When a Bookseller Has to Sell His Own Book
"It's Right There. My Book is Right. Fucking. There."
Josh Cook is a bookseller at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass. His novel, An Exaggerated Murder, came out this spring from Melville House.
You write a book. It gets published, goes out into the world, and readers react. Those reactions could be professional reviews, blog posts, customer reviews, star ratings, tweets, Facebook posts, Tumblrs, etc, and, of course, sales. Every writer develops a relationship with those reactions, whether that includes interacting with them publicly or not, but, very few writers have to endure eye contact with their readers. As a bookseller, my job is to interact with readers, and in the course of those interactions, I’ve developed relationships with customers, and, as happens with all relationships, even relatively shallow ones, important information has been exchanged, including the fact that I am a writer. And my book is right fucking there.
Which means, I could be facing a lot of awkward moments as readers who I have a relationship with (but aren’t friends and family) read my book and maybe not love it. In some ways, it is easy to discount and ignore negative reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and elsewhere, and though any negative reaction to something you’ve poured the very core of your being into will hurt on some level, most writers won’t have to make small talk with those negative reviewers, or, worse yet, talk about other books with this phantom haunting the conversation. That is, of course, if they’re willing to endure the phantom to talk to me at all.
So far I’ve been lucky. Some of the customers I have relationships with have read the book, and, up to this point at least, the reactions have been positive enough to avoid a persistent pall of awkwardness. My favorite interaction thus far has been with one of my favorite customers. Grant is a voracious reader, who reads small presses, works in translation, and other interesting fiction, and buys a ton of books. He is also a man of the cloth. (One of the Christian faiths that lets ministers marry, but I don’t know which one.) It was a while after he’d read (and enjoyed) my book and we happened to pass each other in the stacks. He just looked at me and said, “Knuckle children.” I didn’t have “Inspire a minister to use the phrase ‘knuckle children,’” on my life’s to-do list, but I am definitely adding it to my life’s major accomplishments list.
And there’s the psychotic mix of euphoria and anxiety when someone picks up a copy of my book and walks around the store with it. I mean, I feel a certain emotional gravity watching someone walk around with a book I like; I want them to buy it, and read it, and enjoy it, and connect with it, and I also somehow want to develop an instant’s worth of telepathy, but in a way that isn’t creepy, and I also want them to come to the correct decision on their own and I want them to love the book and buy it and then love it, but make the right decision for them, you know, because reading a book at the wrong time is almost worse than not reading it at all, and buy it. Add to that emotional avalanche the fact that it’s my book and that I still have no idea how to talk to someone I don’t know who might be buying my book and it ends up being something like a silent internal emotional tornado that manages to throw its emotional cows at an also silent emotional avalanche that somehow manages to remain contained in feelings too small to justify complaint.
Finally, I’ve also been able to gather some interesting anecdotal data about publicity, promotion, “discoverability,” or whatever you want to call the process of telling readers about a book. It is surprising, to say the least, how often customers I have a relationship with are still asking if my book is out. I mean, these are the exact people one would expect to visit Porter Square Books’ website, and even if they don’t follow me on social media, would follow the store, or get the store’s newsletter, or would have just stopped by at any time during the few weeks a giant poster was right at the front door. And yet, “I heard you wrote a book?” is still a question I get. As someone who works in publicity, this is, let’s say, “interesting.”
Attention is not a stable commodity. It doesn’t just fluctuate by the person, it fluctuates by the instant within the person. If there is anything else happening in a person’s brain, they will not even register there is a sign to read hanging right in front of them let alone absorb the information that it provides. And yes, you can have four (four!) face-out displays in various heavily trafficked areas of the store, and people can go to all four of them, look directly at the book, and not see it in any meaningful way. I’ve had customers come up to the register and say, “There must be stacks of your book around,” after having walked directly past the stacks they were looking for.
I don’t really have a solution for this. I’m not sure I’d even call the fickle nature of individual attention a problem, but it is clear that getting the eyeballs is not enough. I mean, people can miss information they are specifically looking for if the format for that information is not what they, individually, expect it to be. There are some really gross advertising conclusions that can be drawn from this, but I’d rather conclude that attention is a privilege, so what you put in front of people better be worthy of it.
When I say I have relationships with customers, I mean that there are customers I talk to pretty much every time they come into the store, but I need to be clear, that “every time” quite often is “once every few months.” Sometimes a year can go by without seeing someone I know. And now, I get to wonder if they’re avoiding me because they hate my book. But (you knew there had to be a “but” there) I get to talk about books all day. I get to share the books I love. I get to converse with people who love books. And I get paid to do those things. And, for all the new anxiety, every day I go into work I see my book. Structurally, there should probably be a metaphor or simile to help explain that emotion, some concluding image that really drives home the experience I’m trying to relate. but I can’t think of one. Nothing compares to seeing your book right fucking there.