What it takes to sell books

Medford, Oregon, Nov. 6, 2011

Here at the motel buffet breakfast, where we authors stare gloomily at our powdered eggs and bagels, a theme keeps running through my head: what if they gave a book fair and nobody came?

They did. I was there.

I am beginning to see that any event that has writers sitting around at tables waiting for people to buy books is doomed to fail unless they offer a good reason for buyers to show up. A chance to buy books from authors they’ve never heard of isn’t it. If you’re trying to sell books, you need to give the customers something to make them want to come to where the books are being sold. My tablemate and I joked about setting up a bluegrass band in the middle of the big open space in front of us. Or belly dancers. An open bar. Or at least an open mic for anybody who wanted to use it. Offer workshops, readings, entertainment, raffle prizes, a petting zoo. Something.

We also need to be selling the kind of books that regular people—non-writers–buy. Most of the authors at the fair were self-published or published by friends who have decided to call themselves publishers. Poetry, mysteries and memoirs dominated. The authors  included a guy with a clown hat who makes tiny haiku books, a death and dying nurse who decided to put her grief expertise into a book, and a retired psychologist who put his stories into books ala James Herriot of All Creatures Great and Small. From past experience, I know that some of these books are wonderful, but others are dreadful, poorly edited and lacking polish. There’s a place in the world for all kinds of books, but if you want strangers to buy them, you have to make your name known, and you have to sell something they want. Reebok, Microsoft and Coca-Cola know this. We writers need to know it, too.

If you’re selling ribs and pork chops, you want to make sure the customers are not vegetarians. And you have to make sure they’re hungry and know you’re out there. Otherwise all the signs and crazy hats in the world won’t sell your merchandise. My tablemate had Snickers, Milky Way and Baby Ruth bars and couldn’t even give them away.

We writers were the victims of organizers who thought that if you just put out the books, people would come. Why should they?  This morning as I return to my computer, I’m thinking hard about this question. What can I write that people will want to read? People like my mother or the people who sit behind me at church. What will make them think, I have to get that book? And my mother, friend, co-worker needs a copy, too?

It’s important to write our rough drafts freely without worrying about the market. Nothing stops creativity faster than wondering if anyone will ever buy our words. But eventually, if we do want to sell our writing, we have to make some compromises to fit the product to the market and bring the customers in the door. Then we have to give them something really good.

Now go write.

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