Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

In-store Author Events: “Is there a washroom in here?”

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In-store Author Events: “Is there a washroom in here?”

It is a known fact that writers prefer to spend their time actually writing more than, say, selling books. I’ve yet to meet a writer who begs to get out there on the road promoting and selling and marketing their work. This is simply a necessary evil if you want anyone besides your friends and grandmother to read your book. And don’t be fooled, your friends really are buying your book out of a sense of obligation. Most of them won’t read it, either, though they’ll continue to promise to get around to it “one of these days”. And your grandmother will probably only pretend to have read it, like most of your co-workers.

The 'in-store author event' is what separates the boys from the men, the girls from the women. It takes a mixture of courage and belief in your own work – and a dose of masochism – to stand at a table piled high with your books, trying to flag the attention of customers who are determined to avoid eye contact with you at all cost.

I can see their minds working.

“Oh God. What is this guy selling?” they wonder.

Tupperware? Some self-published book about his boyhood turtle? A series of interconnected poems that amazingly do not use any consonants?

They shiver with the thought of getting caught in my vortex, and so they look down at the ground or suddenly take a left turn as though unseen hands have yanked them down the cookbook aisle.

Any writer will tell you, there is an invisible four foot shield that surrounds in-store author displays. People approach it, then back away as though lightly shocked by an electric fence. “Please, please, don’t let me get stuck talking with this guy …”

There was some controversy this past year when a very good independent bookstore chain declared they might begin charging a nominal fee for authors to hold in-store events. I have to say, regardless of the reasoning, I don’t agree with that approach, unless the author also gets to negotiate the share of sales the store will receive from copies sold. Authors already spend their gas money and time to stand in stores and hock books. Books for which the retail location earns instant gratification in the form of daily sales receipts.

Let’s say you sell on average 20-25 books in a two-hour slot. That works out to about $400 in sales that would not have otherwise occurred if you had not stood there engaging people, staring them into submission, perhaps even crying as a last resort. The publisher – who has expended many dollars and sweat on production and distribution – must now wait for her share to be paid out with the hopes of maybe, just maybe, recouping costs. As the creator of the work, the writer is last in line to see the results of any sales.

But remember, we’re not in this game to get rich. We’re artists! And only a hermit would pretend the world of bookstores is not rapidly changing (‘changing’ is the word being employed right now in place of scarier terms like ‘dying’). This evolving system needs to involve all of the players – publisher, creator, and retail outlet or online platform – to ensure success. The author needs to do his or her part, like shower and show up on time and smile at people (a healthy expectation wouldn’t hurt, either. Like accepting as reality that for every book you sell in a store, another store somewhere is probably returning a copy, meaning the transactions in effect cancel each other out – ha ha!). The stores can make it easy and welcoming for authors (especially local authors) to organize an in-store event, or get out of the event business altogether. Online promotions and interviews might be the way to go, and stores can tap into local social media networks. Publishers, well, I think they’ve been looking down the road longer than writers have. Pushing sales and getting the attention of click-happy viewers in an online-only world will be easier in some ways and overwhelming in others.

I have appreciated the efforts and enthusiasm of staff at both indie stores and big chain stores, and those store managers who really went out of their way to make my store events a success. Perhaps one of the upsides of the new online world will be more collaboration between creator and retailer in finding creative ways to sell books.

I’m happy now to share with you the all-time favourite questions that I have been asked during bookstore events:

“Say, do you know where I can find Breaking Dawn?”

“Is there a washroom in here, dude?”

“Did you print these books yourself?”

“I don’t read Canadian authors.”

“I’m writing a novel too. Where do I get it published?”

“Seriously, where is the washroom dude?”

cb

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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C.B. Forrest

C.B. Forrest is the author of the literary crime novels The Weight of Stones and Slow Recoil.

Go to C.B. Forrest’s Author Page