11-04-14 – THE SHAME OF BOOK HAWKING
Running a booth at the Baltimore Book Festival last month taught me a hard truth: not only do I not write the kind of novels you can sell on the street, but I don’t have it in me to pretend that I do.
I was running this booth with several other writers who had recently published novels. From the start it was clear that getting anyone to visit our booth, much less look at or purchase our books, would take some seriously hard selling. To be specific, we were going to have to announce to anyone within earshot that we were real, live, local authors, ready to talk to them and show them our books – and then we were going to have to ask them point blank to take out their wallets.
I just couldn’t bring myself to do that. Nor could I bring myself to explain to anyone who we caught in our trap why they should buy my book over all the other novels by virtual unknowns, or why they should buy any of our books instead of the enticing $3 paperbacks, many of which were household names, at the stand next door.
Instead, all I could do was wonder if anyone was really so desperate for a good read. There are over 1,000 or so new English-language books published every day, over a quarter of them novels. Meanwhile, the average American spends just over 20 minutes a day reading anything at all. Get real. Pretending that here in our slush pile was the next great novel of a random stranger’s dreams, especially in the midst of this sea of other potentially great novels, made me feel delusional. And ashamed.
Equally mortifying was waving my book in the face of a hapless pedestrians and witnessing them decide whether my book was worth buying. The shame I felt was akin to asking a complete stranger on a date after assuring him that you were a femme fatale, initial impressions notwithstanding.
I’m proud of my novels, and love what I write. I do want others to read them and believe that many people will enjoy them and find them moving. Even so – I am acutely conscious that I personally am not the most unbiased, reliable source about whether my own book is worth buying, or reading. I’m also acutely conscious that the person to whom I’m hawking knows my unworthiness, and sees the need for me to hawk as a sign of the book’s inherent undesirability. My consciousness of the absurdity of the situation fills me with palpable nausea, and shame.
While I brooded, some of the other authors got smart: if we wanted to sell our obscure novels, a genre label was the way to go. Did the book take place in another era? Historical fiction! Was there a crime involved? Mystery! Was there a love interest? Romance, of course!
We all knew full well that genre novels follow strict formulas, and our books didn’t necessarily conform to these. Regardless, I watched these writers rope in customers by dubbing their tales as mysteries or local stories or romances, and they definitely got some attention by doing so. After I lamented that I should probably just call Permanent Makeup, my newest novel, “women’s fiction,” (since, after all, it involves female protagonists concerned with social issues affecting the female sex), another writer came to my aid and asked passersby if they ever read “women’s fiction.”
Hearing my book called “women’s fiction” made me want to plunge a knife into my chest. It’s not women’s fiction. At least that’s not how I see it. I see it as a good story with compelling characters that make you see life a little differently. Why isn’t that enough? Still, I was grateful. Calling my book “women’s fiction” did, in fact, result in a sale.
I know many of literature’s finest had to hawk their works, or shape them to market tastes. I also know Samuel Johnson said that anyone who doesn’t write for money is a “blockhead.” It’s not that I’m not writing for money. And certainly not that I’m not writing for readership. Where I have issues, however, is the breakdown between the literature and the branding – the idea that when you’re selling a book, you’re selling a brand, a connection, a persona rather than some inherent value in the literature. Hawking my book as “women’s fiction,” a “local story,” or even as “good fiction, take my word for it,” made me feel that somehow, somewhere everything that made my book worth reading had left the building.
I write fiction because it makes my life worth living, seals my experience in a way that will outlast me. I would obviously like others to read it, to validate my existence, and, more importantly, to validate that what I see and have done has reached them, made a difference. But marketing books hard core, which is what writers have to do these days whether they are published and pushed by mainstream publishers or do it on their own dime, just seems beyond my capabilities.
I’ve given in to some extent. I’ve written blurbs for the backs of my books. I’ve posted publication notices and reviews on Facebook. I maintain a website, and dutifully cultivate reviews – I’ve even tweeted them. I send out press releases and enter contests. I feel sick to the bone every time I do any of these things. But telling people face-to-face that my book is a “gripping story of three generations of women” is beyond my capabilities. If I have to do that, I might as well just scream the inherent undesirability of my book. I feel that written all over me as I speak.
It shouldn’t have to be this way. While writers do want readers, and should to some degree write for them, there is an inherent disconnect between writing and marketing. The skills it takes to write a good novel are not necessarily found in people with the skills to sell or market a good novel. And just because an author can’t market doesn’t necessarily mean the author’s books aren’t marketable.
The act of turning a novel into a come-on sentence is also misleading. If a novel can’t speak for itself, then why was it written? If it can be condensed into a phrase or sentence, it has no reason for being. Does “family saga mixed with military history” really encapsulate what makes War and Peace worth reading? Does “a young Englishwoman deals with manners, morality, and marriage among 19th century landed gentry” capture the essence of Pride and Prejudice? And if I had never heard of Gustav Flaubert and met him at a book fair, would I have bought his debut novel about “a doctor’s wife who commits adultery” on his word alone?
These thoughts are what held me in my seat at the book festival. They’re what turned my face red when people picked up Permanent Makeup and I sputtered, “That’s my book. Would you like me to sign it for you?” Mixed in, of course, was just plain fear of rejection. But above all was my awareness of the absurdity of my offer, and the place of my particular novel in the world of this poor, unsuspecting soul now being strong-armed into buying it.
Whether this inability to hawk my books is a failing of mine, or a failing of my writing, I can’t say. Whether it will hurt my short- or long-term success, or both, I can’t say either. But it is an undeniable and painful truth.
I’d be curious to know how other authors do it. I just can’t.