Joan at Village Books
I’m taking a little break for something not workshop related. I have to say thank you to my favorite bookseller. Joan works at Village Books, about ten minutes from home. I stopped by there today and found (to my great delight) that she has been busy hand selling Tied to the Tracks.

Hand-selling is the term for one person talking to another person about a particular book. So if you went into Village Books and asked Joan if she had any suggestions, she might steer you over to Tied to the Tracks and give you all kinds of encouragement about how much you’re going to love it.

She did this this morning, in front of me. Joan’s enthusiasm was infectious; the woman bought the book (which of course I signed, at Joan’s urging).

Handselling doesn’t really happen outside small bookstores. The chains usually don’t have people on staff who can make real recommendations. The online booksellers are trying to duplicate the hand selling process by parsing your buying habits and serving up suggestions whenever you come to browse. If you loved … you’re gonna love …. even more.

Sometimes those recommendations are successful. More than once I have found out that an author whose work I follow has a new book out I didn’t know about. And of course there is the internet, flexing its muscle. Publisher websites, reader websies, author websites — you could jump from one to the next for days. You’d come away with a long list of books you didn’t know about, but now you do and you want to read them. That’s a kind of handselling, too.

I’m going to post about the publishing biz after the workshops are over, but for the moment let me say this: what every lesser known author really needs is a Joan of his or her very own.. In fact you need hundreds of Joans, in bookstores all across the country.

the author as a local business, and fair play

I live in a small town that is big on supporting local businesses. And we do. For example: our milk comes from a farm just a few miles away (glass bottles!) and we buy local produce and eggs. There’s profit for both sides in this kind of relationship. We get better quality food; the farmers make a living at what they like to do.

But say I go to the farmer’s market tomorrow because I want to make a big mixed salad for dinner. Once I’m there, going from stand to stand, all I find is cauliflower, brussel sprouts and cotton candy. I ask about tomatoes, romaine lettuce, fresh corn, peas, beans. Nowhere in the market can I find these things. I turn to leave, headed for the grocery store when the farmers call out to me: wait! Support local businesses!

I will support local businesses as long as it is mutually beneficial to do so. This doesn’t shake down to money: I am willing to pay more for high quality, especially organic, food. But I’m not willing to be bullied. I’m not a capitalist pig because I won’t settle for brussel sprouts and cotton candy.

Where am I going with this, you’re wondering.

If you look back a few posts ago, you’ll see that more than half of the bookstores contacted by my readers were not stocking any copies of TTTT and had no plans to do so. Almost all of them offered to special order a copy. In most cases that requires prepayment.

So I’ve been thinking about this for days, looking at it from all directions. The fact is, if people don’t see a book or hear about it and go looking for it, that book will not sell. It’s not enough to make sure that your target readers know about your new book: they have to be able to find it, too. No matter how interesting a book may sound, if a person asks in three bookstores and none of them stock it, that’s pretty much the end of the line. The potential reader goes away thinking. Huh, maybe not such a good book afterall, if nobody’s stocking it.

So this problem which plagues most midlist authors can be summarized:

1. lack of publisher marketing effort (making people aware of the book through publicity and marketing);
2. lack of bookstore support (making the book available and easy to find).

I am abstracting away from aestetic questions for the moment, please note.

Here’s a fact: Brick-n-mortar bookstores (small and large) aren’t big on midlist authors. One more fact: Pretty much any on-line bookstore will sell you any book in print (including Tied to the Tracks ) without delay. There’s no talk of special ordering, no hoops to jump through. The on-line booksellers are there 24/7; there are no clerks to do deal with (friendly or judgemental); they’ve got everything, or immediate access to everything. Obscure cookbooks, no problem. Biography of a Brazilian soccer player, no problem. And pretty much every midlist author is sitting on that virtual shelf making googly eyes at you. You pop that book into your shopping cart and in a couple days, it will show up at your door.

The brick-n-mortar stores can’t compete with this, but of course they still want your business. There is no argument for mutual benefit — or at least, not any compelling argument. This is where they appeal to your sense of community and loyalty. They ask you to buy locally, because they want to survive.

I want to survive too. And so I am going to come out and be straightforward about this. If you want to read my books (and I hope you do), don’t bother with the brick-n-mortar stores. If you want to read more of my stories and you’re willing to back that up by buying a book now and then, please do so through an on-line bookseller. Amazon or Borders or Powells (an independent, by the way), Barnes & Nobel, anybody who has a decent on-line interface.

As an author I ask you to support on-line booksellers, because at this juncture, it looks as though the on-line booksellers are the only ones consistently supporting midlist authors. Like me.

first sighting

A friend in Florida just sent me a digital photo of her beautiful daughter holding up a couple copies of Tied to the Tracks in trade paper.

So it’s out there. It’s OUT THERE.

PS I’m guessing a lot of people are away for the long holiday weekend, so I’m going to keep the bookstore-reporting contest going until Saturday.

No weblog? No worries.

NOTE NOTE NOTE: There was some kind of technological hiccup, and the first two comments to this post went missing. If you were one of those people, I apologize. Please enter your comment again — one comment for each bookstore you visited/called.

For those of you who

(1) would like to participate in the Tied to the Tracks meme
(2) but don’t have weblogs
(3) and still are interested in
(a) helping me get the word out about the TTTT trade paper release;
(b) an Amazon gift certificate;
(c) a pile o’ books…

…here’s a different kind of contest.

NOTE: this is for those of you in North America. There will be yet another contest for the rest of the world, coming soon.

Between now and July 5, either visit or call a local bookstore (that is, a brick-n-mortar store, near where you live or work). Once you’ve got the attention of a human being, ask:

1. When Tied to the Tracks will be released in trade paper;
2. When they expect to have it in the store;
3. How many copies will be available.

How you handle the answers you get is up to you. I certainly don’t expect you to buy a copy from every bookstore in your town. Or any copy at all, for that matter. I refrain from asking questions about the purchasing habits of people who visit here for a good reason: none of my business.

How to enter the contest:

Leave a comment to this post in which you state:

1. the name of the bookstore you called;
2. the city;
3. briefly, what answer you got to your questions.

So for example: I called a Barnes & Noble on State Street in Cincinnati and they said they had one copy of TTTT on order, but no idea when it would be in the store.

Or: I called the Tattered Cover in Denver (Cherry Creek) and they said they have three copies on order, they expected it on July 3, and did I want to reserve one?

Or: I called Borders in Ann Arbor, and they couldn’t find any record of anything you’ve ever wrote, and told me I was hallucinating.

(Let’s hope there aren’t too many like the last one.)

If you call or visit three different bookstores, you can enter three times. That means: for each phone call or visit, you submit a new comment.

I will draw two names at random (so if you enter more than once, your chances are much improved) and each of the winners will receive a $50 Amazon gift certificate and a pile o’ books.

Some notes:

Your help in getting out the word is very much appreciated. If I could give everybody a pile o’ books, I would do that happily.
For the most part, this contest depends on the honor system. You could cheat, of course, by making up the information you submit, but that would make you a Hater of Democracy.

All decisions of the judge (me) are final.

If you are going to participate in the meme, you can still enter this contest — but you can’t win both of them.

Your help in getting out the word is very much appreciated. If I could give everybody a pile o’ books, I would do that happily. For the moment, I can promise two people fifty bucks and a pile o’ books for making a phone call.

There’s a lot riding on this release of TTTT. If you can suggest it to one person, that would be a great help.