Thursday, December 24, 2009

When They Don’t Want to Buy Your Book

Elizabeth Zelvin

There’s no better way for an author to remind herself that, however long she’s yearned and hard she’s worked for it, being published resembles in certain respects the more ingenious forms of torture inflicted by sadists, dictators, and fanatics and endured by martyrs religious and political than participating in a kind of book tour event known as a “meet and greet.” The format is that a bookstore, usually one of the larger chains, sets up a display of the author’s new book either just inside or just outside the bookstore door, where the author is committed to sitting or standing by the display for two or three hours, meeting and greeting passersby and potential customers, and charming or cajoling them into buying the books, which the author then graciously signs, or if the customer chooses, inscribes personally to the buyer or the intended recipient of the book. There are indeed passersby, since the bookstores that host such events are usually located in malls. But do they buy? Ah, that’s another story.

Right after Bouchercon this fall, I toured a number of cities in the midwestern states between Indianapolis and New York, during which I endured—er, enjoyed—several of these meet and greet events. As a formerly shy person, I’m rather proud of my ability to do a meet and greet, even to get some fun out of it. I have a pretty good technique. I stole from the legendary Sarah Campbell, author Chester Campbell’s wife, the opening line, “Do you read mysteries?” Actually, I usually ask, “Are you a mystery reader?” I hold a book in each hand, so I can hand it over with a smile and an invitation—“Here, take a look”—to two prospects at a time.

Let no one tell you that people don’t read the jacket. Some start with the front flap, others with the blurbs and review excerpts on the back. A smaller number flip immediately to the first page of Chapter One. A dreaded minority riffle through or even make a beeline for the last page. A few check out the back flap, studying my photo to make sure the pictured author is really me.

I did sell some books at these events, and it was delightful to meet not only those who bought, but even some of those who didn’t. But the best part—what made me resolve to blog about it—was what people said. It seems to me that the excuses for not buying have gotten more memorable since the economy tanked, ie between when I went on the road with my first book and this fall, when the new one came out. Stationed outside the door through lunchtime at a downtown mall, I found some people admitted, “I got no money.” Others couldn’t stop because they were on their way to job interviews. “Sounds like a good book. How long will you be here?” they asked. Alas, not long enough for them to get the job and make it to the first paycheck. Many wanted to know the price before they bought. My publisher priced this book higher than the other, though it’s not substantially longer. In fact, I’ve weighed them both, and the new one is half a pound lighter. Cheaper paper, maybe. Publishers, too, are feeling the pinch and trying to compensate in whatever ways they can.

In the chains, you get a lot of, “Oh, I don’t read.” Only one woman laughed self-consciously and added, “Even though I’m in a bookstore.” A gentleman laden with shopping bags said, “I just spent all my money on a coat.” One lady confided, “I’d buy it for my daughter, but she’s a proofreader. She says she can’t stand to look at words once she gets home from work.” Another identified herself as a psychologist. “I’m not going to buy your book,” she announced. “But I’m very interested in your online psychotherapy practice.” As my protagonist, Bruce, would say, Thank you for sharing.

Some readers’ browsing patterns in the stores made it evident they were interested only in the remaindered bargain books, the paperbacks, or the steeply discounted bestsellers. One fellow whom I asked if he reads mysteries—I wish I could remember the slogan on his T shirt, but only the F word remains in my mind—said, “Only if it’s got a vampire in it.” Some would consider only local authors. “Is it about Cleveland?” one man asked, disappearing when I shook my head regretfully. Both inside and outside stores, about half the customers breezed past me with their cell phones to their ears, their mouths working, and their eyes gazing into space, impossible to engage.

Among both buyers and those who declined the book were some who were thrilled to shake my hand. “I’ve never met an author before,” they said. “You’re the first author I’ve ever met.” This was heartwarming. I needed to travel to Cleveland and Toledo and Pittsburgh to have it happen. Back home in New York City, I suspect everybody who enters a bookstore has met an author at least once. It was heartening to see children going for the books, even some of those whose parents aren’t readers. And I was surprised and pleased to meet at least three poets. Poetry must be on the upswing. One said he’d look up my poetry online. Another delivered perhaps the best line of all: “Sorry I can’t stop—I’m on my way to a poetry slam.”

But my very favorite was a guy who bought. We had quite a conversation. I told him what the book was about. He asked a few questions, hesitated, then, with a little encouragement from me, decided to go for it. He went in to pay for the book, but stopped to talk to me again on the way out. I could see him move toward me as if he wanted to hug me. He checked, then held out his hand for a shake. I thought, Why not? and gave him a brief hug. He held up the book and waved goodbye, beaming all over his face and calling back, “Now I have something to do this weekend!”


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Oh, Elizabeth, I've been there!

I usually get customers who think I work at the bookstore. They'll ask me where different genres are, or where the restroom is.

"I don't read" is the one that gets me every time. I start getting a tick after hearing THAT a few times in a row!

Mystery Writing is Murder

Gink said...

I guess in this day and age every new customer is a great success. And it's always possible that at least one of the people who didn't buy on the spot will remember your name or the name of the book later and decide to give it a try. I think its great you find ways to get something out of the tours (humor, a blog post), even if its not sales.

Lorna Barrett said...

What I find disturbing is that almost everyone who speaks to me at a signing assumes I'm self-published. Hey, I worked long and hard to get where I am, jumping through a lot of hoops. And it surprises me how many people have never heard of my (huge) publisher, Penguin.

Sandra Parshall said...

I've had the self-published question too. And one guy asked who my publisher was, and when I told him, he said, "Never heard of it" and walked away. I've had any number of people tell me they were writing books and needed advice on getting published. That's tiresome, not because I don't want to help but because I'm there to sell my own books and I miss a lot of customers while I'm tied up with the aspiring writers (who seldom buy a book). It's hard to come up with an answer for them when I've never read their writing. I don't dare say that, though -- they might have a copy of the ms in the car and offer to run out and get it for me!

Patricia Stoltey said...

I've always had a lot of fun at signings, even the solo events, but the only two times I had great sales were in the town where I live. I have come to the conclusion that out of town signings are networking tools, not sales opportunities.

Beth Solheim said...

A daunting task ahead of me, but I'm eager for my first bookstore appearance shortly after my book launch in February. Thanks for the great insight. I'm off on a new adventure!

Marilynne said...

I love to meet authors and writers of books. My world revolves around them. My Christmas included 3 hardbound books by favorite authors.


Maggie Toussaint said...

this is so true, Liz. I'm always amazed by the people who say they don't read when I'm doing a signing in a bookstore. I enjoyed reading the blog and it was nice of you to follow your instincts with the hug guy.

Suzanne Adair said...

Ah, those no-buys.

When I appear at my publisher's annual holiday booksigning (in period dress) at BAM, I often hear "I don't read" and "I don't have any money" as excuses for a no-buy.

Some customers come to the bookstore on a clear mission, as if they're hacking their way out of a jungle with a machete. They won't be deterred from the mission by anything, not even a smiling woman in colonial costume who is flanked by two redcoats with muskets.

Ditto for those people wired up to cell phones. Heavens, I hope I'm *never* that busy.

I usually don't bother to engage the vampire fans in black, silver, and piercings. But one day, we did have a fun moment sizing each other up and quipping, "Hey, you dress weird."

My publisher encounters people every year who only want to argue historical facts with him and don't buy a thing.

What works best for me is developing a sixth sense about the physical profile and personality of the target market for the specific type of fiction that I write. It's a little trickier to identify when the prospect is buying for someone else, rather than for themselves. I give a pleasant smile and greeting to just about every customer who walks in the door. But the ones who fit the profile are the folks whose interest I cultivate.

Suzanne Adair

Anonymous said...

I suspect that some of the customers who say they don't read or they're on their way somewhere are fibbing.

I love books, and I love supporting authors, but when I'm out shopping, I usually have a strict budget, a strict list, and a very limited amount of time. If I say, "Yes, I like mysteries," I know I'll be put in the position of listening to the author tell me about hers. And what if I'm not interested? It's hard to turn down someone in person.

I certainly don't envy an author's task.

Most of the world doesn't understand the publishing industry, Lorna, and aren't familiar with publishers' names. Try not to take things too personally! ; )