With my table mate, the irrepressibly talented Amy E. Reichert (l), at Books by the Banks 2016
If there’s one occupation I never imagined pursuing again, it was being a salesperson. During high school, in between various food service jobs, I worked a Christmas gig selling office supplies in a mall kiosk, and later sold ladies clothes in a rather grim department store. In college, I was hired by a temp agency to cold-call businesses over the phone to get appointments for the woman who did the actual selling. I was petrified of cold-calling. They gave me a script, which I’m sure had been developed by corporate sales professionals. I hated every moment of those calls. I dreaded going to work, and energetically did every other part of my job that didn’t include cold-calling. They should have fired me, but they didn’t, because I worked hard to make myself otherwise indispensable.
I’m on an extended book tour for The Abandoned Heart all this month, and the early part of November. Tours are a lot of fun. I like to drive, so I don’t mind hopping in the car to do a reading, conference, or festival that’s within a one-and-a-half-day traveling radius. When I started touring almost ten years ago, the norm was single- or two-author bookstore appearances. But there are a lot fewer bookstores these days, and a lot more authors looking for readers.
Enter the book festival. Book festivals are a blast, and a win-win-win (-win) for authors, booksellers, libraries, and charities. They foster a love of books and a love of reading in both adults and children. (If you follow this link, you will disappear down a path leading to pretty much every festival in the known world, and may find yourself imagining that you, too, should definitely be invited to the Blenheim Palace Festival in the U.K. or the exclusive The New Yorker Festival. Ignore the fab photos of the famous actors—you know everyone really will be there to meet the writers!) Book festivals enjoy an economy of scale undreamed of by a single bookstore or library. There’s lots of room for authors and their books, and readers are wonderfully motivated to meet their favorite authors and have their books signed. Plus, a festival is a great opportunity to hang out with other writers.
The flip side is, of course, that you’re cheek-by-jowl with your competition. Friendly competition, but still competition. Writers are there to sell books, and readers are there to buy them.
This past weekend, I was at a table at Cincinnati’s wonderful Books By The Banks Festival, which featured around 150 authors. It was the festival’s tenth anniversary, and I’m not surprised that it continues to thrive. The volunteers are incredibly dedicated, the authors seemed delighted to be there, and it was bustling with readers all day long.
I saw three kinds of authors there: 1) Super-famous authors who had all-day lines; 2) Bored-looking authors who waited—often in vain—for people to come and talk to them; and 3) The rest of us—writers who spent most of the day standing, chatting, laughing and, yes, selling.
I didn’t leave my table often, but as a reader, I found myself pretty overwhelmed. Even though I don’t much read YA or children’s literature, I still buy gifts, so every book was a possibility. And there’s something magical about picking up a book and having it signed—right there—by the author. I still geek out about it.
Something about being face-to-face with readers trying to make a choice between one of my books and another writer’s book reminded me how intimate the relationship between reader and writer is. As writers, we are engaged in a kind of seduction. A tease. Our words must immediately entice a reader—bonus points if a killer cover piques their interest first. During a personal appearance, the writer, rather than the book, has to do most of the talking. That’s what she’s there for: to answer questions, to give the inside scoop, to facilitate the decision without being pushy. It’s a sales transaction, but a delicate one. The buyer is purchasing something with which they will spend long, intimate hours. It’s way more like speed dating than going to the local independent for coffee and a browse. Few readers buy carelessly at book festivals.
I found myself a little annoyed by the bored-seeming authors. I wanted to ask why they even bothered to come. It’s entirely possible that they were shy. After all, most of the 150 authors in attendance got there because they spent many, many hours alone in order to get their books written. But shyness isn’t an excuse. Unless you’re Diana Gabaldon, J.K. Rowling, or Stephen King, you’re going to need to make an effort to sell books. (To be fair, all three of these writers are engaging and interesting people who speak up about their work.)
As difficult as I find it sometimes to come out from beneath my writer-rock, I love connecting with real live readers, and not just the hypothetical ones in my head. The ones in my head frighten me a little. The ones I meet on the road are always friendly and generous, and they renew my energy for writing for them. Truly, salesmanship is the least of it. There are times when I feel a little silly hawking my wares (books), but when I connect with a reader, and I see that spark of joy in their eyes when they slide a book across the table, saying, “Will you sign this for me?” any thought of selling or having sold something slips away. It’s just the two of us, with happiness in between, and I think, “Yes. Yes, this is why I do it.”
Have you attended a book festival? How do you feel they compare to individual author events?