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Ever Try to Sell a Book? It’s Not Easy

6 March 2016

From Publishers Weekly:

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 what?”


“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?”


Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG says it’s easier to sell a book online, particularly if it’s an ebook.

Books in General

29 Comments to “Ever Try to Sell a Book? It’s Not Easy”

  1. So he’s in the middle of a shopping mall, the nearest shop is a jewellery store, not a book store, and he’s doing hard sells — apparently with nothing else on hand but a nice stack of books. Imagine if we sold films like that, where you had to decide then and there whether to walk into the theatre. No reading reviews first.

    You know, I love books, but I think I would have walked by as well. Maybe I would have given a lecture on blood diamonds and gender stereotyping if I’d been in a bad mood.

  2. What a firetrucking idiot.

    No wonder trad-pub is doing so badly if this is the best “Publishers Weekly” could come up with.

    ‘How to sell a book’ is easy now-a-days and you do it where the people are ‘looking’ for something to read in the first place.


    Yes, you can still try to sell it out of a store, but few want to travel in the hopes and prayers that the book they dream of is sitting there to be found.

    If it had been me hearing his prattle, I would have laughed and kept going because that type of crap tells me the salesman knows that the book, the diamond ring, or most likely both, aren’t worth what the stupid shyster is asking for them.

    Firetrucking idiot …

  3. If I was going to take on organizing an Author Fair at a local mall I would make sure that part of the deal was some support from the mall. This would include advance advertising, some sort of hosting, contests, prizes, giveaways . . .

    Maybe the attending authors were seen as potential shoppers who would at least buy lunch, coffee and maybe take a break to do some shopping of their own.

    • Yeah, it didn’t seem very well thought out.

      I agreed last year to set up at an author fair in a local shopping mall,

      Sounds like the writer was looking after this but…

      And I noted that there were no banners displaying Small Business Saturday Book Fair.

      So, by ‘set up’ the author means ‘Assume someone else will nurture the whole thing into existence and I just invite a few other authors to show up?’

      • “So, by ‘set up’ the author means ‘Assume someone else will nurture the whole thing into existence and I just invite a few other authors to show up?’”

        This event was arranged by a local writing center. About a dozen authors participated, including the guy who wrote this article, and we all advertised it to our readers/social media followers, as did the writing center. Plus ads in print – newspapers, indie weekly reader, etc.

        So yeah, someone else did nurture the whole thing. 🙂

        • Ok, thanks for the clarification. You have to admit those two quotes seem contradictory. If you’re setting it up, even if it’s at the mall’s request, you’d want to clarify what the mall is bringing to the table.
          Ad banners are usually pretty pricey. I’ve ordered them for store openings, back in the day when I used to work in the PM division of a large retailer. You can count on spending more than just a few hundred (more like a few grand), plus installation and, for a mall, there are likely multiple entrances. I’d be very surprised if a mall was willing when their commitment is mostly the loan of a few tables and the willingness to set aside some floorspace.
          The last time I ordered a banner, it was nine grand but the store did 3/4 mil on the first day of the soft opening. When I opened the co-branded gas station on the other side of the lot, there was no budget for a banner.

        • Love your book covers, by the way.

  4. Honestly, sitting at a table behind my books is one of my least-favorite things. I have some sympathy for his plight.


  6. It was potentially a nice idea. I’m surprised he went with that “This is the U.S. of A., where shopping is a way of life.” line. Did he not realize that malls have been slowly dying? And to be left at the mercy of a mall manager clueless about publicity.

    From the few public events we’ve done, we’ve learned that it’s more important to get the word out about our books than to sell any. After all, I’m cautious about buying books. I read reviews and visit websites and check out samples. Why should I expect a total stranger to do the same?

    So I create a great catalog page with my wife’s recipe for fabulous butterscotch-crunch cooks on the back (who throws away a recipe?) and hand them out. Then they have something they can look at later.

    If nothing else, I don’t feel back if I give away 50 flyers and only sell a book or two. At least 50 people have now heard of Peschel Press.

  7. Imagine if authors had to hard sell books online.

    “Okay, that’s one thousand emails sent so far. Only 6,999,999,999 to go.”

  8. Heavens. We do it all the time.

    Farmer’s markets. Local book fairs. Jumble sales. Science fiction conventions. Christmas events. All it takes is four to six hours sitting at a table and engaging people. “Hey, would you like to buy a local book?”

    Do we sell a lot of my books? No. Five to ten a day is usually tops. Small potatoes to most authors, I guess. But you really get to meet your readers this way.

    Gretchen Rix

  9. It may be hard to sell a book in a mall, but it’s not hard to give away an ebook at WorldCon.

    Me: Do you read ebooks?
    SF Fan: Mmmf?
    Me: Do you read ebooks?
    SF Fan: Yes.
    Me: I’m giving a free ebook to everyone at WorldCon. Would you like me to send you one?

    Worked about half the time.

  10. I couldn’t help but think about our local mall, which is not dying. They are in the middle of a huge renovation…already have great variety of restaurants…including some farm to table places, a high end theatre, ice skating rink, 24 hour fitness center with huge pool, several play grounds for children that my grandson’s wanted to go to every day…so I got to see it at all times a day…and it felt like a bustling little down center. While not all the clothing stores were doing so well…the eateries, tech stores, entertainment centers were doing great….and I assume because they weren’t having to compete with online stores. But I also assume that the clothing stores are doing better than they would other malls that are not attracting so much foot traffic. The Center is also going to be the terminal for a new mass transit trolley system that will connect all the way down to the border and thread through the UC campus nearby.

    And in case you haven’t already guessed it….it is the mall in San Diego where Amazon is opening up its second book store! Right across the street from a small mall with a Barnes and Noble. Popcorn anyone?

  11. Is a mall like Amazon but with the inconvenience of having to leave the house?

  12. In marketing there is an acronym called the “4P” which stands for Product-Price-Place-Promotion. You can control Product and Price. Selling books depends on Place and Promotion. The place, the mall, seemed to be a good place to sell, even books. But obviously it was not. Did that mall even had a bookstore? Probably not.
    Finding the right Place is golden, and for books is tough to do without the old bookstore, which funneled the readers. Nowadays promoting your books is mandatory to sell. But even that is questionable when you promote on line with an outfit that doesn’t have the right “Place.” And that has been my biggest issue about selling my books. Where is that “Place” in the virtual world.

  13. *sigh* A large part of business is understanding what is and is not worth your time, and if you decide a “small business” event is worth doing, you darned well better do your own homework to discover what the marketing plan is before pulling in to the parking lot.

    I’ve been burned by event organizers over the years–not in publishing, but other businesses. You learn quickly which events are worth the investment, and which ones exist solely to pull “goodwill” and/or “participation fees” from those who think they’ve come to make sales.

    ETA: And no, I wouldn’t have stopped to buy a book from someone behaving that way, either. Cracking dumb jokes is a great way to ensure I’ll ignore you and your books.

  14. Patricia Sierra

    Costco’s sample salespeople spot someone in, say, an Ohio State sweatshirt — and say “free chicken salad for anyone in an Ohio State sweatshirt today…” That works because you really get the item if you pause and cooperate. No need to buy anything. But the diamond ring thing? Stupid.

    I’ve lived through one sit-at-a-table event. It was at a B&N store. Didn’t sell a single book. Everyone who came to the table wanted to know how to get published.

    I was also invited to display my books on a table at an event sponsored by a library. I had a specific schedule time-wise — a one-hour stint. When I arrived, no one was there. Not a single soul. They had scheduled me at the same time everyone was in another part of the convention hall, attending the event’s luncheon. I immediately turned tail and went back home.

  15. I haven’t been to our local mall in so many years I have no idea if it’s dying or not.

  16. I was right next to this author at this book fair.

    We were told we’d be at the center of the mall (just a few spots down from the mall bookstore), not tucked away in a side corridor across from a jewelry store – not sure why we were moved. And the book fair was free to participate in; all we were out was a couple hours of our time.

    However, despite not selling many books, it was a great chance to network with other local authors: find out what writing groups they use, how they published, resources they find helpful, etc. I’m in a couple other writing groups, but it’s still helpful to talk with local authors in the flesh.

  17. I’ve never had great results at either single-author or multi-author events till I learned to open the passerby convo with “What do you like to read?” Getting the potential customer talking about THEIR likes and favorites has gotten me far more than the other lame-o openings I’ve used from time to time.

    My least favorite venue, based on experience? The Mall of America near the Twin Cities, which mall I loved but signing there again? No possible way.

  18. Selling anything is hard. Granville Island market in Vancouver is a big destination for tourists and locals with a rotating group of artisan and craftspeople. Very high quality stuff and all curated so there isn’t duplication.
    Most of the time, the sellers aren’t engaged with customers when we walk past. They spend most of their day waiting to engage customers.And their stuff is far more visual, tactile, engaging to the average person. Lots of people who were not there looking for anything particular will stop to fondle a beautiful scarf or leather belt… a book, not so much.
    It seems that writers are overwhelmingly not sales people and lack both the skills and the frame of reference they need. They’ve not sold books before, or anything else either, so they don’t know what is normal, in sales. Hence all the ‘we hosted a book sales event and no one cared’ articles.

  19. We’ve done so many festivals, author events, craft shows and other open markets that my husband and I have gotten our “What do you like to read?” opening pitch down perfect.

    About half the people say “I don’t read” another quarter say “I don’t have time to read.” We thank them and go on to the next person.

    Some events are total busts, sometimes we get sales from other vendors, or get leads for the next event and enjoy talking to as many people as possible. While sales are never enough to pay for expenses, it’s a tax deduction.

    Since Grishom got his start hawking books out of his trunk in Walmart parking lots, I figure it’s good practice. We always get some e-book sales as well as moving a few paperbacks.

  20. selling books in a mall is hard, unless the patrons have come there specifically for a book fair. That’s not their first, second or likely third intention.

    It’s a little bit like baiting with red eggs for rainbow, but fishing in a huge pond with thousands of ‘other’ fish who wouldnt know a red egg if it hit them on the head–and with only six rainbows present.

    And, I can see that the comraderie can be worth it.

    We live and learn. I’ve sat in the middle of nowhere long ago, also– at an outdoor tiny ‘book fair’ during a ‘sidewalk sale’ on a commercial street. It aint pretty for an introvert like me. Ah, ma’am. Er, uh, ma’am. Nice backpack. Uh sir, um, sir, alright, nice slogan on the back of your tshirt. Little child, hi there little child… can you read yet? Do I have candy? As a matter of fact, I do. Go ask your mommy if you can have a piece of chocolate. Carefully unwrap unopened chocolate bar in front of mother. Mother approves. Child takes chocolate. They walk away, child telling mother, that nice person is a candy maker.

    But usually if you want to gain rainbows, you have to fish the gin clear waters where they live. Bait works. But have to fish the right holes.

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