Sunday, January 1, 2023

Return to the Moa by Bruce Bethke, October 09, 2017

And here I am, back at the Mall of America again. Twenty-some years ago, when the MOA was shiny and new and I was a promising young writer with both a new novel out and an American publisher who actually put some promotional effort behind such novels by such writers, I got booked to do a signing at the MOA, at what was then the flagship store of a now-defunct bookstore chain.

Let me tell you, I was excited to do this signing! A week or two before Colin Powell had done a book signing at the same store, in the same time-slot, and it was a major media event, covered by all the local papers and TV stations. The line for him was out the door and halfway down to the next food court. I figured, if I could get just half the turnout he got; a quarter, even...

On the day of the signing I took extra care to shave, shower, brush and floss, make sure my hair was perfect, dress in my sharpest suit, pack a couple of spare signing pens (always bring your own pen) and a small tin of Altoids -- I even put on aftershave, which I almost never do, and showed up well in advance of the appointed time. The staff in the store were happy to see me and eager to accommodate me. They'd set me up with a table and chair and nice signage, and neat stacks of about 200 copies of my new novel, in a location where it was impossible for people to enter or leave the store without walking right past me.

Which is exactly what they did: walked right past me. I sat there with my "accessible and approachable" smile pasted on my face and pen in my hand, ready to sign and personalize books, watching people walk past... and walk past... and walk past...

And after about fifteen minutes, I decided this was stupid. I'd worked in sales before -- been quite successful at it, actually. You don't make sales by sitting there and waiting for customers to approach you. You get out from behind the counter and approach them. Confidently and assertively, but without crossing over into aggressive and obnoxious, which is where most sales people blow it, especially in the used car business.

So I got out from behind that table, and I worked that sales floor, approaching and engaging people and selling my book, one customer at a time. When my assigned time was up I got permission from the store manager to keep going, and I wound up staying there until the store closed. By the end of the evening my voice was shot, my feet were killing me, and I had sold...

Exactly sixty-four books. I made a point of remembering that; wrote it down, even. I was making roughly ten cents a copy on that one, so all my work that evening had contributed a glorious $6.40 towards earning out my publisher's advance. I was depressed.

The store staff were thrilled, though. "This is the best book signing we've ever had!" But, but, Colin Powell?

Someone explained. That wasn't a book signing. That was a publishing event. People weren't showing up to buy Powell's book and read it. They were there to get a signed copy so they could display it, and start conversations by saying, "I was talking to Colin Powell the other day..." They figured the people who bought Powell's book might read a chapter or two, or look at the pictures, but eventually they'd get tired of having it taking up space in their house. Then they'd try to sell it, and discover it wasn't a valuable collector's item after all, whereupon they'd dump it at a garage sale or donate it to Goodwill.

"But you," another someone said, "you actually wrote your book. The people who bought your book are going to read it. This is the best turnout we've ever had for a real novel by a real writer!"

Well. That was some consolation. And definitely food for thought.

...the thinking process continues to this day. Twenty-some years later, the book business remains a strange and dynamic space, where the only constant is change and what worked well even a year ago no longer works now. For too long I have been sitting behind the table, with my "accessible and approachable" smile pasted on my face, waiting for book sales to magically happen. For a time, that seemed to work. We sold thousands of copies of Scout's Honor and The Fugitive Heir, among other titles.

But this year: the market tectonics have shifted again. What was working for us then isn't working for us now. Meaning it's time for me to get out from behind the table and start making things happen. And that, my friends, is what I'm already in the process of doing, and will be expanding on doing in the upcoming months.

Fair warning, though: the reason I got out of sales in the first place is that my salesman persona -- well, he's not exactly the most patient and nurturing of people. In fact, he really got on my wife's nerves, which is why I shut him down and changed careers. Once he's online, I have a lot of trouble switching him off.


As we're changing our sales positioning and marketing strategy, one of the things I'm doing is consolidating the SHOWCASE and Stupefying Stories websites. SHOWCASE was a nice idea, and it had a pleasant if erratic four-year run, but our focus now must be on our core business, which is selling books. Ergo, SHOWCASE will carry on, but as a feature of this site, not as a semi-independent (and money-losing) entity. As we're winding up and shutting down the existing SHOWCASE site, though, I'll be running a sort of "best of SHOWCASE" feature here, with plugs and links to some of my personal favorites out of the 170-some stories we've published on that site over the past four years.

Guy's Note: As HEADCRASH (1995), REBEL MOON (1996), and WILD, WILD WEST (1999) were all published around the same time, this could have been written for any one of the books. My money is on HEADCRASH, though. So, unless Bruce corrects me, let's go with that!