Hawking Our Wares

by Robert Gregory Browne

This isn’t the post you were originally meant to read.

Until last night, I had planned to release an allegory of sorts, a short story about two painters hawking their wares at an arts festival, a thinly disguised version of events that unfolded at a recent group signing I was involved in.

I decided to scrap it.  Why?  Because — as my wife rightly pointed out — it was too mean spirited and not nearly as clever as I originally thought it was.  And in my attempt to take a fellow author to task, I lost sight of the point of the post.

So that post is now gone. 

The incident that sparked it, however, is still fresh in my mind and several weeks later, the feelings that this incident stirred up don’t seem to want to go away.

So let’s talk about those feelings.

While I’ll never be one to call what we writers do "art," I certainly take pride in the work I put into a book.  It took me years to learn my craft, years to learn to paint pictures with words, to create three-dimensional characters, to keep a story moving forward through dialog and action and unexpected plot twists.

I don’t think I have to say that writing a book is not an easy thing to do, and those of us who manage and, better yet, manage to get it published,  have every right to cherish that accomplishment.

Once we do get published, however, a whole new set of realities enter our world, not the least of which is the task of promoting our books.

But the question I have to ask myself (especially after an encounter with an author whose take-no-prisoners enthusiasm for the task was annoying, to say the least) is:  what exactly are we selling?

Is the work we do, the product we represent, no different than link sausage or high-heeled shoes?  Are we in the same type of business as carnival barkers or medicine wagon hucksters?  Should we stand on a crowded street corner, megaphone in hand, and call potential readers over to sample our wares?

I don’t think so. 

Call me a snob, but I like to think that what we do is special.  And rare.  And when it comes to promoting my books, I try to do it with a kind of dignity that reflects that.   In a group promotional situation, I also try to treat those around me, my fellow authors, with the same kind of dignity and not allow my words and/or actions to make them feel uncomfortable or embarrassed. 

It’s simple courtesy.

Unfortunately, not all of us feel this way.  Some of us feel quite comfortable with that megaphone pressed against our lips, and selling our work is no different than selling a bottle of snake oil. For whatever reason — and who knows, it may be a good one — these authors feel compelled to grab every potential customer by the lapels and drag him or her over for a closer look at their "product."

But I’m just not built that way.   And maybe that’s a problem.  Maybe I need to wake up to the realities of the book business and realize that because we live in a world of short attention spans, a place filled with a lot of glittery objects, that I need to do whatever I can to get people to pay attention to mine.

A few weeks ago, I posted a forum topic over at Crimespace called BSP about my disdain for blatant self-promotion.  It turned out that my post touched such a nerve that I got dozens of comments and even won a Crimespace t-shirt after it was voted "topic of the month."

Several of the comments took me to task, telling me that promotion is a necessary part of the game.  But these people misunderstood what I was trying to say.  I have no problem with promotion.  I’ll gladly play that game as long as it’s necessary.

But where I draw the line is when that promotion crosses over into "blatant" territory, where everything we say and do is designed to push our product, where every encounter we have on an online forum or blog or in a chatroom is an opportunity to sell, sell, sell.

I believe in the soft sell.  And while I’m happy to do book tours and attend conventions and festivals and mingle with those who love to read, I’ll be damned if I’ll shove my book under everyone’s nose and beg them to read it.

Most of my selling is done on the page. And while I may be naive, I believe that good writing will eventually attract a following and that word of mouth is the very best selling tool we have.

I don’t want to be seen as a crass used car salesman.  I can’t imagine that anyone does.

So if you ever see me on a promotional tour, don’t be surprised if I keep it low key.  I’ll give my speech, sign my books, talk to you about reading or writing or whatever you feel like talking about.

But, please, don’t ever expect me to pick up that megaphone.

22 thoughts on “Hawking Our Wares

  1. Stacey Cochran

    I think you have to have a purpose greater than just selling your books. As I’ve matured into early adulthood, I’ve discovered a faith I might not have thought I had in my early twenties. Now, I have a dream; to be successful enough as a writer to build schools in third world countries. That drives me every morning when I wake and pray and start my day. Maybe I’ll achieve that kind of success; maybe I won’t. But it centers me and gives me focus every day.

    I guess the point is that it’s better to find something greater than yourself to drive what you do.

    Staceyhttp://www.staceycochran.com

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  2. Naomi

    Rob:

    You are extremely dignified–the Japanese call it “shibui.” This quality will carry you well from book to book.

    You might want to wield a samurai sword at these group promotional events. If someone gets out of hand, you can pull a John Belushi and cut books in half.

    Seriously, I do think that you need some kind of uniform for public events. Something that evokes your personality so you can communicate your essence without saying too much. Don’t laugh–I’m not kidding.

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  3. spyscribbler

    I don’t mind authors coming up and talking to me. (Okay, LOL … I’ve seen ONE author event in my local bookstore. I’m an EXPERT now, of course.) I don’t mind them telling me about their book in detail, showing it to me, chatting, everything.

    But you know what I really love? After we get done talking, I really love if they move away to someone else, leaving me the ability to put down the book (without worrying about hurting their feelings or awkwardly telling them I can’t buy it at the moment) if it’s not my thing, if I don’t have the money at the moment, or if I’ve put it on my mental list for next month.

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  4. tess gerritsen

    Bravo, Rob. I too wince when other authors tell me how great their books are, or use up an entire conversation talking about their writing. That’s why I’d much rather spend time with writers who can talk about something OTHER than writing.

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  5. JT Ellison

    Very nicely said, Rob. Class and dignity will always trump crass and obnoxious. And you’re right about what we do. It IS a gift, something special that not everyone can do, or will see success in the endeavor.

    Plus, you’re the writer we all look to for example. You’re honest, and kind and self-depricating at the right moments, supportive in the hard times. You have the respect of your peers, your ever-growing readership and your friends. Face it. You’re a class act, pal.

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  6. Bill Peschel

    If you need an example, look at Lynn Viehl (aka Paperback Writer). I don’t recall any promotional work she’s doing, and her latest book hit the NYT extended list. So it is possible, albiet slow, to build an audience without taking to the megaphone.

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  7. Louise Ure

    You’ve indeed hit a nerve with this post, Rob, although I would love to have read the original allegory you had planned as well.

    I ran into a similar situation on my first book tour, and was still gritting my teeth and fretting about the pushiness of one author weeks later.

    Not much you can do about it. Rise above. Conduct yourself the way you would like to be perceived.

    And the most concrete action of all: ask to be taken off any panels with this person, and tell your agent and editor to ensure that your schedules don’t match.

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  8. Brett Battles

    Rob, you know I’m completely in sync with you. And as one of the two people on the planet other than yourself who read that previous version, I’ll say this one sums it up just as well.

    Great post.

    Reply
  9. pari

    I’ve been astonished at the varied manifestations of author self-promotion since being published in 2004.

    At Malice, this year, I really noticed it because I wasn’t working — just having fun.

    I think we need to give a grace period to new authors who are still finding their way and their “uniforms” (as Naomi so aptly expresses it).

    Some people are natually gregarious and will always seem to be promoting more than others; I know I fall into this group. I meet scads of people and have a blast doing it. I DO tell just about everyone that I’m a writer and have books in the world. This comes from a continued glee. Some might perceive me as pushy . . . I hope not.

    At events with other authors, I adore cross-selling — pitching their books to potential buyers. It’s a high to create that kind of team at a signing; it creates such good will and the reader doesn’t feel put on the spot.

    The trick is to make sure that you’re not making people uncomfortable, that you’re not forcing yourself or your work on them.

    New writers have to learn to “read” the crowd, the room, the individual walking into a store. It takes time to develop these skills.

    At Malice, I always try to eat at least a few meals with people I don’t know. This time, a woman with whom I ate told me her book was for sale at least four times in the course of an hour. I wanted to tell her that she was pushing too hard, sounding too desperate, but didn’t have the heart to burst her bubble.

    Frankly, I couldn’t figure out a way to do it that she’d really hear.

    MY QUESTION:How much is too much?

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  10. Tom, T.O.

    Good for you, Mr. Browne. I met you in Thousand Oaks (the old geezer with Santa beard and suspenders)a few weeks ago at your signing, called you “Roger” GB in error and felt quite foolish when I realized (with your courteous correction) my error. I’ve gone to hundreds of signings, one convention, three or four festivals, and two luncheons, and have yet to notice any “blatent” promoting, and so I guess I’m lucky. I don’t like “blatent.” Almost every author I’ve come into contact with (including most of the “top-of-the-list” ones) has been courteous, pleased and grateful that I (we) buy their books, and even more pleased when I say (if I’ve read them) I recommend them to my friends. These authors have been gracious, dignified–even when funny–and “real” people (or damn good actors). Occasionally, when I buy their books with the intention of reading them “later,” an author might say something like: “I hope you’ll like it and wish you would e-mail me and let me know what you think.” Those authors I will read at once and let them know, and I’m happy to do so.

    I have met three or four “biggies” who have turned me off with their attitude of not signing old books, or limiting their signing to “two books for every one you buy.” If health or time is an issue, I have no problem and respect their need, but if it’s an “arbitrary” choice, I drop that author from my purchases and and recommendations like the proverbial hot potato: I buy their books and have been a fan for years, finally get to meet them, and they don’t have the courtesy to sign 6, 10, 15, maybe 20 books. One author brought t-shirts to sell. I’ve bought a lot of t-shirts for various charities, paying $10-12, but this author was charging $25, unsigned. (Guess that was “blatant.”) He’s on my “naughty list,” and definitely lost my business.

    Didn’t mean to get on a soapbox (yes I did!), but as others have pointed out: you struck a chord.

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  11. simon

    I’m with you, RGB. I believe soft sell works better than hard sell. I want people to read my stories, not force them.

    I think the problem is that so much is placed on writers to perform in the marketplace that a lot of writers forget that the best place to perform is on the page.

    Also I think our wives talk. Julie’s forever telling me that some of my essays that don’t make it to the blog aren’t as funny or as clever as I think they are.

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  12. Elaine Flinn

    Carnival barkers? LOL! I’d love to have a dime for every time I’ve used that same expression whilst watching the antics of certain writers (including a few newbies)who feel a need to be ‘on’ continuously.

    And then there are those who never fail to mention THEIR book when replying to a blog posting instead of commenting on the subject being discussed.

    To me, it smacks of desperation.

    There’s nothing wrong with being a gentleman, Rob (or a lady). In fact, just for that alone – I’ll buy your book.

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  13. Rob Gregory Browne

    Thanks for the comments, guys.

    Tom, I remember you from Thousand Oaks and it was great to meet you. I’m not sure I understand why anyone would refuse to sign books. Even if such authors are worried that the collector will turn around and sell the copies on Ebay (I can’t think why else they’d refuse other than fatigue), I don’t have a problem with that and am not sure why anyone else would. Thanks for your thoughts on the matter.

    Pari, to answer your question, how much is too much, that depends on the situation.

    If a writer is alone and wants to hawk to his heart’s content, it’s up to him or her to decide how far he/she wants to go.

    But in a group signing situation, I think you’ve gone too far when you figuratively drag out that megaphone as the other authors in the group sit there wondering what the hell has gotten into you.

    Cross-promoting can be a wonderful thing, if it isn’t part of this same overbearing behavior — which tends to brand the recipient of such “kindness” a co-conspirator.

    If you’d like to be aggressive in your presentation, please at least take into consideration the feelings of the other authors around you. ASK them if they mind. Ask them if they’d like you to cross promote in this style.

    As a consumer, I am immediately suspicious of the loudest salesman in the room. I tend to believe that his overbearing demeanor is either a) a mask for the insecurity he feels about an inferior product; or b) he’s such a true believer that he’s blind to any flaws the product might have.

    Again, what you do on your own creates your own Karma. But when you’re in a group situation, it’s only courteous to take your cue from the rest of the authors in the room and conduct yourself accordingly.

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  14. toni mcgee causey

    You nailed it beautifully, as usual. I find I am not all that good at the in-person store signing thing. I’d really rather be hiding in a corner or, if I have to speak, talking about something else or someone else’s book.

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  15. Alex Sokoloff

    I’m very sorry not to have seen the original post. I doubt it was brutal enough, honestly. I’ve been completely unnerved by the level of hawking that goes on with some authors.

    I think we have to stick together to prevent panel hijacking and other stuff that goes on – – it reflects badly on all of us.

    It’s not that difficult to suss out who might be truly interested in and engaged in our books, and who is just not OUR reader (and those people are often the most interesting conversations and very worth spending time talking to… but I never try to sell someone who doesn’t like to be scared, for example).

    Hard selling does no one any good in the long run.

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  16. toni mcgee causey

    Rob, that was easy because y’all were all there. One on one? I end up feeling like a carnival barker if I’m too talkative / gregarious without others to riff off of, if that makes sense.

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  17. Carol Baier

    Rob, your post was so full of grace that I went to your site, read the first three pages (text, that is), got my heart rate down and segued to Amazon and bought it. I can’t wait to read it.

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  18. Fran

    We do our best to do the hawking for y’all, but it’s true that having a charming, gracious author who’s willing to talk briefly – briefly! – about the things that fans and customers like to ask makes selling the book tons easier.

    And don’t take it personally if you talk to someone and they put the book down and don’t buy it right then. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen folks come back a day or two later and buy it. People are funny; they don’t want to feel pressured into buying something. They want it to be their idea. And they come back because you, dear authors, were nice to them. It’s amazing how many more books sell when an author smiles.

    We’ll try to put you at your ease when you’re at the shop, and we’ll certainly work at handselling your book(s) so you don’t have to be carnival barkers. Just be your lovely charming selves, and the battle’s half won, I promise!

    Reply

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