Thursday, July 23, 2015


My book, not, I might add, for sale at Politics and Prose
I've been working as a bookseller at Politics and Prose in DC for the last couple of months, and the experience has given me a whole new view on the life cycle of books.   As a novelist, I had always imagined that once you got a book into print, it would be smooth sailing.  In fact, I had thought that once you got an agent, it would be smooth sailing.

But friends and fellow writers, this is not the case.  I got an agent.  I got my book into print. But in fact, these milestones are merely doors in a series of many doors, which pass into new opportunities. As in the Monopoly game,  you pass GO and collect two hundred dollars.  But is it a win? Not in the least.

Let me explain.  So you've got yourself an agent and the agent has got you a book deal. You have passed GO twice. You've collected your  first four hundred dollars.

But NEXT you have to market your book. Who is going to buy it?  Your publisher is responsible for getting the book out there. But more and more, it is also up to you, the author.  So you must blog about your book, you must drum up reviews. You must send the manuscript to book bloggers, reviewers, friends, Romans, countrymen. You must go on Twitter and Linked In. You must do your utmost to make your book stand out.

Let's say your publisher then gets a few bites.  Bookstores show some interest. They buy maybe two, maybe four copies of your novel.  Then they try to sell it.

They put them on display.  I once thought that "face outs" were the best way to get your book sold. That is, when your book is displayed on the shelf - not spine out - but FACE out, you will sell more copies. However....books are not usually faced out unless they are bought in quantity - and thus, would ordinarily take up more space on the shelf. Success begets success.

Usually, three copies of your paperback book will be put on display in a bookstore. In hardcover, two copies might be displayed.  Mind you, a book that starts its life in hardcover is unlikely to go into paper for at least a year.  This depends on sales. A huge best seller like Anthony Doerr's  ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE remains in hardcover simply because sales continue to climb.

But even if your book is put on the NEIGHBORHOOD FAVORITES table, at a bookstore like Politics and Prose, this does not guarantee success.  It must earn its place on that table. If it doesn't sell, it will likely soon be taken off.  It will then be allotted to mere section shelving.

I made a case for one book recently. I had reviewed Angela Flournoy's debut novel THE TURNER HOUSE. It wasn't selling as well as the bookstore hoped - so I suggested they  place it on a different table. I also wrote a 'staff pick'.  Staff picks  boost sales. But by how much? It's hard to tell. We shall see!

In other news, down in the receiving room last night, I saw a pile of books on their way out. They were being shipped back to the publishers and were written by an acquaintance of mine.  I had been to his well attended reading only two months earlier.

But this is the book biz, folks - generous to a fault for a time, but cut throat in the end.  Before working as a bookseller, I often wandered the stacks in agony. WHY ISN'T MY BOOK IN HERE - I used to think to myself.  WHY.  WHY.

Now I feel a bit differently.  Now I am actually amazed that my novel found its way into print at all.  I am thankful to my publisher and to my agent. I am even grateful to Amazon - arch enemy of the independent bookseller.  They are getting my novel out there, after all, and I owe them a debt of gratitude.

I also realize, when I see the sales of other more successful authors, ones I had envied and revered in the past, that success is not always what it seems.  Not every book of value sells - even if it is well placed by publishers and booksellers.  I feel confident that my own novel is selling just as well as some of those I most admire.

Also, there are often shelves and shelves devoted to a single author - to Daniel Silva for instance, to Alexander McCall Smith or PG Wodehouse.  At the same time, there are extraordinary authors, like Andrea Barrett for instance, whose writing to me seems luminous, exemplary and deeply moving.  Hers are books I have given to friends as gifts.  But they might have just a single title on the shelves.

My library.  How books arrived here is nothing short of a miracle.
This is the independent bookstore world, my friends.  A world that reveres serious books.  A world of people who live for the best writing. Thousands and thousands of titles are produced each year - so many books that deserve to be read. It is the best place to spend your days and a beautiful place to work. And yet it is also a business. Even here, the best books sometimes fall right through the cracks.

1 comment:

  1. Yup, so true! Wonderful post. I've seen so many delicious books that barely see the light of day before they disappear (it seems). Marketing your own book isn't only hard work but another job altogether!