Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Signing Trends: A Ground-Level Report from a Publicist's Viewpoint

A lot of writers who contact me want to know what booksellers are looking for these days when it comes to hosting author signings. Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer, since not all bookstores are alike and, thus, sellers have differing views on what kinds of books they allow authors to promote. I am seeing some general trends, though, when I call stores to pitch signings. Here are some items to consider when preparing to contact stores regarding your books:

Paperback Price Points are Lower
I’m seeing a lot of pushback from stores on pricing, especially for paperbacks. A number of stores don’t allow signings for paperbacks, but those that do are concerned about price. Most of my clients have priced their books reasonably, but those with a paperback priced at $16.95 or higher face a tough time booking signings. The economy is a major reason for this trend, and it affects everyone. For example, the B. Dalton bookseller in the downtown Los Angeles Mall says that she’s not selling any paperback priced over $15.99. Another bookseller in Encino, which is more upscale, tells me the same thing – even though their stores cater to two extremely different demographics. Because of our current economic conditions, price is becoming a sticking point, and authors, especially those who self -publish and/or have some say in their book’s marketing decisions, should take care not to price themselves out of the market.

Distribution is All
If your book is not in the Barnes & Noble or Borders ordering systems, many of those outlets will not allow you to sign. Likewise, if your book is not listed with wholesale distributors like Ingram Books and Baker & Taylor, many booksellers will turn down requests to sign. I can’t harp on this point enough – make sure your book is ready to go distribution-wise before you start your marketing campaign, or you may not find many booksellers willing to work with you on a signing.

To POD or Not to POD?
A lot of the booksellers I call these days won’t allow authors with print-on-demand (POD) books to sign at their stores. This situation is frustrating to writers and publicists alike, especially when publishers and literary pundits insist that POD is the wave of the future. Many bookstore managers, sadly, have a bias against self-published books and a number of them automatically assume that a book listed as POD is self-published, even though the majority of traditional small presses these days are deliberately choosing to deliver books via POD.

One solution for POD authors is to ask your publisher to do an offset run of 500-1000 books. You or your publicist can then inform bookstore managers concerned about ordering lead times that there are plenty of copies of your book available for purchase. Some bookstore managers find this arrangement acceptable, but others still avoid POD books. Because of this trend, I recommend that authors who can’t decide between traditional and self-publishing try to sell their books via the traditional publishing route first. If an agent can’t sell the book, then self-publishing is always a good fall-back option.

Be Prepared to Sell
A lot of destination bookstores – those in malls and other outlets that depend on location to bring in traffic – will host authors even if they don’t have seating space for readings and signings. These stores usually offer writers a table inside the store, or just outside in a mall walkway, where they can sell directly to store patrons. The booksellers at these destination locations prefer to host authors who are good at personal selling and willing to supply marketing materials for their signings. As always, I recommend that authors think outside the box and try to find other venues besides bookstores for signing opportunities. Some of the more creative destination locales include airport bookstores, book expos, street fairs, and professional organization meetings.

Take Home Your Leftovers
Many store owners don’t have the shelf space to house leftovers from book signings and are asking authors to either buy back books that don’t sell, or arrange a return policy with their distributors. Most of my clients’ publishers are good about taking returns, but authors should know that not having a return policy can be a deal-breaker when pitching signings.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

World of Bookcraft: Tales of a Writing Junkie

At lunch the other day, a writer friend confessed that she had become seriously addicted to writing.

“How serious?” I asked. For me, anything less than twenty-four hours a day – which is how often my teenage son would play World of Warcraft if we let him – is not an addiction.

“Extremely serious,” she replied.

It turns out that my friend’s concerns were valid. She had stopped seeing her friends, stopped doing any kind of exercise (she does yoga to stretch out an injured hip), stopped taking her vitamins, and, eventually, stopped sleeping. “I was coming home from work every day and doing nothing but writing,” she said. “I’d spend all night writing, then shower and go to work, and then come home and write some more.”

Not good, I agreed. She told me that the seriousness of the situation finally hit home when she realized that she was feeling angry, tired, and generally awful about everything in her life.

I was curious to find out how she addressed the problem. She explained that once she realized things had to change, she sat down and made lists. “In one column, I listed all the time I was spending on my book,” she said. “And in another column, I listed all the things I used to do that I consider essential to my mental and physical health.” My friend then took her lists and started crossing off items on either side until they were in balance. Since things were so heavily weighted in the writing column, she forced herself to write nothing for a month and even skipped three weeks of her writing group meetings.

This last bit worried me a little, but my friend assured me that she’s writing again, only now, she does so only in proportion to the amount of time she spends on other activities. She still works, writes, and goes to her weekly group meetings, but she also makes time to do yoga, take her vitamins, eat healthy foods, and have lunch once in a while with friends like me.

I’m proud of her. In the world of bookcraft, balance is everything.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Things We Cling To

The other day, my daughter ran into my home office and exclaimed, “Mom, there’s a bird trying to get into our patio room!” Sure enough, she was right – a small yellow parakeet was bashing itself against the windows trying to get into our attached screen porch, where we house our three rabbits and a cage of finches. Fearing that the parakeet would injure itself with repeated attempts to get inside, we opened one of the window screens and let it in. It immediately settled itself on top of our finch cage and wouldn’t budge. In fact, it spent the first night in our house clinging to the side bars of the cage, its tiny head tucked under its wing.

My daughter named the parakeet Kiwi, for its lemon-yellow and green feathers. We’re assuming it’s a female, since her ceres (the flap of skin covering the larger edge of the beak) is brown rather than the blue color associated with males. Kiwi’s protective of our finches, which are much smaller birds than she, and likes to distract us by flying around the room when we feed them and clean their cage. We bought her a cage of her own and, since parakeets need to exercise their wings every day, we left the doors open so she can fly in and out. She goes inside to eat and drink but, as soon as she’s done, she’s back at her post on the finch cage, keeping watch.

It struck me while observing her these past few days that even though she was free in the wild, Kiwi chose to fly into our house and spend the majority of her time with her feet gripped to the bars of a cage. Her determination to latch on to the very thing that restricts her reminds me of how often writers cling to what’s familiar, even if it limits us. Our fear of the unknown oftentimes leads us to eschew change. We stick to a familiar genre, for example, when we have ideas for characters and stories that might force us to explore new styles and techniques. Some of us remain with the same agent, publisher, or writing group, even when we know that new representation or a fresh critique environment might do us good.

For many of us, sticking to what we know is probably not a bad thing. The familiar provides us with a sense of history and experience; there’s a comfort and certainty in operating within those boundaries. They allow us a safe place in which we can grow and explore.

I’m also struck by the strength of Kiwi's drive to protect and be close to our birds. Her need to congregate seems to outweigh her need for freedom. Like Kiwi, many of us seek out fellow writers for companionship, feedback, and the feeling of belonging. And even when a writing group dynamic is limiting, many of us will forego leaving for the simple reason that we deeply desire to be with others like ourselves.

I admire this little parakeet for her willingness to join a strange household in order to be near other birds. Her instinct to protect and flock is apparently much stronger than her desire for freedom. She’s welcome to stay as long as she likes, and we’ll honor her choice by keeping her safe and fed. Similarly, we authors should nurture and support our fellow writers, who often prefer to operate within the certainty of what they know and congregate rather than fly solo. When they’re ready to soar on their own, Kiwi and our writer friends will let us know.