Sometimes, when you go to light a firework, the fuse sparks up and disappears into the tube, and then you wait . . . and wait . . . and wait, and just when you think you’ve got a dud, a tiny thread of smoke drifts out of the top. Everyone starts to find an excuse not to look at you, especially your children, who are totally embarrassed by your lack of firework aptitude. And then, with a startling whoosh!, the firework takes off and blows half the sky away.
My first few months as a bookseller were kind of like that. Which was awkward because I was both a publisher and a writer, and I came rolling into the bookstore like I was one of those expensive rockets. But then, I couldn’t handsell any of the books I worked on. Oh, I could totally handsell books I grew up with, as well as books whose flap copy I read fifteen minutes before the customer walked in. It turns out writing and marketing a book are a lot different than actually getting people to open their wallets for a book. Who knew?
And I can totally see all of your smug smiles from over here, thank you very much. Watching me stumble through the stacks like a neophyte (which I am, of course). Laughing that I didn’t know the difference between Nora Roberts and J. D. Robb. Rolling your eyes as I put Suzanne Enoch on the Mysticism shelf. Listening to me whine about Janet Evanovich’s romance novel career prior to the Stephanie Plum novels.
So, I’m this weird sort of hybrid creature, like one of those monsters from James Riddell’s old Hit or Myth books. Part writer, part publisher, part bookseller: all of it adding up to one and four-fifths incurable bibliophile. The store where I work is in the South Puget Sound area, and my boss is kind enough to give me license to try things (or maybe she just finds all the incessant hooting about ideas terribly entertaining), and so that’s what will be happening here. Life in the bookstore, viewed through the triple lens of writer/publisher/bookseller.
One of the things young writers are told is that they should spend a few weeks reading slush—the pile of unsolicited manuscripts. Writing is an isolated activity, and you don’t really have much sense of what else is being written (or how good any of it is) unless you’re also doing a lot of reading. And even then, what you’re reading is work that has actually been published. It doesn’t always tell you how close or how far you are as an unpublished author. Unlike slush, which is where all of your equally unpublished peers are thrashing about, trying to get someone’s attention. Slush, writers are told, is where you discover just how much content is out there and how easy or difficult it can be to get noticed.
I think young publishers should spend a few months working in a small independent bookstore too, for the same reasons. Nothing is more eye opening than watching customers fail to pick out the books you published on a new release table. Or discovering how badly your clever marketing speak craters when you try to actually say it out loud to someone who really just wants a cheap paperback version NAME BRAND AUTHOR’s latest book, which just came out in hardcover two months ago.
And sometimes, nothing you do matters. Just the other day, a young man and his family were in the store, and he was wandering around with a book he had picked off the horror self. It was a POD tie-in title for some video game/internet thingie, and we had gotten two copies in accidentally when we had only meant to order one. We put the second one on the shelf, and figured it’d never sell. And it hadn’t. Until this kid picked it up. But then his small brother had a meltdown, and suddenly they were all leaving, and he wasn’t going to get the book, and so he put it down on the table nearest the door. One that wasn’t anywhere near horror, and one that didn’t match the subject matter or cover image of this book.
We sold it an hour later to a girl who had no idea it existed, but who knew exactly what it was.
Sometimes, it’s all about putting the book where they’re going to see it, and being patient. And that’s the best secret I’ve learned so far.
What I’ve been reading: As a writer, I’m fascinated by process, and so I’ve been eagerly awaiting the publication of Chris Offutt’s memoir, My Father, the Pornographer, about his relationship with his father, Andrew J. Offutt. Now, I grew up in the 80s, and I had read most of Andrew J. Offutt’s fantasy books, but I never knew that he had also written hundreds and hundreds of porn novels. He was, by his own estimation, the greatest producer of wordy smut during the last part of the 20th century. I read the extended excerpt in The New York Times last year, and was hoping that the book would give more details about Dad’s process. Because, you know, cranking out content is the one of the secrets these days for indie authors.
As it turns out, Chris Offutt’s book is much more about his relationship with his father and ruminating about how his past made him the man he became rather than about his father’s prodigious fictional output. It’s a fantastic read, filled with anecdotes that are alternately heartbreaking and horrifying. And no matter how they start, they all end with Chris totally sticking the landing at the close of each chapter. It’s not about the titillation, you see, it’s about the relationships.
Which, as I’ve been learning, is what bookselling is all about, too.
Mark Teppo is the publisher at Resurrection House. He’s also an author, and his latest book is The Potemkin Mosaic, a meta-narrative about pharmaceuticals and misplaced identities. When he’s not writing or making books, he’s selling them at an independent bookstore in the south Puget Sound area.