As a debut novelist, I’m lucky to have a publicist working on behalf of my book. But we writers know that unless you’re Stephen King, books don’t just sell themselves. Long after the honeymoon of seeing the book out and thinking “Hey, I’m a published author” it’s up to us to pound the pavement and meet our audience.
My first job out of college was peddling drugs, the legal kind. Now my product is my book - which won’t cure ailments except for boredom and ennui. Face time is important even in the age of the internet and e-books on the rise. I’ve made a few cold calls at local bookstores, and found out that booksellers are generally friendly. They haven’t sent me away with a flourish of the hand, as some of the busy doctors’ offices did when I represented a drug company.
I stopped by Borders in my hometown a few months before my book came out, and noticed that an entire bookshelf display dedicated to new fiction hardcovers had been taken down. Chatting with a bookseller about this, I mentioned my novel would be coming out, almost as an afterthought. He encouraged me to contact their book buyer. That was a serendipitous meeting, not a page out of my sales training manual.
As a pharmaceutical rep, I would be lucky to gain access into a medical office, where I’d wait until the doctor appeared to deliver my 30-second pitch. This came right out of the sales training videos: “So, Doctor, when you see that cholesterol patient who needs to ‘up’ their good HDL’s, will you prescribe our drug Zaxalax?” (All successful meds have the letters X or Z, which the actual drug did not.) Up yours, I’m sure the doctor was thinking, on a few occasions.
What I learned from those years of schlepping drug samples was that I needed to be genuine, and not sound like a walking commercial. Or the pesky telemarketer that you can easily hang up on. And the other lesson: I’m one fish in a big sea, so busy people need a good reason to give me a minute of their time. Months later, that same bookseller put me in touch with the general manager at this Borders. He was interested in reaching out to the diverse community of local bibliophiles, tourists, college students, and Chinese Americans who make up large numbers here. (That narrows my hometown down to a few places in the U.S.)
I tried something new at this reading: a slide show with photos from the ghost towns of the Yangtze where all these people have been displaced by the dam. And here’s the other thing: my story can’t be about “all these people” – 1.4 million Chinese, to be precise. It’s about a widower who now scavenges for a living. He rescues an abandoned baby girl on the eve of flooding. My photos capture the real life background of the novel: the ancient town of Fengdu reduced to rubble, a mother and her adopted boy, village women spinning rope. At other readings, people asked to see my photos so they can grasp these places that no longer exist. While it’s not par for the course in fiction readings, I figured it’s good to give the customer what he or she wants.
Another program about the rise of e-books aired today on public radio. It was all about the customer. We keep thinking that technology will replace paper, human contact, everything that we cast off as old school. Come on. Can we really replace people? Where will we go, if computers mediate every experience in the human world? For a new author, it’s a lot of work to do readings, to schlep myself out to there as I’d once schlepped so many pill boxes. But this face-to-face thing is intoxicating, more so than that other Face—thing.
~~ IN THE LAP OF THE GODS ~~
a novel by Li Miao Lovett
A massive dam rises, a million lives are thrown into turmoil...and a widower saves an abandoned baby girl from the Yangtze.