• Sarah Pinneo
  • Blurb is a Verb: In Which I am Saved by Cookies. And a Publicist.
Blurb is a Verb: In Which I am Saved by Cookies. And a Publicist.
Contributor
Written by
Sarah Pinneo
July 2011
Contributor
Written by
Sarah Pinneo
July 2011

I should have been happy.  Instead I was scared.

The bookstore had requested Tina (my co-author) and me for a book signing.   Stacks of our freshly minted cookbook covered a small table just inside the door.  Our names, in large type, gleamed from each shiny dust jacket.  There was even a sign—three feet high—with our cover art and picture on it.

The bookstore owner handed me a Sharpie.  When the door opened to admit a customer, her artsy-but-not-too-bohemian-for-Connecticut earrings swung in the breeze.  “Just have fun with people,” she said.  “And if you get a minute, sign the rest of the stock.”  Then she walked away.

That’s when the panic set in.  We were positioned in the perfect Target Rich Environment—a fancy town where people actually stepped into the independent bookstore on a frigid Saturday, their wallets brimming with cash.  But as I stood literally in the window of the store, I realized that I hadn’t understood just how confrontational it would all feel.  This wasn’t the love fest I’d pictured.  There was no line of admirers forming. 

The truth hit me like a wobbly stack of unsold books.  For the next three hours,  as customers ran in to grab a copy of the Times, we were expected to start conversations that would end with “You can pay at the register.  Thirty dollars, cash on the barrelhead.”

I struggled with this idea as a few customers entered the store.  Smelling the fear in my shaky but welcoming smile, they plastered on a “don’t talk to me” face and accelerated to a sprint. 

These days, it’s de rigueur among authors to complain about the publicist you’ve been assigned—that elusive creature who books author events.  The bigger your publisher is, the louder you’re expected to whine.  Supposedly, publicity support for new books has declined annually since Lincoln was president, to the point where there is now exactly one publicist left in New York.  And she’s 22 years old and reads “US Weekly” all day at her desk instead of taking your call.

Our own publicist had, true to form, failed to mention one crucial detail about my weekend junket.  “I hope it’s okay,” she’d said breezily the day before.  “I told the bookstore you’d bring samples.”

“Samples…of the book?” I asked.

“No, of the recipes.  Bring something for the customers to taste…”  In the background, I heard a cell phone begin squealing to strains of Girls Just Want to Have Fun.  “Oops.  Gotta run!”

Samples?  I tried to imagine serving, among the pristine displays of a suburban bookstore, tiny cups of rapidly cooling Braised Beef with Wine, or rubbery portions of Spinach Fettuccini. 

But Tina, ever the level-headed one, reasoned that a cookie from our chapter of desserts would be reasonably tidy and mobile.  The cookies required only that she and I stay up until the wee hours mixing, baking, and designing a cute little label replete with the book’s cover art, and then packaging more than a hundred adorable little portions.  Now they lay waiting in their Martha-worthy basket, winking up at me from their individual cellophane wrappers. 

Reader, I clutched that basket with the desperation of a Titanic passenger on flotsam.  When next the bookstore doorbell jingled, I thrust it out.  “Would you like a cookie?” I offered.  “They’re free.”

From that moment on, starting conversations was a breeze.  My publicist was clearly a genius.  She taught me something important that day.  Book signings are like love—you have to give a little something to get something back.  And while freshly baked cookies are ideal, any small offering will do.  You can give away a tiny treat, or perhaps a sticker promoting your book.  If not that, then offer a joke or a fun bit of trivia from your vast accumulation of writerly research.  At that moment of fear, when the idea of telling a perfect stranger that he should buy your book becomes impossible, offer something.  Even a compliment will do. (“Lovely bow tie.  I've always thought that tarantulas were underrepresented on neck-wear.”)

It is the rare author who is equally suited to spending months in isolation writing a book and to tackling passersby to make the sale.  But there’s no need to be afraid.  Offer something—anything—to the poor soul who appears in front of you.  Even a tiny act of generosity will bridge the gap.

Sarah Pinneo's next book is Julia's Child, coming in 2012 from Plume.  This post originally appeared on the blog Blurb Is a Verb, a site entirely devoted to book publicity stories.

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Comments
  • Sarah Pinneo

    Karen, whatever you can provide to make your customer experience more interactive, I say go for it! Photos sound like a good ice breaker.

  • Karen Fisher-Alaniz

    Great ideas here! I'm only 29 days away from the official publication date now. One thing I wondered about is having a few quotes from the book and maybe a photo or two standing up on the signing table. Something that people can peek a read at from far away. I know as a shopper, I would definitely take a look at it.

  • Susan Winlaw

    This message is for Karen Fisher-Alaniz regarding a give-away for her book about WWII, PTSD, pain and healing....what about a single piece of paper with the top 10 points that a person needs to know about PTSD or how to understand a person with PTSD better ? It could have an assortment of pain pill bottles on the top with the red circle and an X through it - Pain Killers Won't Help Heal This Pain. Just a thought. I have one friend with this and I had to really want to be her friend to understand. S>

  • Meg Waite Clayton

    I think this is the hardest thing to do, promotion-wise: to do a bookstore signing without a presentation first, where you are having to individually sell to each person coming through the door. But I do think this is always true, that if you have something to offer people, they will be more open to you.

  • Sarah Pinneo

    @Karen: paper WWII style airplanes.  :)

    I hear you!  My next book is a novel, and things will not be quite so clear cut.

  • You're scaring the bajeebers out of me! I will soon be doing what you are. Actually, I've always thought that cookbook authors and those who include some type of food in their books have it so stinkin' easy! What kind of give away fits with a baby boomer's (me) book about WWII, PTSD, pain and healing? I mean, really! Oh boy. I just agreed to a signing the day after Thanksgiving. YIKES! Now, I'm scared. Thanks a lot! (kidding...no wait...)

  • Sarah Pinneo

    @Suzanne, thank you! @Erin... LOL! You'll have a bestseller.  Thank you, Candy & Shonnie!

  • Shonnie Wilson

    I really enjoyed reading about your experience.  Fresh and real.  Thanks for sharing.

  • Candy Fite

    Great post, Sarah! I'm so happy your book signing was a success! Whatever is in the bowl on the cover of your cookbook, looks scrumptious, cozy & warm!

  • Erin Emerson

    Hi Sarah, I love this post!  And that settles it...when my ms finally sees the light of day, I will give lap dances at signings.  ;)

  • Suzanne Barston

    Oh, Sarah, you just made my day with this post - I'm sitting here spitting out my coffee, I'm laughing so hard.

     

    Can't wait for Julia's Child. I would be first in line at a book signing for that one, cookies or no cookies. ;)

  • Sarah Pinneo

    Thank you, all.  @Helen: I just read a publicity book by Christine Rose where she talks about costume tricks.  Apparently it's big in the steampunk genre. I thought it sounded like a lot of fun.

  • Helen W. Mallon

    Hilarious post!  I saw a tarantula recently at a book signing.  It was a giveaway.  Just kidding.  

     

    Actually, WAS at a signing this weekend for the YA book "Sirenz" when I was approached by a handsome fellow in a black vest who identified himself as "Hades"--who turned out to be one of the characters in the book.  He gave me his business card.  I thought hiring an actor to portray one of the characters was pretty inspired.  And the card is a hoot.  HADES--Mortal Woes Resolved.  Invoke me. I'll find you.  

  • AngryCat

    Oh well. All I`d have to offer in a situation like this would be a shaky smile and a snarky remark on someone's white socks in brown sandals...

  • Ilie Ruby

    Great piece. Looking forward to your updates and to the new book!

  • Kim Kircher

    I love this idea. Thank you. This will come in handy as I approach the launch date on my book. While I book is not about cooking, I just might offer cookies too. Who wouldn't want a home baked cookie? By the way, I found your cookbook Ski House Cooking and bought it. I'm a skier so I was hooked right away.

  • Lisette Brodey

    Great post! Love learning something new to put in the old "database." Thanks.

  • Flora Morris Brown

    It's absolutely true that offering the passersby at a book signing a treat of some kind warms even the coldest stare.

  • Sarah Pinneo

    Thanks, ladies!  @Susan, I think your popcorn idea is adorable.  Popcorn is utterly affordable, and so thematic!  @Love, I can only imagine.  Since the publication of my cookbook, I've gained a lot of empathy for publicists!

  • Susan Winlaw

    What a great tip. I just had to bounce a few ideas around and I can now hand out tiny bags of popcorn with our movie review guide books. I have done one author signing in our local Starbucks and I found the same thing. The audience came in focused on getting that caffeine fix and did not want to avert their eyes for something new and different in the store. But it was my first one and as a self published author, something I am having to set up totally on my own. My co-author and hubby does not wish to leave the house and so this is my side of the promotion. I really appreciate hearing your tip about the freebie. I might be able to do that when I get into our local Chapters store. I'll check out your book as I love cookbooks. S>

  • Love Babz

    What a charming story.  I used to be a publicist...it is a world unto itself.  I used to work in entertainment public relations and occasionally I got to handle a few authors...some quite well known.  Anyway, I am glad you got your bearing and made it work for your sense of self. ...Now off to look for your cookbook ;)

  • Deborah Batterman

    You've captured just about every possible emotion connected to marketing one's book -- not to mention the need to be resourceful every step of the way. Yes, there is something about cookies. And congratulations . . . .I wish you well with the book.

  • Sarah Pinneo

    Thanks Bridget & Joanne!  What's your pub date, Joanne?  I've got a 1/31/12 date for my next book.

  • Very relatable, very useful...as I prepare for my own book launch in 2012. Thanks for sharing.