Thursday, June 19, 2008

Selling Books: It’s A Lot Like Fishing

Elizabeth Zelvin

Authoring a book is a more complicated process than it was, say, fifty years ago. Then, you wrote your book, revised it once or twice, showed it to a couple of friends, and sent it to a publisher. If your work was good, the publisher, or perhaps the second or third publisher you tried, accepted it. I have a feeling lunch might have been involved. You answered a few editorial queries. You reviewed the proofs. And finally, you got to hold the finished product—a real book!—in your hands. And that was that, until the royalty statements started coming in.

The analogous process would be not fishing, but having fish for dinner. You go to the store, select your fish, take it home and unwrap it, brush a little oil and lemon on it, and pop it in the oven. Voilà! Fish for dinner.

The process of turning raw material in food used to take a lot longer. The most famous line in the classic 1861 Mrs. Beeton's Cookery Book, more accurately, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, is “First you catch your hare.” Nowadays, being a mystery author is more like that. Except that you have to catch your hare—as many hares as possible—after you write the book, get the agent and the publisher, and see the book through the production process. Debut authors especially must become publicists, travel agents, performers, and marketers, handselling the product one volume at a time, if they want their writing careers to outlast the first book.

I’m in the middle of my book tour now, and I’m having a lot of fun. It helps that I enjoy performing, seeing new places, and driving for extended periods. It’s a good thing that I don’t mind surprises and that I’ve outgrown my early tendency to shyness in the decades it’s taken to get published. The venues vary. In the mystery bookstores, I might have an audience of avid readers who’ve already heard of or even read the book who are eager to hear how I wrote it, why mystery, and what drew me to my characters and themes. Or I might have no audience and spend an hour or two schmoozing with a knowledgeable bookseller who understands all the nuances of both what I’ve written and what I’m up to—and up against.

In the chain bookstores, it’s another story. Sure, I can give a talk about myself and my book—if I have friends or relatives in the town who will turn out for me on the appointed date and time. Otherwise, the staff will set up a table with a display of my books—hopefully within view of the store’s front door. They’ll give me a chair, although I know better than to use it. And here’s where it gets like fishing.

You know how the fisherman (or woman) can sit and sit, hook baited, lure bobbing on the water, and for the longest time nothing happens? That’s how it can be when for endless minutes, nobody enters the store. Or the customers stride by with purpose, heading for the children’s books or glossy magazines or the café, oblivious if not deliberately avoiding eye contact. Then, when you’ve almost given up hope, there comes a tug on the line. Somebody meets your eyes. You smile. You wave invitingly the copy of your book that’s glued to your hand.

“Do you read mysteries?” you ask. And then you try to reel them in.

Sometimes people will conduct a lively conversation but have no intention of buying, like a wily old fish that’s been hooked many times but never landed. Sometimes you hardly have to play the line at all. You give your elevator pitch, and they say, “Sure, I’ll give it a try.” That’s when you whip out your pen.

“Shall I sign it to you?” you ask, setting the hook. Once their name is inscribed, they really do have to buy the book.

At one store, the manager asked me to direct customers to the register with their books and say I’d sign after they’d paid.

“Books have a way of walking,” she explained. It sounded reasonable—until the first one got away. I had her firmly hooked. She took the book and went on browsing—and half an hour later I saw her wheel her toddler’s stroller back from the children’s books, to the café for a latte and a cookie, and out the door.

After that, I talked the manager into letting me have a stack of books at the table, so I could sign them at the moment of decision. It worked fine. I sold more than half a dozen books, not bad for a couple of hours for an unknown author with a relatively pricey hardcover. But you know what? I keep thinking about the one that got away. I told you it was just like fishing.


Peter Rozovsky said...

I read a complaint recently that a publishing environment in which authors are forced to be marketers was evidence of a failure of capitalism. As much as I hate to admit it, and much as one might be tempted to say that such a complaint was merely whining, I fear the complaint may be accurate.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Susan said...

Thanks for all your helpful hints, Liz. Someday I hope to make use of them! It was such a delight meeting you in Seattle. Your book is wonderful, btw, and I've been recommending it to all my friends.

Julia Buckley said...

It's just plain humiliating sometimes, Liz, and I don't have your apparent resilience. But the last time I sat in the bookstore I got no fish at all, and afterward the clerk told me, "This is a really bad time--people are either at lunch or work, and it's usually pretty dead in here."

The bookstore had CHOSEN the time for me. :0

But from the sound of it you've already sold many, many copies of DEATH WILL GET YOU SOBER, and everyone who bought it sell it by word of mouth.

And Peter, your post is most thought-provoking.

Sandra Parshall said...

Very few writers are temperamentally suited to grabbing strangers in bookstores and trying to talk them into buying books. The whole idea is totally contrary to my nature, and even when I'm successful at it, it's a terrible strain. After two hours, I have a stress headache and feel utterly exhausted. I've received a lot of e-mails from people who have bought books at signings and wanted to let me know they enjoyed them, and that makes me glad I did those appearances. But on the whole, hawking books like a carnival barker selling bottles of snake oil is just not my idea of fun.

Holly Y Rechel-Felmlee said...

Liz, I grew up fly fishing. A fisherperson moves constantly, casts over and over into little tiny pools along trickling high country streams. The hardest places are beaver dam pools where the fish can see a person and startle at the least noise or movement. Frequent "strikes" indicate interest in the bait, and when hooked the fish must be "played" to bring it to shore.

The fish are small, usually thrown back. After catching the limit, hopefully, the fish are buttered, wrapped in foil and cooked in a campfire. These are the best tasting trout in the world.

So, I guess my fishing metaphor would be one of movement, searching for the small pools of opportunity, expecting strikes, and lots of work to land a sale.

Maybe this will help when I do tours for myself. :0