You know those sidewalk peddlers who try to make you believe they're selling you a real Rolex for twenty bucks? Sometimes I think a little-known writer selling books is the literary equivalent.
Sure, you’re offering people something in exchange for their money, and you think it’s something valuable, but you have to persuade the customer to see it that way. They’ve never heard of you or your book, and some will wonder out loud whether you’re self-published. Worst case scenario is that you end up feeling as if you should be paying them to read what you’ve written.
Before I published my first novel, The Heat of the Moon, last year, I had no idea how much emotional and physical stamina a simple two-hour booksigning required. Try smiling nonstop for two hours and see if you’re not exhausted afterward. Try giving the same pitch two dozen times in two hours and see if you don’t feel like retiring to a nice quiet padded cell.
You go to every signing with high hopes, and the first thing you want to see is your table set up in a good location. Bookstore managers are busy people, and they don’t have time to totally rearrange their merchandise to create an optimal space for a visiting writer. (Why aren’t such spaces built into the store design? An unanswerable question.) So you have to count yourself lucky if you don’t end up at a table in the storeroom. Count yourself positively blessed if you’re somewhere near the front door, in the line of foot traffic. Of course, you’ll get exasperated looks from customers who see you as a hindrance on their path to the coffee bar, but if you smile and persist some people will stop, listen to your pitch, maybe ask questions, and, in the best of all possible outcomes, even buy a book.
Those who have never done a booksigning and have only attended signings by bestselling authors may wonder what I’m talking about. What pitch? Stephen King doesn’t pitch his book to every customer at signings. People come in droves and line up out the door for the privilege of buying a signed book. And if he smiles at you, wow, but he’s probably not sitting there for hours with a grin plastered on his face. He doesn’t have to. I do. Most writers do. We don’t bring in crowds, so we have to work hard at attracting the attention of passing customers and making our books sound like something they absolutely must own.
I’ve even given my pitch to a ten-year-old girl, who confessed that she loves reading about crime and watching shows like CSI (I like this kid), but her mother places onerous restrictions on her viewing and reading. I sent her to the children’s mystery section. She came back a few minutes later with a book in hand and asked if I thought it would be good. I saw that it was a Newberry winner and assured her she would enjoy it. Maybe in another ten years she’ll come to a signing and buy one of my books. I’ve also pitched my novels to people who seemed captivated and vowed to get the books from the library and read them asap. (They only came in the bookstore to buy a computer software manual. Hardcover novels are too expensive.)
Multiply all this effort three or four times and you have an idea of what it’s like for a relatively unknown writer at a big book festival. Envision a huge room filled with long rows of tables, a dozen or more writers at each. Customers drift down the aisles, sliding their gaze over the stacks of books and carefully avoiding eye contact with the smiling, hopeful writers. You can try to lure them closer by speaking to them, but the place will be so noisy that they can easily pretend not to hear. Dozens of people may pass before anyone thinks your books are worth stopping to examine. Some customers will want to talk to you, but many will ignore you as they pick up a book and read the jacket copy. If you see “the look” forming, you can forget about a sale. (“The look” resembles that open-mouthed, curled-lip thing cats do when they smell something revolting.) Your precious novel, the one you spent a year or more of your life bleeding onto the page, is hastily dropped back on the stack and the non-customer breaks a speed record in distancing herself from it.
When you first start doing booksignings, you feel the urge to be all things to all readers. Does someone want romance? Yes, yes, my book has romance! Does someone else want a lot of action? I swear my characters never have time to breathe! Whatever the customer wants, you rashly promise.
Then one day you find before you a woman in a plain cotton dress that covers her legs to the ankles, her arms to the wrists, and her torso to just below the ears. Her hair is pulled back into a tight little knot, and her face has never been altered by makeup. She sternly inquires whether your book has any “bad words” in it. Well, uh... You frantically run through your cast of characters, reviewing their language, wondering if damn and hell count, and wondering just how many times you used the more offensive four-letter words. Looking into the woman’s unforgiving face, you realize that everything will count to her, and even once will be too much. “Yes,” you admit, “my book has bad words in it.”
As you watch her turn on her heel and walk away, you feel redeemed. No sale, but you told the truth and you didn’t even smile when you did it. This feels good.
But wait, here comes another prospect. Smile! Make eye contact! Prepare to pitch!