Monday, August 13, 2012

The Game of Numbers

By Pamela

Well, the summer Olympics have finally closed in dramatic fashion. I remember watching the games as a kid--on a much smaller screen and without the benefit of DVR--and being inspired to move more, sit less. This year my family and I cheered team USA and other countries' standouts such as Oscar Pistorius, South Africa's double-amputee sprinter.

As my boy enthusiastically reported the medal count and how we won, in terms of medals, I reminded him of the Tweet he shared with me a few days earlier: the medal count per capita. When you consider that China is home to 1.3 BILLION people, their 88 medals become a little less impressive when they amount to one medal per 15.5 million people. Even our stellar medal count loses its luster a bit when you calculate it against our population. We won a medal for every 3 million people in our country. And, if it weren't for Michael Phelps, well, you know that number wouldn't have been even that high.

Then you look at a country like Jamaica. Its land mass is slightly smaller than Connecticut. And while they never fare well in the winter Olympics (bobsledding, anyone?), they turned out a stellar showing this time around on track and field, taking home 12 medals--one for every 225,485 people who live there. Yes, I know Mr. Bolt pulled in three, but still; the numbers are impressive.

It got me thinking about books and how for writers, it all starts with words on a page. But once a book goes into production, it's a game of numbers. Even if you self-publish, you become a slave to how many books you can afford to print (unless you exclusively go the e-route) and how many you must sell to make money. Traditionally-published authors also concern themselves with pre-sales figures, sales numbers, rankings, etc. They have to. Writing books and selling them to readers is about numbers. And until the industry goes exclusively to e-publishing (something I hope never happens!), then numbers matter greatly in terms of printing and sales and remainder copies and earning out and so forth. 

It's no secret that many writers would rather think about almost anything else besides numbers. You rarely find a creative genius who is also a gifted accountant--Joan is our exception, here. 

But what numbers also fail to measure is satisfaction. For example, my nine-year-old girl reread the entire Harry Potter series this summer. I foolishly challenged her to a reading duel and never got my spikes off the starting blocks in the race. In fact, she again picked up The Sorcerer's Stone last week, insisting there was nothing else she wanted to read right now. So while Joanne Rowling (who coincidentally was featured in the Olympics' opening ceremony) only saw one sales number per book we own, four people in our house have read them (and our neighbor's boy) and my girl has read them more than once. 

Book sales also fail to reflect effort. And tenacity. When a 'debut author' suddenly hits it big, you'd be safe betting that she also wrote two or three or ten other books that never saw the inside of a bookstore. 

So while we applaud athletes like Phelps and Pistorius and even cocky Usain Bolt for their achievements, there are also athletes back in their home countries who were hundreths of a second slower than the super stars. Who likely trained just as hard but failed to make it to The Games. And when you read the next NYT's best-seller, keep in mind there's also a writer, diligently pounding on her keyboard, sending out queries, trying to gain the attention of a gatekeeper who can help her fulfill her dreams. Maybe she's you? 
Photo by Digo_Souza, Flickr Creative Common License


  1. What a touching post. She definitely feels like me right now. :) Thanks for making us all feel like winners.

  2. Thanks, Joan. You're a winner in my book.


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