Monday, October 22, 2007

The Art of the Soft Sell

Writers suck at selling.

It's understandable. Most writers are better at expressing themselves on paper than in person. They tend to be shy, or introverted, or lacking confidence, or even lacking basic social skills.

Put a writer in a situation where he is forced to sell the books he spent so many hours creating, and many conflicting emotions boil to the surface.

I've seen writers at booksignings, and conventions, and fairs, sitting behind stacks of their novels, and I can read their thoughts:

  • I don't want to be here.

  • Why won't anyone buy anything?

  • This is humiliating.

  • This isn't why I became a writer.

  • Doesn't anyone know I'm here?

  • The organizers really screwed this event up.

  • Don't I have fans?

  • It's the publisher's job to sell books, not mine.

  • I'm bored.

  • I stink at this.

  • Why do people keep saying no?

  • I hate pimping myself.

  • It's the booksellers job to sell books, not mine.

  • I can't sell a book to save my life.

  • I'm petrified.

  • No one likes me.

  • I'm exhausted.

  • I'm not a salesman, I'm an artist.

  • I hate being pushy.

  • Why is everyone ignoring me?

  • If I get asked where the bathroom is one more time, I'm leaving.

So these writers avoid doing events where they're forced to sell books. They believe they aren't good at it, and it's much easier to give up than to learn a new skill set which will help them succeed.

The fact is, pretty much anyone can handsell books. Booksignings don't have to be traumatic failures. I've blogged extensively about this before HERE, so I'm not going to repeat myself. Instead, I'm going to offer some suggestions based on things that I've learned about human nature.

Selling is Flirting

Going up to a stranger in a bar and saying, "Wanna fuck?" isn't the best strategy for success. It might work occasionally, but you'll annoy more people than you entice.

The secret to getting anyone interested in you, whether it is as a date or as a purchase, is pretty straightforward.

1. Make eye contact and smile.

The way you look and act will give people a silent signal that you're friendly and approachable. If you're well groomed and dressed, and your body language shows you're relaxed, non-threatening, and interested, then you're already halfway there.

2. Ask questions to develop a common ground.

If someone is in a bookstore, or at a writing conference, chances are they're there because they like books. There are a hundred questions you could ask, from "Enjoying the conference?" to "Do you like thrillers?" Keep asking questions until you get more than monosyllabic answers. The secret to drawing a person out is finding what they truly want to talk about. And everyone has something they want to talk about.

3. Sugarcoat your pitch.

The secret to selling is to make it seem like you aren't selling. No one likes being sold. Luckily, you aren't there to sell books. You're there to meet people who are actively looking for the types of books that you write. The key is to find out what they like, and make them aware your books fit the bill.

4. Make physical contact.

The easiest way to do this is to hand them a copy of the book, or hand them a flyer or bookmark. A handshake is usually welcome too. The impact of physical touch is powerful, and connects us as human beings more than anything else does.

5. Make it personal for them, but not for you.

During those seconds or minutes you're with a potential buyer, they should feel like they're the center of your universe. But because more people say no than yes, you can't actually let them be the center of your universe, because the constant rejection will tear you apart. If someone has no interest in you or your book, you can't take it personally. You also can't take it personally if someone really gets a huge thrill out of talking to you. This is a vicarious relationship, no emotional investment required or desired.

6. Learn to recognize interest.

Some (most) people don't want to be bothered with you, or your book. This doesn't mean they're horrible people, and it doesn't mean you suck. Almost every person has developed defenses to ward off annoying sales pitches. Avoiding eye contact, ignoring you, offering clipped or rude replies, sneering---these are all consumer equivalents to a rattlesnake shaking his tail. Let them pass and seek out someone more receptive. You're not there to waste time, yours or theirs. You're there to meet people who will love your writing. After you've shaken off the fear and tried this for a few hours, you can get pretty good at sizing up who is will give your books a shot.

How does this work in real life? Here are some pastiches drawn from the thousands of times I've done this. Each of these is 100% true.

Example #1 - The Browser

Our hero (me) is standing next to a huge pile of his books, by the front entrance of the bookstore. A man walks in, ignores me (most people do), and walks straight to the New Releases where he picks up James Patterson's latest. I walk up to him, arms at my sides, holding my newest novel.

ME: Patterson fan?

MAN: Hmm? Oh, yeah.

ME: I love the Alex Cross series. Do you have a favorite?

MAN: No, I pretty much read everything he writes.

ME: Do you like other thriller writers?

MAN: I like Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, Lee Child.

ME: (smiling) I love Lee Child. He blurbed my second book.

MAN: You're a writer?

ME: (holding up my book) Yep. This is me. My books are a lot like Patterson's, with the action of Child. They're about a Chicago cop named Jack Daniels. Fast reads, a lot of dialog, a lot of suspense. (hands the book to the man)

MAN: Which one is the best?

ME: The latest one is the best. But it's a series, and a lot of people like to start at the beginning. It goes Whiskey Sour, Bloody Mary, Rusty Nail, Dirty Martini. You're sensing the theme.

MAN: I used to drink Rusty Nails in college.

ME: Where'd you go to school?

MAN: U of I.

ME: I used to party down at that campus, in the 90's.

MAN: (walks over tot he table, picks up Whiskey Sour) This is your first?

ME: That's it. If you're interested, I'd love to sign a copy for you.

MAN: Let's do it. (hands me the book.)

ME: Can I make it out to you?

MAN: Me. My name is Ryan.

ME: Hi, Ryan. I'm JA. (shake his hand, then sign his book "Ryan, Don't Read and Drive, JA") Thanks, Ryan. You'll like it. I promise. And since I have a character named Jack Daniels (I sign a coaster and hand it to him) it's a law that I have to give out drink coasters.

MAN: Thanks. (goes to register to buy my book, the new James Patterson forgotten)

Example #2 - The Interested Party

Our hero (me again) is at a multi-author event where we're all lined up at a table, waiting for people to approach us. Some folks do, but the majority of the customers are at the bookseller tables, or wandering the room.

I get up and walk around, introducing myself and passing out signed coasters. Then I head for the bookseller table and see a woman staring at one of my novels.

ME: I've heard that guy sucks.

WOMAN: (looks at me, then my nametag, then smiles) You're the author.

ME: (holding out hand) JA Konrath, nice to meet you. (shakes) What's your name?

WOMAN: Mary.

ME: Do you like thrillers, Mary?

WOMAN: I read a little bit of everything.

ME: Then you'll love me. My books are funny, like Janet Evanovich or Carl Hiaasen, but they also have some scary parts, like James Patterson when he wrote his own books. Who do you read?

WOMAN: I love Evanovich. My whole family loves her.

ME: Me too. I haven't read Thirteen yet, but I read the other twelve. Is it worth picking up?

WOMAN: I liked it. I laughed a lot.

ME: Does she finally choose between Ranger and Morelli?

WOMAN: No. That drives me nuts.

ME: I agree. But would you recommend it?

WOMAN: It's not as funny as some of her earlier books, but it's worth reading.

ME: My books are funnier than Janet's.

WOMAN: Really?

ME: (handing her a book) It's about a female cop named Jack Daniels. Her personal life's a train wreck, but she's really good at her job. Lot's of humor. If this book doesn't make you laugh, you can mail it back to me and I'll send you a check for seventeen thousand dollars.

WOMAN: (laughing) You sold me.

ME: Great! Can I sign a copy to Mary, or is this for someone in your family?

Example #3 - The Reluctant Fan

Our hero (moi) has just finished speaking at some event, and it went well. People laughed in the right places, and several people approach me afterward.

FAN: I love your books.

ME: Thanks!

FAN: I get them at the library.

ME: I love libraries.

FAN: I do too. But sometimes there's a waiting list. I hate waiting. When is the new one coming out in paperback?

ME: In about eleven months.

FAN: I'm a huge fan. Can you just give me a copy?

ME: I wish I could. But these books don't belong to me. Does anyone in your family like to read?

FAN: Everyone does. My mom loves your books.

ME: You could always buy the copy for her, then you can read it beforehand. Does she have a birthday coming up?

FAN: Yes. Next month.

ME: (hands over a hardcover) A personalized book makes a great gift. And you can always tell her you spent six hours in line to see me, and got the last one.

FAN: (smiling) Okay, you sold me. Her name is Andrea.

ME: With an "A"?

Example #4 - The Gawker

Our hero is in the middle of pitch, and a few folks have stopped to watch what's going on. First, I step back, inviting them into the circle. I hand each person a coaster, making eye contact without pausing in the spiel. The spiel is something along the lines of:

"I'm an author, and I write thrillers about a cop named Jack Daniels."

If the gawkers are mostly women, I mention that Jack is short for Jacqueline. If they're mostly men, I leave that part out.

"The books are laugh outloud funny. If you're drinking something while reading, it will come out your nose. But they're also scary--they'll make you lock your doors and windows. Similar to James Patterson, but with more jokes than Janet Evanovich."

I pick up some of my titles and hold them up.

"They're all named after drinks. There are four in the series so far, and a fifth is coming out next year. I'd love to sign some copies for you. They make great gifts, and great investments. After you get a signature it will sell for triple on eBay."

I hand out some books so people can take a look. A few of them ask me to sign them immediately.

Now let's see if I can anticipate the backlash to this article by placing myself in the shoes of skeptics using a whiny Q & A format.

Q: I'd never do this. I'm a writer, not a huckster like you.

A: I believe that people will enjoy my books. In order for them to do so, they first have to read them. I'm the most qualified person to make people aware of this. I also have the most vested interest in this happening.

Q: I hate sales. Salesmen are pushy, slick liars who want to take your money by preying on your insecurities and weaknesses.

A: Don't think of it as sales. Think of it as finding new fans. Which you'll do. You'll also impress the booksellers, and maybe even your publisher. And, for the record, try not to let your publisher hear your views on selling. Personally, I think sales people are the coolest folks on the planet, and I fully appreciate my reps.

Q: I couldn't do what you do.

A: Yes you could. You simply don't want to, and have made up excuses for yourself instead of trying.

Q: I've tried, and I'm no good at it.

A: Try harder. Being lazy, afraid, or embarassed isn't a good reason to quit. Failure is a learning experience. Figure out what went wrong, then try to do better next time.

Q: Maybe you should write better books, and then they'd sell without you having to do this.

A: The best written book in the world will always sell more copies if the author promotes it.

Q: How often does this work?

A: It's possible to sell dozens of books to strangers during your visit, depending on foot-traffic and length of stay. I average one book sold for every eight people I approach.

Q: That doesn't seem worth my time.

A: Since 2004, I've handsold several thousand books. Every single time you sell a book to someone who wouldn't have otherwise discovered it, it's worth your time.

Q: Selling isn't my job. Writing is my job.

A: Being self-employed is like being the CEO of your own company. It's a really lousy CEO who focuses on production with total disgrard for who is buying the product. A better approach is to study every aspect of what your company does, and implement ways to improve things wherever possible.

Q: I know a lot of authors who sell a lot more books than you do, and they don't do any of this crap.

A: People win the lottery every day. That doesn't mean it's wise to invest your retirement savings in scratch-off tickets.

Q: How am I supposed to handsell books when I have a fulltime job/family/sick cat/hang nail/grandiose sense of entitlement/fear of public speaking/sweating disorder?

A: I don't know of any goal worth pursuing that doesn't involve hard work, sacrifice, and commitment. Becoming a writer isn't easy. Staying a writer is even harder. How hard you work at it tells a lot about how important it is to you.


Trish Ryan said...

Well done! I could picture Our Hero in each of these scenerios, and your responses made me laugh. And nice job anticipating all the anti-comments :)

Anonymous said...

Joe: I've done about 60 book signings and logged 200-plus hours in BN and Borders stores. So, I know what I'm saying when I say that you know what you're saying. Good job in breaking it down so well. Anyone who wants to handsell books should listen very carefully to what you say. You absolutely nailed it. Best, Jim.

Martel said...

One of the benefits of volunteering for Twilight Tales is that I had to learn how to sell books in order to help that organization remain viable. I wasn't published at the time, so I was selling other authors work. I have a few stories out now and have done some of my own events and it was much easier than it would have been if I had not had that experience.

One of the greatest compliments I ever received was when a major author told me that I sold more of his books at a con than he ever had. It was a real ego boost.

I'd also dare to mention that if you are at a multi-author signing and the person you are talking to isn't interested in your book but likes something similar to what one of the other authors writes, make sure you point them in that author's direction. While it's important to sell yourself, it's also important to help your colleagues out when you can.

Farrago said...


I'm NOT a published writer, and you seem to address only those who are, so perhaps I am unwelcome here. I do, however, aspire to be published, and I seek some advice.

I've been working on a story that has ballooned in scope to novel length. I think it's a great story idea and am currently teetering at the precipice of detailed research, but my full-time employment has so far offered little time for it.

While my narrative is as yet largely unfinished, I do have a complete treatment from which I have been writing. When is the best time to seek an agent? Should I have a completed manuscript in hand? Is the treatment and a few written chapters enough to shop around?

I'll hit one of the Bs to find your Jack Daniels books. Your advice should not come without some sort of compensation.


Tez Miller said...

I hate pimping myself.
Actually, that's whoring - pimping is when someone else does the selling for you ;-)

Have a lovely day! :-)

Jerry Allen said...

Joe...kinda weird, but you are a pro writer selling something. I am a pro salesman trying to write. LOL. Anyway, what you hve said here is balls on accurate! If any of you here think you cant sell, you are dead wrong. ANYONE can sell something if you just take the time to learn how and be yourself!

The first rule of selling, and Joe does this well in his scenarios, is to sell yourself! Dont sell the product, sell YOU! People will buy from people that they like. If i ever can get someone shaking their heads yes and smiling and laughing, they are toast. I will sell those people every time! YOU can do this too. All it takes is a little balls and bringing out the personality that your friends and family know and love.

Sell yourself...then sell your book.

Great Post, Joe!

Frederick Smith said...

Great advice and motivation. I have found that even in the midst of self-doubt about handselling, that I do a pretty good job of it. It feels more like general conversation and flirting, rather than "selling" something. Thanks for another great post!

Bernita said...

As you suggest - treat potential customers like people , not prey.

JA Konrath said...

I'm NOT a published writer, and you seem to address only those who are, so perhaps I am unwelcome here.

Everyone is welcome. Especially newbies (hence the name of this blog).

When is the best time to seek an agent? Should I have a completed manuscript in hand?

You should have a completed manuscript that has been rewritten, rewritten again, shown to friends, peers, and family, rewritten again, edited, and polished, before you search for an agent.

Have new authors sold novels on proposal? Sure. Anything is possible. But 99.999% of them do not.

Your best bet is to finish it and make sure it's perfect.

Farrago said...

Thanks! I'll keep plugging away at it, then.

Roddy Reta said...

I think some people, quite frankly, just don't have the personality to handsell. Putting an intensely shy or introverted person in such a situation is pretty much a disaster waiting to happen. Anybody who has met JA Kornath will notice that he is not shy. So handselling is something that works to his personal strengths.

Instead of pushing shy authors to handsell (which has a dubious cost/benefit ratio anyway), I would think that other methods of marketing, such as written on-line communications, would be far more appropriate.

After all, you don't go to software engineers and require them to sell the product. A smart industry knows how to divide the labor better.

JA Konrath said...

After all, you don't go to software engineers and require them to sell the product.

If software sells poorly, the designer can still get work.

I envy shy people. I can't think of anything more worthwhile than learning new skills and conquering fears.

Darcy McKenna said...

Great blog, Joe. I can relate to all of these scenarios. Except I always have chocolate to hand out - that seems to be a good draw (LOL). It's funny, but I can stand in front of a group of 100 or more at my day job and feel perfectly relaxed, but when it comes to selling my own books I tend to get a little weirded out. Thanks for letting us know that it can happen to anybody.


PJ Parrish said...


This is good stuff because most of us really DON'T like this part of the business and few of us are as natural at it as you.

If you are going to do a signing, you might as well do it this way. Cuz if you're going to sit there like a constipated nun, you might as well not bother.

You forgot one last customer type: The guy who wants to write a book.

Guy: You an author?
Me: Yeah, this is my book and --
Guy: I'm going to write a book.
Me: Oh? Well...
Guy: I sold dildos over the phone after I got back from the Navy and my ex wife tried to kill me with a Ginsu knife so I have this great thriller about...
Me: That's great but --
Guy: I just need someone to help me get it in shape. You interested in making some good money?
Me: I don't do ghostwriting.
Guy: Then how bout you gimme your agent's name. Can I tell her I talked to you?

Just shoot me now. And the guy. Before he starts typing.

RAC said...

Joe, your scenarios are an excellent teaching tool, and you should be applauded for creating positive imagery and cognitive scripts for all us newbies. I'm finishing an MBA this fall, and it's amazing what they do NOT teaching in marketing classes. Two years of grad school down the drain!

PJ, I don't know, a book about a crazy sailor in the sex biz who gets attacked by his wife with a ginsu knife sounds like a good read to me -- with darkly comic subtextual possibilities -- a man with a woman in every port who has no clue as to what women really want! You should write that story.

MikeH said...

Pastiches? [reaches for dictionary].

Great post, Joe. Although I'm still looking forward to the day when I can suck at selling my books, I'll try to keep all of this in mind.

Stacey Cochran said...

Selling the book is the aspect of the process that I love. It's like being in "the zone" to be among readers, talking, smiling, hearing their thoughts and feedback.

I guess I'm atypical, though. I fuckin' love the schmooze. I just love people, and I love the art of selling a book.

It's not so much selling the book (i.e., for money); I don't care about the money. It's just the interaction, the "flirt" as you put it, JA, between a writer and a potential reader.

That's what I love.

And I love putting myself out there, pushing myself to go to a place that may raise other writers' eyebrows.

For example, have you seen my website?

#1 on last week. Currently #11 on And fighting to stay in the race on Google in #58th .

Darryl Sloan said...

Your advice is so American that I had to smile.

Picturing example one happening to me (here in Northern Ireland) was funny. Believe me, you could not do this here. We Irish are nothing like Americans. Do this in Northern Ireland and the person on the receiving end is going to think the author is trying to pick him up.

Over here, strangers in shops do not strike up spontaneous conversations. It would freak me out.

Cynthia E. Bagley said...

I had a good laugh with our hero. Now if only I could do that in person. LOL

Mark Terry said...

Well damn, you mean I'm going to have to stop tackling people in the bookstore, knocking them to the ground and beating them over the head with my book saying, "Buy this and I'll stop, buy this and I'll stop!"???

It's been working so well for me.

Conda said...

Hilarious and helpful post, Joe.

What is it about creative types? My folks owned an art gallery. Not only would the vast majority of artists never meet the public, but some of them fussed about having their art displayed! "If you don't let people know about what you've got to sell, they won't buy," my mom always said.

In this world, we still have to let people know...

Michael said...

I love this blog. Double shots of fun and optimism for everyone (not to mention the great, pragmatic advice).

Keep it up.

Michael said...


You have more published books under your belt than some people who have written "how to write" books. When are you going to write a "how to write" book?

I think yours would be at least as helpful as others out there, and probably more fun to read than most. I'd buy a copy.

Since you name your novels after drinks, maybe the narrator of your "how to write" book could be a bartender. :-)

Zoe said...

Selling is like flirting? Not exactly great news, seeing as I can't flirt to save my life :P

Carolyn said...

As a shy person who has her first book coming out in the spring, I have come to depend on this blog for my education on how to market. Thanks, Joe! (And I'll second Michael's request for a how-to book. Much easier to have all these great ideas and anecdotes in one portable form than to dig back through the archives, and print the entries you want, etc.)

Amanda said...

OMG this advice is super fun! I can't wait to get my own book published so I can try it out myself

I don't know why people are shy because talking to people is FUN!! Get out there and sell those books people! Thank you JA your blog is FANTASTIC!!!

Laura Benedict said...

Your advice is like gold! I'm just finishing up my tour for my first novel, ISABELLA MOON, and your previous advice for booksignings was terrific. (Particularly taking treats for the staff!)

My weakness is approaching people, but your characterizations of customers here feels dead on. Strangely, I seem to attract a lot of older men already bearing map/history/philosophy/diet books they say they can't afford. But I think I can learn to change them into fans. Can't wait until Saturday's B&N gig! Blessings--Laura

Cynthia E. Bagley said...

I saw a an author signing books at our small Borders yesterday. I was browsing books and kept checking out what he was doing. (he was really good at smoozing). His books were for children... so...

Anyway, just as he finished talking to some schoolteachers, a man walked up and asked him for the name and address of his agent. LOL

Wow... the author sure knew how to deal with this guy. But it was funny.

mike said...

It's like being at a party: most of us are relieved when we meet someone who's fun and easy to talk to for a while...even if they're not the sort of person we'd want to spend hours with. I'd be happy to let any author entertain me for a few minutes on that basis.
And that's how I sell my own books.

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Jeffrey said...

Handselling seems to work for you because you are young, handsome and personable. But what about cantankerous old coots who have not treaded in that water yet?