Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Book Promotion and the Protestant Work Ethic

I’m old enough to remember the existence of people who believed in good, honest, hard work. I’m not one of them. But I can attest to the fact that, for the first part of my life, these types did indeed roam the planet. They would complain about kids these days. They’d use phrases like “the value of a buck” and talk about things that “build character.”

From what I could glean, such things all had to do with either getting shot at on a battlefield, sweating in a coal mine, or saving up for six months to buy one Sunday dress. And because such values were a direct threat to my desire to watch “Josie and the Pussycats” while fishing through my Cap’n Crunch box for a “real” gold doubloon, I tried to tune these people out.

Yet, somewhere between the Yabbadabbadoos and Hey, Kool-Aids, a few of their words must have sunk in. Their influence crops up in my attitude toward book promotion in general and “stock signings” in particular.

Stock signings are to book promotion what stuffing those little 3-oz. bottles into a Ziploc bag are to a Hawaiian vacation -- irksome, unglamorous, and seemingly pointless, but probably a good idea nonetheless.

Stock signing refers to the process of going to a book store -- preferably one you’ve called first -- to sign copies of your book. Hopefully, this will also include a little positive face time with a book store employee, one of those little “autographed by author” stickers on the front cover, and maybe even face-first placement on an eye-level shelf instead of spine-first placement on toe-level shelf, which is how you found your book when you got there.

Bookstore employees often think you’re nuts if you show up knowing in advance they only have “a couple of copies.” (Translation: Their computer says they have two but, search the store over, and you only find one. Translation of translation: Once that copy sells, there will be none left on the shelf. Yet the store's computer will say there is one -- one that’s been sitting there unloved and unwanted for months on end. So there’s no reason to order more. Ever.)

Tell a bookstore employee that you drove to the Grove shopping center in the middle of gridlocked Los Angeles from your home 20-odd miles away in Pasadena, and she’ll think you’re nuts for bothering to sign just one book. Still, this is the good, honest, hard work of the book-promoting business -- the shut-up-and-just-show-up legwork I’m convinced must have some value beyond the 85-cent royalty that will be credited toward my advance when that one signed copy (probably) sells.

That’s why I didn’t mention to the woman on the phone just how far I would be driving to sign those two copies burning up the shelf at her Grove Barnes & Noble. I just thanked her for her help, told her I’d come in that afternoon, and got in the car.

But it was in the car on my way to the bookstore that I realized that my approach -- and all the “hard-work-builds-character” types who inspired it -- are dead.

There was news talk show on the radio. A call-in show. The topic was air fares, and the caller (just a listener who called in, mind you) did indeed manage to stay on this subject for a full 15 seconds before creating a segue from jet fuel costs to a mention of his new book, “How to Spend Less Money on Gas for Your Car.” (Not the real title. I don’t remember the real title, and, if I did, I wouldn’t write it here.)

Cost of phone call: free. Sounding like a sleazebag on your local NPR affiliate: priceless.

And with that, I must sign off for the day. I’m off to New York, where I plan to spike the water cooler at the Comedy Central studios so that Stephen Colbert will pass out long enough for me to tattoo one of my book titles on his forehead. Clearly, it’s the only way I’ll ever be able to afford a new Sunday dress.

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