Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Statistics and . . . numbers

This is the time of year when those who are so inclined start posting their reports of income for writers during the previous year. The news is never good. Writers are used to that, and most of us don't expect a report that tells us something at odds with our own experience. Some of us read the bad news for comfort. "Aha! I'm not the only one barely breaking even on this venture." Or we read for signs of hope. "Oh, look! Four people out of 790,299 made money last year in this obscure category I've never heard of before. Maybe I should try that." Or we're depressed and misery loves company. "I knew it! We're all going down the tubes." But his month came a report that knocked me off my usual tolerant perch.

According to Amazon, as reported in Claude Forthomme-Nougat's blog, only 40 self-published authors can be considered a success. Only 40? Yup. Because only forty writers have made money. Really? Yup. Only forty writers have sold more than one million e-books in the last five years. Are you hyperventilating yet?

My usual reaction to this kind of statement is, Are you nuts? But what I really want to say is, Amazon has lost all perspective and so has anyone else who believes this statistic is worth anything. That measure for success is meaningless. It's the same as saying the best selling book in the world is the Bible (which is actually correct), so all the rest of you guys with a computer or typewriter or pen and paper might as well quit and find something else to do.

Claude goes on to point out that most writers make enough to live below the poverty level, which most of us already know. He also discusses what this means for legacy publishers--they're losing market share. We know that too, and so do they.

The problem with these kinds of reports is that they tap into the competitive streak in most human beings, and that emotion blinds us to what we would be taking away from such reports--nothing. Such reports lack enough depth to be useful or informative. They are designed to get a little quick attention, stir things up, and point out how important Amazon is. Okay. We got that.

But for working writers, those striving to improve their work and reach an audience, such reports are at best confusing and distracting and at worst debilitating. They capture the ambitious new writer who wants to know how to do the same, and can lead him or her down the proverbial rabbit hole. This is a huge waste of time.

In my view such statistics are simply not worth taking seriously. They have more to do with Amazon's business strategy and might be better reserved for a private staff meeting. For new writers and established writers trying to find a path through the changing world of publishing, I think it is better to focus on what has always been the key to success--write a good story or a good book. When it's done, take on the task of selling it, which can be as arduous as writing it. And then keep writing. There are no shortcuts for most of us, and good fortune or luck taps the shoulder of those who are ready.

To read the article, go to


Wednesday, February 3, 2016


I have been using the month of January to catch up on various half-finished projects. So far I’ve polished and sent off to the final beta reader the seventh Mellingam/Joe Silva book (which I had expected to send to Five Star/Gale, Cengage before they ended their mystery line). I’ve prepared the third Anita Ray mystery for a trade paperback edition, and I’ve begun the final work on a collection of mostly previously published Anita Ray short stories, which included writing three additional stories to balance the collection. All of this feels important but it’s mostly scut work for the real task at hand.

Well over a year ago I started a novel that I hope will be the beginning of a new series. The protagonist and setting sort of arrived, and I followed them into the story. Now I’m thinking about the second book, but not very hard. I have an idea and I’ve been letting it grow, like an onion, a layer now and then. When an idea pops into my head (Oh, she could do this!) I make a note and forget it. I’ve been pushing away the story because I’m not ready to write it, but I know it’s there.

An article in The New Yorker covers the importance of daydreaming in solving problems, and every writer I know accepts the virtues of letting the mind wander. To distract myself from diving into a story too soon, when it will feel constructed and lifeless, I’ve been sorting through books for my local library’s annual book sale. My mass of photographs, which isn’t well organized enough to be called a collection, is an equally good distraction, and so far I haven’t been able to get rid of any of them. But I will.

When I arrive at an appointment early and have to wait, I engage in one of my favorite practices, mallalorking. I love that word. The Urban Dictionary offers this definition: “Acting out restlessness before a journey. It’s a Newfoundland term so most of the people you hear saying it live in the really cold parts of the US.” I never thought the term required a cold setting; it works equally well in July.

Mallalorking is that physical restlessness while the body has nothing to concentrate on except the lack of a focus. There is no train to get on, to landscape to watch through the window, no passengers to study. It is an imposed physical boredom that we know is finite. Mallalorking is also the recess between books, the time before a long period of concentration and tight focus when my unconscious has been solving a problem and gathering the many details of the solution.

Despite my productivity in January, I have really been mallalorking. During this period I’ve recalled a few incidents from the 1970s that stay in my mind and call for further research. I can feel the story growing, the characters taking shape and the surprises that are awaiting. I believe that each novel is a journey that the writer undertakes, a process of discovery and learning. The impetus is almost physical, to get out the door and onto the road, and cannot be denied. I’m delaying the point of departure to make sure I have all the materials at the ready, because once I start, there is no stopping. There will be no more mallalorking.

For the article on daydreaming, go to


For the definition of “mallalorking,” go to