Rejection Proofing

By John Gilstrap

If we’ve run into each other at an event, you might have noticed that I’m not a very shy guy.  In fact, I am the classic extrovert–one who draws energy from being around other people.  I love getting to know people, listening to their stories and picking their brains.  It’s the rare person, I find, who doesn’t have an interesting story to share about their life.

What I’m not good at is asking people to do things.  I’m not a closer.  It’s difficult for me at a book signing to end a chat with a potential customer by asking how many copies they would like to buy.  Personally, I don’t think it’s a fear of rejection as much as it is a desire not to inconvenience the other party.  And as I wrote that last sentence, yes, I see that that is likely my rationalization of a fear of rejection.

This hesitation on my part will be brought into high relief soon when I live up to my offer to spearhead a fundraising drive for the RiteCare Scottish Rite Childhood Language Program.  (This is NOT a solicitation for contributions.)  I’ve never approached a wealthy friend and asked for money, even for a great cause, and I find the prospect rather daunting.

I reached out to my friend Lynda who runs the YouthQuest Foundation for some advice, and her very first bit was to buy a book called Rejection Proof: How I Beat Fear and Became Invincible Through 100 Days of Rejection by Jia Jiang.  It’s a quirky little book that might not be for everyone, but there are a few sections that I think are particularly worthwhile for writers.  For me, the central idea boiled down to some obvious themes that come as no surprise: Rejection is about the request being made, not about the person making it; and expectations often become reality.  If you expect a no, that’s likely what you’ll walk away with.

But the part of the book that got me to thinking is where it points out that in most cases, the person being approached is as nervous about the request as the requester is of rejection.  Rejection does not exist in a vacuum.  It is always one part of a two-way communication.  My challenge will be to combine my natural gregariousness with an offer to help a good cause, packaged in a way that the person on the other end of the conversation will feel great about saying yes.

So, what does this have to do with writing?  I’m glad you asked.

Last Sunday, I did a book signing at the fabulous Fountain Bookstore in Richmond, VA.  It’s a pretty small place, and there I was in a chair at a table at the front of the store, right where customers had to trip over me to get by.  I always find it interesting just how many ways customers will actively avoid the gaze of the guy sitting next to a pile of books he wants to sell.

And I get it.  They likely don’t have a clue who I am, and if they’re in the store for a children’s book, or a title by Toni Morrison, they don’t want to hear a pitch that they know they will ultimately say no to.  It makes them feel uncomfortable. Remember, this rejection equation equalizes on both sides.  Call it social algebra.

At one point, an older gentleman entered the store, and when the always-excellent sales staff approached him and told him that an author was there and he’d love to sign a book for him, the guy–who turned out to be a fellow named Willard–said, “We’ll see,” and he started wandering the shelves.

What’s the point of reading a self-help book if you’re not going to put the strategies to good use, right?  So, I threw caution to the wind.  I left my station, walked up to him and said, “Hi, I’m John Gilstrap, a visiting author. Zero pressure to buy a book, but I’d love to shake your hand.”

He beamed.  We chatted for a few minutes.  He asked me what Scorpion Strike was about.  When it came around to the fact that I’m a native Virginian, he was sold.  He bought a book from me–a guy he knew–and I inscribed to to a guy I now knew as well.

Then there was the lovely lady named Bambi, who came into the store with her ancient beagle, Max.  Bambi was on a mission.  She told the manager that she wanted the two best children’s books for kids of a very young age.  They were gifts, and she wanted them wrapped.  While they discussed kids’ books, I made friends with Max.  Bambi and I talked a little about dogs, and when she asked me if I was from Richmond, I told her no, that I was from Fairfax.  It was at that moment that it dawned on her that I was the author who’d been mentioned to her when she first arrived.

Turns out that she personally likes thrillers, but she wasn’t there with the purpose of buying a book for herself.  She was concentrating on kid-lit.  Once her focus shifted, she became interested in me and my writing, and she bought a book–likewise from a guy she now knew, without any pressure from me.  I inscribed it to Bambi and Max, and she seemed genuinely touched.

Now here’s the big lesson: As predicted in Rejection Proof, both of those transactions were actually fun for me, and I presume for the others as well.  Zero stress.  Asking for the order is not about pushing a thing, it’s about interacting with people you like and trust, even if the relationship is only a few minutes old.

So, what about you, TKZers?  Does asking for stuff make you squirm?  Do you want to share any strategies for screwing up the courage to make the effort?


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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

22 thoughts on “Rejection Proofing

  1. Does asking for stuff make you squirm?
    YES… And a writing career involves a lot of “asking”.
    One of several reasons I am independently published is because of my distaste and total avoidance of the agent/publisher “query“ process.
    Asking successful authors for Blurbs is strongly recommended – I’ve made only two requests in eight years and three books (those authors were friends whom I’d been able to provide medical facts/writing support for.)
    Fundamentally putting your books out there is asking people to invest their hugely valuable reading time in what you have written. I find it much easier to ask/sell now that I have received enthusiastic feedback. John, I’d guess that your success and popularity is a factor in the winning exchanges you shared in the post. Has your confidence grown with your considerable success?
    Reader validation provides confidence. When you have a track record of engaged and satisfied readers it’s much easier to “screw up the courage” to ask others to read your work.
    I have done a lot of direct selling of my books and something that’s been helpful for me (squirm reducing) is recognizing it’s not about making a sale.
    I don’t want to sell one of my books to someone who is not going to enjoy it. In the person to person exchanges in bookstores, book events, conferences, etc. I look to get a feel for what the reader likes. If they do not like mystery, suspense, action (some unfortunate souls readily identify this) I do not want to sell them a book.
    If I sense they like my kind of story the squirm factor disappears.
    If I view the marketing echange as an opportunity to put my books in the hands of those who will have a great reading experience rather than simply a sale/no sale effort, it makes the “asking” process much more satisfying.
    Your post is timely. I have a speaking/book event this evening with 50 tickets sold (a very successful program by an independent bookstore). Not only am I hoping to sell my books to these ardent readers, but I also hope to screw up the courage to ask them to recommend my work to others (yet again the “asking” thing 😳)

    • 50 tickets for a book event is HUGE these days, Tom. Good on you! I guess the secret for any effective face-to-face communication is for both parties to feel at ease.

      • John-
        Thanks though the 50 people is more a reflection of the bookstore’s excellent program than on me as a draw. It’s called “The Totally Criminal Cocktail Hour” and is great fun.
        Valley Bookseller is the innovative independent store that puts on the monthly events.
        I’m thankful to have the opportunity.

        • That is a wonderful concept! Although I write thrillers myself, I am also a reader and would love to attend an event like that. I hope other stores follow their example. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I’m much more of an introvert than you, though I can turn that tendency down a notch in public appearances. I wish I had a strategy to share, but the best one I’ve seen is the one I read just now. It’s the approach I’ve taken at conferences and in social media: let people know you. They’re much more likely to be interested in your book if they’re interested in you.

    Now I have a plan for taking that up a notch. Thanks.

    • Amen Dana. The worst thing on Facebook is an author (who otherwise never comments or joins in) flogging their latest relentlessly. So I guess FB is sort of just a different version of the guy sitting at the table behind a tower of books begging people not to ignore him.

  3. Thank you for sharing this, John.
    I also have difficulties to ask about buying my books or used to have. I am both a writer and a consultant, primarily wanting to make a breakthrough with my books and live from that income. But right now consulting makes the major part of my income and also contributes to inspiration for my non-fiction books. I used to think that consulting work was of more value than writing books. Maybe because selling books was very slow in the beginning. And making them visible is hard when there are so many great books around.
    I once talked to an entrepreneur friend, who was just starting her business and she said that although she needed some help and consulting, she couldn’t afford to pay for those hours of consultancy (neither by me or anyone else). I suggested supporting each other by sharing progress and also challenges. She liked the idea, and I had some input on how to handle decision making for her business (since I worked in the decision-making management area for projects of various scales for many years). In exchange, she asked, “How can I help you?”
    I was dumbstruck and couldn’t answer. I mumbled something like, “If you know someone who would need consulting.”
    When I came home after the visit with her, I realized that what I really wanted is my books to sell. So I took all my courage and wrote her on PM on Facebook saying just that. Then I sent her a list of my books from my website. A one and a half hours later I received a picture of the receipt for purchasing my book on decision making (which one of my most expensive paperbacks).
    That experience was eye-opening to me. Books are cheaper than consulting or coaching service hours. And being honest about what we really want is helping other people to know how they can help.
    So today I say more and more rarely, “Would you like a review copy of my book?” Actually, something like that makes the person feel obliged to read the book completely and provide a review. This takes more effort more than purchasing it for a couple (or a bit more) dollars and checking whether it is interesting for them or not. And with the free sample functionality online, they have even less risk. So today I say more and more often, “Oh, I wrote a book on this topic that we just talked about. If you like I can send you a link and you can check it out. It costs only $2.99 (or another relatively small value) as an e-book.”
    Yes, fear of rejection is big, but reminding myself every so often why I wrote those books, that I wanted to bring value and made all possible for those book to be good, help me pitching those book in such a way that I show how they can bring value to the reader. It does usually come through a personal connection: coming from the same city, reading the same genre, having the same challenges.
    Thanks again, John, it was great to contemplate on that. 🙂

  4. “…it’s about interacting with people you like and trust, even if the relationship is only a few minutes old.” So true, John.

    Instead of pushing *your* buy-my-book agenda on other people, find out what *they* want. Sometimes it’s as simple as a friendly connection, as you illustrated with Willard: “I’d love to shake your hand.”

    When meeting people at signings, book clubs, etc., what works best for me is to be other-directed rather than self-directed. What’s going on in their lives, what are they interested in, what concerns them? When you step outside yourself and show interest in the other person, most of the time he or she will react positively…and just might buy your book.

    • I agree, Debbie, but it seems to me that there needs to come a point where we ask for the order, as they say in Salesmanship 101. And that’s the tough part, I think.

    • Good point about listening. I used to work as a technical advisor to salepeople. It amazed me how often they lost sales–or had to work a lot harder than they should have–because they were so busy selling they didn’t listen. I’d seen the oppisoite work often I used to tell these guys to make their original presentation brief, then shut up and listen. Answer their quesitons and listen. Often as not, the customer will sell the stuff to himself if your product is what he needs. Listen.

  5. I am not comfortable asking for anything, John. Like you, I hate to inconvenience people. At book signings, I just chat with customers. Never do I mention my books unless they ask. As you pointed out, if folks like you they become interested in your books. Same goes for social media, btw. No hard sell necessary.

  6. Funny you should bring this up, John. At ThrillerFest I was in that big signing room where everyone went up to Lisa Gardner or David Morrell or T. Jefferson Parker. Goose egg for just about everyone else, including me.

    But earlier, in the bookstore, I said “How you doin’?” to a guy who replied he was “Just trying to figure things out.” I asked if he was a writer, and he told me he had written his first book, and I told him that was great, and to write the next one, etc. Just a pleasant convo, no mention of my books. I was about to move on when he said, “Do you have a book in here?”

    I said, “I have two.” He said, “I’ll buy one. Which would you recommend?” I told him about my series book and my stand alone. He bought the series book and had me sign it.

    So there you have it.

      • I’ve had the same experience, Jim, too many times to count. You just start talking to someone, about anything but your book, and you end up with a sale. I used to be really shy in all social situations and I started watching how my best friend did it — she was so graceful in all social venues. I realized she was really good at making the other person feel at ease. And she was genuine. It works in sales, too.

  7. There are few things more stressful to me than asking someone for something. I could never be a salesperson.
    You’re right about getting what you expect to receive. I once volunteered to join canvassers fundraising for a nonprofit group; I spent the entire day walking up and down hills (yes, they exist in LA). At the end of the day I’d raised exactly five dollars. Those five bucks came from a home where the person who answered the bell didn’t speak English, and I theorized that they must have mistaken me for a meter reader or something.


  8. John, sounds like you mastered the art of making the ask by not asking, but rather by selling yourself in a subtle, non-intrusive way.

    I’m an introvert and rejection is a big fear, because putting myself out there is not natural and seems like a big risk, so I take it personally if I’m rejected. Of course, you have to get used to it if you’re a writer submitting short prose or novels in very crowded literary magazine, publisher and agent markets.

    Good point about the rejection being not the person requesting, but rather the request. Although that has helped me gain perspecive on rejections, I think there is an arena where the person can be a key part of the ask — nonprofit fundraising. As part of my personal growth effort and overcoming my prison of shyness and introversion, years ago I forced myself to became involved in leadership positions with several nonprofits, which led to major roles in capital campaigns. I found out that people give for many reasons: (1) they believe in the cause or (2) they seek immortality, often unconsciously, a measrure of which they receive if their name is on a building, a room, a garden, a courtyard. Where the person asking can become relevant, in addition to the ask itself, I believe, is (1) where the person being asked rightly wants to know if the person asking has “put their money where their mouth is” and has made a significant gift themselves or (2) the person being asked wants to be in a perceived inner circle of “elite” or “insiders” (e.g., the people doing the fundraising) who are recognized publicly for their generosity. I found out, particularly in (1) next above, if I wasn’t prepared to show my commitment with other than chump change, I shouldn’t be out soliciting others for this “worthy cause”. As to (2) I never pushed the perception because I personally didn’t believe in it, but if it motivated a potential donor, who was I not to accept their dough for a good cause?

    • David, I don’t know that I’ve mastered anything, but I feel my confidence growing. We’ll see how it goes. I expect that it will be easier to sell a cause that I believe in–and yes, lend significant support to–than it is to sell my own books. The cause feels worthier.

  9. One of the most instructive experiences I had in “selling” was when I volunteered for a voter registration drive years ago. Talk about rejection. But it always amazed me how many folks were willing to listen if you approached them without pressure and treated them with respect.

  10. A few years ago I took an early retirement due to health reasons. Before I retired I was in Marketing and Customer Service. I once worked in advertising for realtors. Trying to pin them down long enough to listen was always a chore. I remember one time one realtor didn’t want to hear it so he told me to cut to the chase. I have always been a bit of a smart aleck, so I said, “Ok, what’s your credit card number?” Of course, his next words were, “Whoa! What am I buying?” I answered that was what I was trying to tell him. He started laughing and asked me to start over. He liked the package and bought it. Once you break the ice, it can go either way, but many times it goes in your favor. It depends on how you treat people and how they respond. I don’t have a problem asking for the sale. Of course, selling for others and for myself may be very different. I have a long road to travel before I’m ready. 🙂

  11. I’ve had fun recently by hand-selling books on social media. Somebody will ask, “What books have you guys written?” And I’ll link to one or two, depending on what else has been recommended (usually epic fantasy). “Well, here’s a paranormal cozy mystery featuring a dragon shifter sleuth, because I wanted to read that and it didn’t exist”. I’ve sold so many copies of that book, just because the very idea makes people curious. I try to tune my recommendations for the audience, but sometimes I move copies of my superhero fantasy at unexpected times. You never know what will appeal to people, so it’s just fun to talk them around to what the story’s about.

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