Writing Excuses 9.47: Conversation with a Bookseller
Key points: Be aware of catalog and back cover copy. Get good cover art. Avoid the weird mashup descriptions for the cover copy (it might work for a pitch). Catalog and back cover copy need to say what the book is about, and give trigger warnings. Who can I hand this book to? Authors who come to stores should be ready to engage customers, but not push them. Booksellers and editors may not read the whole book, so make sure the beginning gives a clear idea of character and atmosphere (genre). Howard: make sure the first chapter tells the reader what they are being promised. Be aware that genre crossovers may only sell to the intersection, not the whole two bubbles. Sell the booksellers, and let them sell their customers.
[Mary] Season nine, episode 47.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, the bookseller perspective.
[Sara] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Sara] I’m Sara.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] And I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And Sara’s our special guest star. You heard her melodious voice earlier when she pitched a book to you on a previous cast and we enjoyed it so much we thought we really need to record a podcast with a bookseller talking about a bookseller’s perspective. So we’re going to be throwing a lot of questions at Sara. I hope you’re ready for this.
[Sara] I love questions.
[Dan] Sara? I was going to say, start by telling us about your bookstore.
[Sara] I work at the Little Professor in Homewood, Alabama. It’s a small independent bookstore. We are Birmingham’s oldest independent bookstore. We opened in 1973.
[Sara] I wasn’t there. I’m much younger than that.
[Brandon] I think only Howard was alive in 73.
[Howard] I was five. Thank you for that.
[Howard] I remember Birmingham well.
[Brandon] So. This is a podcast for writers. So what I want to ask is we’ve got our listeners here. They may be considering self-publishing or they might be going… We might have book packagers listening or editors. Can you tell them, from a bookseller’s perspective, what makes you pick up a book?
[Sara] Well, usually I’m reading catalog copy, so it’s your marketing department or your publicist. Whoever does the catalog back cover copy.
[Brandon] Okay. You know catalog copy is different from back cover copy. For those who are listening. If you aren’t aware. Catalog copy tends to be more spoileriffic in order to give the bookseller a better feel for what this book is going to be. Whereas the back cover copy’s job is to be… Not to be as spoilery, to be a… Get someone to read the book, whereas the bookseller’s is to get someone to sell the book.
[Howard] Yeah. The back cover copy versus the catalog copy I’ve seen… In many cases, the catalog copy is like back cover copy plus. So that the bookseller can see hey, this is what’s going to be on the back of the book that we want you to sell, and this is what’s going to be inside it to you know what people are picking up.
[Sara] Right. After that, it’s packaging. If you are self-publishing, get good cover art. That does make a difference.
[Brandon] Do you notice the difference between when you have good cover art and a well-designed cover concept or is it really just the art that pops out at you?
[Sara] It’s definitely both, but it seems like the art is more important. I will sit there and stare at a book for days on end, so design does matter to me. A customer is going to… When I’m trying to hand them something, is going to look at it and go, “That just looks icky.”
[Brandon] Right, right. So, catalog copy. Do you have any recommendations on writing catalog copy or back cover copy? What really works for you?
[Sara] Please don’t try to do the weird mashup. Because if you tell me it’s a Game of Thrones for middle grade readers…
[Brandon] Right, right.
[Sara] That doesn’t…
[Dan] That’s our writing prompt.
[Howard] The Red Kindergarten.
[Howard] Okay, we’re done. Okay, let me say this about back cover copy and about the mashup specifically. That works great in a Hollywood pitch session when you are talking to a producer level person who wants a quick picture of what they’re going to be spending money on. When you say, however, this is like Star Wars meets The Hunger Games, you’re making a promise to a reader that you are just not going to be able to fulfill.
[Sara] Yes. And… I mean I as a bookseller who have read a book may use that pitching it to a customer because I can then keep talking. But it’s usually just the most generic thing combined with whatever has sold the most. So everything is The Hunger Games plus something right now in YA. Even if they have nothing to do with each other.
[Brandon] As an aside, when I asked my agent to give me some advice on query letters for my students… I was going to go teach a class on it. The number one thing he said was don’t make it sound like a Hollywood pitch. That will turn… In his opinion, it turns him and editors off, because they want to know what the story actually is. They don’t want to be wowed and dazzled by fireworks.
[Sara] I think it can work with customers. I can make a Hollywood pitch and…
[Brandon] To them.
[Sara] Sell it to a customer. But editors, agents, booksellers… We see literally hundreds of these every day in our catalogs or in query letters and we’re tired of them.
[Brandon] Okay. So it’s…
[Howard] You know what the difference for me… I do a lot of selling at conventions. I will never tell anybody that Schlock Mercenary… It’s like Bloom County meets Babylon 5. I would never say that. Okay?
[Dan] I want to read that now.
[Howard] Because coming from me behind the counter, it sounds like I have a really, really inflated opinion of my literary important. But if, on the other side of the table, another fan is standing there while I say, “Epic space opera, four panels at a time,” and the other person says, “Oh, man, I love this. It’s like Bloom County meets Babylon 5,” that carries some authority. So you, as a bookseller, you can say things that the back cover copy, that the author can’t.
[Dan] Now, it seems, Sara, like what you’re saying is that the purpose of the catalog copy and the back cover copy is to tell you what you need to know in order to sell it to a customer.
[Dan] So what kinds of things do you like to see on there?
[Sara] I need to know, well, honestly, what your book is about. To a certain extent, I need trigger warnings.
[Brandon] Okay. Yeah.
[Sara] That’s not…
[Howard] When you say about, that’s not this is a science fiction adventure. You need to say this is about… This is a coming-of-age story with triggers for violence and…
[Sara] Right. I need to be able to drill down to who are the people I can hand this to. Because if I hand a book with let’s say a child death in it to a customer who can’t cope with that, I have violated their trust. They will not want to come back to me for a book recommendation.
[Brandon] Interesting. I haven’t seen anything that extensive in catalog copy. It seems like it should be.
[Sara] There isn’t yet. There is a movement to request it.
[Brandon] Yeah. That’s a really good idea. That could be very useful.
[Sara] I do have people where I say, “You’ll love this book. Skip chapter 10.”
[Brandon] I’ve had books that I know about… I’m not going to mention them by name, but… Yeah, I know that completely. We’ll come back to that concept, but there’s another concept that I want to make sure that we hit with you, which is author interaction. Do you have authors come into your bookstore?
[Sara] We do. We’ve actually had Dan come to our bookstore.
[Dan] I was about to ask, who is your favorite one who’s come in?
[Sara] Oh, this is…
[Dan] As a leading question.
[Howard] And is the building still standing?
[Sara] I also have had Mary come to the bookstore.
[Dan] Give us your favorite who is here right now.
[Brandon] Give us your favorite male podcaster on Writing Excuses…
[Howard] Who is on the couch with you…
[Brandon] [inaudible… Who has come to the store]
[Sara] Oh, I will.
[Sara] Mary was my favorite author that I had… Threw a tea for.
[Brandon] So. Author interactions. Things you’ve noticed that authors do with booksellers that works or things that doesn’t work, that you’re like, “Oo, I really need to tell authors don’t do this anymore.”
[Dan] Either interactions with a bookseller or just with a customer.
[Brandon] Either one. Yeah.
[Sara] We… Because our store is small, we do have a lot of self published authors that come in. It’s a very different interaction. There’s not generally name recognition there. We’ve found that for self published authors, being willing to engage the customers… “Hi. Would you like to take a look at my book?” Or “How are you doing today?” Is great, but don’t… “Do you want to buy my book? It would be really great if you bought my… It’s a great, really great story.” That puts them off.
[Brandon] Too used-car salesmany? Is…
[Sara] Yes. When it comes to slightly more known authors, we really haven’t had very many bad experiences. We know you’re on book tour, we know you’re probably really tired. If there’s anything we can get for you to make your signing easier, let us know that. Let us know that as far in advance as possible. If it’s the moment you walk in the door and you really need a coffee, that’s fine. But don’t…
[Brandon] But do you really need only brown M&Ms? Then…
[Sara] We’re going to need some notice. We’ll take care of it, but we’re going to need some notice.
[Howard] It sounds like 20 minutes. But if I really need…
[Dan] Well, from my side… she had a carrot cake…
[Howard] 4 pounds of sashimi grade tuna…
[Dan] It was awesome.
[Sara] Yes, I did have a carrot cake for Dan’s signing.
[Brandon] All right. Let’s go ahead and do our book of the week. Since you are a bookseller and so good at this, we’re going to ask you to pitch a book for us.
[Sara] The book I would like to pitch is The Rook by Daniel O’Malley. It’s narrated by Susan Duerden. The easiest way to explain this book is to tell you how it starts. Myfanwy Thomas wakes up in a park surrounded by corpses. She has no memory. The only thing she knows is there is a note in her pocket that says, “Your name is Myfanwy Thomas. You’re in what used to be my body.”
[Oh! That’s awesome. Neat.]
[Brandon] That happens to me every day.
[Sara] She finds out that she works, or the body she is in the works for a comp… Or an organization called the Checquy which protects England from supernatural threats. She has two options. She can take box A, get a new identity and try to hide from them, or she can go to work Monday morning.
[Wow. What a great pitch!]
[Howard] Okay. I’m on board. Audiblepodcast.com/excuse, start a 30-day free trial membership, pick up The Rook by Daniel O’Malley, narrated by Susan Duerden, and wake up in somebody else’s body.
[Brandon] Fantastic. All right. So let’s talk a little bit more, a bookseller’s perspective on page 1. What are you looking for on page 1? I assume, a lot of booksellers I’ve talked to and editors, they don’t have time to read the whole book.
[Brandon] They’ll read a couple of chapters to get a real feel for the book, and if they get excited about it, they can still sell it and know about it. They get really excited, they’ll probably finish it, but they may not have time. So what can an author do in those opening pages and opening chapters from your perspective?
[Sara] I would like a clear idea of the character.
[Brandon] All right.
[Sara] I need that person to stand out. I need this to be somebody I want to spend time with. I also want to know generally… It’s very similar to back cover copy or catalog copy, I want to know where we’re going. Are we on an adventure? Are we in a dark creepy psychological mystery that I don’t want to read before bed? I need atmosphere and I need character, generally. Those are the two most important things.
[Brandon] Okay. I talk about that a lot, so it looks like we’re on track.
[Laughter – inaudible]
[Howard] Well, I’m a big fan of your first chapter being something where the reader can identify the things that they are being promised. Whether or not you’re going to fulfill those promises in the way they expect is up to you as an author, but the reader develops expectations. My least favorite books are the ones where I read the first chapter and when I’m done, I really have no idea what might be coming.
[Dan] Well, we talk a lot on the podcast about how you need to be careful with a twist so big it changes the genre part way through, or subverts something everyone was looking forward to. This is one of the reasons that we haven’t really discussed. A bookseller going around pitching a science fiction to everybody and then doesn’t know that in chapter 10, it actually turns into an epic fantasy…
[Howard] Urban fantasy.
[Brandon] So step me through the process behind making a bestseller at your store. Because I’ve talked to a lot of booksellers, and it’s very interesting to me that a store can sometimes sell 300 copies of the book that no one else in the country is selling that number of. What makes that happen? Can you break it down, an anatomy of it?
[Sara] Make us like your book. I mean, that’s what it comes down to.
[Brandon] But are there certain ones that you like and are easier to sell and that people come back and say I loved this book and tell their friends, and are there other books that sometimes you have trouble selling even though you love it?
[Sara] We… Yes. There is a book that I adore. But it’s a hard pitch because you have to be a particular type of fan to read it. It’s Low Town by Daniel Polansky. It’s a noir murder mystery in a secondary world fantasy.
[Brandon] Right. Right.
[Sara] I can’t sell it to all my mystery fans, I can’t sell it to all my fantasy fans.
[Howard] That’s kind of a high concept conceit.
[Sara] But when I hit, they love it.
[Brandon] John Hemry had trouble with this. He’s since republished as Jack Campbell his early books. I think we’ve talked about them before, were JAG which is like the military police…
[Howard] Judge Advocate General.
[Brandon] The military… Not police, but lawyers prosecuting milit… Prosecuting crimes in space. So they were space opera JAG. He said he thought, “This is going to be great. I’m going to grab all the people who love JAG and all the people who love science fiction.” It turns out the booksellers could only sell it to the people who liked attorney fiction and science fiction. It’s really weird.
[Dan] When you do those genre crossovers, which I have done some of, you have to remember how Venn diagrams work. You’re not getting two full bubbles worth of people, you’re getting this sliver where they intersect.
[Brandon] But see, once in a while you do. It’s still kind of hard for my brain to grasp. It might be when the genres aren’t so narrow. But this is part of the reason that YA explodes so large sometimes, is because you can grab the adults who will read kids’ books and the kids who read kids’ books.
[Dan] You look at the ones that have really succeeded… All of the Harry Potter plots were mystery plots, and yet it was never marketed as here’s a great mystery for kids.
[Brandon] Yeah. It might be a marketing problem, or it might be that the genres are just too narrow sometimes.
[Howard] Because Harry Potter has a marketing problem?
[Brandon] No, no, no.
[Howard] I know.
[Brandon] That’s why Harry Potter succeeded and JAG didn’t.
[Sara] Marketing makes a big difference. How much you trust your bookseller… I can get people to read books that they say, “I don’t know, but I loved the last five things you gave me.” So…
[Brandon] This is one of the reasons…
[Howard] So what I need to be able to do is find 1000 booksellers like you, who have trusted customers, and then write a book that all 1000 of you are just going to love?
[Sara] Yes. That is exactly what you need to do.
[Howard] What’s the formula for that?
[Dan] That’s what I did, and it works pretty well.
[Brandon] Sara, this has been awesome. Having you on the podcast. This is a really fresh perspective for us. In a lot of ways, I think it’s important for our listeners to remember, sometimes you are not selling your book to a customer, you are selling your book to a bookseller. That’s your job. Their job is then to sell it to the customers. That’s why we love having great booksellers, particularly independent bookstores. You find this happening more often at these bookstores than you do sometimes at some of the larger stores where the staff changeovers so frequently… Is frequent. So we love you coming on the podcast. We love you selling books.
[Sara] Thank you.
[Brandon] We really appreciate you.
[Howard] Final plug for your store?
[Sara] Little Professor in Homewood, Alabama.
[Brandon] And would you give us a writing prompt?
[Sara] I will. I actually got some homework from Mary in a writing retreat that we did. Get three of your friends to send you one photograph of a random object. Anything they want. You have to use all three objects in the first 13 lines of your story.
[Brandon] That is awesome. I guess we can thank Mary who is not here, she’s at a wedding. But we wanted to make sure that we got Sara on the podcast before the Writing Excuses retreat ended.
[Brandon] We’re not sure when this one will air, but it is the last episode we’re doing at the retreat, so hopefully you all listening will be able to come to our next retreat, and you can be the applause in the background. A thank you again to Sara, and to you listeners… You are out of excuses, now go write.