where the writers are
An author's tic

So, tomorrow is the Big Launch Day, and I've been warned by my fellow writers not to take it too much to heart if the Day ends up being . . . well, pretty much like any other. The book will be officially released, yes, but pre-orders are by and large already being fulfilled and it's not as if fireworks displays will go off (except, as my partner remarked, perhaps inside my own head). I'm not going on tour and I'm not doing any book-related events tomorrow, except treking downtown on my lunch hour to see if the book is on the shelf at Borders and Stacey's (just because, I must). Some blogs that requested interviews with me will post the interviews and some reviewers will post their reviews; others will come later. So, while I've worked hard to reach this Day, it can be, I'm told, a bit anticlimatic.

I figure it's just as well, because I came down with a nasty head cold this weekend. It's actually one of the worst summer colds, congestion-wise, I've had in years and so my energy level is lousy. If I had events planned, I'd be thinking of ways to postpone them :) But one authorial tic of mine that doesn't seem to be surpressed even by heavy doses of decongestant is checking my amazon ranking.

Yes, it's a well known secret among us writers - particularly, newly published - that we are obsessed with our amazon sales ranking: that deceptively small number in the product details section of the book's page that allegedly demonstrates how well the book is selling vis-a-vis other books in the category on amazon. The theory is the smaller the number, as in #1 to 700, the better; the larger, as in #200,000 and so-on, not so good. It's of course not quite that reliable a measure. The ranking can fluctuate by the hour, i.e., it goes up when a book is sold; and thus shouldn't be taken as a complete barometer of a book's sales. Authors should, if not ignore, then view the ranking with serious detachment, because: 1) amazon is one of many outlets where books are sold; and 2) trying to get that ranking to rise to ease your anxiety will eventually cause insanity.

I mean it. I know writers who literally catapult into despair over their amazon ranking; I even know of one writer in particular who went so far as to purchase multiple copies of his book over a course of a day just to increase its ranking. He succeeded, but then, the moment he stopped buying 5 copies at a time every hour for 24 hours, it dropped once more. Poor man, he ended up with over 60 copies of his novel that he paid for, including shipping, which of course negated whatever royalties he stood to make (as he spent more per book than his allotted royalty percentage on each book sold) and a terrible depression - and all this to satisfy an uncontrollable need to see his ranking rise.

I'm not saying the ranking is completely bogus. It can give an idea of how a book is doing at a given time. For example, one day three weeks ago I got an urgent e-mail from one of my ranking-obsessed friends that my first novel THE SECRET LION was #11 in the Fiction>Mystery>Historical subcategory. I went online and there it was: #11. Ah, what a delightful feeling! I copied the page and e-mailed it with frenetic delight to my agent (who didn't reply, and rightly so). I then checked back often, like an addict, and it stayed at #11 for an entire 25 minutes! Then, when I checked for the last time, it had slipped to #177. Not such a delightful feeling. That high can be so cruelly cut short. Still, I consoled myself, those plum 25 minutes at #11 had to be good news, right?

Just how good is an enigma I've never quite managed to solve. THE SECRET LION's ranking has in fact varied so much over the past four years, it's almost impossible to say. All I've ever been able to learn from watching the ranking is that it goes up and it goes down. I get the actual number of copies sold on my sales statements every quarter, and, while gratifying in of themselves, these numbers never seem to quite equate with whichever random ranking I obsessed over that month.

You'd think I'd learn my lesson and stop it. I mean, there are plenty of other ways I can occupy my time and even if I wanted to check my sales ranking every, say, 10 minutes, what good would it do? If the ranking was decent, I'd be relieved. If it wasn't, I'd fret. And I could do absolutely nothing about it either way.

Still, while I was laid up this weekend doing revisions to my next manuscript and sneezing out my brains, I found myself checking THE LAST QUEEN's ranking every hour, sometimes twice an hour - a dubious accomplishment facilitated by the new wireless system I've installed in my house, where checking the web can now occur at the speed of light. I rationalized my obsession this time with the excuse that's almost the launch date and the ranking should be high, right? It's a new book; there's been all this publicity, giveaways, reviews, etc. In the four hours I managed to compulsively click on the book's page on amazon, the ranking skittered from #124,560 to #67,054 to #33,457, to #88,795. How many books were pre-ordered in that time? Who knows? But I bet, I lost several pounds sitting there sweating it out and hearing that evil little voice in my head saying: "Oh, it's not doing as well as you hoped. Why, just look at Philippa Gregory's latest; it's not even coming out until September 16 and it's already #71, while you . . .[FILL IN BLANK WITH NEGATIVE THOUGHT]."

Not pretty, is it? It's a tic - an authorial tic, unique to our species. God forbid we should just bask in the moment, in the lovely people we've met along the way and the readers we know love our work, when we could be otherwise stoking up the stress levels over how we think our book is selling on amazon.

Well, I'm done with it. I'm not looking at my amazon ranking again, I swear it.

At least, not today.