Mark Terry

Friday, April 23, 2010

It's Not Success or Failure

April 23, 2010
Last night I drove 60+ miles down to Ann Arbor to the downtown Borders store for what I thought was a book signing. It's a big store, basically the company's flagship store, two stories, huge. I didn't see a table set up when I came in, so I flagged down an employee who called the CRM who showed up and said, "We're set up upstairs." So stepping off the stairs, I see a lectern, microphone and about 70 chairs. "Uh, am I giving a talk?" I ask. "Yes, although there's not many people here. We'll give them a few minutes."

Hmmm. Well, I've been talking for something like 45 years, so I'm capable. The problem was there were basically two people (technically 5, but I'll get to that) in the "audience." One woman with her two kids, a guy, and a woman who seemed to be reading something else and not paying any attention at all. I suspected she just wanted a place to sit down.

I skipped the lectern completely and essentially did a 50-minute Q&A with the people, primarily the man and woman, who had a million questions. Then I believe I sold 2 books--one to the guy and one to the CRM who said it sounded like the kind of book he'd like. Then I signed a dozen copies for the store, and my wife and I headed home an hour earlier than expected.

It's possible to view this as a failure and I would have a couple years ago. But I've been approaching the whole book promotion thing with a different attitude this time around. First, having had stall-points in my novel-writing career, I've decided I'd rather be a novelist than not be a novelist, and some promotion is part of the gig.

If I really wanted to, I could just refuse to do the signings. I'm not really convinced they sell many books and certainly on a book-by-book basis they don't. But I sold at least 2 books more than I did before showing up and now the Ann Arbor Borders has a dozen or so signed copies with stickers on them that will be placed somewhere prominent in the store, which will garner more interest from readers which hopefully will result in sales. Also, you can always hope one of those readers will be a "sneezer," ie., the type of reader who will then recommend your book to all his/her friends.

Also, some of this you do to make your publisher happy. My time's valuable, but they've put an investment into the book as well and seem to think that signings make a difference. They don't hurt sales, although I suppose it's possible that some stores get over-excited and order too many copies which are going to eventually get returned, hurting your overall sales record. But you have no control over that whatsoever. I've called book signings "Writer's Penance" from time to time because it's the price you pay to sit in your office playing with imaginary friends.

So was it a success or a failure?

Why does it have to be either? It just what it was. Another shoulder to the boulder that is book promotion. It may not have budged much last night, but it didn't slide backwards on me either. I've been published. I've sold some books. I've got some readers. And last night I put on a show for a couple people with the same kind of energy I would try to bring if there had been 100 people there.

Only you can define success or failure.

I'm reminded of two stories. One is, the first time I sold an article for money ("Blue Heaven" published in Traverse Magazine in 1993) it took a while to get the check (an experience I've had to repeat many times since). I was at lunch with my wife and a friend of ours that worked at Ford Hospital and I mentioned it had been published, but I hadn't gotten paid yet. The woman said, "If doesn't count if you don't get paid." Yes, that pissed me off and I snapped, "It counts the minute I write it." (To which, 17 years later, I want to add, "you stupid bitch.")

Years ago I caught an interview with Elmore Leonard. Leonard had been banging around the publishing and screenwriting world for quite some time. He didn't turn to writing novels full-time until his 5 or 6th novel and his "breakout" novel was "Glitz" which was something like his 20th novel. The TV person asked him when he felt like a successful novelist. Was it when he was able to write full time? Was it when one of his books got turned into a movie? Was it when he hit the New York Times Bestseller List?

Leonard said, fairly casually, "I've always felt like a success."

Learn from the master, boys and girls. Learn from the master.


Blogger Stephen Parrish said...

This is a great post. You should consider developing it for Writer's Digest or some other (wider) audience.

6:13 AM  
Blogger sex scenes at starbucks said...

I like that and entirely agree with Stephen. This is awesome.

10:36 AM  
Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

Hah! That cracks me up, because I can't tell you how many times I've told "it doesn't count," (particularly by RWA) even though I get paid MORE than the person telling me that, LOL.

I love that: "It counts the minute I write it."

11:45 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

Yeah, it counts if you don't get paid. As I often say, most of the stuff I've ever written was written without any thought of selling it anywhere, including some of my best things. It is sad that so many in our society measure everything by money.

9:06 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Well, Eric, in that I'm still pissed about the comment 17 years later, I'd guess I'd agree with you.

9:53 AM  

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