Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Question

It happens almost every time. At book signings and book clubs, even at gatherings that have absolutely nothing to do with books, someone (and many times, someone I would not expect to have the audacity) asks how many books I’ve sold. In a pregnant pause that seems w-a-a-a-y longer than Rick Perry’s “oops” moment, potential answers crawl across my brain. Should I be snarky and ask her how much she weighs? Should I give a flippant “who cares about numbers” and move on? Should I politely tell her I’m not comfortable talking about that?

Snarky is probably my most readily accessible mode and would certainly be the most fun. “Darling, who is your plastic surgeon? One can hardly tell you’ve had so much work done.” Alas, I usually just end up stammering something about not having received current numbers from my publisher but am told that they are pleased.

The asker is usually just curious. She’s used to seeing “Over One Million Copies Sold” on book covers (don’t I wish!) and doesn’t really equate asking how many I have sold to, say, asking her the amount of her annual salary. The question is benign, even benevolent. And sometimes I know the bee – I mean asker– and she’s just flat-out nosy.

I’m still a fairly new resident of Book World, but I pick up a definite vibe that my fellow denizens are prickly about their numbers, even to other authors. We live in an age where the value of a home, salary, and yes age-age are just a few clicks away. Our Amazon ranking (# 657,420 – woo-hoo!!) is posted for all the world to see, yet still we guard our sales figures as if they were handcuffed to our wrist inside a bullet-proof brief case.  I have never asked even close writer friends. A few – well, two anyway – have shared, and I have reciprocated.  It’s not a matter of the money (what money, you say?). Is it that we don’t want our success to be measured by numbers when the meaning of those numbers varies widely among genres? In Lawyer Land, I never knew anyone who was bashful to announce making partner or raking in one-third of a multimillion dollar contingency case. Yet in Book World, even within Book World, it seems crass to divulge anything other than winning awards or making best-seller lists.

Is it just me? Have I not been properly indoctrinated and the rest of you are spewing your numbers hither and yon?
How do you handle The Question? 
Amy Bourret is the author of MOTHERS AND OTHER LIARS, a Target Breakout Book. Her publisher is very pleased with the sales.   


  1. I used to get this question too and like you it always made me bristle. I think most people were just being polite, trying to make conversation but I thought they were judging my worth as an author, and I was very insecure about that particularly for my first book.

    Anyway I finally ended up making light of the question, stealing a line from Roy Blount, saying, "Walmart is selling so many copies they've had to take down some of their tube socks displays to make room for my books."

  2. Oh, how I HATE it when people ask me about my numbers!! Depending on the person asking, that's how I respond (nice, jokey, snarky, etc), but I always deflect. As you said, asking someone their sales figures is like asking someone their weight. And I would NEVER tell anyone how much I weigh!

  3. Amy, I think people who ask questions like that are outside of the industry and they get their ideas about authors from Hollywood films, e.g., they see Martian Child and think we're all millionaires who live in Frank Llloyd Wright style houses. I've been asked many seemingly rude questions, although I don't think I've been asked for sales numbers before. Maybe, if it's a question you regularly encounter, it would be best to rehearse a funny answer you can give in reply. I guess mine would be a rueful, "Well, I've only ever been a bestseller in my own mind...(pause, followed by a perky)...and possibly in France and Canada!"

  4. Been there, Amy. At least I don't get the "When are you going to be on Oprah?" question any more. :)

  5. Great post, Amy! When someone asks I just tap dance until the next question assumes center stage. Sales are going well! Next! (You tell me, I'll tell you...)

  6. I always answer it is going great guns. I am a firm believer in living up to the label...