Thursday, November 16, 2006

Backscratching 101**

Whenever someone helps me out, I like to return the favour. And when someone does something nice and unexpected, I like to express my gratitude.

Today I’ll be writing a thank you note to Clive Cussler, for example.

(And in case you’re wondering, I won’t be dishing details about this little bit of news. You can find more to read here. But you really should check out this which is looking incredibly cool.)

Getting back on track, one of the things I do have some trouble with is the expectation of backscratching. Or asskissing…whatever.

Now, the reason I’m thinking about this is because of a fair enough question a bookseller asked on Murder Must Advertise. Local author comes in to say they have a book coming out several months down the road, would like to do a signing, blah blah. They’ll send an ARC when the time comes, but the guy never shops in their store between first contact and release. Another author who does shop in their store has a book coming out, but it doesn’t quite fit what they sell as well as guy #1. Is it fair to think that the local author should support them?

This discussion went on to talk about authors who state they don’t read in their genre, authors who state they only read library books, etc. Now, you don’t even want to get me started. I personally can’t comprehend these booklovers and writers who don’t buy books, but that’s not the point.

In the context of local, I can completely understand where this bookseller is coming from. And this post isn’t about the bookseller or their question, because the context of the situation made if a fair question. However, in the ensuing responses, very few people have actually analyzed the situation and what reasonable bookstore owner expectations are, but have instead talked about how they always buy something at every bookstore they do a signing in.

No wonder authors are permanently broke.

I’ve got to tell you, when I travel I take the cheapest means available. Part of the reason is that I get to do a lot of traveling, while my husband gets to do a lot of working to pay the bills. So, when I go to Harrogate (for example) I weigh my bags before I leave and I know exactly how much stuff I can buy while I’m there (because I weigh them without books and then insert books until I’m at my luggage limit). I still ended up paying an overage last July, despite being careful. That happens.

But if I was doing 10 cities in the US, traveling around, I can honestly say that buying things would be least on my mind. First, the luggage aspect. Second, the cost. Third, customs.

I’m looking at it from a pragmatic viewpoint. Personally, I do think there’s a double standard on this. Do not even try to tell me if you owned a bookstore and Michael Connelly was willing to come and do a signing that you’d think twice about it unless he agreed to buy something in the store while he was there. If well-known authors come to town, people will happily host them because they’ll sell.

In my opinion – and I may well be corrected if wrong – it seems like a bit of a double standard. If you’re Mr. NY Times Bestseller, nobody will think twice if you do or don’t buy something while touring. If you’re Little Newcomer, people may well notice.

But toss that aside. Bottom line is, when you go out and meet with booksellers, you want to create a positive impression. It’s an important business relationship. You don’t want to fuck that up.

My own personal thinking is that authors need to promote their events, wherever they’ll be, and try to generate awareness and bring business to the store instead of just sitting back and expecting the bookstore to do it for them. In my opinion, that’s a better way to support the bookstore. I mean, think of it this way. Suppose you live in a city where there are five good bookstores and you like all of them. But you get a newsletter from your favourite author saying they’ll be at Bookstore C. If you’re me, you’re more likely to go to Bookstore C next time you’re looking for a book, and see what other author events they’re having. I mean, if they’re having my favourite author, they may have some other authors coming that I’d be interested in.

You know how we found out Michael Connelly was going to be in Calgary? A fluke. We went to the independent bookstore on our way to see Mark Billingham. I really should sign up for their newsletter.

All of this talk does leave me wondering. I have some concerns about the direction this topic goes in. Does touring, does who gets to have a book launch and local bookseller support really come down to whether or not the author buys something at every bookstore they visit?

I should ask JA Konrath – I doubt he bought something at all 500 bookstores he visited over the summer, but I could be wrong…

I’ve talked about this, from my standpoint, how I don’t read submissions from people I know. I’ve even had to make decisions about how to handle Killer Year books – which I’m not eligible to review. It just makes sense. If Killer Year authors want those reviews they can follow the same submission guidelines we ask all authors to follow re: sending ARCs, but somebody other than me will have to pick the book. I won’t make anyone, and I won’t ask them to go easy.

Just trying to keep a fair and level playing field for everyone.

So, the bookstore discussion unnerved me, because some of the responses made me think (and I could have misread them, or maybe I allowed my feelings on the subject to cloud my objectivity) that there are authors who buy at stores just to get readings. Would you really like that author any better if, a few months before each release they came in, told you about the new book, bought something, and then did a signing two months later and you didn’t see them for another 9 or 10 months?

And I say all of this as someone who lives about 50 km from the nearest bookstore and still resists buying on Amazon unless absolutely critical so that I do my bit to support the industry. It’s more than 70km each way to the nearest independent, and since it’s downtown it takes an hour to drive there, and an hour to drive back. Do I shop there every week? No. Do I shop there? Yes. I was there twice last month. That may not sound like a lot, but that’s as often as I went to Costco.

I’m telling you guys, there are so many things I didn’t even consider when I started writing. You know, it was just about writing. And now I have to think about all these things. Because it doesn’t matter what I think is best and proper and appropriate.

Really, all that matters is what’s expected. And if bookstore owners expect visiting authors to buy something at their store, then I need to factor that into the budget, and I need to factor that into the baggage allowance.

I seldom walk into a bookstore without buying something anyway, and I would be inclined to do whatever I could to support the bookstores that I did signings in, but damn, would someone please get on with the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Being a New Author so that we can know what we’re supposed to do? Because if there's an expectation then surely there must be an acceptable expenditure amount too? Is $8.99 enough, or must it go to two digits? To be honest, when a place hosts something for me or a group I'm organizing (like the MEs office did) I usually send chocolates or something. If I know it's possible I'll be going to someone's house I always try to take a gift for them. So, while there's definite frustration at this (one more thing to think about) I sincerely want to know what the expectations are.

I’m sure I’ve posted this before, but it seems appropriate today.

Ever wonder about those people who say they are giving more than 100%? We have all been to those meetings where someone wants over 100% How about achieving 103%? Here's a little math that might prove helpful.
What makes life 100%?
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z is represented as:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26.
8 1 18 4 23 15 18 11 = 98%
11 14 15 23 12 5 4 7 5 = 96%
1 20 20 9 20 21 4 5 = 100%
2 21 12 12 19 8 9 20 = 103%
So, it stands to reason that hardwork and knowledge will get you close, attitude will get you there, but bullshit will put you over the top.
And look how far .........
1 19 19 11 9 19 19 9 14 7 = 118%
will take you.

** After an evening of painkillers I've noticed that my typing is mostly backwards this morning, but I'm too lazy to check and see if this makes sense. Hope it does...


angie said...

Buy something at every bookstore you visit when you're touring? Owie, ouchie, can't see being able to pull that one off.

JamesO said...

There's obviously a difference here between your local bookstore (if you have one) and going on a tour.

Personally I feel that if you're signing books, then you're doing the bookstore owner a favour by creating a marketing event for him to exploit. Even if you're unknown, it's a hook to put his advertising spend on.

I wouldn't expect an author signing in my store (if I had one!) to buy books there particularly. A store owner who says 'I'm not going to promote him, he never shops here,' is really just cutting off his nose to spite his face.

Now it may be helpful, when approaching an independent bookstore owner about doing a signing, to do so with a handful of other people's books in your hand that you want to buy. That's just psychology - you're putting some business their way and in return you ask for a favour. But this is certainly not necessary, as what you think of as a favour to you is in fact of great benefit to the bookseller too.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Yeah, part of what struck fear in my heart was the authors who jumped up saying, "I always buy something from bookstores I sign in." I was just stunned. I mean, either they really do, or they're just saying it.

I mean, this is the same list where there was a recent discussion about selling your books at funerals.

But I have to look at this in terms of practical business implications. James, you nailed one of my thoughts, about this. The reality is, it's a business decision, not a personal one. If someone writes a book, it would appeal to your clients and fits the price range and everything's good on the distribution and returns front, then carry it. It's a sound business decision.

Now, if you were going to carry it just because the guy is local, and it isn't really your usual stuff, then I think that isn't a sound business decision. End of the day, bookstore owners are trying to make money, and they know what does and does not sell in their store.

Or am I completely naive? Maybe. Who knows?

John McFetridge said...

One thing to keep in mind - if these are specialty stores, mystery bookstores, then there's a good chance they have something you've wanted for a while.

When my novel came out I went to a few mystery bookstores to say hi, not as an official event. There aren't really that many and almost all of them had something I wanted or saw as a gift for someone.

But no one expected me to buy anything and whether I did or not wouldn't make any difference when it came to recommending my book or not.

So, Marian at Sleuth of Baker Street is a terrific bookseller and I like her and she likes me - she just doesn't like all the sex and violence in my book. But she knows which customers might like it.

The only way to sell books - one at a time.

Sandra Ruttan said...

John, I completely agree about the selling. I've never been to Sleuth but I hope to get there one of these days.

Calgary, as you no doubt know, has no mystery bookstore. To be honest, the independent that hosts all the signings has one of the smaller mystery sections of all bookstores in the entire city. But I still go there, just because they support author events.

S. W. Vaughn said...

I read this earlier, and have been thinking about it all day.

I think it's similar to the way that online groups and forums expect you to "be a valued member of the community" before you start plugging your book, or website, or soap made from human fat, or what have you.

Not saying I agree with it. Just saying that's what it feels like. "Buy something from me, or do something for me, or I won't be interested in you."

Sigh. If people were just a little tiny bit more generous, and less self-centered...

JA Konrath said...

I buy books when I see another author at a signing, and try my best to buy books when an indie store hosts a signing for me.

I love indies, and want to support them.

Sandra Ruttan said...

SW, I know what you mean.

JA, I agree about supporting Indie's, and I also always buy something when I go to a signing.

My issues with this probably go more to my rebellious nature. If I'm going to buy something anyway, it's genuine. But if people presume I'm just doing it because I'm obligated, then it just leads down a slippery slope and nowhere I want to go and I end up feeling frustrated.

I overthink everything.

Anonymous said...

I'm not yet convinced I can afford to be a published author. That would definitely be true if I had to buy a book in every store where I may participate in an event.

I want to support other authors, and I love supporting independent booksellers, but I have to be realistic here, and while I write because I love to write, my desire to publish is at least partially due to wanting to, oh, I dunno, make a little money. I don't view this as a hobby. The writing is an avocation, but the publishing is a business, and I got bills same as the next person.

Now, I can accept that if my books don't sell, it may turn out to be a failed business. But I don't want it fail because I have to buy a book in every bookstore I see.

Sandra Ruttan said...

You know what's funny Bill? People knock paying to be published... and I agree, you definitely shouldn't pay.... but then there are association memberships and your own promotional efforts and donating to charities and on and on and on.

Truth is, I've had several organizations come at me, wanting me to join as a member, people who've asked for donations... And I've had one place offer to pay me to do an event.

Oddly enough, a school. So my only scheduled event in Calgary right now is for a junior high class. And I make money. How cool is that?

Money I will then spend at independent's everywhere.

angie said...

What Bill said.

Wait...did I just agree with him?!

Sandra Ruttan said...

Dear GOD. Say it isn't so!

Anonymous said...

I am speechless.

Jack Ruttan said...

I'm still terminally cheap (really can't get it into my head that I've got money, because I'm still the same anxiety-ridden shlub as before).

At least now I sometimes buy books at the launchings I attend, rather than just schmoozing, and drinking free wine (rarer and rarer these days)

What drives me nuts are the obligatory readings, when the author is not a compelling reader. Not that I actively make a scene, or anything.

Now I'm worried that does make me an ass-kisser. I wonder at what point does it devolve to that, as opposed to being polite and supportive.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I don't like obligatory readings either, Jack. And I think the only way to know if you're being supportive or kissing butt is to look at what's in your heart. This is one of those things where, it seems to me, people are going to judge on externals and may often get a person wrong. It bugs me, but what can you do? Nada.