It is Saturday night after AWP18, and we are starting this blog post in a darkened aircraft ascending through clouds, with Tampa and memories fading behind.
By “we,” I mean I. (Jerry.) Or as the Dude said in The Big Lebowski, “You know, the royal ‘we,’ the editorial…” But it’s always been my vision that Tortoise would be a “we,” not one of those Nine-Inch-Nails-is-Trent-Reznor things, and for this, our first AWP, we also had Carlo Matos and Christine Sneed in physical attendance, plus many other tortoises attending in spirit. (And/or via Twitter.) And we are wrapping our tortoise heads around issues of quality and quantity, topics always near and dear to our tortoise hearts.
Publishing professionally (which we believe we’re doing) requires a diligent focus on the numbers, an attempt to quantify a great many things. We prepare monthly profit/loss statements for the business, we tally income and expenses, we pay authors and associates. And while the numbers are important, the business is about far more than the numbers—it’s about the feeling we get when we sell to a new customer, when we sign a new author, when we hear someone talking excitedly about something we’ve published. (And it must be said, it’s about knowing we’re treating everyone as fairly as possible. It’s not worth it to sell a million books if you’re not paying your authors what you owe them, or giving all you can for them—if you have to hide from them when you see them. There is no profit in gaining the whole world at the expense of your soul; nor is there a profit in selling enough to make a living if you have to treat people like shit to do so.) You cannot quantify quality, and all of these things exist in an analog plane, far above the world of numbers.
Is AWP worth it? The raw numbers would suggest not—after paying for a $650 table, we made $442 in sales, which of course does not factor into account travel expenses, parking fees, etc., etc., let alone the cost of the books themselves. (We also paid a bit of a stupidity tax by overloading our good ol’ suitcase-press checked-bag-full-o-books to the point that it tipped the scales at 66 pounds, necessitating a $100 heavy bag fee.) And yet there are things about the experience you cannot quantify—some at least not until year-end financials, and some possibly forever. What’s the value of speaking face-to-face with the president of Consortium Books (a distributor we’d frankly love to work with) when all your books are laid out on the table in front of you? Can you put a dollar sign on George Saunders’ excellent keynote address? How about rekindling an acquaintance with Bonnie Jo Campbell and chatting about gun violence and American politics? And what is it worth to sing karaoke in a private Asian-style booth with Midwestern Gothic’s Rob Russell and a host of other delightful people? (Reader, you should already know this experience is valuable beyond measure.)
We also crossed a sales milestone the first day of the fair and sold our 5000th book! (If you’re curious about a breakdown by title…well, we’ve never done this before, but here you go, dear reader. We trust you.)
Resistance, 2012: 1543 copies (221 physical, 1322 electronic. Launched back in the salad days of KDP discounts, which probably helped.)
Ninety-Seven to Three, 2013: 7 copies (7 electronic. Poetry is a tough racket.)
The Last Good Halloween, 2013: 377 copies (272 physical, 105 electronic. Not bad for our first outside author.)
Zero Phase, 2013: 688 copies (94 physical, 594 electronic. Space people like ebooks.)
Project Genesis, 2014: 15 copies (15 electronic. Again, poetry. Although, to be fair, we've never released a physical version.)
Public Loneliness, 2014: 318 copies (115 physical, 203 electronic.)
The Dark Will End The Dark, 2015: 172 copies (148 physical, 24 electronic.)
In Lieu of Flowers, 2015: 91 copies (89 physical, 2 electronic.)
The Fugue, 2016: 291 copies (235 physical, 56 electronic. Not bad for a second edition. And--as is the case with a few of our books--we've made money on it.)
The Pleasure You Suffer, 2016: 42 copies (38 physical, 4 electronic.)
Staggerwing, 2016: 242 copies (207 physical, 35 electronic.)
Island of Clouds, 2017: 140 copies (59 physical, 81 electronic. High returns, unfortunately, but the people who read it seem to REALLY love it.)
North and Central, 2017: 447 copies (329 physical, 118 electronic. Who said crime doesn't pay?)
Forty-Five Minutes of Unstoppable Rock, 2017: 66 copies (63 physical, 3 electronic.)
Old Open, 2017: 171 copies (139 physical, 32 electronic. Getting some traction on Ingram, which is nice.)
What We Build Upon the Ruins, 2017: 161 copies (152 physical, 9 electronic.)
The Quitters, 2017: 41 copies (36 physical, 5 electronic.)
Gunmetal Blue, 2017: 199 copies (190 physical, 9 electronic. Also doing well on Ingram, even though it's only been out since December. It helps that Kirkus called Joe Peterson "one of the Windy City's best-kept secrets.")
The Virginity of Famous Men, 2018: 50 copies (All physical, because that's what we have the rights to.)
(Note the list is ordered by date, not number—we absolutely do not want to imply that these books should be ranked by numbers sold. Every one has its own unique charms; like children, you love them all in unique ways.)
So, yes, 5,000 books. And given that our profit margin is around two hundred dollars a book, we’ve actually been earning a pretty comfortable living over the past five years doing this publishing thing. (I kid, I kid. Wait, wrong voice. We kid, we kid.) Book publishing is a tremendously humbling business. Sales feel capricious and arbitrary, and the economics are simply not that great for the average traditionally published author, even the ones that have had the kind of successes (New York Times reviews, major chain sales, advances with commas in them) that make the rest of us salivate. (As one author friend tells her writing students: Unless you see an author’s books on sale at the drugstore or the airport, they’re probably doing something else to make a living.) And while we do our best to treat people better than the traditional publishers—to read submissions without charging a fee, and respond as quickly as possible with personalized feedback, and edit respectfully, and pay promptly—we have certainly fallen short of the mark here and there, at least on the reading-and-responding side. But we keep moving, tortoiseing damn near every day (minus breaks for Sundays and vacations), trusting we’ll win the race in the end.
What, then, constitutes victory? Is it numbers sold? For some, perhaps—although there are plenty of bestsellers that fall by the wayside in subsequent years. (This list of the bestselling books from 1913 to 2013, for instance, includes plenty of familiar titles, but more than a few books like Green Light that aren’t even available for sale any more.) Is it awards? We’ve won some, and Lord knows we’d love to win some more, but a trip through the list of, say, Pulitzer winners (or Academy-Award-winning films, or what have you) certainly reveals plenty of wait-that-other-one-should-have-won picks, and why-wasn’t-this-one-even-nominated moments. (Coincidentally we—and here I mean I—went to Columbia University, and had professors who sat on the Pulitzer committee. They certainly seemed very dedicated to a fair and honest prize process, but they also knew that not all prize winners were created equal; one professor, for instance, described Neil Sheehan’s excellent A Bright Shining Lie as “one of those rare books that enhances the Pulitzers, rather than the other way around.” Not that we wouldn’t absolutely shit ourselves if one of us won a Pulitzer, but you get the idea.)
In the music world, it’s been said of the Velvet Underground that they didn’t sell many records, but everyone who bought one started a band. Was Lou Reed unsuccessful in 1970, when he was living in his parents’ house and working as a typist in his father’s accounting firm for $40 a week—after having already launched four of the most influential albums in music history? Was he unsuccessful when he released Transformer? We’d love to have it all—sales, prizes, and the enduring legacy of a much-discussed body of work—and we’d love to give it all to our authors, but sales and prizes aren’t entirely in our control; all we can do is put out quality books, and tell people about them, and trust that the rest will come in time. So success, perhaps, is to keep reaching readers, and keep learning and growing.
And on that level, AWP certainly was a success. We recently acquired paperback rights to Christine Sneed’s excellent short story collection, The Virginity of Famous Men, and we were able to sell it in public for the first time there; we also sold books by Alex Higley and Carlo Matos and Joe Peterson and Giano Cromley and Gint Aras and Alice Kaltman—not all of our roster, unfortunately, but certainly a healthy chunk. On the first day of the conference, we sold our 5,000th book to a young guy named Allen; on the third day, he reached out on Twitter to let us know he’d already finished (and thoroughly enjoyed) Zero Phase. We learned a few lessons that will come in handy for the next AWP—ship your bags if they’re going to be overweight, sign up early if you want a busy table space, make sure to visit Electric Literature and all the other people you love on Twitter, don’t freak out if second-day sales are slow because third-day is the big sales day, etc. And we made enough money to keep chugging along and doing the next things we need to do to get the next books out there.
I wish I could say I was finishing this blog post in some lofty literary office space; I’m actually writing it the way I write most things, with my laptop balanced precariously on my knees, aboard a morning CTA train headed for my 9-to-5 non-publishing day job. But we at Tortoise are thinking ahead, to Printers Row Lit Fest, and the Chicago Book Expo, and AWP19, and we’re looking forward to all of it.