Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Speaking Out, Keeping Mum? How My Upbringing is Detrimental to My Book Sales

by Julia Buckley

Today I took two of my classes to the library so that our "cybrarian" could show them all of the latest miraculous research tools, most of which, of course, are online. (Not that they dismiss print sources, which are still very much available and attractively displayed).

While demonstrating to the students how to find the copyright and publisher information inside a book, she said, "And did you know we had a published author in the room?" My students stared at her blankly. They did not know. The librarian took the copy of my book, which they loyally display on the counter, and held it up for the girls, and they regarded me for a time as though I were a new zoo animal.

"I can't believe you haven't told your students!" our librarians enthused.

But of course I would never tell my students that I've written a book. It feels, to me, like a conflict of interest--like I'm abusing my educator's podium to try to rack up some sales, and so I've never done it. Some people say that this is ridiculous--that I can always just mention it in passing--and they are probably right. But I know I never will.

The last time I had an eye doctor appointment and he stood over me, breathing into my face and examining my pupils right up close with a blinding light, he talked about how much he loved reading--especially mysteries. There would be, I knew, no better opportunity to hop right in there and say, "What I coincidence! I write mysteries! Here's one that I happen to have in my purse."

But I didn't. And the moment passed. And I lost my opportunity. The reasons for this are rooted in my upbringing: in the strict Catholic world of my childhood, you did not talk about yourself (vanity), and you certainly did not brag about your achievements (pride). And even though I have my fair share of both vanity and pride, the reticence of those years is permanently ingrained upon me. I don't speak up. I am NOT a good saleswoman. I doubt I will ever be. I cannot change my nature. My only chance is to try to write books so good that people will hear about them through word of mouth. (Someone else's mouth, of course).

Even that is sort of a vain thought. See? Sister Theodora would be proud of my humility, but I'm sure she'd wince at my book sales. :)

Photo link here


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Julia, we have to figure out a way to overcome this childhood affliction of yours without damaging your sensibilities.

Just yesterday, I introduced my new trainer to my books while I huffed and puffed on a weight machine. I've asked my dentist to hook me up with Tyra Banks (he's her dentist, also). In the past several weeks I've handed out bookmarks to strangers waiting in airports with me, sitting next to me in planes, at the manicurist, people serving me lunch, my hairdresser, people in malls, women in restrooms. I've even introduced my books to faceless people playing cyber backgammon with me. Of course, each was accomplished with a proper intro or lead line, not simply shoved at them.

Still, what can I say, I have no shame!

Leah Seldon said...

I suspect that the more modest (or Roman Catholic or Lutheran) among us are never going to be like you, Sue Ann, as much as we admire your salesmanship.

Of course we will find ways to promote our work, but we simply cannot do it with the energy and verve of an ardent seller. I'd like to think that we have other skills to bring to the process.

You are not alone, Julia! Thanks for sharing.

Mark Terry said...

I'm probably somewhere in between you and Sue Ann. I'm sure there are people I run into every day who don't know I'm a novelist (or care, for that matter, but that's a different subject).

And actually, my biggest client asked me take the reference to my novels off my e-mail signature line when conducting business on their behalf. Since they're responsible for about 80% of my income, I did it. It would be nice to have the novels be 80% of my business (or the same amount of $ the client generates for me) so I could tell the client to kiss my ass.

But that's the business world.

Christa M. Miller said...

I may as well have had the same education - my parents did, and sold it to us lock, stock, and barrel, even as they struggled with their own "issues" with the Church.

I suspect part of my discomfort with the kind of techniques Sue Ann mentioned is that I'm deeply introverted. I could probably pull off self-promotion if I had the people skills - I think the right person can indeed make the book sound wonderful - but I have a forceful personality and I know I'd come off as pushy. As Leah says, I'd like to think there are other ways that fit us more readily!

Christa M. Miller said...

Mark, I don't dare link to my website in my signature when I'm dealing with freelance clients. I write dark crime fiction that not everyone appreciates (either because of the material, or because the material comes from a female brain), and I'd rather not reflect badly on my boss.

Mark Combes said...


Oh sister, I'm right there with you. This whole self-promotion thing is pretty odd. I'm in sales so you would think it would come naturally to me. But I'm selling someone ELSE'S stuff - not me and mine. But give it time. I've gotten much more comfortable in the role as I do it more. Although I don't think I'll ever be in the same league as Sue Ann, I've found my comfort zone and you will too.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

The business world is tricky. Of course, I never mention my writing to my law firm clients, but several have found out from the attorneys and then asked me about it. I'm lucky in that most of the people at my day job support my writing ambitions. I've been in meetings and even in the elevator when an attorney has introduced me as their "resident author."

And it wasn't easy for me to learn to promote my books and leave my comfort zone. It's just an understanding that books don't promote themselves. I once read where you should do 5 promotional things a day. I follow that advice, even when I don't particularly feel like it, and it works. Modesty or immodesty has nothing to do with it - it's just good book promotion while keeping an eye on my personal goals.

Joe Moore said...

I'm with you, Julia. My strict Catholic upbringing has definitely affected my ability to promote myself. Lynn Sholes, on the other hand, announces our books to strangers while waiting at stop lights. She makes up for my inept promotional side of the collaboration. I find it is also ironic that the biggest burden of marketing books falls on the shoulders of the writers, few of which are marketing experts.

But at the end of the day, no one is going to sing your praises but you. No one is going to promote your books but you. Still, doing so is right up there with root canals and writing a one-page synopsis of a 100k word manuscript.

Bill Cameron said...

I have a signature line about Lost Dog in my "mystery" email address, but not my business account. Still, most of my clients know I've got a novel out, and many of them have at least pretended they bought a copy. My dentist came to my first reading.

Still, I am shy about it with friends and associates, and often it comes up because someone else has told them. "Bill, I heard from Ted you wrote a book!"

I'm probably more comfortable talking about it with strangers in appropriate situations. I won't just barge up to anyone anywhere. But in any situation that features a "tell me something about yourself" opportunity, I mention the book.

When someone asks, "What do you do?" though, I rarely mention writing, and never first. The "what do you do" question has always seemed to me to be about what provides food and shelter, and since writing is actually a hindrance in that area I think I would feel foolish claiming it, even if it is something I spend a lot of time doing.

I was raised Catholic, spent most of my adult life as a Lutheran, and am now more heathen than anything else. I'm sure all that's a factor, but sorting it out anymore is more than my brain can handle.

Felicia Donovan said...

Upon the release of her latest, THE BONE GARDEN, Tess Gerritsen had a most interesting blog post about her intense dislike of marketing her books.
"Basically, I'm a natural hermit," she wrote. How true for so many of us.

Julia, what if you looked at this from another viewpoint? If God, or whatever higher spiritual power you choose to worship, blessed us with a natural talent (other than being hermits), isn't it our obligation to fulfill that will? That's not vanity, that's just adhering to the natural course of events.

Julia Buckley said...

Wow! What a great response to this issue. Obviously many writers are tormented by the same demons. :)

Sue Ann, you are right. I think if I hung out with you for about six months some of your marketing savvy might rub off on you, but like Leah and Mark, Christa and Joe, I have to fight my natural inclinations. Ironically, I do make demands of my family, because I always feel that if THEY are doing the selling, I am avoiding outright vanity. :)

Bill, we're all heathens. I'm not saying I'm a good Catholic (although I still attend church)--but I went through the indoctrination. You know the drill.

In regard to the signature line, I'm afraid I delete it myself half the time, because I'm too focused on "will this person think I'm showing off or trying to sell something if I leave it on?" I may as well take it off entirely with that attitude.

Christa, I understand about the introversion. Aren't most writers introverts? It would make sense. But I read a great definition of it somewhere: the extrovert TAKES energy from being with others, while an introvert is DRAINED of energy by the same encounter.

By that definition I am very much an introvert, and booksignings give me headaches. I sweat. I even get stomach aches. I have a brief burst of energy to give whatever talk I may need, but then I basically want to lie on my bed for the rest of the day, not go out partying with the bookseller. :)

Felicia, you make a good point. I think there's a real separation between one's basic inclinations and one's reason. So I'll have to find a balance between them.

Thanks so much for all the interesting responses!

G.M. Malliet said...

I can relate to this, absolutely - same upbringing.

"The meek shall inherit the earth"...but they won't sell many books.

The upside is I do know how to spell pretty well because of Sister Maronita, and I can recognize a conjunction at 40 paces. All of which should be a real asset to my career.