Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Artisan Seller

One of my first jobs in high school was working as a telemarketer. I was fifteen at the time, and spent three hours a night five nights a week cold-calling people to offer them a free 8" X 10" portrait if they'd purchase a modestly-priced photo package from a national photography studio. I used a call list, read from script cards, and after the first week I got the hang of it and started selling pretty steadily (this is also why to this day I try never to be rude or hang up on telemarketers. I know only too well the confines of that tiny cubicle and the evil eye of the shift supervisor.)

I didn't love the job, but I didn't hate it. I earned enough money to help my mom out with the groceries and keep my little brother and sister in shoes. I probably would have worked there longer than a year if I hadn't gotten a godawful case of laryngitis (for which I was promptly fired.)

Since then I haven't had too many other sales jobs. I've sold commercial A/C parts, industrial materials for paper product manufacturers, and of course books. I liked being a bookseller best because I never felt like I was selling. Connecting people with great reads was already my personal mission; I was just getting paid to do it. I moved a lot of inventory and sold a ton of discount cards, and my boss never yelled at me, so I think I was pretty good at it.

Working as a salesperson taught me a couple of things: find out what your customer wants first, know your products well enough that you can speak knowledgeably about them, and if you can't give the customer exactly what they want, offer something that fits their needs just as well. If you can be sincere and honest versus hitting them with the hardsell, you'll at least interest most of them. It also gives you the bonus of maybe enjoying your job a little versus actively despising it.

The online writing community has always been something of a virtual book store, through which thousands of potential customers browse every day. Some are window-shopping or looking for freebies; some just want to watch the artisans at work. Nothing wrong with this; those who can't buy today may be able to buy tomorrow (and yes, others want to vandalize the merchandise or shoplift it, but that's the price of doing business.) Happily many of our browsers are looking for something to buy, and they're the reason we put our work on display.

Publishers now expect writers to be sales people as well as artisans. They want us out here on the sales floor covering every aisle, working the browsers, handselling to anyone who will stop long enough to listen to our pitch, and moving as much inventory as we can. We do this because our job performance is not based on the quality of the products we produce, or the number of customers we wait on, but by the number of units we sell -- and if we don't sell enough, they let us go. Again, the price of doing business.

I don't have a problem with handselling books online; I do it all the time. I know I'm better at recommending other writers' work over my own because I can revert back to my bookseller self and sell it on the level of one reader to another. I've tried but I can't do that with my work. I don't have the same relationship with my novels; I'm not able to disconnect the writer and pretend they're just another bunch of units I have to move. Also, by the time a book hits the market I'm usually writing something that is three or four books ahead of it on the schedule. It's not that I'm over it, more like I'm way past it. The time lag is no one's fault but it does create a significant obstacle.

This past year I've been working on a different approach to the problem and came up with a radical solution, one that began with the concept for the novel and that I developed along with the proposal package. This time I didn't tackle it like a salesperson, however; I took an artisan's approach. As in, what can I create now that will sell the book next year when I'm busy doing something else?

It's the second time I've worked on marketing and writing a book simultaneously, but the first time I will have complete creative control. It was also enormously helpful to have the idea before the book was written so I think about both versus brooding over marketing once the story was finished and trying to market it twelve months after that. I don't know if my idea will work, but along with eliminating the time lag between writing the book and releasing the book it allows me to sell without having to disconnect the writer at all. If nothing else it should be a decent learning experience.

Writers, are you trying anything new with your self-promo? Readers, have you noticed anything interesting and/or creative out there that convinced you to buy a book? Let us know in comments.


  1. Promo? Er. Um. No, not beyond what I already do. I do have one idea but I'd have to have a partner with skills I lack to pull off the job. Looking forward to hearing about your idea.

  2. I hate loathe and abhor promo.

    My best way of doing it is just thru blogging and interacting with readers on twitter. That's just talking, and I'm good at that. But apparently it works. O_O

    One new thing I did do with BROKEN that seemed to go over REALLY well-I had a very few ARCS, and one of the bloggers did a blog tour-set up a 'lotto' where people competed for a chance to get to read/review it. Five people read/reviewed it and it ended up generating a lot of buzz-BROKEN did really, really well, and a lot of that was thru the word of mouth that happened on the blogs, I think and I bet a lot of THAT came from the initial buzz from the blog tour.

  3. I'm working on marketing my first book, so I'll be interested in what you came up with.

    Otherwise, it's early days yet. I have ideas for book videos. The only advancement I hope to make (apart from them being funny and interesting to watch on their own) is to work on the sound. The cameras are really, really, good, but the vids they produce sound like they were recorded in a field, and I find that distracting.

  4. As a reader, I enjoy it when writers write short stories about characters from their novels. It's passive selling, and also avoids that "time lag" problem you were talking about.

  5. I am taking GREAT pains to separate my writing self from my real self, including abandoning my 'pro' blog and writing new books under a pseudonym. Since my novels are all still in print, I've let my old writer name release some free/cheap ebook shorts, and I have an author page on facebook which has gathered a surprising - to me at least - group of fans. All new material, though, is written by someone else and, so far so good.

  6. Sure I'm thinking about it. Right now I'm mostly tied up in catching up with my writing, so the only big thing I've been doing is blogging about it.

    Every now and then I'll go out and do a little extra social networking. Do some more interesting things with the blog. Build up a platform there.

    I think the main thing is to build up the audience slow and steady. Keep writing, write more. Short stories, interview yourself, interview other writers. Flash fiction, jokes, poetry.

    J.A. Konrath talks about "shelf space" and I think in the end, that's where it's at. Anything you do now expands your presence, and that becomes the passive marketing you need later on.


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