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Thursday, January 11, 2018

Talking Shop


Op-ed • “Dear Time Traveler,” by L. Joseph Shosty


On December 21, 2017, Bruce wrote an op-ed titled “It’s Amazon’s World, We Just Rent Space in It.” In it, a friend of Bruce’s asks (paraphrasing and perhaps embellishing a little), when the market is glutted with small presses, self-pubbers, and ancient reprints hoping to capture evergreen status in this new frontier, how do you stand out in the crowd?

I answered that question about a year or two ago by mostly walking away from the Internet, at least for the time being. See, I’ve tried giveaways, blog tours, and begging overworked critics to review my books; just about everything the internet says you absolutely *must* do to sell your books. This included getting a Twitter account [shudder], but that’s a tale for another day. Suffice it to say, none of it has worked in the long term, and most of it has been more a drain on my time than anything else. I participate on Goodreads, keep a Facebook page, and that’s it.

Instead, I have a little project called The Microcosmic Bookshop, which is essentially a mobile store dedicated to selling my books and related merchandise. It’s not much different than selling at a con, only it’s done on a much larger scale. First of all, I have yet to do a convention as a seller. They’re too expensive, and writers, especially obscure ones, are up against two things at such a place: a finite amount of money being spent, and the far more outlandish events, guests, and vendors drawing attention away from you. More to the point, when John Scalzi is signing books two stalls away as part of some packaged merry-go-round of SF authors, when The Fifth Doctor is charging $75 for a photo op, and fans are paying to meet Jake “The Snake” Roberts before he’s the next famous ex-wrestler to drop dead, your quiet, introspective fantasy novel is hardly going to make a splash. It’s too much competition, even with 10,000 attendees milling about.

My business model works a little differently. Instead of cons, I drive around to flea markets, arts and craft shows, and the like, pay my small fee, and set up a stall. The best part: I’m generally the only author there. It makes me more attractive, even if the customer has never heard of me, and they’re more likely to buy. Also, the low overhead means I turn a profit quickly. That’s really the whole secret. Low overhead, less competition, higher profits. It also means I can be somewhere every weekend if I want to be, sort of like a permanent book tour, if you will. For 2018, I will be working at least forty weekends out of fifty-two.

To make this work, I buy wholesale through Createspace. My books cost about $3.50 per copy to print. Say, about $4 per after shipping. My prices start at $12, but of course, I’m happy to work deals, especially if someone is buying more than one. I can do that because the books are my property, not a publisher’s. So, I make about $8 per sale of my books, not factoring in the rental fee, which is hardly ever above $50 for a weekend. Other merchandise, like my hand-made dice bags for role-playing gamers or used books, generally take care of the rental fees. By comparison, two of my titles wound up in a local Barnes & Noble by sheer twist of fate. I only made $1.50 from each of the thirty books B&N purchased, to the tune of $45. I can do similar sales at events and walk away with $240. I don’t have to make a hundred sales in a weekend. I can put twenty books into the hands of customers, over a three-day period, and that’s all it takes to call the venture a success.

I also don’t do “the author thing,” as I call it. I worked in bookstores for years, and I watched the authors come in, construct a wall of books between them and their public on a banquet table, and then sit there like a bump on a log, waiting for the mountain to come to Mohammed. My designs tend to be more fluid, depending on the shape and size of my work area. Generally, I construct a u-shaped array of tables with my books and related merchandise placed prominently, surrounded by used first editions and other books I’ve collected over the years. I then stand outside of my area. Customers are encouraged to walk into my stall and look around, just as if I were selling glassware or pottery. It’s a comfortable feeling, and it works because I’m not sitting there, with my books laid out in a confrontational way between us, with me staring at people while they try to peruse what I’m selling. I greet them as I see them, and I’ll even walk over to other stalls and engage people, hand out bookmarks, or whatever, and encourage them to come visit me.

There are a number of advantages to this philosophy. Take, for instance, the way crowdfunding has become such a big deal over past few years. From Kickstarter to Patreon, it’s clear the public is enthused at having a greater say in what is being published. Despite the negativity of some Internet cave trolls and IP thieves, far more people want to be patrons of the arts, to be the Medicis of the Information Age, a few dollars at a time. And while I have been a champion of electronic media dating back to the mid- to late-90s, it’s impossible to deny that readers still want print books. They want the heft, the smell, and the comfort such brings. While most like the convenience of online stores, they want to go to places to obtain what they want, and if you’ve ever listened to someone who’s dealt with automated menus over the phone, they want real people to talk to with whom they can connect.

Abandoning the Internet gets me down among the customers and allows me to give them every one of those things they seek. I can’t tell you how many great conversations I’ve had since starting this venture, and how many nice people I’ve met. It’s also given me a number of contacts. Since starting TMB, I’ve gotten interest from privately owned businesses who want to carry my books. As I write this, I either am or will be carried in three local shops, one of whom has multiple locations. The real world is a far more positive place than Facebook ever will be, and an infinitely better place than the media would have us believe. Part of it is I’m giving customers what they want, but there’s also a nostalgic feeling here for something that’s dying by inches: tangibility. I’m a shopkeeper, standing outside my place of business, nodding to folks as they pass by, smiling at children, and being friendly to those who want to browse the physical things I’m selling. No electronics, no LCD screens pounding people with push marketing directing them to my Patreon account they’re trying to read book blurbs, and no attempts to trade electrons for currency. It’s all very low-tech, to the degree that most of my business is cash, though we do take credit cards if we’re in a place with wi-fi. It sounds hokey, but I’ve even considered getting a shop apron with a Microcosmic Bookshop logo on it, both to build brand recognition and to also further that nostalgia.

In modern business terms, I’m creating a regional brand. My little corner of Texas stretches from the Louisiana border west to Austin, and north to Dallas, though I seldom have reason to go any further east than my hometown of Beaumont or Houston to the west, but there’s plenty of room for expansion. The idea is to go where the readers are and put books straight into the hands of those people who want to be patrons. This has an added benefit some of you have probably already realized. Because what are we talking about when we’re sitting around, grousing about Internet marketing? We’re talking about getting the word out, bringing in new readers, and getting reviews. My model handles the first two, and if you create new readers in this way, the third is likely to follow. Full disclosure: so far, it hasn’t resulted in many new reviews for me, but the potential is there. We need x number of reviews for Amazon to take notice so that they’ll aid us in marketing on their site. The more books we sell, the more potential for reviews we have. The more reviews we have, the greater the potential for more online book sales. It’s the old snake biting its tail trick. This is what I mean when I say I’ve almost abandoned the Internet. Being a bestseller in The World Amazon Made is still a major goal of mine, but I’m going at it in a counterintuitive way. I’m starting in the real world with an eye towards using the raving fans I create there to fuel interest in the electronic world, the way brick-and-mortar companies who made successful leaps onto the Internet did in the 90s and early 2000s.

I originally revealed my model to Bruce a few weeks ago in hopes he could perhaps mine it for useful ideas in growing Rampant Loon, particularly Stupefying Stories, a publication of which I’m quite fond. But he made the bigger gesture by asking to publish it, and I believe that’s the right move. We have a real task ahead of us, you see. Like that hypothetical writer at the convention who’s struggling to compete with TV stars and wrestlers, fiction as a medium is in the throes of a long defeat at the hands of TV, social media, and video games. If we’re to keep books alive for subsequent generations, we have to create more readers. To create more readers, we have to get more books out there and into the hands of the right people. To do that, we must push into places where we’re least likely to be found, in my opinion, and that’s why I’m delighted to share what I can with you. Have no illusions. This model hasn’t gotten me great success. No one is beating down my door to offer me million-dollar contracts (not yet, anyway). Hollywood isn’t holding on line two while I finish writing this article. And as always, your mileage may vary, should you try what I’m doing. If I have a hope, it’s that you’ll see this as an alternative to the Internet grind, or perhaps you’ll mine something from here and turn it into a big success. If nothing else, perhaps you’ll see that you’re not trapped into doing the same things other writers are doing and go find new ways to get the word out about what you’ve written.

Good luck to you all.

 


 

L. Joseph Shosty’s first ebook appeared in November, 2000, back when ebooks were still being published on CD-ROM. A long-time champion of digital media, he’s been reviewing and waxing poetic about the potential of electronic literature in particular ever since he saw his first e-zine in 1997. He’s the author of two novels, two novellas, a supplement for writers, and four story collections, the most recent being Trouble My Bones. For more about him, visit his Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/shostyis1337) where he can be found daily, writing about writing, the publishing industry, fiction markets, and occasionally oversharing about his personal life. Currently, he lives in Beaumont, Texas with his wife, son, and a tennis ball return apparatus shaped like a Jack Russell Terrier.

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