BOOKS IN GROCERY STORES: A TESTIMONIAL
(formerly a MobyLives guest column)
by Larry Baker
Ninety percent of all published writers, and one hundred percent of all unpublished writers might say that they would trade places with me. Very few would have any sympathy for me, and I understand that. And if I had a little more self–respect, I wouldn't even be admitting all this from my past. But desperate times called for desperate measures back then.
This is a tale told by an idiot, a desperate idiot, about necessity being the mother of invention. About going from big to small to microscopic, and then to small again.
For my first novel in 1997, The Flamingo Rising, I got a low six figure advance from Knopf. Not bad for a virgin, for sure. Foreign rights got me another low six figures. Paperback rights, another six figures. Movie deal, another six figures. So far, the American writer's dream, right? And why a lot of other writers would tell me to quit whining.
But all those other writers, in or wanting to be in print, also understand this: one book is not enough. Forget the money; you want a second book out, and then a third. You want to be a writer, not a One Book Wonder.
That lucrative first novel actually sold—well, not a lot. In fact, not anywhere near enough to earn back the advances. An embarrassment of deficit. Very good reviews, a box–office bomb. I was One and Done. Hand prints all over my back as they showed me the door. Plus, I did some other dumb stuff too, like splitting with the agent who sold my first book to Knopf.
I sent my second book to Knopf in 1999. Thumbs down. Truth is, it wasn't a good book. Three years ago, I sent him a new book, a political novel titled Athens, America. It sat in the editor's office for almost a year. No decision. Perhaps his gentle way of saying no? I took the hint, pulled the book, and contemplated the void. My new agent sent it to a few other publishers, all the this is great but not quite right for us rejections, and I was beginning to suspect that I was damaged goods. The agent and I parted company amicably. Took our best shot; time to move on.
But the thing was, I thought Athens was much better than Flamingo, more adult, more relevant to real life in America, and it deserved an audience. Hell, I'm the writer. If I don't believe in the book, who will?
Enter a small southern press. An editor there had read my first book, loved it, and we had kept in touch for years. I told him my sad story. He said to give him a chance. A chance for him, but no advance for me. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I remembered stories about Mark Twain's up and down life.
One of the reasons I went with this tiny publisher is that they thought my marketing plan had a lot of potential. They agreed to print 2000 copies for an early release in my hometown of Iowa City back in November. I knew we would sell a few copies here. The book itself is inspired by actual events in Iowa City, and I'm like, you know, the Balzac of Iowa City. Three Pulitzer Prize winners here at the Writers Workshop, but they ain't Balzac.
The plan? Sell a lot here in 2004 during the Christmas season and have a national release in 2005, using the Iowa sales figures to get the attention of New York media and publishers.
But I didn't anticipate the resistance of Barnes and Noble. The local B&N managers, good people, loved the book and were going to order a hundred copies, but they were over–ruled by their home office. The B&N uppers refused to deal directly with my publisher, insisting that they would only buy books through a national distributor even though my dwarfish publisher was offering a better wholesale deal.
And then B&N decided that they would not stock the book at any of their stores in the universe because they didn't like the cover art. Seriously . . . I've got the letter, in black and white. And that really hurt. I've been in a lot of B&N stores. They're full of butt–ugly books, and I took their rejection personally because the cover art was my concept.
There I was, 2000 copies of ATHENS, with only two independent bookstores selling it. Did I mention the concept of desperation? I began mumbling in public places.
Talking to the manager of a local grocery one day, something about the price of corn chips, and it hit me—I asked him if he would sell the book at his store. The only catch? I insisted that it be put on a separate table by itself near the front door. He liked me. My kids worked at his store. He took a chance. I gave him a case. Two days later, he asked for another case. I went to some more grocery stores.
My glamorous life as a writer—three groceries selling the best political novel since All The King's Men—me sitting there across from the broccoli. Selling like hotcakes. Impulse buyers. The only glitch was when my prime spot was usurped by a table of pumpkin pies a few days before Thanksgiving.
We sold 980 copies in two months. You gotta let that sink in: 980 hardcover copies in two independent bookstores and three groceries in a smallish town. One of the finalists for the National Book Award a few years ago only sold 2000 copies in the entire country! We sell 980 in one town. Forget that Balzac reference. I'm like, you know, the PT Barnum of Iowa City. All I have to do now is figure out some way to get a national review for my latest novel, LOVE AND OTHER DELUSIONS. Something tells me that a table next to fruits and vegetables might be in my future.
Causes Larry Baker Supports
Holt International Adoption Services
Harry Chapin Foundation
National Public Radio