#NaNoWriMo 2019: 502 Isn't A Lot of Books Sold... Except When It Is

That's right: I'm talking about Mark Halperin.

“The world may see fit to reward sexual predators,” I wrote when the disgraced political analyst Mark Halperin landed himself a book deal back in August, but “you don’t have to play along.” In fact, you shouldn’t; the best thing to do is to just ignore situations like that and stay focused on your writing.

Of course, it wasn’t much of a book deal. All the major publishers appear to have turned Halperin down, if he even approached them, and he wound up working with a small, independent house (where, to be fully transparent, I worked from 2014 to 2016, its first two years of operation). Now, the publisher at this house defends working with Halperin on the grounds that everyone deserves a second chance, and, as I noted, “if Halperin’s book succeeds, it would not be the first time this publisher has managed to grind the lump of coal nobody else wanted into a diamond.”

Well, the book came out two weeks ago—and about the only media attention it’s gotten has been focused on its apparent failure. In its first week of availability, Halperin’s compendium of advice for Democrats in next year’s presidential election sold a mere 502 copies, according to NPD BookScan, which monitors a substantial portion of book sales across the United States. For Halperin, who was previously the co-author of bestsellers like Game Change, that’s seen as a serious comedown.

It’s easy to attribute those low sale figures to Halperin’s disgrace, and most reports have been happy to begin and end their analysis there. One of the things that narrow focus leaves out, though, is that it’s a 272-page trade paperback original priced at $22. Amazon’s offering it for $15.99, but for a book that comparatively thin, $15.99 is where the publisher should be starting, with the Amazon discount dropping it to $10.99.

At least, that’s how I would price a minimally designed 272-page book of vague political punditry compiled from whatever consultants and analysts were still willing to answer Mark Halperin’s phone calls and emails. If I really wanted people to buy it.

Unless, oh, I don’t know, bookstore sales had never been the heart of the publishing strategy. What if, and this is pure speculation on my part, the actual purpose of creating the book was to have some kind of overpriced tchotchke that Mark Halperin could sell through whatever speaking engagements he might manage to get these days? The sort of thing he could encourage viewers and listeners tuning in to whatever sporadic media appearances he makes to check out via his website?

(I would add “or his publisher’s website,” except that as of late Sunday night, that site is still stuck in what appears to be the summer of 2018.)

That is, let me repeat, pure speculation on my part. But, apart from the foundational gamble on whether Halperin’s reputation is really salvageable, it’s not exactly a terrible publishing strategy.

That’s not what I ultimately want to talk to you about today, though. This is: Even though the book’s wildly overpriced, even though the author is a figure of national scorn, even though the media paid little to no attention when the book came out… it still sold five hundred copies in one week.

Sure, for Bestselling Author Mark Halperin that’s “bad.” There are plenty of other writers, though, for whom 502 copies sold with next to no publicity would be seen as an incredible success. You might even be one of those writers.

You don’t have a track record of great sales and cable movie deals that people can point to and report that you’ve lost your stride. You probably don’t even have the dubious “advantage” of public notoriety; I’m guessing you’ve got next to no reputation outside your immediate social network.

Imagine you’ve written a book and attracted the interest of a publishing house. The house is willing to take a chance on you, and they’ll do what they can, because they’re invested in the book’s success, but their resources are already stretched pretty thin. They will warn you of this up front. Your literary agent will warn you of this up front. Every published writer you have occasion to meet will warn you of this up front.

Now imagine that, after all the ways in which you’ve been cautioned to have diminished expectations about the impact of publication, after all the ways you’ve been warned your book might well fade into the background along with so many other books… imagine that, somehow, five hundred strangers found your book—not even that, more like the idea of your book—compelling enough to buy a copy.

(Okay, probably not all five hundred people are strangers. You see my point, though.)

Let’s make it even more direct: Imagine that, over the course of a week, five hundred people came up to you and said, “Your story speaks to me. I want to know more.”

I’m guessing you would not consider that week a failure.

I don’t necessarily want you to dwell on this a whole lot today. Today, your focus should be on figuring out what the next piece of the story you want to share with the world looks like. You can think about the world later.