15 Mar How to Sell A Book In America, Part II: road trip
Back from the first leg of my Kiss Me Stranger book tour — Seattle, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago — and I have a few things to share.
1) Waiting in line for TSA clearance, a fellow traveler (a woman) said to me: “You aren’t going to Haiti, are you?”
“No,” I said, puzzled. “Are you?”
“No,” she said. “You just looked like you were going to Haiti.”
I found this so bizarre, I made no reply.
2) I’d forgotten how hilly Seattle is. Those living there inform me that the appearance of the sun is so rare that, on the days it does appear, everyone runs into the street and starts stripping. Then they lie on the nearest flat surface and bask in the brief heat, like lizards on rocks.
3) You may wonder why any author would travel clear across the country to sell a handful of books. Surely, it can’t be cost effective. You’re right, it’s not — not if you think of it in terms of a direct exchange. I mean, an author could purchase boxes and boxes of her own books from the publisher if all she wanted to do was clear the books out of the warehouse. But the idea is to get those books into the hands of readers, right?
So, the traveling writer is seeking that one special reader — on the coast or in the hinterland — who will LOVE the book and become, perhaps, a FAN and then SPREAD THE WORD. This wouldn’t happen if the writer bought up all of her own books. Or if the writer didn’t leave her house to do readings.
Readings, really, are so old fashioned. It harks back to cave dwellers hunkered around a camp fire,k listening to a story-teller. It’s a most basic human interaction. This is what makes a reading so thoroughly special — even if there are only a few people listening (as there were in Minneapolis, alas).
4) I got my first full body scan in the Chicago airport. Am I mistaken in thinking that it may not be healthy for a frequent traveler to get scanned frequently?
5) At every reading there were two or more high schoolers or college students taking notes for a class assignment. I found this heartening. I didn’t know students still did things like that.
6) I read with Jessica Anya Blau in Seattle. When I phoned her earlier that day, she was whispering because she thought she’d lose her voice. But, then, when I saw her later, she was fine. Someone she hadn’t seen since high school showed up at our reading. I can’t remember whether or not he bought her book. Jessica, did he buy a book?
7) There was a woman waiting for me to read at Boswell’s Books in Milwaukee — a good fifteen minutes before the event. I did my best to charm her during this time and, in fact, found out a lot about her life, e.g.: she and I lived in Berkeley, CA, at the same time (though not together, mind you). She seemed to enjoy the reading and she loved the free candy I was handing out. But she didn’t buy my book.
This happens at every reading. There are people who go to readings for the entertainment (and I do try to be entertaining) but they never buy a book. You can’t take that personally. I’m happy to enrich the lives of these listeners, if only briefly.
8) In Minneapolis, I shared the bill with Lars Martinson, who is doing a series of lovely graphic novels — called Tonoharu — about an American teaching English in Japan. This is closely based on Lars’s own experience. Before the reading, he was speaking in Japanese with one of his Japanese friends in the audience. I was terribly impressed by this.
9) At one point, I offered Lars a piece of NO TIME gum. I’d bought it in Seattle at a very cool Japanese super market — Uwajimaya — the kind of store you just don’t find on the East coast. I love Japanese supermarkets because the Japanese make interesting stuff and their packaging is exceptional. Lars said he hadn’t seen NO TIME gum before, even though it’s Japanese. It’s meant to replace a tooth brush when you’re on the run (“no time!”). It would never sell in the U.S. because it’s ugly gum and not sweet enough. And there aren’t enough chemicals in it.
By the way,: let us say a prayer for the Japanese as they recover from their tsunami. You can donate here.
11) When I got to Minneapolis, I found that my car reservation had not gone through. FYI: if you don’t have a reservation, you are penalized by much higher prices. It doesn’t matter what your excuse is. I had a choice of renting a 12-seater van for $45 or a standard car for $100. Which do you think I took? The van was about 25 feet long and sat so high off the ground it barely cleared the parking deck ceiling. I knew that, if I was in a crash, I would not die — because the van was so large. But I worried that if I hit somebody’s car, I’d kill everybody in it.
12) Whenever I travel, I always forget to pack 1-3 vital items. This time I forgot the ear-buds to my MP3 player. Also the mouse to my computer (I hate touch pads.) Also a sweater, which would have been useful in Minneapolis..
13) Apparently, there are no bargain car rentals to be had in Chicago — even with advanced reservations. I had the choice of renting a 12-passenger van (again!) for $30 or a standard car for $120. Which do you think I chose?
14) I’m pretty good about keeping track of my stuff, and so I was dismayed when I left the power cord to my computer in the Seattle airport (I was distracted by my malfunctioning cell phone). I went looking for a replacement cord in Minneapolis. The nearest store happened to be in the Mall of America. For those of you who don’t know: this is the largest mall in the nation. So large, in fact, it has an amusement park at its center. So large I expected to see vultures circling overhead. You could spend days, weeks, in there. I saw somebody taking a photo of his parking location with his phone so that he could be sure to find his way back to that particular deck. MOA claims to be “one of the top tourist destinations in the nation.” My friends from Minneapolis say they’ve never been there.
15) I carry food with me when I travel — fruit, bread, raisins, etc. I’ve learned to make oatmeal (regular, not instant) in the hotel-room coffee maker. And I also carry an orange reamer to make my own fresh juice because, generally, food on the road sucks, especially if you’re stuck in an airport motel. I used to be a musician on Nevada’s casino circuit and did a lot of travel. So the food thing for me — carrying around groceries and cooking things in my room — started long ago.
The problem is, food often confuses the TSA folk. Is hummus a liquid? Is peanut butter?
I was packing both on this trip. So I scoped out the TSA lines and looked for the drowsiest scanner technicians, then I put the bag with my food in the middle of my several items, making sure to place something questionable — like an empty thermos — in the bin before my food bag (to act as a distraction). It’s not that my food is against the rules, it’s just that the TSA isn’t always sure what the rules are. And sometimes you get these little Napoleons who are itchy to see some excitement: “What is this, sir?”
“You know, bean paste.”
“You’re not supposed to carry more than three ounces of liquids, sir.”
“This isn’t a liquid, it’s a paste.”
“If it moves, it’s a liquid, sir.”
“I’m moving and I’m not a liquid.”
“I’m not asking for an attitude, sir.”
“That’s my lunch you’re holding– hand it to me now and I’ll eat it, then we’ll have no problem, right?”
You see how this could go. Fortunately, I picked the right lines with sleepy TSA techs and I got to keep my lunch every time.
16) I happen to get to the Chicago airport 3 hours early. Apparently this guaranteed that my bag would get loaded onto the wrong plane.
17) It is invigorating and wonderful to visit independent book stores. And I visited some great ones: Elliott Bay in Seattle, Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis, Boswell’s Books in Milwaukee, and Barbara’s Books in Chicago. We have every reason to fear for their well-being. You may recall the boom years of the 1990s when Borders got big and Barnes & Noble sprouted up in every mall in America. It seemed books were here to stay. The abrupt turn in book-seller fortune in recent years leaves many analysts pondering. They point to waning market eaten up by e-books and Amazon, but e-books account for miniscule sales and it’s hard to say, at this point, what will last. We must remember that, for most of our literary history, readers have been a small number of the population. Reading may always be a rarefied pursuit. Never mind that everybody, it seems, wants to be a writer nowadays.
18) Milwaukee is very much like Baltimore. They are almost the same size, with similar skylines, both sit on the water in the same way (to the left, if you approach from the south), both are blue-collar towns, both known for their distinctive neighborhoods, with lots of local taverns, and both have three syllables (as do their states). They’re so alike that, for years after moving to Baltimore, I often said, “I live in Milwaukee, Maryland.”
19) Whenever I go to the West coast, I realize how much I miss Asian culture. It’s not just the great number of Asian restaurants, it’s also the great number of Asians themselves. And lots of cool Asian art and architecture and fashion and books. I went to a killer Japanese book store, Kinokuniya in Seattle. Here’s the Japanese link, if you want a different visual. Kinokuniya is as authentic as it gets — it’s a huge store packed with everything Japanese, including aisles of anime. I could have spent a day there.
20) How many books did I sell on this first leg of my tour? Enough, I suppose, but not nearly enough. It is said that authors make back the expense of publishing their books if they sell from 3-5,000 copies.
These are probably the last years of book tours for all but the most famous authors because everybody in America is distracted and overbooked and overstimulated and, at the end of the day, exhausted. It’s tough getting even relatives to leave their houses at night. I understand this because I live it too. Still, reading for strangers is a blast, even if just a handful of strangers. So I’m not going to stop unless the bookstores tell me to stop (and plenty do, by the way).
As one respondent to this blog pointed out: niche marketing may be the only, perhaps last, resort for us writers. Nevertheless, in May I’ll go to California and Colorado and who knows where else? And years from now, I’ll tell my students about this strange thing that authors used to do, fly to distant cities to read their books to strangers who, if impressed or intrigued, would pay good money for those paper artifacts that used to crowd the shelves of stores that, quaintly, sold nothing but paper artifacts.