When Amazon and Bookscan Had a Baby

by Laura Munson

I’m a bit afraid to write this article, the way someone who fears the mafia is afraid.  But I have to give voice to something that has seared the last year of my life with a fair amount of ludicrousness.  It’s just too juicy not to share.  At the risk of having big-time New York editors running at me with sharpened pencils and a slurry of sticky notes, I have to tell you: published authors don’t have access to their book sales.  Not more than twice a year when the royalties reports come.  My book was published in April and I didn’t see that report until November.  Isn’t that stunning news? 

So how are you to plan accordingly, you might ask?  How are you to know where your hot markets are?  How are you to weigh whether it’s worth it financially to choose the Birmingham, Alabama library request over the one in St. Louis?  It’s an exact science:  Eeny rock meeny paper miney flip a coin scissors.  I’m sure that this isn’t the publishing industry’s fault.  I mean they have troubles enough in the looming fact that the future might very well only hold digital books, never mind digital people holding those digital books, but that’s another story.  Or is it? 

All I know is that you can’t fly out of the small town airport where I live for less than around $400.00, and that’s a steal.  Usually it’s more like $800.00.  And so is it worth it to fly myself to Birmingham, leaving my husband and small children, missing soccer and baseball games and school plays?  I don’t know.  You tell me.  Do people in Birmingham read a lot?  Or do people in St. Louis read more?  Eeny meeny.  And there’s more to this puzzle, because things tend to happen to the author when a certain amount of books have been sold.  Big things that might involve a pay check and help you budget things like Christmas and Spring Break, and if either are going to involve expenditures.

Don’t get me wrong—my editor and my publicity team are my dream team.  I adore them.  They’d never put me in cement boots and throw me into the Hudson.  They bent over backwards to tour me around the country and land me spots on national TV and everywhere they possibly could.  And they’re in the process of doing it all over again for the paperback release in a few weeks.  This is not about them.  But it’s about somebody, and just who that somebody is, I’m not sure.  It’s a system that doesn’t seem to work, not when it comes to the lowly writer as a businesswoman.  Any businessperson should be able to see sales reports to judge how to proceed in peddling what she’s peddling, shouldn’t she?  Especially after the big launch.  Sure there are amazing salespeople out there working for the effort, but the writer can’t contact them.  It’s a guessing game.  Maybe they’re afraid the harebrained blundering writer might mess it up somehow.  Kind of like how they don’t let you visit your kid at camp unless it’s parent’s weekend.  I honestly don’t know.  But I better not wake up with a horse head in my bed, that’s all I’m sayin’. 

And then…this winter…all this changed, thanks, I think, to Amazon.  Amazon might be getting the biggest writerly blowjob ever, and it was just in time for the holidays, because…wait for it…well I’ll take you through the door a different way.  The way my mother would want me to.  Politely: As a writer of a recently published book, you never know what’s going to be in your email in-box in the morning.  Is your UK publisher wondering if you like the cover art they’ve chosen?  Is noon an okay time for a journalist from Tel Aviv to do a phone interview with you?  Would you be willing to do a Skype video call with a book group north of Boston?  Could you suggest a good therapist for a fan’s husband in Tulsa?  Could you send signed copies of your book to your mother’s bridge club friend’s daughter and all her friends in San Diego?  Could you stop bothering your publicist about the paperback book tour?  Could you sign books at the local Costco this Sunday?   

“Sure” is the answer.  Especially to the last one, because you’ll need to stop by Costco anyway since that’s where you buy your books since you can’t afford to buy them for $24.95 and if you use your author’s discount with your publisher, it doesn’t count as a sold book and you need books counted since you don’t make any royalties until your advance is paid back in book sales.  Get it?  (Somebody asked me recently if I was a millionaire, now that I have a book that landed on the NYT best-seller list.  The answer is no.  I’m still trying to get my health insurance back and crawl out of credit card debt!)  Sold books steer the next few years of your life in more ways than you can write about here without ending up with that horse head in your bed, so you’re just going to have to take my word for it. 

Suffice it to say that there are all sorts of things I didn’t know about being a published author prior to this experience, and even more things I don’t know after the experience.  It’s been a year of these findings for me.  But the biggest surprise is this whole sales issue.  Until Amazon somehow teamed up with Book Scan and sent me a little email one fine winter morning that said, “To add to your holiday cheer, we've added several new features related to your books' sales on our new Sales Info tab.”  And lo, with a simple click I was dragging my cursor over the continental US seeing that, yes, 46 of my books sold in New York City last week.  And 14 in Seattle.  And one in Milwaukee, bless that person’s soul.  And, oh look, zero in Wichita.   Well that’s okay.  We love you anyway, Wichita.  Maybe I need to fly on over and speak at your library.  If you’ll have me. 

And as much as some writers think this is a cause for Zanax, I think it’s one of the best gifts a published writer could get.  So, thank you, Amazon and Book Scan.  But no, I still refuse to buy a Kindle.

Laura Munson is something of a publishing phenomenon. After writing fourteen novels for which she could not find a publisher, she wrote an article that crashed the New York Times’s website. Forty-eight hours later she had a publishing contract for her memoir, This Is Not The Story You Think It Is. Her paperback will be published in April and she will be touring the country doing events. For her schedule please visit Eventslauramunson.com

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