Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

11.50: Hand-Selling Your Book to Potential Readers, with Michael R. Underwood

Michael R. Underwood has talked to us about hand-selling books before, but that was about pitching to agents and editors. This time around he’s talking about placing your product in the hand of your customer, the reader.

With Michael’s help, we cover some specific sales techniques, guidelines for convention displays, and strategies for bookstore appearances, with an eye toward helping you make that sort of activity effective.

Credits: This episode was recorded aboard Oasis of the Seas by Bert Grimm, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: This is a character creation exercise: take a fun, sci-fictional technological idea, and ask yourself who stands the most to gain, and the most to lose if it comes to pass. Imagine an individual in that group, and ask yourself what that person is going to do, and why.

Thing of the week: The Shootout Solution (Genrenauts Episode 1), by Michael R. Underwood.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Hard selling can poison the well. Don’t do it. Start with a conversation. Questions are good. Get them to talk about their favorite books, then pitch something similar. Find out what problem they have, what they are interested in. Set up your table in clusters. A big backlist or working with other authors can help you meet their interest with something that matches. But find out what their problem is, and then suit your pitch to that. “What do you like to read?” and “What kind of fun are you looking to have with a book?” Be enthusiastic! If you have a big backlist/series, prime yourself to talk about a good entry point to get past paralysis of choice. Try out different pitches, and then think about what worked and didn’t work. Get the book in their hands. Your pitch is a story you are telling to an audience of one, make it a good one! Don’t forget the economic pitch — sales bundles, special deals, etc. Build relationships, don’t force today’s sale and lose a long-term reader.

[Mary] Season 11, Episode 50.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Hand-Selling Your Book to Potential Readers, with Michael R. Underwood.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star, Michael R. Underwood. Say hello.
[Michael] Hello, everyone.
[Brandon] Will you tell us just a little bit about yourself?
[Michael] Sure. I’m Michael R. Underwood. I’m an author, podcaster, and publishing professional. I got about a dozen books in print across a few series. Mostly geeky action-adventure. I’m a cohost on the Skiffy and Fanty show, as well as Speculate. My day job is sales and marketing manager at Angry Robots Books. I barely sleep.
[Howard] If I can address the déjà vu moment that some of our listeners may be having. We’ve had Michael on this show before in an episode that also had the word hand-selling in it. We were talking about pitching to agents and editors. Here, we are talking about placing your product in the hands of a reader.

[Brandon] We figured that a lot of our listeners these days, particularly self-publishing, are going to conventions and selling their books. We meet a lot of them at tables at cons. We’ve all been there. We thought we would talk about the experience of selling your books. I did this mostly at bookstores. I got published and thought, “Well. Now I’m going to go do book signings. That’s what you do.” So I set up a bunch of book signings and then I went to them. Of course, nobody came. Nobody knew who I was. I didn’t know that that’s not what it was about. I didn’t know this whole reading and culture and stuff like that. Anytime I’d gone to a book signing, it had been generally for an author that I waited in line for a while and got the book signed. So I… Often these places will put me in the back of the bookstore and I would ask them to move me to their highest traffic area. I would stand behind the table. I would be a used car salesman to everyone who walked by.
[Michael] There… In a situation like that, when you’re in a bookstore and the traffic you’re getting is really slight, there is that instant desire to really push hard and to try to hard-sell every single person. Most of what I do, in terms of hand-selling at conventions, is at larger shows. So it’s GenCon, WorldCon, ComicCons. So there’s a lot of traffic. What I’ve seen, I’ve seen people doing the hand-selling like the world is about to end. What happens there is you may get a short-term sale from a few of those people, but they are never coming back. Unless they legit super loved your book. What you’re doing, you’re actually poisoning the well for everyone around you if you’re hard-selling that intensely. I was at a con, we had a small table for Angry Robots and the people to my left and the people to my right were hand-selling like the world was about to end and they needed their money to create a raft. What I saw is that people would be hard-sold to my left, they’d try to get away, try to get away, try to get away, and they’d finally break orbit. They’d bought a book or they haven’t. Then they close down emotionally. Their whole body language goes “Nope, nope, nope, nope.” Then they walk straight by me. I’m not going to be able to open that person up again. Not even with half of my life being in sales. Maybe I could make it happen, but it’s going to be so much effort. They’re instantly predisposed to not want to pay attention. So a huge part of how I approach hand-selling is just being able to observe how people are through space and to create a human conversation. If you can do that, you are 90% of the way there.

[Brandon] One of my biggest tools, even when hand-selling to an audience… Now, this is the best tool when you’re selling to an agent or an editor, but it worked just as well for a normal bookstore, was to get them talking. So my pitch was always, “Do you read fantasy novels?” They’re like, “No. But what’s your book about?” Or “No, I’m not interested.” I’m like, “Great.” Or “Yeah.” Then, giving me the opening, I’d say, “Well, what kind of fantasy novels do you write? Or do you read? I’m a fantasy novelist. I’m here selling my book.” I would get them talking about their favorite books. I would see if I had something I could pitch to them that was similar.
[Michael] This is going to be much easier, the wider your backlist is. Like if you have one book, you have one thing that you’re trying to fit into someone’s life to solve a problem of theirs. Whether that is “I have a flight and I’m going to be bored” or it’s that “Oh, this speaks to something they’re interested in”… Because you’re a writer as well, and we are going to talk about that and we’ll talk about how this does that thing in this book. The wider your list, the more tools you have. You’re going to want to set up your table, because a lot of what I would have to say is that you can put yourself in a great position by setting your table up effectively. I like to bring my own tablecloth. For Angry Robot, our colors are black and red. So I bring a black tablecloth, and that lets me set my area aside. I’m creating and curating the space itself. Then, I’m spacing my books out in a way that I cluster them together by ti… By subgenre, so that if someone’s interested in steampunk, I can say, “Oh, well, our steampunk books are right here.” I’m going to presort really effectively for them. I also like to use bookstands, where it’s like a plastic kind of easel. That lets me put the book up where the cover is facing outward. It’s very easy for someone to reach down kind of within a very comfortable ergonomic fashion, pick up the book, and take a look at it. So I’m trying to do all of these environmental things that I can to draw attention, like with a good banner or standup poster, and to smooth out the hand-selling experience from the reader perspective.

[Dan] Now, I do a lot of this at shows as well. You’re also absolutely right about the bigger backlist. In particular, about working with other authors. Because then, I’ve found the question is not “Are you a fantasy reader? Do you read fantasy books?” But “What do you like to read?” Because then, no matter what they answer, I’ve got something there in the booth that I can pitch to you. Here’s science fiction, here’s a dystopia, here’s a romance, here’s a fantasy. So having that depth of product to sell…
[Brandon] Having a group of friends with you there. I’ve got to say, I hope that I don’t spend too much time tooting my own horn on the podcast. This was something I was really good at…
[Brandon] During those days. It was fun and challenging to me. I would often, with my agent, who loves bookstores, Joshua, it was one of his things back in the day when he had time for this. We would go to bookstores, we’d be like the two of us. WorldCon is in a city. We would go to the bookstores, every one of them in a city together. He wanted to see how his authors were placed. Make sure that they’re getting the right orders and things like this. I wanted to sign my backstock and sell a book to whoever was in the section. He kept tabs, and a score on how many books I could sell in the section. I don’t think I was hard-sale. I… That was one of the things you learn early. If someone is not interested, if they’re not open, you don’t touch that. But if someone is browsing the science fiction section, I could sell them a book. Seven times out of 10. It was really fun to me, because you’re talking about something you love and connecting with them.
[Mary] There’s a… So I’m listening to Mike and I’m like, “Oh, this takes me back to my puppetry days.” Which… Surprising everyone, I’m sure. But you think hand-selling science fiction and fantasy is hard, you should try hand-selling a puppet show. The thing that Mike said that I really want to draw a line under is that you’re solving a read… A problem that they have. This is a really key point. Your problem is that you want to sell them a book. That is not their problem. Their problem is something else. So finding that out… The thing my mom always said. She was an arts administrator. Was the other person is always more interesting than you. So if you can get them engaged in a conversation, one of the things that you can do with that conversation is find out what it is that you’re… What problem you’re trying to solve, and even if you don’t have a giant backlist, you can spin your pitch of the book so that it matches the problem that they have.

[Michael] The more information you have from this potential customer/new person you’re talking to about what they like, what they’ve read, the easier it is to come up with just the right pitch for just the right book, and your hit rate is going to be much higher in terms of them not feeling like, “Eh, that’s not really my thing.” Because I don’t think you really get too many chances with most people. So, this comes out of my retail background, where it’s you ask open-ended questions, “What do you like to read?” I prefer versus “Do you read science fiction/fantasy?” A lot of the cons, that “Do you read SFF?” question is already answered for me. Another question I really like is, “What kind of fun are you looking to have with a book?” Because…
[Dan] Oh, that’s a good one.
[Michael] Asking about tone gets people to kind of share kind of the emotional hack that they’re looking for in their brain. So you’re going to a really deep level of emotional engagement right away. Then, I can try to match it, especially if you have the list, that’s really nice because…
[Dan] I am totally stealing that question from you.
[Michael] It’s like… It’s fun to say, like, “What kind of fun are you looking to have today?” Like maybe you’ll have to talk through other things that they’re doing. Like if there at a con, “Oh, I’m really looking forward to this, this, and that.” Then you’ve gotten them emotionally engaged. You’ve had a conversation where there is really some connection going on, and you can channel that back around into the book that you’re trying to sell.
[Brandon] I really like that. On top of that, I would suggest, have a variety of pitches ready that present your books in different lights, playing to their different strengths. Don’t misrepresent your book, but every book has different strengths.

[Brandon] We’re going to stop for our book of the week. Mary had this awesome suggestion, that we should role-play you selling us.
[Michael] Oh, fantastic.
[Brandon] So, selling me on Genrenauts. I am looking to have some fun. I want to have…
[Howard] Don’t tell him that. Make him tease that out of you.
[Brandon] No, no, no. He says what type of fun you’re looking to have today. I’ll pretend I’m at the table. I am looking to just unwind.
[Michael] Excellent. Well, I am really excited about my new series, Genrenauts. What this is, is like Leverage meets Redshirts, where a group of adventurers travel across dimensions to worlds based on story genres to find and fix broken stories. So you could have a western adventure and a romance adventure and you’re going to have some fun thinking about why stories are awesome along the way, with this cool cast who are all specialists. It’s like a heist, but with stories.
[Brandon] That sounds awesome.
[Howard] You’re talking about Genrenauts? I’m the guy standing at Mike’s table who just bought a book. Oh, yeah. I loved it, because the one… Like the main character in that… Oh, she was a comedian. Oh, she was awesome. She was like my favorite character ever. What do you do when that guy is at your table trying to help?
[Michael] Depends on who they are. If it’s somebody I know, I can use social proof and that could be effective. The kind of… The more… Most common one that I do, if I feel that I already have good rapport with the person that I’m talking to is “And I’m not even paying him to say that.” Because I’m acknowledging the fact that it’s a little bit out of the current context that we have. If I want to be a little bit more humble, if it’s someone who I don’t know at all or maybe I’m not as far into a conversation, “Well, thank you so much. That’s really nice.” I’ve talked to a friend of mine, who’s a standup comic, so I take that, compliment and I work it into context. It’s not about selling at that point, it’s about kind of unpacking something that someone has said, which creates context for that other person. I’m not trying to instantly turn it into… Be like “And therefore you should totally buy it.”
[Mary] So let’s… Now you’re going to pitch it to me. Because I’m a different audience than Brandon. So you’ve asked me…
[Michael] What kind of fun are you looking for in a book?
[Mary] You know, I am really looking for something that has a strong female protagonist. I’m so tired of casts that are just kind of all the same. I want a good… I guess… I want a good ensemble. People who work well… I know the books. I’m their narrator.
[Michael] Yeah. So Genrenauts is fun because I got to pick people whose relationship to stories was different. We have a character who mostly reads audiobooks because he has ADHD, and I have a character who is a standup comic, and I have someone who’s a scholar. They all have a different approach to stories. So their investment is different, and it’s really fun to talk… You know, the lead character is a comedian, and she… One of her bits is she talks about getting to see herself in stories or whether she doesn’t. Now she’s into a situation, as a genrenaut, where she has to be a part of a story, but to stay on the sideline. Because of her background and who she is and kind of her cultural context, that creates some bits of tension. But she’s really aware of it. So it was a fun thing to really dig into. I brought in a lot of beta readers to give me some extra feedback, to make sure that I was trying to do it in a good way. But it’s really all in service of trying to have a fun adventure.

[Brandon] You know, one thing you’re doing really well here, that I always thought was key, and this… I don’t know, this is probably something you can’t fake, so if it’s not you, then whatever. But, enthusiasm. I found that that was like the key basically everything I do talking about books. You guys hear this on the podcast and things like that. I get enthusiastic about stuff. I love what I’m talking about. It shows. I make sure that I get enthusiastic about my book. I have seen people do pitches before, where they… You know, it’s okay to be self-deprecating. That’s okay. But where they go too far in the… “You know, you might want to read this. Umm. I mean. Maybe.”
[Howard] Well, it’s my first book.
[Mary] The… And I will… I’m just going to flag this one. I would do that all the time with Shades of Milk and Honey. This goes back to the issue podcast, where I would say things… I would hear this come out of my mouth. “Oh, I don’t know if you’d like it, it’s kind of girly.” I’m like, “What am I doing?” That I’m doing that. So also, this is one of those cautions that you need to have, is you need to make sure that you are speaking about the book with coming from a place of someone who loves it and kind of assuming that other people will love it, too, and that hopefully you will find a common ground between you.
[Michael] I think you can really… You can frame that in a way to not try to think, “Oh, well, this book will appeal to everyone.” Very few books actually appeal to everyone, especially across cultural and historical contexts. But what you can say is, “If you like this or this or that, you might really enjoy this because those are some of my favorite books, and I was really thinking about why they worked for me when I wrote the book.” So you can qualify and kind of bolster your work up by basically citing its narrative lineage, or the kind of cultural context that you’re drawing upon.
[Mary] Boy, you aren’t a folklorist at all, are you?
[Michael] Oh, certainly not.

[Howard] There is a specific problem that I have, and there are a couple of solutions to it. That is that with Schlock Mercenary, there are currently 12 books in print. Presenting somebody with a 12 book series… One, that’s a huge financial commitment, and two, if I want them to pick just one, how do they pick? I have two solutions for this. Solution number one is that we created boxed sets because the boxed set removes a decision point. It says you’re not buying five things, you’re buying one thing in a box. Yes, it’s much more expensive, but that psychological hurdle… Being able to put a slipcase on something and sell it that way is amazingly useful. The second is priming my booth crew and me to know that this show, the book that I am going to lead with is book number 10. I have already made that decision for me. “Well, which one should I start with?” “You know, I really like the story in book number 10. I was so happy with how that came out, I’ve gotten good feedback from readers. It’s about…” I can’t even remember what book 10… Oh, Longshoreman of the Apocalypse.
[Howard] It’s called Longshoreman of the Apocalypse. Giant robot, giant hurricane, good times. If that pitch works, great, I sold a book. If that pitch doesn’t work, if they start asking about the other books, that’s fine, because I’ve overcome the paralysis of choice that might have pushed them away from the table.

[Michael] I’m always iterating my pitches. Because I… For Angry Robot, we have a wide list. At different shows, people are going to connect with different books in different ways. That there are some shows where highlighting the inclusivity of a fantasy setting is going to be more of a selling point. There are going to be places where that doesn’t necessarily really make an impact for most people. So as I try out pitches, I see when they work and when they don’t work. If they don’t work, I try to analyze what went wrong. Was it that I hadn’t built up enough of a rapport to be able to go to a level that maybe people don’t want to talk about? If I’m talking like, “Oh, this is a setting where almost everyone is default bisexual.” If I haven’t built toward that conversation by someone talking about, “Oh, well, I was reading Young Avengers and I really love America Chavez,” and like… If you build a conversation through an area, I think it’s then easier to loop back around to it. Because one, you’re using almost like comedy terms in terms of callbacks, and you’re showing that you’ve been paying attention to the conversation. So that’s something that I think can be really, really useful because you do your pitching and your hand-selling and you say, “Okay, what’s working?” And you take stock.

[Brandon] One thing I would do, that… I’m curious your opinion on. I always thought it was important to leave them with the book. That was part of the not doing the hard sell was due my pitch… Make… See that they’re interested. Give it to them and say, “I’ll be right over there if you want me to sign it for you. I’m fine doing that.” Then leave them able to take it and read the back of the book.
[Mary] There’s also… I don’t know if you knew that you were doing this, but one of the things that is very sneaky about that is that if someone has something in their hand, it’s much harder for them to put it down and walk away.
[Michael] Yeah. So I’ll… When I’m giving the pitch, I’ll often kind of feature the book. I’ll hold it and I’ll be talking. Then, as I finish the pitch, especially like… If you like this… I’m basically creating a gestural called action by if I extend my open hand with something to someone, there is a natural inclination to take it. So there’s a little bit of being sneaky about things. But if I’m sneaky in one, but I’m very hands-off in another… I like the “Let me know if you have any questions,” or “I’m going to check in with these folks here” because you’re de-escalating, so that if someone does feel pressured, you’re giving them a natural out.
[Brandon] That’s… I think that’s really helpful and useful for this. I’m going to start wrapping us up. I saw… Mary, did you have a comment you wanted to make?

[Mary] Well, I just… As Mike was talking, I was like, “Oh, right. Pitch is narrative. That’s the thing that I have to remember.”
[Michael] Yup.
[Mary] I’m telling a story to a specific audience member that’s in front of me, and I have to watch their body language to see whether or not my narrative is landing. Right. Okay.
[Howard] What I try to do… Oh, you…

[Dan] Well, I was just going to say, we’re talking so much about pitching the story. What I have found doing this is that sometimes the pitch that works is purely economic. I think with the Partials series, I’ve got a handful of pitches that I use for it. Some of them I like better than others. But honestly, the best one, and the one that’s given me the most success is you can get this entire complete trilogy for $25.
[Michael] At most conventions, Angry Robot does a four books for $20 deal. Where, mass markets, you can get four for 20, trade paperbacks count as two each. But, as people are walking by, like I’ll do the one engagement, like “How’s it going today?” Then what I’ll… I may jump right into “Our con special this weekend, you can get any four books for $20.” Especially book people will go, “Oh, really! Speak to me more about this book four for 20.”
[Dan] This is a case where working at a convention is so valuable, as opposed to working in a bookstore. Because if you’re doing a bookstore signing, people don’t typically go into a bookstore with $200 that they are planning to spend, although some people do. In a convention, at a ComicCon or a DragonCon or a GenCon, that’s exactly what they’re doing. In fact, they probably have four or $500 because this is their one big show and they want to get all the swag they can. Most of them are readers, and sure, they’ll drop $20 on a book if it looks like a good deal and a cool story.
[Michael] Yeah, and I wanted to…

[Howard] Well, what I want to say is that so often in sales training, we focus on closing the deal, and you don’t want to fail. Okay. You are not going to… Even Brandon Sanderson, there’s three out of those 10 in the bookstore who will walk away. The failure state should not be “Oh, crap. I didn’t close the deal,” and they march off and you’re sad. That is actual failure. The state in which they did not buy the book, the state I want to leave them in, is we had a good conversation. You have a positive opinion of me. If our paths cross again at GenCon, you are going to remember me and think, “Oh, there’s that funny guy who tried to sell me a book. I wonder what he’s up to this year.” Rather than “Oh, there’s that one pushy guy,” and they swing wide of my table. So whatever pitch it is… If you’re a used-car salesman, it’s… You grind it all the way to the bone. If you fail, well, you fail and they’re not coming back anyway. They’re going to buy a car someplace else. But with books, they may be back next year. Poisoning the well is permanent. Don’t.
[Michael] If you’re hand-selling your own work, you get all of these extra bonus upgrades. They’re kind of social up sells. Would you like me to sign the book for you? You’re adding onto this relationship. Then they’ll come back next year. “What’s new for you?” People ask like “What’s new from Angry Robot?” all the time. By avoiding that grinding to the bone hand-selling, we’re building relationships. That is so important, because a reader then might buy your books for 50 years. Then you’ve truly won.

[Brandon] All right. I’m going to call it right here. But Michael, you said you have a writing prompt for us.
[Michael] I really love looking at the sociology of science fiction. I think this is may be related to a prompt that Mary has given, so I’ll apologize if it’s a little bit of a retread. When you have an idea about like oh, say, here’s a cool technology. So, come up with a cool technology. Then, to figure out who your protagonist is, look at who has the most to gain and the most to lose, and how it will change any given industry. Then you can find a protagonist there. From that, you’ve created a couple of points, and go forward. Write an outline or write a story.
[Brandon] Excellent. Well, Michael, thank you so much for being on the podcast.
[Michael] Thanks so much for having me. That’ll be $20.
[Brandon] And the audience from our Writing Excuses cruise. Thank you guys.
[Whoo! Applause]
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.