Tuesday, January 3, 2012

My E*Book Didn't Click

I never intended to write a bestseller. During my wife's pregnancy, I kept a journal in which I recorded our fears, hopes and concerns -- all written to our unborn child. Several years later, I realized the thousands of words I had scribbled might make a fine gift. I would edit them down, bind them and present a book to Nina in time for our fifth anniversary. Somewhere along the way, it occurred to me that other readers, particularly first-time expectant parents, might find the account as compelling as I did. Anne Lamott's Operating Instructions and the What to Expect series sold millions. Maybe my book could, too.

Nina was considerably less enthusiastic. She didn't want strangers reading about how she had been rolled off to the operating room for an abortion after we had been told our embryo was "nonviable" -- only to learn, moments before the procedure, that a critical lab test had been misinterpreted. But when I hinted that, if the book sold well, I might feel comfortable springing for the marquis-cut diamond engagement ring she's always wanted, she relented. I wrapped up copies of the manuscript and committed their fate to the postal service. Thus began my journey from cellulose and traditional publishing to the silicon frontier.

Within a few weeks, the rejection letters started to trickle in. One agent wrote, "You take the story beyond the merely personal," while another commented, "Its contents felt a bit too personal." And yet another said it was difficult to sell books by fathers. (No doubt what Bill Cosby was told.) About this time Salon, the online magazine, published an excerpt from the book. A few days later, I called my editor at Salon to find out how many people had "clicked through."

Forty thousand, I was told to my complete astonishment. My mental calculator began churning -- if 1 percent of those people were to buy my book, then tell 50 of their friends, and 1 percent of those friends bought it -- and pretty soon I was spending my afternoons chatting it up with Oprah.

It was while these sugarplums danced in my head that I first heard of eMatter.com and experienced a literary harmonic convergence. With eMatter, I could list my book on the web and buyers could download it electronically. I could set my own price, $6.95, and eMatter would pay me a handsome 50 percent royalty. I formatted my manuscript as instructed and uploaded it to eMatter.

Two weeks later, my book had sold exactly one copy.

Undeterred, I sent out an e-mail announcement to several hundred friends and former colleagues, plus several dozen people I hardly knew, and waited for word to reach Oprah.

She didn't get in touch, but lots of other people did. They had tried to buy my book but couldn't find it. Or found it but couldn't download it. Or downloaded it but couldn't open it. Some hadn't read the fine print that said eMatter's software did not yet work with Apple or UNIX systems. Soon I was in much closer touch with the technical staff at eMatter than with my nascent readership.

With new glitches turning up almost daily, I was completely surprised when I found How to Have a Baby at No. 8 on eMatter's bestseller list. I called a friend to tell him the good news.

"How do they calculate bestsellers?" he asked. "Hourly, daily, weekly?" I e-mailed eMatter. "Daily," the answer came back. In other words, my No. 8 bestseller was No. 8 for a day. That day.

Two months later, eMatter selected How to Have a Baby as its "editor's pick." My book then captured the top spot on eMatter's recommended list. Still, sales stagnated. A mention of eMatter in the New York Times didn't blip my book at all. Two five-star reviews did nothing. It dropped to No. 11.

Still, I had great hopes for the following month. EMatter, now called MightyWords, was running large ads in national newspapers and publications like the New Yorker. My book was featured on MightyWords' parenting page along with "an exclusive interview with author Robert L. Strauss." Also three feature stories of mine were to run in quick succession in the San Francisco Examiner Magazine, each with a blurb for the book. I expected to sell several hundred copies. Then Stephen King stole my thunder.

When King released Riding the Bullet over the web, he cause parts of the Internet to freeze as hundreds of thousands attempted to download his book. The same month, my book had been mentioned three times in one of the country's most widely read newspapers.

I sold one copy.

More than ever, I was determined to get How to Have a Baby to No. 1. I not only wanted to unseat Solo Explorations in Male Masturbation by Will Stark; I wanted to surpass Nine Things to Know About Permission Marketing on the Net by Seth Godin, the marketing guru and a graduate school classmate. Seth was a born go-getter who'd already sold his company to Yahoo! for $60 million. His wife, no doubt, already had her ring.

Frenzied by this rediscovered sense of competition, I sent a new e-mail to everyone whose address had ever slipped into my computer. All those endlessly forwarded Internet jokes? I'd been hoarding the recipients' e-mail addresses for weeks, including those of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the venture capital firm.

The responses came fast and furious. More than a few went something like, "I don't know who you are, but you're a jerk for invading my privacy and wasting my time." This is how I discovered an Internet rule of thumb. For every profane, irate message I received, I sold a book. The ratio was exactly one to one.

Still, seven days later, Seth's book was No. 3 and mine was No. 23. Soon, it sank beneath the horizon, never to reappear.

A year to the day after I gave Nina the original copy of How to Have a Baby, I received my first royalty check.

"How much is it for?" she asked.

"One hundred four dollars and 25 cents," I told her.

"Oh, that'll get me a ring," she said. "From a vending machine."

According to the anniversary list we use, our 75th will be "diamond." I have asked her to be patient.

The very next day I received an e-mail from my brother-in-law. Did I know about Xlibris.com? he asked. They publish real books, on paper, one at a time, on demand. They list their titles with Amazon. All I had to do was upload my manuscript. Within days I received galleys for proofing. Xlibris had prepared the layout and a very attractive four-color cover, and gotten me an ISBN number. For free. Incredible.

The timing couldn't have been better. I had another feature coming out in the Examiner Magazine. My editor again agreed to blurb my book. Certainly if people could buy How to Have a Baby in paperback, that would make all the difference. Sure. Maybe. Someday.

Until then, I'll have to live with what I've learned from my plunge into the world of digital self-publishing. That readers are not yet confusing me with Stephen King. That while people might love to read things on the net for free, they rarely "click through" when asked to pay. I've come to understand that maybe writing should be left to writers and publishing to publishers. And why publicists go to self-humiliating lengths to get a client on Oprah or Charlie Rose.

I originally called the book To My Child Unborn. When readers told me that was too serious, I changed titles. Now, having sold all of 43 copies, I think maybe that first title was right. As I said, I never intended to write a bestseller.

A version of this story first appeared in the September/October 2000 edition of Stanford magazine.

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