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.