Clicking Amazon: Latest Time Sink For Midlist Author

I was 18,506 this morning. To be more precise, the paperback

edition of my recent novel Two Guys From

Verona was ranked at that number on, the on-line bookseller.

Since Amazon currently claims to have 4.7 million titles in stock, I felt

delighted, braced, a little puffed up, even, to be way up there in the

18,000’s-despite the fact that, to tell the truth, I have absolutely no idea

what that number means in terms of raw sales. And I suspect: not much.  

There have been recorded instances, after all, of

mischief-minded authors getting their book’s low rankings to soar by ordering

three or four copies. (I, of course, would never stoop to such a thing.) What

does this tell us? Besides the fact that authors are lonely and desperate

people? That while Amazon may be highly visible, the nation’s bookstore it is

not. In fact, the site seems as good a piece of evidence as any that we are no

longer really a single nation at all but rather a whole bunch of nations, or

maybe just a great shambling affiliation of tribes. There is, to begin with,

the nation that uses computers and the one that does not. And then, even among

computer-users, there certainly remain people who do their shopping, even their

book shopping, off line. Still, authors love rankings. And while I know Two Guys ‘ number is not nearly as good

as, say, that of Frank McCourt’s new book, ‘Tis

(2), I know it’s not nearly as bad as that of my long-out-of-print first novel,

Pearl’s Progress (491,233)-which, to

tell the truth, is pretty close to the lowest number I’ve seen on Amazon. I’d

feel considerably consoled on that score if I could find a really obscure,

really out-of-print book-oh, I don’t know, maybe Fundamentals of Printed-Circuit Manufacture, Vol. IX -that was

actually rock bottom, the ice-cold basement floor, No. 4.7 million itself.

Or maybe it’s just that fiction doesn’t go that low. Perhaps

every story, no matter how out-of-the-way, no matter how lamely told (not that

my first novel is either!), has a sympathetic ear somewhere. I like to think

so. On my new book’s Amazon page is a section called “Customers who bought this

book also bought,” listing five other fiction titles, with hyperlinks so you

can check them out. My current Amazon affinity group-itself a kind of

mini-tribe-consists of Joshua Miller ( The

Mao Game: A Novel ), Tom Perrotta ( The

Wishbones ), John Casey ( The Half-Life

of Happiness ) and David Gates ( Preston

Falls ).

Turn the cursor arrow into that little pointing white hand,

click on the hyperlinks, and a competitive, self-doubting author (sorry; double

redundancy) can not only avoid getting to work for a few more minutes, but

feign sympathy for one tribe-mate’s 177,054, and grit his teeth in envy at

another’s 3,802.

What does it all mean? Nothing and something at the same

time. Hoaxers aside, I have friends, fellow authors, who have ascended to the

airy realms of Amazon double digits: a concrete reflection of the fact that,

out in the real-bookstore world, their books reached the lower rungs of the

best-seller lists. I can claim a three-digit experience myself. For one

nostril-clearing moment last spring, the morning after a certain newspaper of

record listed my novel as a new and noteworthy paperback, it actually hit 652.

The royalty check still hasn’t arrived. Just for fun, I skipped around the

site, checking out such illustrious fellow-sufferers as Jane Austen ( Mansfield Park in the Bantam Classic

edition, ranked 180,726); Vladimir Nabokov ( Pnin ,

Vintage International edition, 35,319); Scott Fitzgerald ( The Beautiful and Damned , Washington Square paperback, 46,163);

Anton Chekhov ( Short Stories , W. W.

Norton paperback, 29,510); Herman Melville ( Typee ,

Everyman Paperback Classics, 77,380); and John Cheever ( Bullet Park , out of print-whoa!-668,393).

Surely Dorothy Parker ( Complete

Poems , Penguin 20th-Century Classics, 43,968), had she lived into her

hundreds, could have cranked out a wistful little quatrain about the

strangeness of this place in time: “Yada-dada-Amazon/ I wonder who the scam is

on.” Under “Customers who bought titles by Dorothy Parker also bought titles by

these authors” are listed not only the expected Cynthia Heimel, Fran Lebowitz

and David Sedaris, but J.K. Rowling. J.K. Rowling, of Harry Potter fame! One imagines cynical, world-weary 11-year-olds,

sitting at middle-school-cafeteria round tables, zinging off deathless bons mots . There is also, for each and

every title, the wonderful hyperlink called “I am the author, and I want to

comment on my book.” To most authors, this must feel like being given the

chance to make a speech before facing a firing squad: There’s simply too much

to say. (Especially when what’s foremost in your heart-“Buy my goddamn book,

you dumb bastards”-won’t quite do.) And has Amazon considered the delicious

prank possibilities here? The Internet, remember, is where you can be anybody

at all. Why, a less ethical person than I could click on as Leo Tolstoy, and in

a second he’d be answering the Amazon Author Questionnaire as the great man

himself, fielding such perky questions as, “Could you describe the mundane

details of writing … What do you do to avoid-or seek!-distractions?” (L.T.:

“Six words-peasant girls! Peasant girls! Peasant girls!”) Or, “When and how did

you get started on the Net … Do you use the Net for research or is it just

another time sink?” (L.T.: “Time sink, definitely.”)

To my mind, the

important thing about being listed on the foremost on-line bookseller is not

the funny-money rankings or the relentless, nutty uplift, but the company. I

have a comradely, arms-around-the-shoulders feeling about my tribe-mates (only

one of whom I’ve ever encountered in non-cyber space), a sense that those

“customers who also bought” are buoying us all up. The Internet, which was

supposed to bring humans together but has really mostly driven us apart, really

has brought some of us together in unexpected ways.

What a strange thing it is, after all, to be what is known

as a midlist (non-best-selling) author of literary fiction in America today!

One is a mere minor content provider, well below the angels, far inferior to

almost any show on cable TV in terms of audience and influence. One enters

actual, non-virtual bookstores with sweaty palms and sinking hopes: Either

(highly likely) one’s precious product isn’t present at all, or it has moved

ineluctably from the band-blare of the new-fiction table (if it was ever there

in the first place) to the back of the store, by the road maps and cappuccino

bar. Where the odd people linger. There it is: two copies, spine out.

On Amazon, you can at

least pretend that you’re always front and center and selling, and that you’re

never alone. Clicking from me to John Casey (good company! Hi, John!) can lead

you to Douglas Hobbie’s This Time Last

Year , which can take you in turn to Abigail Thomas’s Herb’s Pajamas , which can lead to David Gilbert’s Remote Feed , and on to titles by Ken

Kalfus, Rick Moody, Denis Johnson. And on and on and on. I’ve never met any of

these tribe-mates and cousins, but I wish them all well. In the real world, we

may be scattered and feckless, like shades in Dante’s Purgatory -Allen Mandelbaum’s translation; ranking No. 5,767

(not bad!). But on line we’re all together, vivid and alive, in the bright

glade of Amazon.

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