubmers. 🙂

  4. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Thanks everyone and yes, yes — I've been meaning to log on to add my two cents that Super Sad True Love Story is TERRIFIC! Just as anon said — a great example of writing about the near future, with both humor and heart.

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