Street Level Views of Book Marketing

We did another little book tour in August. It was time. The economy was creating a stagnant sales profile, and we know that doing a few book signings primes the pump. We made our arrangements with four Hastings Entertainment stores, two of which we were at last year. (This makes a total of sixteen book signings with Hastings Entertainment stores.)

Why the repeat appearances? Because we were on the same route to and from our house in Texas that we were last year. One of the book managers asked us to return because she had five signed copies we’d left last year. Signed copies cannot be returned to the distributor and these had been placed in the “Local Authors” section despite the fact that I’m not. I personally consider placing the book in that section a way to guarantee that it won’t sell. It does much better in “Civil War’ or “Spy Thrillers” or “New Arrivals,” especially if displayed cover-out rather than spine-out. The exception is where that display is on an end-cap and everything is faced, cover out. Location counts for a lot.

I don’t pay shelving allowances the way the big houses do, so I have to take what I can get. We must always be mindful that our book is one of thousands of titles on the sales floor. And no one has been buying any of them, except the heavily-promoted “best-sellers” with their brute force distribution. We saw the beginnings of an economic resurgence on this tour. People no longer have their hands stuck quite so firmly in their pockets, and the impulse buy is back.

In our case, this is where a customer sees the cover, picks up the book, flips it over to read the reviews on the back, maybe looks at a few pages, and then takes it to the cash register and buys it so they can bring it back for me to sign. The whole process takes less than four minutes. That’s not every sale, of course, but enough so the investments we made in the cover and physical production seem well justified.

As for the repeat appearances, well, you can’t stick your hand in the same river twice. It’s not the same stream of customers coming in the door, and 95% of them are going to not be interested and head straight for the videos or the music anyway. They will do their best to ignore you. (Oh, &%$!, this guy is going to try and sell me something!) A small minority goes the other way and comes right over to see what you’ve got. If you get their attention. Some are lost causes from the beginning. People with kids have their hands full (literally). People with cell phones on their ears are likely to resent any interruption, and those who wear multiple tattoos don’t seem to generally be big readers. (Weather also has an impact. Really hot days are not the time to do this, but if you’re there and expected, you just have to do your best. You always sell something.)

I engage most of them with a friendly greeting and a pitch line. This is something I learned in 1988, the year I was a Factory Representative for the Hoover Company, working in department stores. Most people did not come in to buy a vacuum cleaner, and most are not at a signing specifically to buy your book, no matter how much advance publicity you have done. Most have never heard of you or your book. You have to introduce yourself, and even if you don’t close right then, have a bookmark or other sales tool to hand them. It’s not the books you sell that day but the number you sell afterward that really counts and keeps your book on the shelves.

These book signings went very well, along with some media contacts, and we even sold a couple of copies off a dealer’s table at BuboniCon, Albuquerque’s annual science fiction convention, (the book is not science fiction, but I am well-known in that community and this was a chance to prove the book sells well to folks who’d just opened a new bookstore in Denver, where we have no “presence”).

And, again, we sold a few directly to people at the hotels we stayed in. Usually this happens over the free breakfast, when people are being friendly and talking about why they are passing through. We always carry extra stock in case the signing runs short, and I’m certainly not going to turn down sales at full price. (Dealers get 40% off, like any other bookstore.) Usually the conversation that leads to these sales is provoked by the bookmarks in my shirt pocket. I don’t ask for the sale, they offer to buy a copy. Just meeting someone who has actually written a book tickles them and they get bragging rights when you sign it. It’s not just other guests, but staff who ask to buy copies, because they can’t make the event.

So that part of the trip went very well. What didn’t go well was that we seemed to have had a nasty flu, had two major car repairs, and the laptop computer crashed. We dealt with it by getting lots of sleep, eating in the room sometimes, and saving ourselves for the book events.

Lesser mortals would have called the whole thing off and stayed home, but our illness didn’t come on full strength until we were in Albuquerque. So we gutted it out. That was only possible because we built room into the schedule for such problems. Extra days to handle feeling like death warmed over or getting the car fixed. We’ve learned to space out appearances. Book signings are a form of performance art, and to do them well you have to give yourself time to recover. We show up early and stay late. Having come that far, what’s an extra hour or so?

When we do a road trip like this, we curb our natural enthusiasm for new experiences. We stay at Comfort Inns and eat at Denny’s or Village Inn coffee shops because they are what Larry Niven called “continuity clubs” in his future fiction. The last thing we need is a surprise. We read and watch television in the room. And we tip people to help us with the luggage to save physical wear and tear, and also tip the maids. A few extra bucks buys you a lot of consideration.

Recent Success Stories

Book signings can be fun, and rewarding. It’s a matter of attitude: yours more than anyone else’s. Recently I’ve come across a couple of other sales campaigns by other writers which are also worthy of note.

The first is by Christopher Herz, reported in Publishers Weekly on August 24th. He sells his novel The Last Block in Harlem on the streets of New York. He is self published, and set himself a goal of ten copies a day out of his 1,100 copy first print run. This really is “hand-selling”. He succeeds because he engages people and is passionate about his book. He also says that this method probably would not work in any other city. Well, maybe not. But if you live in a big city with a lot of readers you might give it a try. These are sales at full price, so, if you price right, you will make money. He never goes home until he’s sold his daily quota. I imagine he deals only for cash.

The second is not sales but a giveaway reported on September 11th on The Huffington Post.  Stephen Elliot tells how he gave away advance copies of his novel,The Adderall Diaries, to people who wanted to read it on a “Lending Library” promotion. They could not keep the copy he sent, but had to send it on to the next person on his list. He got about 400 readers this way, all talking and writing comments about his book online. Now that’s “buzz”.

I might try that myself, in a more limited , targeted way. I only give the book away to reviewers and as sales samples, but this approach makes sense, especially since there are a lot of people out there who want to read the book, but really, really feel that they can’t afford to spend the money. Books sitting in the warehouse don’t earn me any money. In fact, they cost me money.

There are other places to sell books than in a bookstore. I recently spoke with another self-published author who has sold 1,800 copies of his self-published novel , mostly at fairs. That’s enough to justify the extra expense and logistics needed to attend those events. You can buy the necessary gear at any sporting goods store. All that is needed are two folding chairs, a shelter, and a table. A hand truck will also help. The whole rig should be less than $200.00.

In self-publishing, the sales path to success is seldom short. It may take you years to get known and break through with enough sales where you are actually in profit. Most new businesses have exactly the same problem, so your only solution is not the quick fix , but dogged persistence.