Numbers and Nerves: About Sales and Author Anxiety

I fully realize that I talk (and post) about Stephen King a lot. I’m fascinated by him for various reasons–the fact that he came from nothing to become the king of the literary world, the fact that my writing philosophy is almost completely in line with his (when I read On Writing, I had an eerie sense of deja vu throughout nearly all of it, because the stuff he said was the stuff I spewed out on a regular basis online, to friends, etc.), the fact that at the end of the day, he’s just a normal guy… But mostly, I feel like he’s a sort of long-distance mentor, a sensei that I would be lucky to ever meet in person, a man that if I did meet in person, I’d be happy to sit with and say nothing to because I feel this weird connection. If I ever meet Stephen King, I can’t help but feel that it’ll be a lot like meeting an old friend.

But that isn’t the point of this post. The point is that, whenever I get seriously hung up on something, I turn to Stephen King for answers. And lately, I’ve been getting hung up on numbers. Dreaded sales numbers. So I wanted to know, while nearly every King book is a bestseller, how are they ranked from the most sales to the least? Weird as it is, I couldn’t really find any solid numbers. I did, however, stumble across the sales numbers for his first printings… which might be even better.

Before I post them here, I want to say that I have no idea if these are accurate. None. The person who posted these could have made this stuff up and I wouldn’t know the difference. That being said… the numbers:

Carrie 30,000
Salem’s Lot 20,000
The Shining 25,000
Night Shift 12,000
The Stand 70,000
Dead Zone 80,000
Firestarter 100,000
Cujo 150,000
Danse Macabre 60,000
The Gunslinger 10,000
Different Seasons 200,000
Christine 250,000
Pet Sematary 250,000
The Talisman 600,000
Skeleton Crew 500,000
Bachman Books 15,000
It 1,000,000
Eyes of the Dragon 400,000
Drawing of the Three 30,000
The Tommyknockers 1,200,000
My Pretty Pony 15,000
The Dark Half 1,200,000
Four Past Midnight 1,200,000
The Uncut Stand 400,000
The Waste Lands 30,000
Gerald’s Game 1,500,000
Dolores Claiborne 1,500,000
Nightmares and Dreamscapes 1,500,000
Rose Madder 1,750,000
Green Mile paperbacks 2,000,000
Desperation 1,750,000
The Regulators 1,250,000
Wizard and Glass 40,000
Bag of Bones 1,300,000
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon 1,250,000
On Writing 500,000
The Green Mile hardcover 70,000
Everything’s Eventual 253,750
From a Buick 8 1,750,000
Revised Gunslinger 60,000
Wolves of the Calla 660,000
Song of Susannah 650,000
The Dark Tower 700,000
Illustrated Salem’s Lot 25,000
Colorado Kid paperback 1,000,000
Cell 1,100,000
Lisey’s Story 1,250,000
Duma Key 1,000,000
Just After Sunset 900,000
Under the Dome 950,000
Blockade Billy 10,000
Full Dark, No Stars 1,200,000

Not all of his books had numbers, some were marked with question marks. I deleted those.

My first reaction to this list: what the hell is My Pretty Pony? I looked it up, chuckling under my breath, thinking “oh you, random person, you’re pulling the wool over my eyes. Stephen King wrote a book called My Pretty Pony? Please, sir… please.” Low and behold, he did. (What?!) It’s an illustrated children’s book. (Seriously?) I’m tempted to track a copy of this thing down just so I can read it and, when someone asks me what my favorite King book is, I can say “My Pretty Pony” with a straight face.

But the real reason for my looking up these figures reveal that King’s numbers aren’t consistent. Not even close. And that, friends, is a very comforting thought. It’s very easy for us authors to be down on ourselves when we look at our sales. Our first or second novel may have sold fantastically, while our third didn’t do so well, or maybe the complete opposite is true. It’s easy to fall into the mindset of, “oh my god, I’ve lost my touch” or “my sales numbers are slipping, I’m doomed Doomed DOOMED.” Except that, as Stephen shows us here, that isn’t necessarily true. Take, for example, the  jump from It to Eyes of the Dragon to Drawing of the Three. The first printing of It ran at a million. Eyes of the Dragon was less than half of that at 400k. Drawing of the Three was at 30k. Math isn’t my strong suit, but that’s a huge drop.

Again, these are only numbers for first printings. As I said, I can’t find a list of total sales numbers. If you can locate one, please link to it in the comments. I’d love to see it. The moral of this story is, however, that not all sales are created equal. Do these numbers mean that It was thirty-three thousand times better than Drawing of the Three? Of course not. Does it mean that Stephen King got thirty-three thousand times worse between those two books? Obviously, no. It would be a far scarier thing to look at these figures and see a consistent incline rather than up-and-down jumps. To those of us who aren’t bestsellers (yet!), it’s a promising thought. It means that we need to put our heads down, keep writing, and simply wait for it. Easier said that done, I know, but what else is there to do?

The hardest part of this business, at least for me, is the element of the unknown. I have freedom to write what I want, I have my dream job… and yet sometimes I find myself so anxious I wonder whether flipping burgers or being miserable at a desk job would calm me down. (Psychologists would says ‘yes’.) At first I thought I was nuts–why was I so on-edge? Did I need a prescription for Valium or what? And then one day, while in the car listening to XM radio, a DJ on one of my favorite stations announces that he’s about to play Devo, Freedom of Choice. But before he does, he explains why Devo wrote the song. The lyrics go: freedom of choice is what you got, freedom from choice is what you want. The DJ explains that what Devo was touching on was the massive anxiety that comes with being truly free to do whatever you want to do, that the reason so many people stick to the daily grind is exactly because of that anxiety: the daily grind is miserable, but that misery is stable. You know that in exchange for unhappiness you’ll make X amount of dollars per month, you’ll get a two-week vacation in July, and you’ll get bank holidays off. Misery is comfortable, comfortable because you have no choice but to give in.

When the DJ brought up this point, I could hardly believe it. It was a revelation… something that I genuinely needed to hear at that moment. I wasn’t nuts. I was reacting to my freedom of choice the way most everyone does. That in itself was as comforting as seeing King’s numbers go up and down like a rollercoaster. Anxiety, a sales slump, it’s all part of the game. The only control we as writers have is to put our heads down and keep doing what we do.

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3 thoughts on “Numbers and Nerves: About Sales and Author Anxiety

  1. My Pretty Pony does exist. I believe it was released as a special edition with a very large price tag (around $2,000, if memory serves). I read it in another special edition book ($75) with other short stories. Like you I’m in awe of Mr. King. He is my hero for many of the same reasons he’s like a mentor to you.

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