Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Joy of Selling

Elizabeth Zelvin

When I blogged about my nostalgia for Girl Scout camp a few weeks ago, I got a lot of response from women who had also been Girl Scouts. Along with singing campfire songs and building one-match fires, we had common memories of selling Girl Scout cookies.

A woman’s age can be calculated by how much she remembers selling Girl Scout cookies and exactly what kind of cookies were available in her day. When I was a kid, they cost twenty cents a box. First there were only the sandwich cookies, and later they offered a choice of sandwich or chocolate mint. But that’s not why this activity lingers in my mind.

I was a shy kid, and I hated selling. For years, I used to cross the street to avoid the agony of saying good morning to a neighbor—any neighbor, however nice. But in their efforts to make money for the worthy cause of Scouting, the troop leaders would turn the annual cookie sales fest into a competition. And of course, I didn’t want to be left behind. Some parents peddled cookies for their kids to all their office workmates. In big families, every grandma, aunt, and cousin bought multiple boxes. (In fact, the selling involved taking orders; actual cookies were delivered later.) My mother took the route of accompanying me from door to door, dragging my feet and squirming with reluctance.

First, I would ring the doorbell. The woman of the house would open the door. (Trust me, men were not involved in this process in the 1950s.) My mother would announce, “This little girl has something to say to you.” Then I would have to step forward and squeak, “Would you like to buy a box of Girl Scout cookies?” What a nightmare!

I managed to avoid selling for quite a few years after that, but thirty years ago, after working for publishers without getting anything published myself or editing anything more interesting than an accounting textbook, I answered an ad for trainees for a big life insurance company. I was supposed to call everybody I had ever known and pitch life insurance as an absolute necessity. I was also given long lists of prospects to cold call. What a nightmare! I ruined a couple of friendships that way. One woman, whom my boss—and what a shark he was!—insisted on visiting with me because she was a doctor, was still telling me how traumatized she was by his hard sell twenty-five years later. I bought several policies on myself and my husband (then fiancĂ©) to make my quota so I would get my monthly…draw? bonus? I can’t remember. I do remember I used to come home and cry for two hours every night.

That career didn’t last long. It didn’t make me rich, as my boss the shark had told me it would when he recruited me. (Why wouldn’t he paint the rosiest possible picture? He was selling.) I swore off selling forever—until I learned that nowadays, authors have to do their own book promotion. This was a challenge. I would be trying to sell the cherished products of my imagination—in other words, my own heart and guts—and the stakes were not the future of Girl Scouts of America or Mutual of New York but my own career as a writer.

Luckily, my shyness is a thing of the past. I love to schmooze and to speak before an audience. I had a wonderful time on my first book tour in 2008. In 2009, in a tanked economy, when a number of the bookseller friends I’d made the first time around had been forced to close their indie and mystery bookstores—not so much. Even then, connecting with people—book loving, mystery loving, and, thanks to my themes of alcoholism and codependency, recovering people—was a delight. But there were a few dismaying moments.

I will not name the generous cozy writer who offered to share with me her meet & greet signing at a midwestern Barnes & Noble, except to say that she writes about dogs. (It was a trade for my invitation to her to join my panel in an indie bookstore. As we all know, mystery authors love to help each other.) There we sat, side by side at a table in full view of the front door in a busy B&N. I had my stack of hardcovers, priced by my publisher at $25.95. She had her stack of mass market paperbacks, $7.99 each. She also had heaped on the table in front of her a huge mound of pink, green, and tan dog biscuits. As customers entered the store, we both tried to catch their eye.

“Hi!” I would say. “Do you read mysteries?”
“Hi!” she would say. “Do you have a dog?”

Guess who sold more books that afternoon, by a ratio of about five to one.

6 comments:

Sharon Wildwind said...

I was horrified when the mint, et all. cookies came in. Girl Scout cookies were vanilla and chocolate sandwich cookies. Period. (Not that I'm obsessive compulsive or anything.)

I seem to remember a short period when different kinds of cookies were different prices, which made record-keeping a nightmare.

E. B. Davis said...

But Liz, how did you go from a shy non-seller to a schmoozer? I hate public speaking, can't imagine what to say, even if to sell my own book. How did you go from one to the other, overcoming fear?

Grapeshot/Odette said...

My faves are still the peanut butter, but I sold them, plodding door to door and hating every minute of it as a girl.

Maybe my lack of enthusiasm for "selling" was why I went into IT where you could hunker down in front of a monitor in a cubicle and the only thing you ever had to sell was an occasional idea on the best way to design a system to your fellow geeks.

I joined Toastmasters a few years ago and they have helped me a lot, although I am still by no means a "polished" speaker.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Good question, E.B. I hated selling, but I've always loved performing. And I do love to schmooze, so the networking part of promoting the books has come easily to me. Also, several decades of life experience have surely helped my self-confidence!

Diane said...

I'm with you on the selling. Now it's just outside stores, but I, too, am from the '50s. The funniest story from our age group came from my ex's second wife. She would make out a fake list, then, when the cookies came in would deliver them with 'oh, you didn't? Well I have some here if you'd like to buy some...' It wasn't shyness on her part. She was from Connecticut, and it was just too cold for her there when they had to take orders, but had warmed up by the time the cookies came in.

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