When I made up my mind to self-publish, it was with a certain degree of innocent arrogance; I believed that if the book was good enough, it would sprout wings and soar above the others to that lofty roosting perch of fame. I soon discovered that my novel, When Europa Rode the Bull, was a different sort of bird, one of the flightless variety.
And flightless for many reasons. I am nobody special. I didn’t date a murderer or entertain the president in the Oval Office. I don’t have a name that people instantly recognize, and I’m not a whistleblower with titillating secrets to tell. I did, however, write a good book–not a great one, mind you, but a gripping page-turner that readers tell me they thoroughly enjoy. And while it seems at times that I am waddling along with the cumbersome gait of a penguin, I recognize that I have come a long way.
One part of the explanation is that, right out of the gate, I hired a publicist. My choice was limited by finances, but the gods must have been feeling generous that day; they gave me Deborah Ruriani at Smith Publicity, who not only loved my book but made it her personal crusade. Her efforts yielded TV and radio exposure for me, as well as entrée to the Barnes & Noble system. Her relentless pursuit of the next level not only made my novel a B&N book club selection but also got it a review in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Several book signings at selected B&N stores came next.
Uh-oh. Lots of Books Left
While those achievements were great, nothing as exciting followed. So after the book club moved on to its next selection, I was left with the reality of unsold copies gathering dust in stores that would eventually send them back. What do you do after your 15 minutes are up, and you’ve got several thousand books sitting in a warehouse in Ohio? You suck it up and go on the road.
I asked Deborah to get me more signings, as many as she could. She came through with the bookings, but it was up to me to move the books. And for that I enlisted the support of my dear, devoted husband, who was fast becoming my secret weapon.
The first few signings were awkward but not terrible, thanks to the publicist, who would show up to lend her support, and to friends and family members who were there for that reason as well. But we were soon on our own. Armed with bookmarks that advertised my Web site as well as my novel, we got to work. We quickly learned that positioning in the store was crucial. An unknown author in a back room, or even off a side aisle, isn’t going to sell a lot of books.
The main entrance is best, so that you’re the first person the customers see. You have to be proactive about these things; you shouldn’t be afraid to ask the manager to move you. And it’s very nice when there are posters next to you and just outside the entrance that tell people who you are and what you wrote. Otherwise, if you’re standing anonymously behind a pile of copies, customers assume you work there and ask you to direct them to the cookbooks.
Another issue is timing. Put simply: dinnertime is painful, football game days are awful, and Mondays stink. A nice weekend afternoon is optimal, but any evening leading up to a holiday works, provided it’s after dinner. And I soon recognized that standing, as opposed to sitting, is the way to go. Approaching someone ensconced behind a desk is decidedly off-putting; it’s too reminiscent of going to see the principal or being called before the boss. And standing enables you to offer your hand more readily and say, “Hi, I’m Barbara.” This is usually followed by, “Hi, it’s nice to meet you,” and you’re launched.
Smiling is highly underrated. A smile can beckon, it can disarm, and it can sometimes intrigue. Even when people pass you by, a genuine smile will stay with them, and maybe even bring them back. (Remember not to eat that spinach quiche before you get to the bookstore.)
And you have to be prepared to answer the same questions over and over again, freshly and enthusiastically. You can’t let weariness subdue you, for you are the first impression of your book: in effect, the opening paragraph that will either put people off or get them interested enough to read more.
Why Sales Soared
As the number of signings I have done grows, so does my skill at doing them. It is now quite ordinary for me to sell 30 to 50 books in three hours or less. But I have to give credit where credit is due: to the secret weapon I alluded to earlier.
My husband stations himself at the entrance, armed with my bookmarks and latest press release. He is 50-something with a balding head and expanding waistline, but he is adorable. He smiles and asks, “Would you like a free bookmark?” and 9 times out of 10, the answer is yes. Then he begins his pitch. “My wife is doing a book signing. She’s a nurse and it’s her first book, and it’s wonderful. Barnes & Noble calls it a passionate, sensitive page-turner. She’s right over there–you should go meet her and take a look. You won’t be sorry. It’s a great book and she’s worked so hard on this. People really love it . . . ”
There is something poignant about a spouse who speaks of his partner with such obvious pride, something compelling about the support implicit in that. His passion alone has brought many people to my table, women mostly, who say, “Your husband is so sweet, and he thinks the world of you. I have to take a look at this book, if only for his sake.” He is a channel marker for the flow of customers streaming into the store, a pleasant diversion that brings something wonderfully human to the equation of sales.
My book is now so much more than just another book on the shelf, more even than the bestsellers with all their clout and marketing machine.
You need only look around you at the thousands of titles that no one is picking up–at the discount tables where the has-beens lie–to understand the harsh reality of publishing. Your book has to be unique, and only you can make it that. The opportunity of being there, of shaking the hands of potential buyers and taking the time to talk to them and write something personal on the title page, is too good to squander. It’s paying off for me, in the fans that are sending their accolades via my Web site and clamoring for the sequel, in the book clubs that are choosing my novel. My heretofore-flightless bird is stretching its wings and hopping off the ground a bit.
If there’s a bottom line here, it’s likely this: Develop your own personal style, find your own secret weapon to connect, and then give it all you’ve got to make it happen. People read for a number of reasons, but chief among them is the need to be reminded of and reconnected with their humanity. Anything you can do to enhance that human experience will make your book more attractive to readers.
Barbara Berot’s novel, When Europa Rode the Bull, is the first volume of a three-part series. She lives with her husband and son in Bucks County, PA, and had a long career as a registered nurse. To read her first novel’s first chapter, visit www.BarbaraBerot.com.