The Hard (Un)sell

My publisher is a small, start-up press based in Hong Kong—too small and too new to send its authors on book tours, it if believed in such a thing. And because I can’t afford to hire a publicist, booking readings is up to me, which I’m perfectly willing to do. Or so I thought.

My idea was to limit myself to a few cities up and down the Interstate 5 corridor where I have relatives and friends who could be induced to come hear me read. Not a particularly ambitious agenda.

Last fall, a publicist hired by a friend of mine for her book had told me in passing that for a June-release book, I should be contacting bookstores in February. I thought, why not January. I was heading to San Diego to visit family at the start of the New Year. I could drop in on a couple of bookstores, chat with the bookseller and leave a flyer about my forthcoming novel. Just a heads-up sort of thing.

But then, maybe it wouldn’t do to just drop in out of the blue, maybe I should email ahead of time. Wouldn’t that be more considerate?

I emailed the events coordinator at a bookstore where I hoped to schedule a reading at some point later in the year. It was not a lengthy email. I knew I should be succinct but informative. I gave the title of my book, the name of the publisher, the release date, and a synopsis of a few sentences. I added a brief paragraph about me—that I was a former resident of San Diego County, a graduate of the local college, and someone with many relatives in the area.

The reply was short and anything but sweet. She told me she had looked me up in Books in Print and didn’t find me (my book did not yet have an ISBN number), so she had to conclude that my book was self-published, and the store did not invite self-published authors or even authors published by small presses, thank you very much.

Accustomed to rejection as I am, I should have just allowed myself a good, fat moment of despondency, then shrugged it off. Except I felt so thoroughly dismissed, slapped squarely in the fragile ego. The thought of possibly encountering this response with other bookstores I hoped to approach was deflating.

But I was also indignant. Just wait, I fumed to the computer screen. Just wait. Until what? Until I was famous? Low odds. Until I was rich? Even lower odds.

At the very least, I had to correct her. I emailed her back that I did in fact have a publisher (though, yes, it is a small press), and furthermore my book had been endorsed by writers of note. I shamelessly dropped their names. And then I expressed my regret that my many relatives and their friends in the area would not have a chance to hear me read (and buy books) at her store. So there, I said, as I punched the send button.

The reply came back—again short. Again, not sweet. Two questions: Just how many people did I think I could bring into the store and would my publisher pay $300 for me to read there?

Okay, so I understand it’s a business—buying and selling books—and everyone has a bottom line. But I was taken aback at the condition of a fee, which I decidedly could not, would not meet.

I was not about to ask my publisher to buy my way into an appearance at a bookstore, not that he would agree to such a thing in the first place. I contacted a local bookseller and asked him if this was a normal aspect of booking readings. He was dismayed that I had encountered this, but said that many publishing houses (the larger ones, not the small presses) offer just such an incentive to independent bookstores to offset costs of unsold inventory.

So that’s that. For now.

I do realize that, despite the advice from my friend’s publicist, I started way too early in trying to create some awareness of a book whose publication date was a good six months away.

And yet, now just two months from publication, the obstacles to scheduling a reading at bookstores seem just as daunting. I recently contacted two bookstores here in the Puget Sound area. No response yet from one, but the other said it doesn’t buy books from my publisher. Oh.

So that’s that. But should it be? Shouldn’t I be doing a harder sell of me and my book?

If only I were good at sales. I lasted only one cookie season as a Girl Scout when I was in fourth grade. Back then we didn’t set up tables outside of grocery stores with our boxes of shortbread and thin mints, an adult watching over us. We went door-to-door. On our own. To face rejection. At least that’s what I faced with my timid, barely audible sales pitch. The rejection was most often polite, if condescending. Sometimes it was impatient. Once, it was terrifying. A woman screamed at me to get off her porch. I ran, shaken, until I was safely at the end of the block. Though I understood my own failings as a salesperson, I remembered thinking that grownups shouldn’t act that way toward children.

Which is sort of how I feel about this book business. I’m a child again, trying to sell something to the grown-up world, when, really, I’m terrible at it and easily scared off.