Yet another pep talk

Hello, readers —

One of the great luxuries of being a writer, as opposed to any other kind of artist, is that a competitive market doesn’t mean that it pays to be nasty to others. We have our readers to thank for that, to a very great extent: bless their warm and fuzzy hearts, few of them walk into a bookstore so determined to buy only ONE book that they won’t at least LOOK at the rest. (Unlike, say, an art gallery, where the patrons tend to zero in on just one piece.) If another writer is super-successful, why, we should be grateful — s/he is pulling potential buyers for our books into the bookstore.

I, personally, am hugely grateful to Anchee Min, Lydia Minatoya, and Susan Minot, the authors whose books would most closely border mine on the average, alphabetically-arranged bookstore fiction shelf. These fine writers have already trained aficionados of good fiction to keep checking the mid-range Ms every time they wander into a bookstore. Thank you very much!

If you have not already taken up the delightfully furtive habit of checking where your future books will fall on bookstore shelves, I highly encourage you to start indulging in it as soon as possible. As daydreaming exercises go, it’s rather practical: after a few dozen bookstores, you will start to get a sense of the specialized problems of your part of the shelf and your section of the bookstore.

Authors whose last names begin with Z, for example, often find their books on floor-level shelves, due to the tyranny of the alphabet, whereas in a big bookstore, the A authors might well discover that their books are shelved above the average reader’s eye level.

Ideally, you would like to have your books displayed at eye level or just below. Flat on a prominently-placed table or face-out on a shelf is even better, of course, but in major bookstore chains, that display space is bought by the major presses, to display their current offerings. (Disillusioning, isn’t it?) In a smaller bookstore, or in a bookstore with well-read staff, good display space goes to the books they like, as well as the bestsellers.

Remember my mentioning yesterday how easy it is for a writer to get a poor reputation by being rude to readers and/or people who work in bookstores? One of the tangible ways in which dislike manifests is through misshelved books. This may seem on its face like a trivial gesture, but people who spend a lot of time in bookstores know better: even if a book is a bestseller, if it isn’t where it’s supposed to be on the shelf, readers aren’t going to be able to buy it.

The flip side of this is the relative ease of moving books that deserve greater visibility into more prominent locations. Bookstore employees read a lot, and most of them are glad to promote the work of authors whose work they like — or are particularly nice to them at readings. (Hint: bring cookies.) Even the lowest-rung employee has the power to, say, slip an underrated book onto the bestseller table for an afternoon.

Store this nugget for when you’ve got a book out: buying a copy of your own book in a bookstore, signing it, and handing it to the clerk as a present is a stylish and effective method of enlisting unofficial behind-the-counter help. Even if the clerk doesn’t instantly fall in love with your writing, everyone in the store will be talking about the incident for weeks.

Bookstore employees are not the only ones who can perform subtle marketing for a book. Why, any private citizen can help make a book more appealing to buyers, although you didn’t hear that from me. Turning a volume face out on the shelf rather than spine out, for instance. Or moving a Z book up a few shelves, perhaps into the middle of a shelf crammed with the bestseller of the day, such as THE DA VINCI CODE. One could even conceivably pick up a book, walk around with it for awhile, then set it down on one of those display tables near the front of the store while you’re leafing through something there.

If you forgot the first book on the table, who could blame you?

This form of guerilla marketing takes practice, and you will want to be really good at it by the time you have a book out. Pick a couple of favorite authors and appoint yourself publicity agent for their books now, to get a head start. Don’t get yourself in trouble by moving armfuls of volumes; one or two per bookstore will do. Just enough to make a small but palpable difference in what bookstore patrons see first when they scan the shelves.

Don’t just confine yourself to minor rearrangement of bookstore shelves, either: get into the habit of logging onto Amazon and Barnes & and writing glowing reviews of books you like. Set up a list on Amazon. Gush in a chat room. Start a book club and introduce people to your favorite underappreciated authors’ work. These small efforts really do add up in the long run — and just think of all of the good writerly karma you’ll be racking up on the cosmic registers!

Yes, turning a book face out on the shelf is a little thing, but every book sale counts. The writer who first tipped me off about how much better face-out books sell than their spine-out counterparts is now a major international bestselling author. For whom kith and kin still turn volumes face out every time they walk into a bookstore. Heck, I do, too.

This is another reason to cultivate other writers as friends: we make great salespeople for one another’s work. Who loves good writing more than we do? Well, okay, librarians, but who else?

I’m a notoriously shameless promoter of writing I admire; the staffs of my local bookstores stopped bothering to follow me around to replace books on the shelves years back, once they figured out that I had good taste. I’m always chatting with other browsing patrons, soliciting recommendations and pushing mine. (While I’m at it: Bharti Kirchner’s incomparable PASTRIES has one of the best-written endings I have ever read — and I’ve read MADAME BOVARY in the original French.)

Why expend so much energy in promoting other people’s work? Because it’s an economical and effective way to fight back against a publishing industry that is emotionally hard on writers. If you can tip the scales just a tiny bit, even for a moment, in our direction, you are not powerless. Your opinion is not going unheard today. And in a writing life, feeling empowered is one of the best ways of staving off battle fatigue.

Quoth Alice Walker: resistance is the secret of joy.

Seem a trifle silly? Don’t underestimate how important it is to blow off steam, if you want to stay in the writing biz for the long haul. We writers spend so much time being obedient — adhering to the rigors of standard format, sending agents exactly what they have asked to see and no more, enclosing SASEs, so we may pay the postage on the rejection letters we receive — that the occasional act of resistance is healthy, perhaps even necessary, to maintaining one’s equilibrium.

One last suggestion on how to keep your spirits up: keep moving. Don’t get so wrapped up in marketing your completed work that you stall on the next. Yes, you need to keep sending your work out, but don’t let that endeavor suck up all of your creative energy. Get to work on your next writing project right away.

And don’t send out only one query letter at a time, unless an agency actually specifies that it will not accept simultaneous queries. One by one, it may take years to go through your top choices; the vast majority of agents understand that, so you do not need to fear their yelling at you down the line if several are interested in it. (Actually, agents’ ears tend to prick up when they learn that they have competition — it can speed up the decision-making process quite a bit.)

Try keep 5-10 queries circulating at any given time (maintaining impeccable records of who has what, of course). Yes, it may mean receiving a couple of rejections on the same day, but it will also mean that your work is being seen by a whole lot of potentially impress-able eyes. Trust me, if you get started on a new query the moment the most recent rejection letter hits the recycling bin, you will feel better than if the rejection letter sits on your desk for a week or two.

Above all, don’t be too hard on yourself for getting depressed occasionally. It’s genuinely hard to find an agent and/or publisher, and rejection really does hurt. Talk about it with people who understand, and keep moving forward.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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