Our column in Publishers Weekly
Ever Try to Sell a Book? It’s Not Easy
An independent publisher faces retail customers
As an independent book publisher for the past 24 years, I’m often asked to participate in Small Business Saturday, that counterpart to Black Friday and Cyber Monday that encourages holiday shoppers to patronize small and local stores.
When I agreed last year to set up at an author fair in a local shopping mall, it seemed like a good idea. What could be better than putting a table of books for sale inside a full-size shopping mall? I told one person a few days ahead of time about the event, and he said, “Good luck; that mall is empty.” Huh, I thought. This is the U.S. of A., where shopping is a way of life.
Upon arrival, I was slightly surprised to find a parking spot near a main entrance. And I noted that there were no banners displaying Small Business Saturday Book Fair. I found the group of participating authors huddled quietly at their tables, each of them with nice displays. Everyone was full of smiles, their books ready to be sold.
At 1 p.m., our official start time, nothing happened. Perhaps, I thought, our event didn’t actually exist? No one was there promptly to see, purchase, or ask about books.
My booth was across from a jewelry store. Thinking of a well-crafted novel with smooth chapter transitions, I raised my voice and announced, to no one in particular, “Buy a book and get a free diamond ring.” Two authors heard me and chuckled.
Still no one in the mall approached. Oh, wait, someone was walking by; I jovially said to the well-dressed woman, “You might not have heard, but for the next five seconds, if you buy a book, you get a free diamond ring.” Puzzlement. I start counting down: “Four.”
“A book. One.”
Dead stop. No comment from the woman. I say, “Well, the sale is over now. Sorry.” She walks off, staring straight ahead, no smile, no scorn, no nothing. I smile to myself. Honestly, I thought it was a clever conversation starter.
Never fear, I tell myself. Another person is walking by: “Hello, do you like to read?” I ask.
“Do you like to read?”
With the next person, I try something different. I ask, “Have you ever thought of writing a book?”
“Writing a book?”
“Yes,” I hold up a book. Perhaps a visual aid is needed. “Oh, no,” he says.
And that was the end of that. A few more minutes pass, and another person comes by. “Hello,” I say. “Do you…”
“…like to read?”
This person didn’t even break stride. I was impressed.
Next up, two mall security guards appear. Perfect. I have just released a crime fiction murder mystery. “It’s your lucky day,” I tell them. “I have just the book for you guys, a novel about a private detective solving a murder right here in the Quad Cities.” They reply in slow motion, “Uh… we’re… not… into… that… sort… of… thing.”
“What do you mean you aren’t into this sort of thing?” I ask. “You’re both practically in the detective business.” They smile and move along. I look around: the other authors are at their booths sitting politely behind their tables, books well organized in clean formations.
I notice two kids waiting for their mother by the jewelry store. I ask, “You two like books?” They reply, “Our mom’s buying a $1,000 ring right now.”
“Wow, think she’d buy each of you a book?” They laugh as though I’m a stand-up comedian.
Things continue like this for the next three hours. Somehow, I do sell five books. You could say I never fully lose hope.
At 4 p.m., everyone packs up. I only made a few sales, but even so, I can say I enjoyed being out in public engaging people about books. Many of us in the publishing industry know the feelings of being isolated—of working day after day on writing, design, editing. Of those five people who purchased books, who knows, maybe they belong to a book group, or will suggest the book to their friends, who might purchase a copy, too.
At the very least, I can dream these dreams. And honestly, that’s one of the requirements of publishing: the ability to dream big, even on Small Business Saturday.
Steven Semken began the Ice Cube Press, now located just outside Iowa City, in 1993.