You see, I had planned to make a big deal of it when I passed the 10,000 mark, you know, balloons, go out to dinner, celebrate. Then today, when I needed a break from writing, that thing writers do to procrastinate, I added up my sales to date and discovered I had passed the mark some days ago. I confess I had my sixty seconds when I thought, OMG, 10,000 people like me/ahem I mean 10,000 people like my book, but pretty quickly I realized this number had a much deeper meaning to me, as an indie author and as an educator.
Not to say that what I call the Sally Field moment isn’t a natural one. I doubt there is an author out there that doesn’t react with joy and relief when they get proof the precious part of themselves they put into what they write and fearfully put out into the world to be judged is liked by somebody. In fact, when I look back to when I first published my book, I realize it didn’t take all that much evidence to satisfy me. One of my early blog posts, last April, had as its subtitle, “Can I call myself a real author yet?” My answer at the time was a resounding affirmative, even though I had only sold 158 copies of Maids of Misfortune in the first four months it was out. The people who give advice about how to be a successful self-published author often say that you have to have a vision of that success. Well a year ago, my vision didn’t go further than the grand possibility of selling, maybe, dared I dream, 500 copies of the book in total. 10,000? Not even a remote possibility.
So, once the Sally Field moment passed, I began to reflect on how my goals had begun to change over the past year. Almost accidently, I had become a champion of the indie author movement. This blog, which I had initially envisioned as a place to explore the historical world of my book, instead became a place where I recorded my journey into self-publishing, where each book I sold became more evidence that self-publishing was a viable alternative to the traditional route. 10,000 books! Sold without a huge social network, without a backlog of content, without a price tag of 99 cents! 10,000 books sold! Take that you naysayers!!!
OK, Ok, I’ll calm down. But, really, couldn’t you just see my “vorpal sword” going snicker-snack?
But then the figure 10,000 rang a bell. I remembered that a few years back, probably one day while I was slowly making my way through a stack of midterm essays I was grading (my least favorite part of teaching), I started to add up all the students I had taught over my more than 30 years of teaching, and I came up with the startling figure of 10,000. 10,000 separate college freshmen, who had sat in one of my US history and US women’s history classes over the years.
Of course, not all of them finished my classes (although I prided myself on my good retention rate), and many of them who finished probably forgot everything I taught them, and me, as soon as they turned in the final exam, grateful that they were never ever going to have to take another history class in their lives. But over my career a satisfying number told me face-to-face, in little notes, in their student evaluations, on the ratemyprofessor website, and when they ran into me years later, that they had actually enjoyed my classes. They told me that I made the subject interesting because I made it be about real people, they still thought about some of the things they learned, and they were glad they had taken my class. In short, in my career as a college professor, I had gotten the chance, and even sometimes succeeded, in both entertaining and teaching over 10,000 students.
But it took me nearly thirty-five years to reach that number of people.
It took me only a year and half to reach an equal number of people through the publication and sale of my historical mystery, Maids of Misfortune.
As I have written before, I first came up with the plot of Maids of Misfortune while working on my history doctoral dissertation. I had been working for four years researching and writing a 375 manuscript entitled, ‘Like a Machine or an Animal’: Working Women of the Late Nineteenth-Century Urban For West, San Francisco, Portland, and Los Angeles, and I knew, even if I was fortunate enough to ever get it published (I wasn’t) that at the most, if it was a real winner and history professors decided to assign it to their graduate students, fewer than 500 people would ever actually read it.
It was then I became intrigued by the idea of using a mystery series, as Ellis Peters was doing in her Brother Cadfael series, to show readers what life was like for a specific group of people, who lived in a particular historical time and place, in my case–women who worked in late 19th century San Francisco. I wanted to tell these women’s stories, make their lives real, and do it in a way that also entertained. That was my dream. A dream deferred, a story I have already told on this blog, but a dream never lost.
So, when people who have read Maids of Misfortune consistently comment on how well I portrayed Victorian San Francisco, how they had never thought about how difficult a servant’s life could be, how interesting it was to see how an independent woman maneuvered through the social mores of the nineteenth century, and how they can’t wait for the sequel, I smile, my dream finally realized.
10,000 people have bought Maids of Misfortune. And I didn’t have to grade a single essay.