'Get the Xanax ready': Authors respond to BookScan on Amazon
"Get the Xanax ready," tweeted David MacInnis Gill, author of "Black Hole Sun," a sci-fi thriller for young adults. In an e-mail, he explained: "Authors worry. We worry about writing. Worry about our editors, our agents, our reviews, and our readers. We worry about everything, including all forms of social media including blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and personal websites. The one thing we haven't been able to obsess about is real-time sales numbers."
That is, until now. Now an author might have to try to figure out why she's big in Fort Myers, Fla., as Philadelphia-based writer Robin Black considered Thursday morning, checking her BookScan stats for the first time. Black's debut short-story collection, "If I Loved You I Would Tell You This," was published in March by Random House. "I'm of two minds," Black wrote in an e-mail. "On principle, or something like it, I'm glad to have access to my own figures. On the other hand, Aaaaaaarrrgh! I fear the amount of time authors will spend checking this and analyzing it, as opposed to, say, writing."
Dani Shapiro, author of "Devotion: A Memoir," went further. "In order for writers to get our work done, we need to tune out the noise -- and sales figures, while obviously important, are very very noisy."
Shapiro continued: "There's a time and a place for the business of writing, but now that business is available with a keystroke -- most of us work on computers and so the instrument on which we write is also a constant, and constantly tempting window into the outside world," Shapiro wrote in an e-mail. "I've begun to write by hand in notebooks when I can."
But noise to Shapiro sounds like work to Caridad Ferrer, author of the young adult novel "When the Stars Go Blue." She e-mailed, "At the risk of sounding pretentious, it's a tough call because it rides that line that authors straddle of the responsible businessperson and the artist."
"As an author, I'm constantly being asked to take on more and more of the promotion responsibilities for my books, but there's been no way to know what's worked and what hasn't," wrote Brett Battles, author of the thrillers "The Cleaner" and "The Decieved." "Having sales numbers in a timely manner as opposed to six months to a year down the road will change that." He writes that it's "fantastic" that Amazon is providing writers access to BookScan's sales figures.
Ellen F. Brown, a former lawyer who has co-authored a book about Margaret Mitchell due out in February 2011, is looking forward to seeing her numbers. "I already am addicted to the Amazon sales rankings," she writes in an e-mail. "I know the numbers are to be taken with a giant grain of salt, but a writer would have to be superhuman to not be curious what the numbers are up to on any given day."
Agents and publishers sounded a note of caution in Twitter discussions Thursday, emphasizing that book-sales figures need context. BookScan leaves out certain retailers -- Wal-Mart and specialty stores, like museum gift shops -- that are very important to some authors' sales. Indeed, all data need to be interpreted. But authors who are curious will no doubt plunge in and start asking questions.
"Will having access to the BookScan data serve any useful purpose?" Brown asked. "I like to think I will put the information to good use. Time will tell."
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Image: screenshot of Amazon's tutorial of its new BookScan