Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Forget the Numbers

by Hannah Roveto

There are approximately 6.7 billion people in the world, with somewhat more than 4.7 billion of us over the age of 15. The world literacy rate, defined as anyone over the age of 15 who can read and write is estimated at 82%. Allowing for my rough math skills, this gets us some 3.76 billion people who, in theory, could or do read books.

Next, let's look at worldwide book sales. The Bible comes in at about six billion copies, followed closely by quotations from Mao Zedong. Mao was a big seller, folks, followed by the Qur'an and then, interestingly, Charles Dickens, with A Tale of Two Cities at 200 million copies, followed by Lord Baden-Powell with Scouting for Boys. The entire Harry Potter series has sold a mere 400 million books total. Clearly, JK has a lot of sales left to go before every reader out there owns a complete set.

The fact that this is a numbers business is never far from a serious writer's thoughts. Every query explains to a potential agent not simply how wonderful a story is, but how it can be championed in the marketplace. Every agent paints a picture for publishers of the prospects for a particular title, and so on, and so on.

This makes it far too easy to ask when a particular project appears in a writer's head whether to even bother to write it. The subject matter is difficult. A protagonist character is unlikeable. Where is the audience, and will anyone care? We are told to up the stakes on one hand, to add mayhem and fear and create tension, and yet other stories are "untellable," and the ultimate damper, that nobody will buy them.

Garbage. How would you feel about a dwarfish boy who kills his best friend's mother by accident, in a story that delivers commentary on American foreign policy? (John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany). How can there possibly be subjects that are untouchable when there are so many authors already exploring them? Try Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson. Here is a man who feels "most alive while in the presence of another's loss," according to one review. Pick up the lyrical Bel Canto by Ann Patchett or the action adventure bestsellers of Tom Clancy, and between the pages of each you find people compelled by politics, love and honor to do their worst as well as their best. Death, murder, fear, passion, insincerity, longing, hope, honor, familial strife, redemption. It doesn't matter what we write as long as we are true not only to ourselves, but to our craft, to the art of the storytelling as well as the story.

Readers read and will do so as long as writers write well. If you can write a story in a way that carries a reader through, that is conscientious of the reader's needs and pushes at boundaries in such a such a way that the reader is willing to follow, do it. Pull out everything you know, learn what you need to and make that story come alive.

Don't worry about sales, not while you write. Consider only craft and the story. If you start to worry about numbers, then turn them on their pointy little heads. There are more than 3.3 billion people out there who -- in most cases -- have chosen not to own a single copy of Harry Potter, and still they read. Who knows: perhaps they are waiting for a book more like yours.


Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Yes, Hannah, yes! We do need to turn these numbers (and our doubts and fears) "on their pointy little heads."

Thanks, I really needed this today!

Amy MacKinnon said...

Me, too!

Larramie said...

Since I neither own nor have read a Harry Potter book (though gifted them to many), you really are talking about/to me, Hannah.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

As Amy knows, this was a discussion point at our meeting yesterday, and all I could wonder about on the ride home was, who is out there waiting to read these stories? If even Charles Dickens barely could make a dent in potential world readership, then there are only two options. Give up or write. Did I say two options? Ha!