“Are you the kind who gets up and walks around the shop, chatting to people, or are you the kind that just sits there?”
This was the question asked by the manager of the bookshop who’d invited me to do a book signing and I could tell it was less a friendly enquiry and more a test that I knew I was about to fail miserably. I was about to spend the next two hours there, hoping to flog some books, and I knew it was going to be awful. I could feel myself dying inside before I’d even sat down.
Despite being there to promote my second novel, I had little experience of the bookshop signing. I’d done plenty of events in libraries and as part of festivals which involved signing books at the end. But I’d never gone and sat in a shop with the single goal of hoping someone would buy a book and ask me to sign it. And if I’m honest, the idea filled me with dread.
I was plonked right in the doorway where not only was it draughty, it was also intimidating for customers. Not that I think I’m frightening, but experience has shown me, as both a shopper and a spectator of other such events, that the majority of customers when faced with a desperate author will avoid eye contact at all costs and practically faint if you should utter a friendly hello, less they’re contractually obliged to buy a book if they return the greeting.
Yet there I was, in everyone’s way. The placing of my wobbly table and chair meant that wheelchairs and prams were unable to get past and so I had to keep getting up and shifting things about whilst apologising profusely. I did, however, make it up to them by getting the door for them on their way out. Basically, I was an unpaid greeter/doorwoman for the morning.
Anyway, with the pitying smiles from the shop staff and the constant look of disapproval from the manager, the hours passed and even though I sold (and signed) what I thought was a not-too-bad ten copies (to be fair, the majority to people I knew), when it came to getting my coat, the manager collared me again and asked (even though he’d been keeping an eye on me) whether I’d “just sat there or got up and engaged”. I told him the only time I’d moved was to help people with the door and got the kind of look pet owners give to their dogs after they’ve left a little gift on the carpet.
Basically, he was telling me I was doing it wrong. I was getting being a writer wrong. He went on to tell me in reverent tones about another author they’d had in who’d managed to sell lots of copies of her book (a hardback, no less) by being pro-active and following customers around the shop, telling them about her book, and persuading them to buy it.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty sure I’m fairly terrible at a lot of this book promotion. But I’m also pretty sure that 99.9% of customers do not want to be chased around a bookshop by a crazed writer until they’re worn down or too scared not to buy the book. If I’d been a customer that day, to be honest I’d stop going to the shop.
But there must be a middle ground, surely.
I often wish I could do this part of the job better and I do try. I said hello to each customer and got a reply from maybe half of the people. But I could tell they weren’t interested. A crime novel, signed or otherwise, was not what they’d gone to the shop for. The people who were interested came over. Some spoke and asked about me or the book, others just read the cover and either bought it or went on their way. I suppose those who are good at this would engage those people, make a connection, and cleverly, subtly, make them realise that they had to buy the book. This is the ideal. These are the writers who are good at this part of the job. Not the far ends of the spectrum – me at one end, Mrs I’ll-Chase-You-Around-The-Shop-Until-You-Buy-The-Book-Or-Else-I’ll-Beat-You-Around-The-Head-With-It. Sometimes I wonder if I’m cut out to be a novelist. It seems these days the writing is incidental, that the selling, the promotion is what counts. And I’m really not a salesperson.
But I am working on it. And I do go out and do events but only when I’m asked, I never do the chasing. Perhaps another thing I need to work on. After all, they say the best way to get over arachnophobia is to hold a spider. Maybe I need to start holding some readers. Metaphorically, of course. Otherwise I’d definitely scare them off.
p.s. Gone is out now in paperback from all good bookshops and if you go and buy it I promise I won’t chase you.