The Bashful Writer's Guide to Self-Promotion
Glenn Kurtz | March 2009
You’ve just delivered the manuscript for your first book to the publisher. Congratulations! Now your work as a writer is done and you can sit back and wait for the royalty checks to roll in.
Huh? Sorry. I was dreaming.
For a writer, it may feel like the work is mostly done when the manuscript is finally out of your hands. And, as the writer, this may be true. But anyone whose writing is published has become not only a writer but an author as well. These two jobs could not be more different. Where one involves hours of sitting alone working to find the right word, the other is all about getting in peoples’ faces, about being a salesperson.
Any publicist will tell you the author’s job is just beginning when the manuscript is delivered. In fact, it is likely that the publicist will tell you this as a not-so-subtle reminder not to depend too much on the publicity department. Whether you are a wallflower or a born performer, once you publish a book, you become an author, and especially in these difficult times for books and booksellers, authors are expected to take the lead in promoting their work. Too bad so many writers are shy.
When I handed in the manuscript for my first book, Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music (Vintage, 2008), I eagerly read a number of self-help guides for authors, trying to learn the responsibilities of my new job. Not surprisingly, the majority of these responsibilities involve making contact with people, though today the most touted methods of communication are virtual: Start a blog; create email lists; hang out in chatrooms and social networking forums where members of your target audience congregate; get on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, or Gather. The advantage of these promotional methods for shy writers is clear: You can do them from home without coming face-to-face with a person. Sadly, unless you are Thomas Pynchon or J.D. Salinger, this splendid isolation does not last forever.
“Organize a national marketing program aimed at local bookstores throughout the country,” recommends Jeff Herman, in Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents (Three Dog Press, 2009). (This ambitious advice would be more helpful if it included a few tips about what this national program might consist of.) Jacqueline Deval is much more specific in her excellent guide, Publicize Your Book! (A Pedigree Book, 2003/2008). “Introduce yourself to store managers,” she writes. “Get to know them.” Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, authors of Putting Your Passion into Print (Workman, 2005), enthusiastically agree with this advice, adding, “don’t just talk to the managers. Try to talk to everyone in the store at one time or another, from the events people to the people ringing up your book at the cash registers. Show them all in your charming, humble yet aggressive way that you’re going to help them sell a lot of copies.”
Bookstores are places where writers are supposed to feel comfortable. You can browse for hours in perfect anonymity, sit in the comfy chair reading or copying pages from Writers’ Marketplace, and no one will disturb you. When it comes time to promote your own book, however, the bookstore can suddenly seem like a junior high dance. The desire to self-promote clashes with an inbred distaste for appearing like a self-promoter. Add a moderate amount of personal bashfulness into the mix, and you have the characteristic disposition of many authors approaching the information desk to introduce themselves.
“That's just the kind of thing I should be doing,” says Kim Todd, author of Tinkering with Eden: A Natural History of Exotic Species in America (W.W. Norton, 2002) and Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis (Harvest Books, 2007), when asked about bookstore visits. “But I don't because I don't have those valuable self-marketing skills.” Still, she confesses, “I do slink in to see if the books are there sometimes.”
Shortly after my book appeared, I made my first tentative foray as an author into the world of New York City’s independent bookstores. I chose a shop I didn’t know, in a part of town I rarely visited. Approaching the counter, I asked politely if the book was in stock. The helpful salesperson dutifully led me to the back of the store, pulled the title from the shelf, and accompanied me to the register. It was only at that moment that I identified myself as the author.
What did I expect? Praise and a hearty handshake? Instead, the salesperson—who, it turned out, was the buyer for the store—was annoyed. I was just being shy. But to him, I had asked for the book under false pretenses and distracted him from paying customers. He felt I had been sneaky.
And so he gave me a lecture: When you visit a store to check up on your book, identify yourself immediately as the author and explain that you’d like to sign copies. In the end, he did congratulate me, and I’ve heeded his advice ever since.
What many shy authors don’t realize is that the book buyer at most independent bookstores very frequently cares about books and authors. Even at large chain stores, it is astonishing how quickly the salesperson’s expression changes from a blank customer-service mask into a lively expression of engagement and admiration. Some have invited me for coffee at the bookstore café. Many have wanted to talk about the book and share their experiences. Some have become friends. Introducing myself offered an opportunity to learn about salesmanship from the people who actually do the selling. The message from all of them is simple: It pays to sign your work, but remember to be polite, and remember that bookselling is a business.
Toby Cox, owner of the famous Greenwich Village neighborhood bookshop Three Lives & Company, had this to say about author visits: “Understand that there are probably 10,000 books published every month. Every day and every moment the book buyer is making decisions about what book to put on the shelf.” If you go into a bookstore that doesn’t have your book, don’t take it as a personal affront, he counseled. “And even if you find your book in the furthest reaches of the bookshop, go up and thank them for having it in stock. That alone will probably get the book in a whole different place.”
Three Lives is very selective about the titles it carries, and the emphasis for signed copies is primarily on fiction and narrative nonfiction, genres that fit with the personality of the store and its clientele.
New York City’s Strand Book Store—home to eighteen miles of books—has room for an enormous range of titles, including the labyrinthine review copy stacks in the basement. “Authors should definitely sign stock when they stop by a store,” owner Fred Bass writes in an email. “However, authors should tell an employee or manager who they are and ask about signing; authors should never just start signing the book.” Bass also cautions against showing up with mounds of posters, postcards, bookmarks, or other handouts. “Better to contact the buyers in advance and ask if the store would like promotional materials.”
In the end, there are two reasons for getting out of the house and going to bookstores to sign your work. “A signed book is a sold book,” one buyer at a chain store told me, a conclusion reiterated by each of the independent booksellers with whom I spoke. While a writer may feel ambivalent about seeing his or her work in purely commercial terms, an author should know better. When you go to sign your work, you are not promoting yourself, but promoting a product in a store that sells thousands of products. To identify signed copies, bookstores invariably affix a “signed by the author” sticker to the cover, and frequently a signed copy will be placed on the front table or by the register, instead of on a shelf in the back of the store. This preferred placement undoubtedly accounts in part for a signed book’s increased sales.
The second reason to sign your work, however, is harder to quantify, and it is something that both writer and author can enjoy. For many readers, a signed copy is not really a copy at all, but something singular and personal. “With a signed copy, you have a connection to the person who put the words there,” comments Three Lives’ Toby Cox. Fred Bass at The Strand notes this as well. “Customers think that by purchasing a signed book they get even closer to the author—that the author has taken the trouble to open that specific book, touch it, and sign it...”
Naturally, there is a commercial side to this sense of proximity, which explains the great desirability of signed books as collectibles. “In the rare book world, signed books is one of the fundamental themes,” according to Richard Davies, spokesperson for ABEBooks.com, the online marketplace for new, used, rare, and out of print books. A signed copy is “very special, very personal, a memento, really, rather than just an ordinary book that you have the memory of reading.” Referring to the skyrocketing prices for signed books by President Barack Obama, Davies continues, “I’m probably never going to meet this man, but a signed book is a fair way to get your hands on a special moment in American political history.”
A signed book may be a sold book, but it is also something more than that, something closer to what I think the writer hopes for when he or she sends the work out into the world. We are told, and many of us even believe, that reading is a very intimate experience. You allow an author into your mind, into your imagination, and this presence can profoundly alter how you view yourself and the world. When looked at objectively, however, the encounter takes place without any human contact. The book is a cold object, just like any other. The author’s signature adds a unique quality to it, enhancing the experience of reading as a personal relationship. A signed book becomes like a letter the author has written to the reader.
Similarly, for the bookseller, a human connection with the author makes selling the book something specific and personal. While commercial considerations will always have the dominant role, giving a face and a personality to the author can change the dynamic of the sale. When you talk with the bookseller, he or she is more apt to keep your book in stock and to mention it to potential readers and fellow booksellers. For the author, this can make the difference between remaining on the shelf and ending up in the remainder bin. By making this connection, you enlist the bookseller as a member of your publicity team. A personable author is a promoted author.
As a writer, finally, forging contacts with booksellers can also have added benefits. The bookseller knows who your readers are and what else they are reading. He or she can thus serve as a conduit for feedback and context. If you can muster the courage to introduce yourself, you may find you already have a local fan base. And even if all you do is sign a few books and leave, the visit has served to exercise your self-promotion skills, so that the transition from writer to author and back again comes more easily the next time.
Glenn Kurtz is the author of Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music (Vintage, 2008). For more information, visit his website: www.glennkurtz.com.
Bookstores mentioned in the article: