What I’ve learned about book publishing in the last four years is that no one out there really, truly knows how to sell books. Not the publishers and their small armies of marketing people and publicists. Not the agents. Everyone seems to have been completely blindsided by online bookselling and e-books. And very few books seem to be able to yell above the noise that is the constant 24-hour news cycle.
This all came as a big surprise to me when I was a new writer. I thought that if you got your proverbial backside into the chair every day and wrote your book and solicited agents (far and wide), you might get a publishing contract. And if you landed that, then you could lie down on the rug in your living room and take a long nap. Because the rest of the work was up to the publisher.
And apparently there was a time and place when this rang true--when publishers really did do the bookselling for authors and there was more room out there for a wide swath of books on all kinds of arcane subjects and more space out there for quieter conversations about books. Now you often need headlines to get your book noticed. You need to be the blockbuster hit novel or memoir of the entire summer. And maybe you’ve heard you need to have 5,000 Facebook friends and 3,000 Twitter followers (at least). (None of which I entirely understand the benefit of, not to mention how we would really ever have the time to cultivate that many relationships if we’re meant to be actually writing. The next book!)
But none of this is probably news to anyone now. Though when I first heard it, when my publishers made it clear that it was a guessing game how books really got sold, I felt my knees go weak. No one knows? How to sell books? What do you mean? I tried to get a better answer from someone. How could they not know?
And what the marketing folks told me was that at this moment in our universe, this exact juncture of time and place in July of 2013, no one can really tell how long the printed book is going to last. It’s partly about the gift and the curse of e-books. They’re easy to buy and to read apparently, and great on airplanes, and I entirely get their appeal for certain people. But they’re killing authors’ royalties and driving prices down and really hurting bookstores. Because bookstores can’t sell e-books. It just doesn’t work. Bookstores are all about bricks and mortar. All about the town you live in. All about the actual page. Or paper. E-books are most often bought from Amazon which is the land of the those headline-grabbing, megahit books I mentioned before.
Amazon is about pushing a very small number of books to become huge successes. There are no browsing tables at Amazon where you can pick up dozens of books you’ve never heard of and read their opening pages. Amazon doesn’t pay taxes in your town or help with your community arts scene. They don’t bring living authors into the stores to meet actual readers and shake their actual hands and blow their minds by reading their luminous, trenchant stories.
So this was dispiriting news to receive when I first heard it. It still is. But here in the topsy-turvy world of books in 2013, some of the Indie bookstores we all know and love are getting stronger. Thriving in fact. Take our local store, Longfellow Books (below), in Portland, Maine. It is the very backbone of our Maine writing community. The amazing owners and booksellers there PUSH good books and they understand the vital role that books—real living breathing books, play in keeping our arts community alive and in connecting readers to the work that will change their lives.
If you have a book you’ve written and want to sell it, there are things you CAN do to help give yourself a leg up in the marketplace: the first is to reach out to any and every bookstore that you have ever stepped foot in, and even those you haven’t. Write personal notes to them. Emails if that’s better. Tell them what you valued about their store and then mention your book and see if they have a reading series.
Then create a Book Tour: Get on the calendar of each of those bookstore’s reading series. Because bookstore readings matter. They just do. And I know that it seems like all you might need is a lot of Goodreads and Amazon ads for your book to find readers. But I think what still really matters is the part where you look people in the eye and read a sentence from your opening chapter and that all-important connection is made.
I went out on the road with my first book, a memoir, and I crisscrossed the country. I had enough friends with couches I could sleep on that I was able to do it pretty cost-effectively. And my publisher helped. So I’m doing it again in three weeks--going to lots of local and far-flung bookstores to read from my new novel. Some say the book tour is dead. But how can that be when there are hundreds of great Indie bookstores out there shouting out the praises of the authors they love and selling crates of books?
So I say, let’s read from our books. Out loud. In bookstores. We wrote these books. We lived in them for years. So we understand them. We can inflect. We can enunciate. We can deliver them in person in a beautiful, soulful bookstore like Longfellow Books, much better than the electronic device can. I read from this new novel of mine last month for the first time, and it felt like putting on a very familiar, favorite old coat. I’d written those sentences. I’d crafted those paragraphs. I knew this novel. And I was so glad to be standing there in front of a live audience of friends and strangers, holding the spine of the book in my hands.
Susan Conley is the author of the novel Paris Was the Place, forthcoming from Knopf on August 6th, 2013 and the memoir The Foremost Good Fortune (Knopf 2011). She’s written for The New York Times, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post and Maine Magazine. You can follow Susan on Facebook and Twitter and at her website: susanconley.com.