I contacted several big name bookstores to kick off the second leg of my summer book tour. The manager of a Northern California Barnes and Noble bookstore said she was not scheduling any book tours unless she could be guaranteed a minimum of 100 books sold during the reading. When she checked the sales of my previous novel, which did not sell as well as Out of Balance is selling, she declined scheduling a reading and suggested I contact independently owned bookstores and coffee shops.
I had not attended an open mic reading at a coffee shop since the first years after graduating from college when I would tote my infant son to the Thursday night readings at the Redwood Café to recite from the book of poems I had written. That little volume of 15 poems sold out when I attended the San Francisco Book Expo in the fall as a guest writer for Lynx Eye, a literary magazine that bought my first short story and a couple of poems. I did not expect to sell my third novel going from coffee shop to coffee shop like I did with my poetry, but in the advent of failing bookstore giants, such as Borders, the venues for small press and mid-list authors had shrunk. The selling platform has switched to online retailers, such as Amazon, who can offer authors of all shapes and sizes a place on their bookshelf without worrying about sales. As for publicity, online retailers rely more on click-ads and short YouTube videos rather than print ads and in-person readings and book signings.
But if I wanted to meet my audience, face to face, I would have to take a different route than the traditional bookstore readings and book signing events from what the manager of Barnes and Nobel said.
I contacted a lot of independent bookstores and faced the same resistance. The only difference between the big names and the independents was expectations. Instead of 100 books sold per reading, the expectation was more around 50 books sold per reading. My last independent bookstore gig generated a whopping 25 books sold and that was after spending my own money on advertisement, posters, and refreshments. How could I sell my new novel when the previous novel failed to generate the sales the independent bookstores expected?
Would I have to go the route of coffee shop readings?
It’s not that I’m opposed to coffee shop readings. After all, I spent a good portion of my twenties in coffee shops with my son who fell in love with the musical quality of words, particularly anything told with a lyrical voice reminiscent of song. I remember pushing the stroller through the maze of tables and chairs and standing onstage reading my words while Gabriel sat in the shadows listening, big-eyed and wondrous. Sometimes he was tired or cranky or hungry and I would have to leave without reading unless my husband was around to take Gabriel outside. The three of us traveled up and down California, from coffee shop to coffee shop, attending readings. It was the closest I’ve come to living a vagabond, bohemian lifestyle.
But more than a decade has passed. And the lure of the coffee shop reading no longer appeals to me. Why? For some reason, I do not think the idealistic, restless crowd that frequents most open mic readings would respond to my message of an average American caught in corporate culture and role reversals struggling to get through the double dip recession. But maybe I am wrong. Maybe I will have to leave the children with the sitter and pack my trunk full of books and drive to the nearest coffee shop and step onstage and risk a few words to find out if the novel resonates with the audience. At least, I won’t be expected to sell a minimum number of books. And I might enjoy a cup of coffee amongst the company of other writers and poets who still believe in the magic of words.