Monday, March 05, 2012

Writing as a Bookseller: James Patterson Sells

Monday nights are always fun at the store because we get to put out all the Strict On Sales, the books that can't be sold before their release date. But they also always remind me of the reality of this business.

The week before last, we released yet another James Patterson novel, PRIVATE GAMES. Through the help of ghostwriters, Patterson manages to release around a half-dozen thrillers a year, and stays on the NYT list with a good amount of regularity. As we were setting up the "stepladder" display which greets customers as they enter the store, my coworker commented that she didn't much care for Patterson's books.They are formulaic, she says, and his ghostwriters do an uneven job of producing quality prose.

"But," she said, as we put the last of the books on the ladder, "he keeps me in this job."

She had a point, and it's a lesson which I find so valuable as a writer that I consider it one of the primary reasons to keep my part-time job. Working in a corporate bookstore is to do daily battle with the effect of sales numbers on your personal cash flow--when we sell more books, we can budget more bookseller hours, which means maybe I can hit that fancy restaurant this weekend instead of staying in for spaghetti.  Lower sales? Fewer hours--and it's a direct hit to my wallet.

I often see railing complaints about the publishing and bookselling industry and the pursuit of art--that they stifle writers, that they force writers into formulas, that they "only want what sells." (And yes, there's a lot they could do differently--you won't get any fight on that point from me!) I absolutely realize that it's disheartening; heck, at least half the time, I look at my own finished novels, which have a tendency to go interstitial instead of hitting the ball straight up the middle of a genre, and want to wail a little bit, too.

But in the end, about twenty hours a week, I do hand-to-hand combat with the end result of all that creativity-stifling, mass-market pleasing, whatever-the-publishing-world-baddies-are-getting this week. The truth is, an awful lot of people need to make money from sales of my book, from the CEO of the publishing house right down to the bookstore barista. And in order for me, as the author, to get paid for writing a book, all those other people have to reasonably expect that they're going to profit from it, too.

So, yeah. I think I'll try to make sure I have a book that will sell. My writing is my art, sure, but I'm okay with making money being part of the equation.

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