And so it came to be that I wrote a novel, and my very nice agent found a very nice editor who liked the book. He made some very smart editorial suggestions, and I took nearly every one of them as I prepared the final manuscript. Then a very nice copy editor had fun marking places where I used a comma when I didn’t need one, or needed a comma where I didn’t use one, and ran roughshod over all things grammatical. In the meantime, the publisher put together the galleys, also known as advanced reader copies or uncorrected proofs—an almost real book with the wonderful cover that a graphic artist designed. The very nice editor/publisher invited me to the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute where I met with independent booksellers and signed galleys for them while my very nice editor/publisher spent a good deal of time pitching my book to these very nice booksellers. And like this, the process of bringing a book to bookstore shelves began.
Winter Institute reminded me of the importance of having a brief description of the book ready when someone asks you, “What’s your book about?” A number of people asked me that while I was there. I tried to condense the book to a few sentences that would entice but that wouldn’t completely give away the plot of my novel. Something like, “A tragic house trailer fire takes the lives of a woman and three of her children. Arson. Small-town gossip casts suspicion on the estranged husband. He has to fight for custody of his surviving children while also having to protect his reputation. Ultimately, he comes to the breaking point where he has to tell the truth of what really happened late one night.”
I never got to hear my editor/publisher’s pitch, but I did happen upon a large ballroom where booksellers were seated around banquet tables—lots of banquet table, lots of booksellers—and standing at each one was an editor or publisher pitching books. It was sobering, to say the least. It was, as my editor/publisher said, a little like getting to see how the sausages are made. This glimpse behind the curtain was a stark reminder of how many books are published each season and how they’re all competing for shelf space. An awful lot has to go right for a book to get noticed.
While I was at Winter Institute, I attended a panel that was solely for the benefit of the authors in attendance. It was a panel about how to work with independent bookstores to promote your book. Bookstore owners told us it was perfectly fine to pop into an independent bookstore to see if the store was stocking your book. Not to demand they stock it, mind you, but perhaps to chat a bit about your book in hopes of arousing interest. If the store is stocking your book, the bookstore owners said it was fine to offer to sign them, and it was also fine to turn the books out on the shelf so they’re facing the customers. Above all, be kind. These independent booksellers can be very instrumental to the success of your book. If they love it, they’ll hand-sell it to their customers. Respect the fine work these fine folks do. These booksellers really get to know their customers, and they know what they’ll like and what they won’t. The more booksellers that you can get to love your book, the more copies you’ll sell.
Much of this work is work that doesn’t come naturally to many writers who can be introverts whose real pleasure is in the solitary time they spend writing. The task of promoting a book can seem like a daunting one. If we remember, though, that most of what makes this something we can all do is what we love to do when we write. We love to get curious about people and what they do. We love to interact with the characters on our pages. Sometimes the first step is as easy as saying to a bookseller, “So, tell me a bit about your store.” Or, “Tell me about your customers.” Talk about the books you love to read. Talk about the independent bookstores that you love. Be interested. Be kind. Be passionate about the reading and writing that form the common ground between you and the booksellers. Be grateful for the work they do. Let them know that you appreciate them. Do what you do when you write: be open to the world around you.