Lisa McKay is a psychologist and the author of the award-nominated novel My Hands Came Away Red. A memoir, Love at the Speed of Email, will be released in June 2012. She lives in Laos with her husband and infant son. To learn more, visit www.lisamckaywriting.com.
When my first book, My Hands Came Away Red, was published, I fell prey to an addiction that afflicts many authors at some point during their publishing career. It’s a behaviour I now call amazturbation – obsessively checking your own Amazon ranking to see how your book is stacking up sales-wise against the hundreds of thousands of other books that Amazon sells.
I visited Amazon to check the rise and fall of this number first thing in the morning and last thing at night.
I checked it when I was feeling glum and when I was feeling all right.
I checked it at work and I checked it home. I even checked it on my phone.
I checked that number at breakfast and I checked it at lunch.
I checked that number a whole, whole bunch.
My Amazon addiction started the way most addictions do – with a rush. Right after the book was released I was in Ghana, traveling for work. When I got access to the internet for the first time in a couple of days I dropped by my Amazon page to see if anyone had left a new review, and was amazed to see that my sales ranking was way higher than it had ever been before.
After an exhausting and stressful week of leading workshops on trauma, seeing that happy number was a huge rush. And I wanted more of that feeling.
Understandable? Yes. Dangerous? Also, yes.
We authors have never had so many ways at our disposal to track and quantify our own popularity. We can find out Amazon sales rankings as well as state-by-state statistics on our book sales during the previous month (thank you, April 2012 shoppers in California and Tennessee). We can google our book’s name, or our own, and read what people are saying about our work. And, of course, we can look to the number of facebook friends we have, or twitter followers, or comments or shares on our blog, as markers of our “success.”
Access to sales information and reviews is wonderful. It can help us learn new things about how and why our work appeals to people. This, in turn, can help us to make more informed decisions about what we write and how we market it.
It is also terrible. Time spent repeatedly checking our Amazon sales ranking (or facebook page, blog stats, reviews, etc.) is time wasted that we could have spent creating.
Easy and almost instant access to these forums makes it tempting to divert to browsing the web whenever we get stuck while we’re writing. Feeding that temptation to take a quick break whenever we hit a creative pause will eventually erode our ability to focus on our work for extended periods of time. That ability is a foundational skill for writers.
Finally, too much information about what others think of our work just isn’t good for us.
Too much praise can lead to inflated egos and/or a paralysing fear of never being able to live up to previous successes.
Too much censure can lead to self-doubt and de-motivate us to keep on writing and striving to improve at our craft.
Too great an awareness of the global faceless audience can foster an awareness of yourself and others that is exactly the opposite of the suspension of self-consciousness that can prove so necessary to getting down our first drafts. When you are too aware of what others might think, you can over-censor yourself, muffle your natural voice and write to the middle in an effort to please everyone. The result will probably be forgettable and uninspiring writing.
In 2008, when I caught myself checking Amazon for at least the twentieth time that day, I decided to go cold turkey on checking Amazon and reading reviews for a month. After that I allowed myself to check my sales stats once a week. Now I go months without thinking about these figures (although I suspect that will change when my new book, Love at the Speed of Email, releases in June).
Everyone is different, though, and what worked for me may not be what’s best for you. The really important thing is to have a plan for how you engage with the global faceless audience online. Here are three steps that might help:
- Identify one or more good writing habits that you want to cultivate. It might be, for example, spending half an hour creating before you even check your email or working for at least two hours of internet-free time every day.
- Then decide how often and when you’ll browse things like your sales rankings, blog stats and reviews. Daily? Weekly? Monthly?
- Ask someone to keep you accountable.
Whatever else you decide, do yourself a favour and make sure that amazturbation becomes an occasional fun past time instead of an addiction, because checking how well you’re selling is a poor substitute for doing what you do best…writing.
You can pick up a copy of Love at the Speed of Email on Amazon or Barnes and Noble (a portion of my profits will be going to support charities here in Laos) or drop by my blog and say hello. I’d love to hear from you.