In Praise of Billy Mays

When that ubiquitous television pitchman Billy Mays died recently, I had just started watching the reality series about him and his partner, Anthony Sullivan, appropriately called “Pitchmen”, on the Discovery Channel.   I’ve done a lot of sales work over the years as “day jobs” supporting my writing career; so much so that I tend to forget that the process remains mysterious to most writers, who remain clueless about this essential rite of modern commerce.

The hard truth is that everyone sells, and where a self-published book is concerned (or a first time one, for that matter), if you don’t sell it, then no one else will either.  Billy Mays was loud and annoying, but he claimed your attention and kept it because he stayed on message, offered a benefit, and believed passionately in his process and his product.  He was comfortable with his role and he had integrity.  Every product was one he passionately believed in.  His corny demonstrations were real and everything worked.  It was his path to fame and success.   He had no time for false narratives that wouldn’t satisfy his audience.

His infomercials told a story, and he and Sullivan looked not just for viable products that could be sold, but that also would demonstrate well in a dramatic fashion.   On “Pitchmen”, the two hucksters looked at dozens of products and seldom did they refuse anything that did not work, but working well was only the first step.  It also had to engage the audience.  There had to be that magic moment possible in a two-minute commercial where it “popped” – where the customer reached for the phone to order it because Mays or Sullivan had made the sale.  They measure success by the total sales compared to the costs of the commercials.

The book business is a lot more staid, of course, and we don’t have that range and marketing power.  But there are things we can learn from Billy Mays when it comes to selling our own books.

The first is the power of belief.  Nobody knows your book better than you do, and if you can use the same kind of simple messages that Mays and Sullivan did, you, too, can sell more product.

And you should think of it as a product and not a work of literature.  Because it has to have product integrity to make it a good value to the customer.  Your words alone will not suffice.  It has to be well-edited, designed and have an attractive cover, all parts of the process that most of us have yet to master.  That requires organizational skills, because what you can’t do yourself quickly and efficiently, you must hire done, and that alone is a daunting task at times, since you are dealing with other creative people who also have strong egos.

In business, these are called “make or buy” decisions, and they force you to look at your book as a product.  You are selling the whole package, not just your precious words.  It’s the sizzle that sell the steak, not the nutritional value.  It raises customer anticipation of a pleasurable experience.

So what is your pitch?  Can you define your story in one or two sentences?  My book “The Shenandoah Spy” is about a 17-year old society girl who became one of the most famous spies of the American Civil War.  (And you should have known, going in, that I would work at least one mention of my book into this story, as I do in almost everything I write online.  It’s my version of Mays’s “But wait! There’s more!”.)

If you think you have no selling skills then watching episodes of “Pitchmen”, when  Discovery Channel runs them again, is a place to start.  One thing you should notice from the beginning is that, while Billy Mays was loud, even obnoxious, everything he said and did came from the heart.  He believed passionately in what he sold and how he sold, and he was a multi-millionaire because of it.   His only moments of visible frustration in those programs is when a new client lets their ego override his experience and common sense.  There are times when he is so frustrated that he is ready to walk away rather than sell badly.

Most authors simply don’t have these skills, granted, but they need them every time they do an interview with the media, every time they do a book signing and every time they talk to a jaded book buyer who has heard it all before.  Your best path to success is to get people to read the book, but that takes time.  Sending review copies and sales samples blind into an environment where they are received by the hundreds every month is not effective unless you prepare the ground.  Sales is about overcoming objections.  Sales calls are a way to engage your most important audience – the people who hand-sell your book in the stores.

Book sales is also about taking “no” for an answer and learning when you have hit a dead spot where nothing you say will get you into that publication for review or on to those shelves.   Fortunately, there are always other places to call or write, and while you can accept refusal gracefully, you can also go back later.  Sales is also about persistence.

The Billy Mays style would not work in bookselling; it’s too brash by far.  But the Billy Mays ethic is something every self-publisher should emulate.   Sell with integrity and from the heart.   Believe in your product and yourself.

  • I have to take issue with some of this (“You should think of it as a product and not a work of literature.”) I get what you’re saying, but the problem with traditional publishing is that they’ve reduced books to widgets – i.e. it’s not about the writing, it’s about the product. To compete with traditional publishing, you might need to take the same approach, but it’s an approach that I wish would go away.

  • Henry, I do agree with your comment about traditional publishing reducing books to a commodity. That’s one of the problems we confront; how to overcome their brute-force distribution and marketing and make our books stand out above the norm. That’s where another business principle can help us. It’s called “Kaisan” or “Continuous Improvement”. Think of it as product development for authors — how can I, as a writer, make this a better book for the reader? I’m suspicious of the word “literature” at times because it is used as an excuse for poor or unclear writing in the name of ‘art”. When you go get into rolling your own, then you have to be very careful about editing and presentation, but none of that will help you if the story itself is unconvincing or poorly executed. You can have “literature” and still have a good product. In fact I hold that you can’t have a good product unless the writing is literate and clear. The writing is the product. The final product is designed to show that writing off to best advantage without the distractions inherent in bad or incompetent execution.

  • I didn’t take much notice of Billy Mays’ passing, except noting that I will oddly miss his sincere approach and voice like a vacuum cleaner. But what surprised me is how kids were saddened. It turns out that Billy Mays had earned a special place in the hearts of kids as “the best” sales guy on TV. He entranced them to some extent, and they also appreciated the liveliness of his approach. Sell on, Billy. Sell on.

  • I think Billy Mays could have sold just about anything. He was confident in what he sold and he did a darn good job of selling!