THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS (?) RIGHT
by John M. Floyd
A lot of writers will tell you they like writing, but they don’t like marketing. I’m an author, not a salesman, they say, usually with a haughty lift of the chin.
Well, the truth is, if we write for publication and not just for fun, we are salesmen. Like it or not, whether you’ve created a novel or a short story, in order to see it in print you’ll have to do at least some degree of selling—to the editor or agent or publisher beforehand and sometimes to the reading public afterward. And you’ll find that you have to sell yourself as well as your fiction. That could initially be in the form of a cover letter or a bio or a list of past sales—and later, if your project is accepted, you will probably (in the case of a novel or a collection of stories) be forced to get out there and scramble around in the trenches now and then. I’m not acquainted firsthand with self-publishing, but I know that marketing by the author plays a huge role there, and I do know firsthand that if you get an offer from a traditional publisher, large or small, you’ll almost certainly be expected to do a lot of interviews and appearances and booksignings.
Have ink pen, will travel
A couple of Saturdays ago I drove about 100 miles east to a large Books-A-Million store for an afternoon signing. They had plenty of copies of all three of my books and were kind enough to allow me to come for a no-particular-occasion event. Usually my publisher prefers, for obvious reasons, to schedule signings for the weeks preceding Christmas, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, etc., so the only thing notable about this gig was that it was a blazing summer day with 99% humidity and not a breath of wind and not a cloud in the sky, the kind of day that will melt your shoe soles to the pavement if you stand still too long. I think a lot of folks dropped by just to gasp a few minutes of industrial-strength air conditioning.
My time there was supposed to be from noon to four, but as always I arrived a little early and left a little late; I’m probably the only writer in the free world who has more fun at booksignings than the customers do. I saw a few old friends from school and IBM, and that’s always good, but what keeps me fired up at these things is the new people I meet. I realize I’m biased, but I think avid readers of fiction can be some of the most interesting folks you’ll ever run into. And I swear I learn something about human nature at every event I attend.
Rules of the road
I also usually confirm things that I already knew. Here’s one, and you can etch this one in stone: The people who stop and talk to you the longest at a signing are the ones who don’t buy a book. They chat with you about their jobs and their religion and their ailments and their families and their political views and their unfinished manuscripts, but it never once occurs to them to buy what you’re there to sell.
Another is that you can never fully predict who’s going to want to purchase a book and who’s not. It’s pretty safe to say (I’ve been doing this a long time) that most book-buyers these days, at least in my part of the world, are ladies between the ages of thirty and sixty. Don’t ask me why; it’s just another fact that you can write down and wrap up and put in the time capsule. But pleasant surprises do happen. At recent signings I’ve sold books to: a retired state senator, a girl in a soccer uniform and cleats, a giant biker with a snake tattoo and beard and ponytail, an Episcopal priest, a teenager with at least a pound of jewelry in her nose and eyebrows, an on-duty cop, an off-duty waitress, a guy just out of law school, and a ninety-year-old lady in a straw hat who later “friended” me on Facebook. I love ’em all. In fact, any author who isn’t sincerely grateful to newfound readers, or even to customers who buy his/her book to use as a gift for someone else, needs an attitude adjustment.
During this most recent signing, I heard the familiar and unanswerable question “Where do you get your ideas?” at least half a dozen times, and I was once more approached by a lot of aspiring writers who were convinced that my publisher would jump at the chance to see their books and stories. A couple of those storylines did sound promising, and I advised those folks to send a query letter, but most of the manuscripts were described as factual accounts of either (1) the author’s valiant personal struggles or (2) the fascinating life experiences of the author’s grandmother. I always try to be honest in my encouragement to other writers, but I can never quite force myself to reveal to them that a memoir written by someone who is not yet well-known and who has not yet done much writing will probably not sell a million copies in its first two weeks of release. No matter how interesting and difficult Grandma’s life was.
Thankfully, one thing I did not hear, this time, was anyone telling me how he would love to write if only he could find the time. (As if writing well must be so easy any idiot can do it, right? Not many things bother me, but this does.) The best response I’ve heard to this statement, although I’ve never had the guts to use it, came from my novelist friend Janet Brown. According to her, she was doing a booksigning someplace and a guy stopped at her table, looked down his nose at her, and said, “You know, I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but I’m a brain surgeon, and . . . well, I just never had the time.” Janet nodded, thought a moment, and replied, “I understand. I’ve always wanted to be a brain surgeon—but I just never had the time.”
Don’t get me wrong. As I mentioned earlier, most of the people I meet and talk with at these events are delightful. They’re folks I wish I’d known all my life, and certainly folks I wish I could spend more time with. Most are friendly and kind and, yes, sincerely interested in fiction, often on the writing end as well as the reading end. I remain in touch with many of those customers afterward, and I sincerely believe that my life is better for having met them.
I once heard that James Burrows and the Charles brothers chose to set their TV series Cheers in a bar because it would give them the perfect opportunity to show viewers a cross-section of humanity. In a neighborhood bar all kinds of characters show up, visit, and leave, and the possibilities for storylines are endless. The same can probably be said of booksignings.
It’s one of the things that makes them fun.