or How Not to Sell Your Book to Anyone
a #WriteLife article by Dan Szczesny
I’m about ten minutes into my author meet-and-greet for my travel memoir, The Nepal Chronicles, when a small woman with thin hair and a kind smile walks by and does a double take when she sees the book cover. She draws a deep breath and introduces herself as Betty.
“Oh!” she says, “Nepal! Did you go there?”
“Yes ma’am,” I say pleasantly, “the book is all about my trek to…”
She cuts me off. “Oh, what a tragic thing it is, so terrible what the Chinese are doing to those poor people!”
“Oh my, but you’re brave to go there. The world needs your generation to help those people; can you help them?”
“I, um, I’m doing my best ma’am,” I say, having no clue.
“Those Chinese devils!” she exclaims before walking off shaking her head.
Twenty minutes later, a bulb goes off in my head. Betty was talking about Tibet! I mentally kick myself for not connecting the dots. I could have worked with that.
Touring for a new book, in particular one published by a small press, means spending a lot of time at libraries, rotaries, non-profit organizations, and here, in a small bookstore. I’ve been able to get into one or two Barnes and Nobles, mainly because I know the managers or events people from my past life working at B. Dalton and Borders. But the small, community bookstore is where I want the book to be. And that means meet-and-greets. A table. Some props and swag. And me with a big smile on my face.
Time passes. My name is mentioned over the loudspeaker a few times. People pass by, often looking over my shoulder or just dropping their eyes. I look for interesting ways to make contact, as it seems that just grabbing somebody by the belt loop and pulling them over might not work.
So, I begin actually asking people if I can help them find anything. It seems to be a sound strategy. After all, if somebody is looking for a non-fiction narrative on a trek to Everest Base Camp, I’ll know exactly the book for them. But mostly people want mysteries or books on dogs.
For one woman, I recommend the book Following Atticus, by fellow New Hampshire writer Tom Ryan. That’s a great book and I know Tom a bit. I figure if I can’t sell my own damn books, then maybe I can sell somebody else’s.
Inevitably someone asks me for writing advice.
“I have a lot of ideas, but I’m just not that good at English,” a woman says.
I recommend a writing group, perhaps at her local library. Or just doing out-loud readings to help hear the words in her head — a technique that works well for me.
She shakes her head. “It’s just the English,” she says again. “Like, commas… If I were to send a manuscript to a publisher without any commas, do you think that would hurt me?”
“Publishers usually like properly used commas, yes,” I say without missing a beat.
I go through three bottles of water and hand out some bookmarks and business cards. My table is near the B’s in fiction so I brush up a little. Baldwin, Balzac and Baum are not there. But Benchley is. And Bierce. I briefly wonder if my presence there is actually slowing down sales of novels for authors starting with B.
Finally, near the end of the day, a wonderful older gentlemen in a Nantucket t-shirt appears at the table and says, “Nepal? How’d you get interested in Nepal?”
I explain that I’ve always had an interest in the sub-continent, but my wife being from Nepal also helps.
He laughs, “Yup, that would do it. Never been there, but they must be the luckiest damn country in the world.”
“How do you mean?”
He shrugs. “Hypothermia up north, malaria down south. Who the hell is gonna occupy Nepal?” I’m stunned. In six words, he’s pretty much summed up two millennia of Nepalese history. But he follows it up with a whopping speech on the Nepali Gurkha fighters of World War I and concludes with this doozy: “Frankly, once the Ottoman Empire got whacked, nothing’s been the same in that part of the world.”
Later, my wife suggests that I should have retorted that nothing’s been the same here either since Columbus arrived.
In the end I sell no books. Zero. Nada. But I’m actually fine with that. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. And this appearance means that all my books will now sit on the shelves of this fine establishment. It means that I now have a relationship with the owner and the booksellers of this store. It means that I’m one step closer to world domination.
As I’m packing up to leave, I notice Betty in the check-out line with a handful of crossword puzzle books. She catches my eye, gives me a thumbs up and says “Good job!”
Dan Szczesny has made a living from his pen and keyboard for two decades. He currently lives in New Hampshire, where he’s written three books. His fourth title, Mosquito Rain: Alaskan Travel Essays, will be published in June by Folded Word.