October 12th, 2010 / 11:22 am
Behind the Scenes

Book Selling Strategies 101

Last week, I had a book launch for The Evolutionary Revolution, which came out a while ago, sure, but whatever. It was fun times. It was at a small, independent bookstore. I read in front of the cash register. The bookstore was packed, and I sold a good number of books. It was a “best selling” night for the bookstore.

But then, last night, I went to a friend’s place and met another writer who had his book launch over the weekend at Indigo Books (the Canadian equivalent to Barnes & Noble or Borders), and he told me for his launch, he didn’t read. O no no. They set up a table right at the entrance to the bookstore and had him greet customers as they came in. By the pure virtue of his being a writer—A real writer who wrote and published a real book! How amazing is that?—people bought! He sold more books than I did. And he didn’t even read.

I am baffled. I can’t believe an unknown first time novelist could just sit at a table and sell books without doing anything else. Am I crazy? Does this make sense to anyone else?

If Diane Williams or Philip Roth or Don DeLillo or even Margaret Atwood were sitting at Chapters not reading and just signing books, maybe I’d go. Maybe I’d even buy one (unlikely). But you’d have to pitch a pretty impressive game for me to buy a book from an unknown writer who does nothing but sit.

Would you buy a book (I think it was $20) from a writer you were completely unfamiliar with if she/he didn’t read from it? What would be the selling point? And yet, and yet, it worked.

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  1. David

      Was the book about vampires?

  2. David

      Was the book about vampires?

  3. lily hoang

      no. here is the book description:
      Demoralized by his job and dissatisfied with his life, Mark punches the clock with increasing indifference. He wanted to help people; he’d always believed that as social worker he would be able to make a difference in people’s lives. But after six years of bureaucracy and pushing paper Mark has lost hope.

      All that changes when he meets Bumi, an Indonesian restaurant worker. Moved from his small fishing village and sent to a residential school under the authoritarian Suharto regime, Bumi’s radical genius and obsessive-compulsive disorder raise suspicion among his paranoid neighbours. When several local children die mysteriously the neighbours fear reaches a fevered pitch and Bumi is forced to flee to Canada.

      Brought together by a chance encounter on the subway, Mark and Bumi develop a friendship that forces them to confront their pasts. Moving gracefully between Canada and Indonesia and through the two men’s histories, Drive-by Saviours is the story of desire and connection among lonely people adrift in a crowded world.

  4. gene

      Lily, I wouldn’t be that freaked out. First off, sitting at the front at a table pushing your books onto people is fucking silly. For the reader and writer. It’s on some salesperson condescending shit.

      Second, I’ve worked at a Barnes and Noble for 5 years and at a great independent bookstore in Boston for 2 and 9/10 times those people who sit at the front table DON’T sell all that well while we’ve (at the indie bookstore) pushed specific authors that helped make them. One author whose book was pushed ended up having his mom come by the store with t-shirts for his book he was so grateful.

      Generally, a book at a Barnes and Noble is a bit more mainstream oriented. It’s Barnes and Noble. An indie bookstore can take a chance and push more experimental or obscure works that aren’t, no matter the venue/timing/author’s abilities, going to generally sell as highly as some generic pablum they sell at B & N.

      But on the flip side, people come to indie bookstores because the booksellers actually KNOW books. I worked with so many kids at B & N who barely read. I have customers come back just for my recs. I’ve had customers e-mail me or call telling me they’re moving and could they stay in touch to get recs. Serious. And I’m going to do my best to tailor my recs to their tastes, but I’m also going to open their eyes to some shit they would’ve glazed over. We sell stuff like Renee Gladman, Blake Butler, Rachel B. Glaser, Heather Christle, etc. and while a lot of those writers might not have the $$$ to go on nationwide tours or sit in front of a store at a table at the ready to make loot, they’ve got dedicated booksellers who’ve read their work and are honestly looking to press that shit to palms. The palms of readers who might not be as many in number as those of some hot seller at B & N, but they’ll be more thoughtful readers, more willing to stick by an author over his/her career.

  5. Tim

      But were most of the buyers even familiar with the summary? It’s mysterious, as you imply, why so many would buy.

      I do know people–and I’m one of them sometimes–who wander into a bookstore with no idea of what they’re after. Maybe some of those people were impressed to have the decision that much more made for them.

      People who buy a book after hearing the author read will probably read it a little differently and remember picking it up more clearly than people who buy a book after having it recommended to them near the front of the store.

  6. Sean

      Lately, I have gone to readings expecting NOT to buy the book (primarily because I have too many books to read lately). Then I get wrapped up in the reading and do buy the book. This happens often. So I say reading.

  7. Michael Filippone

      That is wack.

      Excuse my melodrama, but that writer’s in-store ‘promotion’ is an insult. Money matters. $20 is high for a paperback. Whether they want 5 bucks or 50, they have to work for it. As if there aren’t other writers out there willing to bust their asses to earn my dollar/recognition/adoration.

      It is a difficult task just to get someone’s attention. It’s hard to make someone remember your name, let alone read your book. How dare someone sit before me and expect that I take interest in them, much less buy their wares.

  8. lily hoang

      I’d buy a book at a reading. As a point of fact, this guy did read at my friend’s house. For a small group of us, maybe 8? I didn’t buy his book.

  9. lily hoang

      yeah, gene, i agree with you on the function of indie bookstores v. box bookstores, which is why i chose to read/launch at an indie. it’s just fascinating to me that people are so enamoured with the idea of meeting a “real writer” that they’d spend $20 on a book…

  10. lily hoang

      Books are more expensive in Canada, even though dollars are now comparable. It’s a sham.

  11. Marcos

      A few weeks ago I tabled for the first time at San Francisco Zine Fest. I didn’t expect to sell anything, but I ended up selling a hundred copies, and trading another 30 or so. The people on my right and left were selling lots of stuff too. (The girl on my right had a sales-pitch–“My zines are awesome! You should look at them!” Which I must have heard 1000x fucking times in two days.–while I just sat there and said “Hi” to people if they made eye contact. Didn’t seem to matter either way.)) Maybe there is something to be said about the idea of buying from the writer. Maybe people are more willing to spend money on writing than I thought.

  12. Mike Meginnis

      That’s weird, but the truth is readings don’t generally sell me books either unless I already knew I wanted them; most writers are terrible performers and turn me off on their work. Abraham Smith’s book is the only one I’ve bought not expecting to buy, and it was because his performance was so stellar. What I want more than anything is a promise of entertainment and beauty. I guess either that guy was an obnoxious salesman or he was capable of convincing people there would be entertainment or beauty in his pages.

  13. lily hoang

      Hi Mike, I agree with you, on some level. Many writers are terrible readers, but I’ve seen some really phenomenal readers. Abe Smith, as you mentioned is one. Joyelle McSweeney puts on mean performance. Kate Greenstreet is also an amazing reader. Among many many others…

  14. Mike Meginnis

      I had mixed feelings when I saw Kate Greenstreet read. The performance I saw had what seemed like an affected indifference that turned me off. But I did laugh a few times, which is always good. (I laughed like crazy at the Abe Smith reading.)

      Not meaning to say, by the way, that your reading sucked; I’m not in a position to know, but I’ve heard good things.

  15. christopher.

      I think it’s traffic, plain and simple. Sitting at that table at B&N, he had many, many more opportunities than you did at your reading to engage with a potential customer.

      It probably translates into a per capita figure somehow. I’m sure you probably sold more books percentage wise per person in the audience at your reading than he did per person who passed his table. But, even with the smaller percentage, he just had more traffic.

      Doing Vouched, I completely see how a writer could sell his or her books without having to read. I sell a good number of books each time I set up the table, and I’m not even the writer or publisher of them. I’m just a reader who enjoyed them.

  16. mjm

      he’s a warlock!

  17. Andrew S.

      Any chance this guy’s a liar trying to prop himself up at your expense?

  18. claybanes
  19. dole

      Sounds like a case of “Canada magic”. I’ve heard of that type of thing in the US but my guess is it’s less successful here. Still, I’ve bought books in similar circumstances. It is not unreasonable.

  20. lily hoang

      Nope, he was being genuine because he complained about his sale numbers.

  21. Vladmir

      I find that most people lie about their successes and downplay their failures. I go to most readings knowing something about who is reading. Every once in awhile, my kneecaps will get blown off and I’ll buy based on the reading alone.

      An author sitting at a Barnes & Noble table at the entrance would seriously make my penis quiver a little bit. It’s just weird. I’d have to ask the author to read from the book before I even considered perusing its pages in front of them.

      Does anybody else get that weird feeling when you’re at a book fest or whatever and you go up to a table and flip through the pages as the person who very likely created it just watches you. It’s a weird dynamic. Especially when you end up not buying the book. Sometimes, if the person looks real fragile or pretty, I’ll tell them that I’ll be right back and never come back.


  22. Mykle

      I once visited a friend at Barnes & Noble in NYC, and was autographing (privately, wholly unannounced, mostly as an excuse to hang out at my friend’s station) a stack of my books (which they keep in the “weird books you won’t like” section, behind a pillar on the fourth floor) when this woman walked up to the counter, saw me autographing and said “oh! are you an author?” and bought a copy of my book for her mother before I could explain to her that it’s full of swearing, prejudice, explicit sex and bear violence. She was just so impressed to Meet a Real Author! And her wallet was already out.

      Some customers in the swanky retail bookstores have a certain shopping madness about them. They’re there because they need some books! They don’t know which ones to buy, but they need some books! If Hot Topic sold books, they’d buy books at Hot Topic, but Barnes & Noble is on the same floor as Hot Topic, plus you can go past the frozen yogurt stand on the way there!

      I don’t get it at all. But B&N sure sells the shit out of some books. Volume, baby.

  23. Marcolop

      Also remember that the kind of people who wander in the front door of a B&N (especially if it’s attached to a mall) are not the same people who attend readings. Some overlap, of course, but largely a different crowd. If you’re going in to B&N, there’s a higher likelihood that you’re a bit less discriminating (not always the case, of course) and potentially a little more free-spending (especially if you’re at the bookstore as a prelude to shopping elsewhere/in the mall). So like christopher said, probably some combination of sheer exposure and also audience.

  24. Chris Benjamin

      Hey Lily,

      Just to clarify, it wasn’t really a strategy on my part, just what was offered. And it wasn’t actually my launch, just a stop on my book tour. (I held two launches, one in a Halifax bar and one in a Toronto bar, both featuring live music, spoken word and me reading). I’d have loved to read at Indigo but that didn’t seem to be the bookstore’s approach. I sold 10 books, not bad for Thanksgiving Day and relatively low foot traffic. A couple people had heard of the book through in-store marketing and the positive reviews it’s garnered so far. Others were less enamoured by my writerly mystique than they were wanting to support a new novelist.

      I think it’s always better to read if you have the chance, and to hone the performance as best you can (not a strength for most writers). But, we do what we can in a tough industry.


  25. Jseamone

      You know what? It makes a lot of sense. I’ve known the author in question my whole life. He doesn’t just “sit at a table pushing books on people” in a silly fucking fashion as Gene so eloquently posted. Chris has written as long as he has been able to hold a pencil between his hands. He is a gentleman and the last person on earth to shove anything down someone’s throat. Sometimes hard work and perseverance pay off. And sometimes looking someone in the eye, shaking their hand and earnestly describing the latest results of your life’s passion may result in a few book sales.

  26. lily hoang

      I wasn’t trying to insult Chris. He had nothing to do with the Indigo scene. It was set up by someone else. As I understood it, he was just as surprised as anyone else that he wasn’t reading. This post had to do with my own awe that people would buy a book because of the celebrity of writer. (Hardly a celebrity anymore these days, maybe I should be thankful for anything at all…)

      Yes, sometimes, hard work and perseverance pay off, and I’m glad that sitting at a table and looking someone in the eye was enough for him to sell a few books. I wasn’t doubting his hard work. I wasn’t even commenting on his writing or his book. It was the circumstance. I heard Chris read on Monday. He’s a good reader. His book was provocative. I am looking forward to reading it. (I said in the comments that I did not buy a book. This was not because of his reading or lack of my own interest. I haven’t bought a book in a long time. Not out of disinterest but because of money, or lack thereof.) Thanks for your clarification.

  27. lily hoang

      Hi Chris, It was my mistake to call it a launch. I was under the impression it was. Probably, I misread an email. (A common error because I tend to skim.) I would’ve been shocked if any young writer sold ten books the way you did. To me, selling ten books in a day is a feat, even with the best of readings, though maybe you’re touring at better venues with greater traffic flow! I’ve sat at a table at AWP for hours peddling my books and been overjoyed with selling handful…

  28. Freshproduz

      I think you need to calm down. And rather than tear down other people’s successes (and if a first time novelist happens to sell some books), maybe find it encouraging that they’ve done so.

      Nor is it some sort of sell out. If the bookstore made a choice as to the reading or not reading, that’s not necessarily in an author’s control. And if people buy the book without hearing the reading, then they’ve done what so, so many people do – read the back cover, find it intriguing and buy the book.

      For the however many books I’ve read, I’ve heard the author read from it likely less than 1% of the time (also hard when the author is dead or lives in a town other than mine). Still, I somehow manage to read excellent books.

      Meeting a “real live novelist” can be interesting to many. In fact is because it’s not the norm and it’s taking the plunge to make your life on a precarious income at best. Many people admire writers (including you!) for doing just that.

      Lastly, given how much time and effort goes into writing a book, $20 is peanuts. A pack of smokes and a beer will get you there already. So chill on the cost too, man.

      This kind of tearing other writers down without some real substance (maybe you would like to critique the book before you judge it?) is nothing short of petty.

  29. lily hoang

      I wasn’t trying to tear him down. Nor did I ever call him a sell out. Nor did I even imply that he was a sell out. I am getting a copy of his book. Look for a review sometime soonish.

      Also: look over my two comments above. I have respect for the writer. (I have respect for almost all writers.) I was speaking to the circumstance. I saw him read. I was impressed, so much so that I requested a review copy.