Pick up lines

by Pari

Hey, baby, wanna come to my place?
Are you new in town?
What’s your sign?

My mind is in the gutter today, a rare locale for a soccer mom. If I close my eyes and go with the imagery, I land in an animated world with overdrawn characters wearing push-up bras, puce dresses and hot pink stiletto heels. A Toontown for writers. Wordsville? Remember Jessica Rabbit? It’s her sultry voice (Kathleen Turner’s) that I hear.

Only this time she’s saying, "I’m not bad . . . I’m just written that way."

I’m thinking about the differences between innocent flirting and one-night-stand flirting, between love-making and purchased sex.

I’m fixating on the why of book-looking and buying.

What makes readers pick up our work? What’s the click, the magic ah-ha, that inspires them to buy?

Is it a glossy cover?
Word of mouth?
Placement in a store?
Television appearances, newspaper features, radio interviews?
Is it presence, participation and mentions on listservs and blogs?
Is it the first line? The first paragraph?

What promises are made in those initial encounters? What promises are kept?

Have you bought books that looked luscious on the surface and turned out to taste like bargain-brand dog bones?
On an impulse, have you paid for tomes with the outward appeal of pimply nerds, only to find that they’re tigers in bed?

Here’s the honest truth:
I have no idea what makes me pick up a book. I have even less of an idea about what makes me buy it. The longer I’m an author, the longer I do this dance of writing and promotion, the less I’m sure of anything.

Some of my cohorts astound me with their energy and creativity when it comes to marketing. They’re at every single convention. They comment on every blog and listserv. They answer their emails at warp speed and send out newsletters consistently.


I used to be one of them and . . .

I can tell you this:
I don’t think it did me much good; it might even have harmed my credibility as a serious writer.

I do know that hearing or seeing an author’s name everywhere ISN’T ever the factor that makes me buy his or her book. Never. As a matter of fact, it often works to the contrary . . . because I’m contrary. I tend to run away from that person in the bar who seems too desperate for a relationship — or sex.

Do the most successful writers flog their stuff everywhere? You might tell me that they’ve earned the right not to. But I doubt they ever did the Full-Monty marketing in the first place. Certainly the love-me-please edge is absent from their interactions with their publics.

I’m not quite sure what I’m trying to say with this blog. I think I have two themes here, but they feel related in a fundamental way.

All I know is that more and more, I just want to write. I want my words and stories to be the impetuses that tempt and, ultimately, convince readers to buy. I want other people to talk about my works instead of me beating my own chest all the time.

Back in Wordsville, I’m watching two women. One sits at the counter and orders another a pink sloe gin fizz. Her eyes scope out every man in the place. She’s got a buy-me vibe and a body to match. The other woman is at a table in the corner. She’s alone too. In her hand is a smoky scotch on the rocks. In the other rests a fine cuban cigarillo. Her mouth curls in a quiet smile as she observes this crazy world.

You know which one I’d like to be . . .

Gotta match?

36 thoughts on “Pick up lines

  1. Elver

    Pick-up lines don’t work.

    They’re questions that can be answered with a simple reply and after those two lines of dialog, the conversation starter has nothing.

    “Are you new in town?””No.””Okay…”

    Where do you go from there?

    Pick-up lines only work if you’ve got the looks to immediately back it up. What does work and work universally is “openings”.

    You’re looking to engage the other person in a conversation and get their attention.

    Word-of-mouth is a lot like an “opening”. Your good friend knows something that you don’t and he wants to discuss it with you. So you’ll have to grab a copy of whatever book he’s excited about to be able to have a conversation about it.

    If you wanna pick someone up, start with a line that conveys the promise of an interesting story.

    “Did you see the fight outside?”

    “You’ll never guess what happened to me today.”

    “Christ. It’s raining worse today than it did back when I was in the Amazon rain forest.”

  2. Zoe Sharp

    Great topic, Pari. I don’t know what it is that makes me pick a book of the shelf, but I know halfway down the first page if I like the sound of the writer’s voice or not. It’s like hearing someone sing for the first time. Opening lines and scenes always give me the most heartache.

    And I know what you mean about that air of quiet desperation so apparent at conventions these days, but don’t you think the industry has encouraged this among new writers especially?

  3. ken Bruen

    PariGreat post, the most popular pick up line this side of the water used to be”Grab your coat, you’ve scored”I still believe that word of mouth is the best mover of books.And Hand-selling, you get the bookstores in your corner, you’re made and it’s real easy to do that, just a thank you note to a store for stocking your book works wondersThey’re the front line, and if you’re on on their list, you have serious ammunition……..piss em off and watch the remainder binsbestKen

  4. Tammy Cravit


    This is an interesting set of questions, and it’s one I think the whole media industry (books, movies, music) struggles with. The simple fact of the matter is that publishers haven’t shown themselves to be vastly successful in predicting what people want to buy — we see just as many books and movies with huge budgets that fall flat as we do sleeper hits — even though they’d like to think they do. When you set aside all the hype and spin and buzz, that’s the reality.

    So, can you predict what makes readers pick up that first book? I don’t think so. I think it starts with the sort of folks who’re willing to take a flyer on an unfamiliar name. To borrow from your analogy, they’re willing to sit down at the corner table and buy the lady another glass of Drumnadrochit or Glenlivet and strike up a conversation.

    No, the real magic, in my mind, is what happens next. Once the reader’s invested that metaphorical glass of scotch, the lady’s got to have something to keep the evening moving forward. To me, that comes down to two frustratingly fuzzy intangibles: you have to tell a good tale, and you have to build a relationship.

    I don’t think marketing a book is about glossy ad slicks and Carney hucksters shoving co-op space at a handful of books. I think the aim is to get those handful of brave souls to tell their friends, “hey, you HAVE to check out this great book I just read.” It has to connect with them, speak to their souls, so that when the next book comes out you’ve already done a few rounds of flirtation.

    I think series characters are one way to achieve that goal — we all enjoy tuning in to the latest exploit of Kinsey Millhone or Sharon McCone. But I think that’s because we feel like we have a relationship with those characters, so picking up a new book is a chance to drop in on an old friend. But that’s not the only way to do it — I’ll pick up the next Louise Ure standalone for the same reason I’d be inclined to go on a blind date if my best friend was doing the matchmaking. It’s all about relationships, and we can have them with the character or the author.

  5. pari noskin taichert

    Wow. Elver,Excellent point about openings — the initiation of conversations. Wonderful parallels here.

    “I do things under the radar and tend to pop up in unexpected, even unbelievable places.”That’s from your bio on your blog. I bet you don’t have a problem with those openings.

    How’s the screenwriting going?

  6. pari noskin taichert

    Zoe,Voice. Yes. I think that’s one of the things that automatically attracts me . . . if I bother to pick up the book in the first place. Often, even if I do, I don’t open it — just a quick glance at the description and blurbs on the back. Once I open it, there’s far more chance I’ll engage and buy.

    Re: that desperationYes. I do think the industry encourages it. Someone once described the way one of the big publishers treated their new writers: “Well, we’re all mud balls. They throw us against a white wall. The ones that stick get the attention, the ones that fall are abandoned.”

    At my press, that’s not how it goes — but I remember that impetus to market the hell out of my work in the beginning.

    I can only imagine the pressure on writers at these bigger places.

  7. pari noskin taichert

    Great pick-up line, Ken. It’d work on this side of the water too.

    Stores . . . yes! But, I wonder how authors — especially the newer ones — get their support when the competition has gone up so incredibly and there are all of these writers approaching them every day.

    I think the advent of easy self-publishing has had a negative affect in this area. At least I’ve noticed that many booksellers get approached so often by so many writers now that they just look shell-shocked.

    It’s a challenge to cut through that glaze.

  8. toni mcgee causey

    Cutting through that glaze is difficult, and excellent point about booksellers being approached by so many writers now.

    I’d rather be in the back of the bar with the scotch. The one upside to this business and having to meet people is making lifelong friends, so that bar is probably filled with people I know and would hang out with.

    Packaging doesn’t make me buy a book. Hell, there are too many pretty books out there which have bored me and too many homely ones which have riveted me.

  9. pari noskin taichert

    So . . . Toni,What DOES make you pick it up? Buy it?

    I wonder if any of us can really say . . .

    I’ve been thinking about this for awhile and what I wrote to Zoe is true:1. the first step is actually picking the book up.2. something in that encounter makes me open it (or put it back down again).3. if I open the book, something –usually the voice — makes me want to read it.

    Sometimes I’ll buy, sometimes I’ll check it out of the library.

    Part of the key in that last step is whether I’m in a buying mood that day, whether I’m on the prowl for a good read.

  10. wendy roberts

    I first go out and buy books my friends and acquaintances have put out. Next, I do the wonder around the store aimlessly thing. I can never leave a book store without at least 2 books and I try and make the 2nd one a new-to-me author so mostly I’m going by back cover blurb. I’ve found some terrific books and some sad disappointments this way.

  11. Louise Ure

    Imagine the kind of hits/searches we’re going to get with the blog title of “Pick Up Lines.” Picture a thousand pimply American boys logging on … only to find that we’re interested in picking up a book.

    Like you,Pari, if I’m browsing, my pick ups will come from:

    * Visibility. First I’ve got to see it/notice it

    * Gravitas. I don’t mean it has to be a serious work, it just has to take itself seriously. It has to be professionally put together, and proud of itself.

    * Voice. Sure,that comes from the first page, but also from the title, the cover, the flap copy.

    I’m easily seduced when it comes to books.

  12. toni mcgee causey

    Word-of-mouth from someone who’s read it–their enthusiasm will make me go read the back description to see if it’s something I’d be interested in. I’ll probably also go ahead and read the first few sentences.

    I look for excerpts (or, if I’m in the bookstore, reading the first page or two).

    Seeing the writer post something interesting online will make me curious, which leads to me looking for an excerpt / description of their book.

    I think, though, that writers buying books is a whole different phenomenon than when non-writers buy books. I tend to ignore covers now because the first cover we almost had for BF was so… wrong. Pretty, but so very very wrong. The second cover y’all see up on the scroll is not the cover at all, but I haven’t seen a final yet, and I’m just relieved my publisher disliked that one. So I tend to have empathy for anyone with a less-than-perfect cover.

    I look for writing samples where possible. I tend to ignore random negative reviews if the book has a lot of positive ones. (After all, I don’t like some things other people rave about — why should I assume every book should get perfect reviews?)

    But I don’t know how non-writers buy. I’ve always known I wanted to be a writer, and then started publishing when I was 22. So I’ve always bought with learning in mind, in addition to being entertained.

  13. pari noskin taichert

    Wendy,Like you, I always buy friends books first. That’s a no-brainer for me. It’s all those other books out there . . . And those back-cover blurbs can be so tempting/deceiving no?

    Louise,Yeah, I’m sure some of the search engines will love the title. Do you remember when I had BadGirlsPress.com? I still do, but took off all contact with the author because I realized most of the hits were the folks you described.

    I like your three focal points. They’re well defined and resonate.

    Toni,Thanks for going into this further.What an interesting point about writers buying as opposed to nonwriters.

    I’m going to have to think about that one some more.

    ANY NON-WRITERS out there want to comment? I’d be curious . . .

  14. Lorraine.

    Okay, As avid reader, I don’t buy books for the reasons you writer types buy them. I buy by what kind of book it is. By that, I mean the genre or sub-genre. No chick-lit (they usually have pretty covers), no thrillers, no graphic violence, no serial killers. What that leaves is police procedurals, classic detective fiction, ie, a crime and the puzzling out of who committed it, and cozies, which have a bad rep, but are frequently loved by old ladies.And old ladies are a very heavily populated segment of the reading public.

  15. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I reach for the spooky cover every time. Spooky and sexy is extra points. I’ll buy it if I like the flap copy and the first few pages.

    So I guess it’s arena I’m looking for – subject matter. I can never find enough titles in the arenas I really want to read about.

  16. JT Ellison

    As a reader first — I look for cover and title, which can convey a world of nuance. I don’t put as much stock in the cover copy, because I know that the writer often doesn’t have anything to do with that. I use my booksellers suggestions, look for local authors, and obviously will look at a book if I recognize the name. I’ll seek out new and new to me authors, just to get that rush.

    As a writer — What’s funny is how many names I know now versus when I started. I have books I would have never bought and read except I’ve met the author and loved them, so I want to get inside their head even more.

    And I’ve met/e-met authors who I’d probably skip, simply because they are everywhere, are so damn negative, the world is out to get them, they are constantly belittling and berating people, they insist on making every single opinion that crosses their mind known to as many people as will listen/read, and never stop to think that the impression they leave is a permanent one. It’s hard to unring the negative bell. I’ve stopped reading blogs by people like that too. I think people misunderstand that being snarky isn’t amusing, it just sounds bitter. If that’s the public image they present, why would their books be any different???

  17. Elaine Flinn

    Terrific post, Pari. I particularly loved the ‘beating my chest’ problem. Coincidentally, this theme will lead off next month’s Evil E.

    And I think it was moi who mentioned the ‘mud on the wall’ to you during one of our bitch sessions some moons ago. 🙂 Happily, that’s not a problem you have to worry about…

  18. Allison Brennan

    I think Toni’s right that readers and writers look at books a little different.

    As a writer, I read more “popular” books than I did when I was “just” a reader. I’m more willing to try something new now, and I’ll buy a book just to find out what the hype is all about.

    But I still remember being “just” a reader. 90% of what I read was in the mystery/thriller/romantic suspense genres. So first, genre. Then, have I read the author before and liked him/her? If yes, even if I don’t like the cover I’ll pick up the book and read the blurb, find out what the book is about. I rarely read any text before deciding to buy. But the biggest recommendation for me is word of mouth. There are some people I trust more than others 🙂 and if they think I’d like something, they’re usually right (my mom and my best friend, neither of whom are writers.)

    Before I was seriously writing, book covers made me pick up the book. But the blurb would sell me.

  19. pari noskin taichert

    Ha! Lorraine,Too true about the “old ladies.” And, thank you for participating today. I know you’re an avid reader.

    Alex,Your reasons and choices don’t surprise me a bit. And, perhaps, like Lorraine, that’s it — it’s in the arena you’re looking for and you’re in the mood to buy . . .

    J.T.,You mentioned bookseller suggestions. Interesting. I had a bookstore in ABQ that I adored and I very much trusted the mystery reader there. Haven’t found anyone quite like that since that indie closed.

    As to the negativity, yeah, well, I know what you mean. I’m predisposed to buying people I know, but griping in a loud way does turn me off.

    Luckily (or unluckily for my checkbook), there aren’t too many of those folks around.

    Elaine,I look forward to reading that Evil E!

    I actually heard the “mud on the wall” from a couple of different people. It struck me that so many of my cohorts experience this and makes me wonder about the pros/cons of NYC big/NM small. Still don’t have an answer for that one either.

    I do know authors published by big houses who are having an absolutely wonderful time, too.

  20. pari noskin taichert

    Allison,I’m just flabbergasted that you even have the time to read . . .

    Genre. Yeah, that’s where you’ll usually find me in the bookstore.

    Covers. Often. It doesn’t matter if the author has anything to do with them or not. I guess I’m like a literary magpie; I get attracted to shiny things.

    Blurbs. Probably less so now unless I know the person blurbing and know his or her ethics on the matter.

    Word of Mouth. The strongest of all.

  21. Mary-Frances

    Hey Pari,Okay, I decided to pipe in with an opinion. I generally go for genre first–mystery/thrillers etc. being my number one choice. Although I do read authors like Elizabeth Berg and Ann Patchett. If the book is by a wrtier I don’t know then I read the first page of the book. I have to click with the first page or I don’t buy it. I don’t care how much hoopla the book might have received.

    That doesn’t mean that there has be some intense hook or action on the first page. It just means that something about the pace or writing has to jibe with something inside of me.

  22. JT Ellison

    Re: Booksellers recommendations… my local Borders has an endcap with suggestions from each of the employees, the books they’ve read and loved. Most stores I’ve been in do have something like this, and I’ve found some amazing books that way. The nice thing is it’s rarely the “now” book they’re interested in, the one we’ve all heard about everywhere. I found Stephanie Meyers that way, and Diana Gabaldon. Lots of good stuff to be had from the folks selling the books : )

  23. Fran

    I’m lucky to work where I do and have the homework I have. You’re right, Pari, we’re inundated with new books from up-and-coming hopefuls to the point where sometimes we slight our steady friends.

    From my observations, sadly covers do matter. The wrong cover can get a stellar book overlooked and put a shallow tart on the bestseller list. I don’t know of a real remedy either.

    I watch people browse our New Releases table, and they stroke the covers, but only pick up the ones that appeal to their eyes. Fortunately, different things appeal to different people.

    From a handselling point of view, I have the luxury of overriding the cover art and encouraging buyers to get to the people inside, and that’s where your voice has to be clear and powerful.

    We just had Louise in to sign, and her book is a piece of cake to sell because all I have to do is convince someone to read the first chapter and it’s a done deal. But something in the first page or two has to capture your reader, or they’re going to set your lovely book down for a flashy tramp who’s promising outrageous things with no follow-through. Readers are odd ducks, but we love them!

    Eh, I’m not saying it well, but frequently a newbie author needs a personal touch to get the word out there. I know that writers would much rather be tucked away writing, but your fan base wants to meet you, and it takes a staunch heart to jump through the promotional hoops needed. Actually, that’s true of established authors, come to think of it.

    But if you keep turning out quality work, it certainly makes my job easier!

  24. Patricia Rice

    True, readers and writers probably come at books from different directions. As a writer, I keep a list of books I’ve heard or read about, and when I get ready to buy, I’ll be the one at the on-line dating service instead of the smoky bar. I’ll check out excerpts at Amazon (that’s a big marketing tool that many publishers aren’t using), and if I like the voice, like the subject matter, I’ll buy it for my towering TBR stack. I seldom ever browse a bookstore and buy randomly any longer. The last time I did was when a cover and a title completely captured my fancy, and I checked the first page and the back cover and loved them all.

    I’ve noticed newer authors have developed immense followings quickly from active websites and e-mail newsletters. The personal relationship with a writer drives their sales. I have no idea what size their market is, but it’s how some of the e-book authors ended up pubbed in NYC. Personally, I’d rather write a book or stub a toe than spend my time on MySpace or creating games or whatever, but it’s a tool that’s available when wisely used.

  25. pari noskin taichert

    Very cool discussion. Thank you, all.

    Mary-Frances,Great to hear from you!You know, your comment about genre first brings up another consideration: where the book is put in the bookstore. This only matters if someone is browsing, but boy does it matter then!

    Sometimes, I give a book the first paragraph test; if it grabs me, for whatever reason, then I’ll buy it.

    J.T.,Yeah, when you find people you trust and know and they make recommendations, those count for alot.

  26. pari noskin taichert

    Fran,How DO you keep up with all that homework?

    I, too, believe covers are very important . . . I just don’t know what “works” and what doesn’t.

    And, the whole promotional issues rears its head again. I just had events that ranged in attendance from 100 to 6. I always wonder after events whom I’ve touched to the point that he or she will tell other people about my works, who’ll go that extra step? I have no clue.

    I happen to like doing booksignings and talks. I’m enough of an extravert to enjoy this. But I want to be smarter about how I invest the time I’m not writing . . . to make sure that it’s not just a flash in the pan. Ya know?

  27. pari noskin taichert

    Patricia,Thank you for visiting. I love that line about the on-line dating service. Yep. I can relate to that, too. It’s getting easier and easier — and more tempting — to stay at my desk and take a cyber break from work rather than getting in the car and doing it.

    Those internet promotional opportunities are fascinating. Tammy Cravit above linked to an interesting article about this on her blog today. Since we’re becoming more and more of a society with an emphasis on the cult of personality, a strong writer who can develop that persona might be very effective on the ‘net.

    I don’t know how well it works for non-YA novelists. Just don’t have a clue.

    Does anyone else?

  28. Tom, T.O.

    Non-writer here, and I may be repeating myself. Very well then: I repeat myself.

    I buy the books by the authors who come to the store for signings, and by the authors I meet and like at events such as Thrillerfest, LA Festival of Books, Tony Hillerman Writers’ Conference, and the West Hollywood Book Festival. Too many authors, not enough money…or time.

    About 7 (8?) years ago I discovered book signings at our local indie Mysteries To Die For. (Didn’t know it existed–drove by it, noticed it, and went in looking for a Nancy Drew book [circa 1960 edition] to replace a lost volume in my married daughter’s set.) A whole new world opened up to me. I had been buying mostly paperbacks because I could get more for my money, except for a few of my favorite authors, of course–Louis L’Amour, Marcia Muller, Tony Hillerman, Steve Martini, John Grisham, Lisa Scottoline, Andrew Greeley, the Kellermans, Dana Stabenow, and a few others; but my eyes were getting weaker, and I had begun being more selective in favor of easier reading in hard cover.

    Since I cannot buy everything I would like to, about three years ago I decided I would support (except for my old, long-time favorites)only those authors who made an effort to to come out and promote their books. I have never left a signing without buying the author’s book (2 copies if it’s a debut). It’s my way of thanking the author for her/his efforts.

    Then I went to the first Thrillerfest and met some wonderful people I had never heard of, and some I had, then the other conferences/festivals I mentioned, and so I added authors I met and liked to those who come to the store. I buy their books, and read as many as I can, and hope to Heaven it’s true that I won’t die as long as I haven’t finished reading my books! 🙂

    I know I’m missing out on some wonderful authors by my self-imposed restrictions, but my Boy Scout/Catholic loyalty (misplaced?) says I should reward your efforts, and that’s what I try to do.

    A little over a year ago (?) I had a discussion with Patty Smiley about the impact of a cover’s influence in purchasing a book. I couldn’t remember ever being influenced by a cover (but I’m sure I have been–long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away), and not two weeks later I saw FALLEN ANGEL (by Mike Doogan? a debut), and I bought it simply because of the cover…, and loved it. A week or so later I saw a book that had a geographical landmark that personally meant a lot to me on the cover, and the author is quite prominent, so I bought it. It was one of the three worst books I’ve ever read.

    I would have bought THE FAULT TREE for the cover alone, even if I didn’t know Louise.

    So there you have it–more than you ever wanted to know about my buying habits: go to stores to sign your books and I’ll buy; go to events and sign, and if I meet you, I’ll buy; don’t, and I probably won’t. (Once I buy, I’ll keep with you–you don’t have to come for each and every book.)

    And if I read you and like you, I’ll give you a bottle of wine!

  29. pari noskin taichert

    Tom,You’re wonderful!

    But, oh oh, what if I don’t make it to L.A. this time? Am I doomed?

    Actually, the point you make is important. It ties directly to the whole promotional aspect and that tie, the real relationship, between writer and reader. It’s critical.

    And, yes, Louise’s book cover is glorious, isn’t it?

  30. Tom, T.O.

    Ahhhh, Pari, Pari, Pari,

    Not to worry, once I’ve met you and bought your books, I stand by you. Authors can’t cover ALL the bases every year. Besides, I’ll track you down in ABQ this November! (You WILL be at Wordharvest, won’t you?)

  31. Louise Ure

    Fran, what would I do without you? Damn good thing I wrote such a short first chapter if you’re going to make every customer read it there in the store.

    And Tom, you’re one in a million.

  32. Elver


    “I bet you don’t have a problem with those openings.”

    Oh, I do. Believe me, I do. I’m probably better than the average guy — twice I’ve walked into a job interview, without any relevant prior job experience, and walked out a partner in the company — but I still fail at many basic openings. You can have everything you can control honed to perfection, but if you have limited time and you’re not sure about the other person’s mood, failure is likely.

    “How’s the screenwriting going?”

    I completed a major revision on Sunday and sent it out to a couple of volunteer readers. Would you like to be my reader? 🙂

  33. pari noskin taichert

    Tom is wonderful. I count myself very lucky to have met him and his wife.

    Elver,If I had twice the time I have now, I’d go for it. With the book launch and travel, I’m just trying to make sure to keep up with current commitments.


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