Selling books takes a lot of guts. The author must get out in front of people. He or she has to be a shameless self-promoter. To do things right, they must believe in their work.
None of these things come easily to me. I am full of doubt. I often feel I will expose myself as a fraud. But when my first book came out in 2009 and again with my second book in 2015, I put all my doubts and fears aside—I didn’t get rid of them, just took a deep breath and walked out into traffic, so to speak.
Authors must sell their work, whether they self-publish or not. As a book editor in the early 2000’s, I dealt with writers who wanted to know what the publisher was doing to sell their works. We sent copies to reviewers. We had salespeople calling on bookstores. We had books at trade shows. We published a slick catalogue that went to readers and bookstores.
But that was it. I soon learned that the most successful authors promoted themselves and their work. They did author events, had book talks, and held seminars. When the University of Nebraska published my books, I took those lessons to heart. I set up book talks at libraries. I arranged bookstore events. I talked to in-home book groups, as well as clubs and organizations that might be interested in my travel memoirs.
I E-mailed public libraries and historic sites, then followed up with calls. The public affairs people at these institutions heard me out and said they’d get back with me. They often did within just a few days or weeks. They had budgets for speakers and calendars to fill holes in. These people made careers out of putting interesting people in from of the public. They knew they had a keeper in a guy who spent the better part of a year walking and canoeing the Great Plains.
The most successful of these events happened when the library or nature center possessed a big E-mail list and had regular readers for their newsletters. The places that did no publicity or announcement produced negligible audiences. Fortunately, almost all the libraries paid me to speak. So, even in the worst circumstances I could walk away, at least, with a couple hundred bucks in my pocket.
Bookstores were trickier. Many bookstores don’t have regular programs with which they link authors to the buying public. Don’t ask me why. If I owned a bookstore, I would want to sell books. Having authors in on a regular basis, and publicizing the events would bring people to my store. It might, at first, be an exercise in futility, but over time such practice would grow.
But bookstores often don’t act as if they want to sell books. Most bookstores don’t want to have an author in unless the author can guarantee that he or she will bring in family and friends to warrant purchase of stock. Numerous bookstores turned me away because, well, they said, you just aren’t known around here. I’d do the publicity, I said. Yeah, well, they said in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, we don’t have luck with author events.
You gotta want it if you’re gonna get it.
I scheduled only a couple of bookstore events as I promoted my books. I had to do the legwork. It’s one thing to want an author in your store and quite another to let everyone know the author is coming. I went to the bookstores that did no publicity and stood in the middle of the place looking like a stooge.
It was those moments when I would contemplate my fate. I didn’t do enough to get the word out. I can’t trust people to do the work that may be beneficial for them. I am the one who needed to call the radio stations, contact the newspapers, put the event in the media and online events calendars. When I did those things, it turned out well for me. When I didn’t and, instead, relied on the beneficiary of the event, things just didn’t pop.
Then, there was one bookstore event that was a real nightmare. I learned a lot about self-promotion and book sales from it, so it wasn’t a waste of my time.
The store was an independent in a medium-sized Kansas city. (If I mention the name, you will be able to figure out what the bookstore was, and I don’t want to burn any bridges, just in case.) They invited me to their annual author day. It sounded like a great deal. They’d buy the stock, they said. They have authors in and since it was an annual big-deal for the store, I assumed that the customers would come.
Besides this, I had no idea what to expect. I drove the 100 miles to the town and found the place. I walked in and introduced myself. Twenty-five authors sat at tables arranged in a U in the center of the store. Ideally, customers would come in, peruse the wares, and, hopefully, buy some. It’s the kind of thing a writer dreams of, readers who want the books authors have labored so hard to create.
But through the four-hour event, only about ten real people came through the door. I should have known what was up when most of the authors self-published their works. I have nothing against self-publishing. Many good authors put their wares out on the market and try to sell them. But my chair was next to a guy who had self-published something like 15 books. He wrote, he said, and put things on his website to sell themselves.
I was interested. I mean, the guy had piles of books in front of him. He must be accomplished. But he was very lackadaisical about his work. I asked him how many of his books he sold in a year. “Oh,” he said, “I might sell two or three.”
That killed me. Obviously, this guy was not serious about his work. Did he sweat to craft what he thought were readable works? If so, why wouldn’t he take the next step? If it’s worth writing, it’s worth selling. (Ironically, what’s worth writing is not always worth reading.) I found that most of the people at the event felt the same way the guy next to me did. I doubt more than five or six authors sold anything, and then only to each other.
Earlier this year, the Mid-Continent Public Library in Liberty invited me to their author day. I accepted, knowing the people at the library from doing events there in the past. But I had low expectations. I had flashbacks of the bookstore author day in that Kansas town.
The library set out a line of tables. Twelve or 15 authors took their places behind the tables. Some of the authors were self-published. But they had some pluck to them. I talked to many of them and they were actively promoting their work. One couple in particular, Aaron Barnhart and Diane Eickhoff, people I have known for many years, published their own books and wound up creating their own press, Quindaro Press. It was good to see them, as I always enjoy the rousing conversation the duo generates.
My son and I took up at the table near the door. I knew this author day was something different when, right from the beginning, interested people came through the front door. Soon, tens of people were filing past, introducing themselves and wanting to hear about my books. It was great. I sold about $300 worth of books that day.
And here’s the most important part: Nick got to see me at work. I was confident. I handed out my cards, shook hands, and had long discussions with people. I thought he was bored, but he said he found things interesting. Then, I walked down to have a conversation with Aaron and Dianne. After a few minutes, I looked around. More people had come through the door and stopped at my table. Nick was standing there, telling people about my books and handing out my cards. He was selling books.
At the end of the day, about four hours, we packed up our wares. I made one last round of the other authors, shaking hands and wishing luck. When Nick and I got out to the car, I asked him how he liked the event.
“Dad,” he said, “you really need to bring me along every time you have a deal like this.”
For the first time in years, I felt confident that I wasn’t a fraud.