New writers & authors: Ready to be a book salesman?

When it comes to selling novels, there is a common assumption (and practice) in the publishing world. After the author has received his share of limelight and media exposure during the book launch event, he goes back to his high pedestal to work on the next masterpiece while his humongous fan following flocks to the bookstores to buy the book.

As an author, while you put on the sunglasses to protect your eyes from all the flashbulbs going off in your face, the reality is – most book reviews and press exposure will fizzle out faster than you assume. Then it’s just you and your books lying on their respective pedestals gathering dust. Unless you do something about it.

So last week, I thought, let me try out an experiment. Why not go unannounced to a bookstore and try my hand at selling the books.

Part of my brain said – ‘Oh c’mon, you can’t be serious? You are an author with a respected publishing house that has all the resources to sell your book. Standing in a bookstore to sell books would be beneath your dignity.

The other half said – ‘It’s my intellectual property, my idea, my product. If I can’t convince a reader to buy it, no one can. Nothing wrong with some direct interaction with real people who would find the book interesting. At least it’ll let me know whether the book is really filling a gap in the market or am I just kidding myself.

Rather than visiting the elite air-conditioned book stores that host spectacular book launches and author networking events, I thought why not approach a bookstore that’s been around for much longer than the malls that host the new breed of multi-product bookstores (stocking books, CDs/DVDs, electronic items, chocolates!). There was a big bookstore just outside the railway station. In the evenings it was filled with professional, students, parents and kids.

The ‘dignity’ part of the brain fought back, this time adding ‘self-respect’ to strengthen its ‘Why I shouldn’t do it’ argument.

In the evening, I was at the store asking the owner, Jamal-bhai ‘I’m the author of Beyond The MBA Hype Do you mind if I hang around and talk to your customers about my book?’ Without even giving it a thought, he responded – ‘Be my guest. Will you have some tea?’ He offered me a cutting-chai that he had ordered for the rest of his employees.

So there I was feeling just a little awkward standing next to the cashier’s desk not knowing what to do and how to break the ice with those walking by. From the stares I was getting, maybe they thought I was Jamalbhai’s new security guy (or scarecrow, judging by my physique) standing there to keep an eye on shoplifters.

I mustered up the courage to approach a guy peeking into the business section and randomly flicking through the pages of a foreign author’s latest bestseller. ‘Not much into Indian authors?’ I asked, expecting a mind-your-own-business kinda stern look. Instead, he smiled back and said, ‘Nothing like that. Anything good works for me.

Good to hear that. By the way, I’m the author of a book on business education.’ I picked up a copy from the shelf and showed it to him. ‘Really. Let me have a look.

I spent several minutes talking to him and he kept the book back on the shelf with a ‘Good luck with the book.

He didn’t buy it! ‘Damn,’ I thought, ‘10 minutes down the drain.’ And then I thought, maybe not. The last few minutes had taught me a few valuable lessons – how to break the ice without sounding like a pushy salesman and the realisation that dignity and self-respect are not as vulnerable as I had imagined them to be.

I hung around for an hour that day and managed to sell a few copies – a current MBA student, a professor who was buying souvenirs for his students who had done well, a marketing veteran who was in the store with some trainees and a few more interesting folks. A couple of them asked me to sign a copy. In total, I don’t think I would’ve crossed 100 rupees in royalty payment. But I went back the next day and spent another hour. Sold a few more books, signed a few more copies.

If I were to look at it in pure financial terms, the hourly payment for a daily wage earner would probably be more. Jamalbhai of course made more money from my sales, than I did (retailers/distributors make more money from each book sale than the author). But the interactive experience and the perspectives made it worth the effort.

It also boosted my confidence to know that I could be more useful in a bookstore than a scarecrow.

12 thoughts on “New writers & authors: Ready to be a book salesman?”

  1. i have written a novel and as big publishers denied my proposal i am going for a small one…i like your courage, i think i will follow your suite…:)

  2. *g*

    I love the last sentence.

    And well done indeed. Marketing is a useful skill to develop, though I got the concept only after I read Pratchett’s _Making Money_.

  3. Too good. I liked ur style. Just out of curiosity, is writing ur only source of income or u do writing along side with something else?

    Ur posts r interesting as well as informative.


  4. Would most definitely take this particular leaf off your ‘valuable lessons-special edition’ catalogue when my time turns up around the corner. Promoting my write-ups, has always been a spot of embarrassment for me, no matter where they appear – on my blog, as a Facebook note or even in a leading newspaper’s tabloid, as has happened quite a few times. With me, it is always a battle between the need to be polished and the need to bring my work under the spotlight. I guess it is only fair that an author has to overcome his reservations and stand up for his book because, it is the brightest spotlight that attracts attention and if not for the author, who else can better provide it for his book? Will work on it. Good one, Sameer 🙂

  5. Krishna: Hope you have better luck with the smaller publishers.

    Ritu: Will need to check out that book, once I save enough from my part-time salesman’s job 😛

    Urwashi: Though I do write a fair bit (including stuff on this blog and a few other sites), it doesn’t help me pay the bills.
    I am the founder of an MBA admissions consulting venture that gets the food on the table.

    Nethra: You write for newspapers! You’ve already accomplished more than most writers.

  6. I agree with Ritu, I loved the last line as well. And this was a really memorable post. Will stay with me for a long time.

    Thank you! 🙂

  7. Brilliant! It takes a lot of guts to do what you do. Kudos to you. It is also a pleasure to read the stuff you write. There are bits of wisdom and philosophy that pop up here n there…worth noting indeed.

  8. I worked as a professional salesman (enterprise businesses) for a few years. During that time, I did some crazy things (including gate crashing) in spite of warnings from my bosses. Of course, these techniques were not successful, but it gave me immense satisfaction. Sort of Nirvana 🙂

    It’s good that you tried some unconventional methods, try more…

  9. Hi Sameer,
    I have written a book (fiction) and uploaded some chapters in (site maintained by Harper Collins). Could you please have a look at it (if you could take out some time from ur busy schedule, then only). Since the readers generally opined that the language is going above their head (there were some who appreciated also. If it is possible this is my link
    Thank you
    Liinsa (this is my pseudonym)

  10. Salini,

    Congrats on completing your first book. Big milestone.

    I’m not the right person to provide feedback on the quality of writing. My own writing isn’t exactly Pulitzer material 🙂

    That’s why my blog posts focus on the business and commercial side of publishing rather than on the creative side.

    If a few readers think it is going over their head, don’t worry. Maybe you just need to target the right audience. That’s a much better option rather than getting swayed by what a few (incorrectly targetted) readers are saying and thinking of re-writing entire chunks just to please them.


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