Barry Eisler (left) and J.A. Konrath ham it up for the booksellers at Bookstar.
(Photo by Elizabeth Krecker. All Rights Reserved)
On June 30 at 9:52 a.m. the temperature in Phoenix hovers at 100 degrees, yet Barry Eisler's baritone is cool as he speaks into his cell. "I'm a Putnam author on a national tour promoting my fifth novel, The Last Assassin. I'm in Phoenix for the Thrillerfest conference and I'd love to come to your bookstore and sign your stock of my books. I would say in about twenty minutes.
Barry listens, pressing the cell phone closer to his ear. We whisper, fascinated by his practiced demeanor. He shushes us, motions I see in the rearview mirror of my white Toyota Prius.
"The Last Assassin is the new hardback," Barry continues. He speaks slowly, careful to enunciate, "You probably have copies of the new paperback, which just came out, Killing Rain, and some of the previous paperbacks as well."
More listening, more hand shushing. Barry tunes his voice to 'most persuasive.'
"That's a good number. I'll sign them all and put little bookmarks in each one. Wonderful. If you or someone else could be so kind as to pull whatever you've got in stock..." Barry listens again. He takes a sip from his water bottle. "Okay, great. Also I'm with my friend, the writer J.A. Konrath whose third novel with Hyperion, Rusty Nail comes out on July 5. He's with me at the writer's conference. If you could also pull his previous two books, he'd like to come and sign those. And he'd like to give you a copy of his newest book which hasn't even hit the bookstores yet."
"His last name is K-O-N as in Nancy R-A-T-H."
J. A. Konrath, known to friends and acquaintances as Joe, elbows Barry. "Did you just call me Nancy?"
Barry cups his hand around the cell phone's mouthpiece. "K-O-N-R-A-T-H…as in the Wrath of Khan."
"Kh-a-a-a-a-a-a-n!!!" Joe hollers, too loud.
Barry's ready, he's already got the mouthpiece covered. He shakes in silent laughter, takes a breath, and continues in that same calm voice. "Thank you...what was your name again? Ah. Chris. Thanks, Chris, we'll see you in a few minutes."
So much for our promise not to cause a ruckus while Barry makes these calls.
"Don't want to sound like a couple of frat boys in the back of a Volkswagen," he tells Elizabeth Krecker and me. We're touring Phoenix bookstores with the duo to observe Joe's and Barry's approach to "drive-by signings."
Joe and Barry are proponents of self-promotion. This summer they collaborated on a marketing experiment, comparing notes and sales figures throughout their tour. Barry planned to visit 200 bookstores, with a traditional formal signing event every night plus interviews and drive-by signings. Joe planned to visit over 500 bookstores to perform drive-by signings only.
"There's a perceived value from a customer standpoint," Joe tells us. "They believe they are getting more for their money if, in fact, they do have a signed book. There's a collector's market."
For Joe, selling books is partly about the numbers. The more books signed, the more books sold, the more books reordered. "Booksellers believe a signed book is a sold book. They can return a signed book, but they're less likely to because it proves the author was there. It's almost a sign of prestige to have signed books for sale on their shelves."
But it's also about the relationships he develops along the way, "I find somebody at each store who is really excited, and that is the person I give the free book to. And it doesn't matter if they're not the manager, this person is the one who will go on hand-selling the book long after I'm gone."
Joe emphasizes the importance of recruiting the publisher. "Barry and I told our publishers, 'We're going to visit so many bookstores.' We didn't say 'can we visit so many bookstores.' We didn't say, 'would it be a good idea if we visited so many bookstores.' We said, 'We're going to visit so many bookstores.' That took the burden from our publishers. They don't have to make all the arrangements. The responsibility is on our shoulders. So our publishers are really gung-ho."
"It sounds like authors have to do a lot to sell their books," Elizabeth comments.
"If you're the writer, you're the CEO of your business," Barry says. "Your books are your business. Selling them is a small part of your publisher's business. They are the entirety of your business. If you're responsible for your own business, why would you not want to run it as though you were responsible for everything that happens? I think you'd be crazy not to. So, to me, you delegate what you can. But you're still ultimately responsible for the success or failure of your product. If that's your attitude, you'll do everything you can to make it succeed."
Joe hops in. "I've met authors who have the attitude that all they need to do is write the books and it's the publisher's job to sell the books. Well, it's your name on the spine. If the book tanks, your publisher will probably stay in business. But you won't."
"It's not that it's an immoral attitude to say, 'I'm the artist. I just create the art and it's up to my publisher to handle all the commerce,'" Barry is quick to explain. "There's nothing wrong with that attitude, it just means it's probably less likely that your art will succeed as a business. If that doesn't bother you, then that's ok. Although I love my art and I'm really proud of my books, I very much enjoy making a living this way and I want my books to succeed on the business side, too. I can't relegate responsibility for that to anyone else."
"Tell us more about your pitch," I ask.
"I learned early on, my initial pitch on the road didn't get me the right response. I think they thought I was a nobody, or some crank trying to get them to stock my books. So I've learned. The key things are," Barry counts on his fingers, "Putnam [Eisler's publisher], national tour, fifth novel."
"I love your doorknob comment," I tell him. "Just before you get off the phone you say, 'oh by the way, my friend Joe.'"
"In negotiations this is known as a nibble," Barry says. "A nibble is like…you negotiate for an hour over a car and you finally agree on a price and everybody's tired and you're the buyer and then, just as you're about to sign the agreement, you say, 'the car does have a full tank of gas, doesn't it?'"
"Here's what Barry's doing," Joe adds. "If he'd said, 'we're two authors on tour,' too much information at once, they're going to feel scattered. But he sets it up. He knows they're pressed for time; they probably have customers waiting. He gets all the information in quickly, so then, when the deal is sealed, he says, 'Oh by the way,' because that's a polite way of saying 'I don't want to take a lot of your time; there's someone else coming.' It's not confusing for them."
"That's exactly why I do it that way," Barry shifts position. "Ease them into the situation, then when they have the full context, it's very easy for them to grasp, oh, now it's two authors. "
Joe shifts with him. "And that's why he talks about himself for two full minutes, and I get ten seconds."
"And that's why I say K-O-N-as-in-Nancy," Barry finishes in a devious voice. "It's one of my subtle, unconscious subliminal attempts to feminize Joe Konrath in the minds of his reading public."
The sun's heat rises from the asphalt of the strip mall parking lot. After swigs of ice water, we cross the lot and step into the store. Barry and Joe examine the promotional tables. They discuss the levels of coop marketing and the art of book cover design. Ahead of us, an eager bookseller stands in the center of a tiny customer service station surrounded by piles of both authors' books.
They head over. She bubbles about how she loves their work and recounts her troubles getting hold of Joe's newest book, Rusty Nail, which won't be released for several days. Joe signs an advance copy for her then slides a notebook across the counter.
"I like to thank booksellers for recommending my work. I'd love to mention you on the acknowledgements page of my next novel, DIRTY MARTINI. That comes out next June."
The woman beams. She prints her name in easy to read block letters.
"Do you get a lot of authors coming in for signings," I ask her.
She shakes her head. "Just the locals. We're off the main path."
This surprises Elizabeth and me since we're in a large, well-stocked facility right off one of the popular loops.
"Most authors go to one of the fashion squares," the woman explains. She tilts a chin towards Joe and Barry. "I'm going to set up a nice end cap for them."
End caps are the valuable space found at the end of each aisle. They typically display staff favorites, new releases and recently autographed books, just like those Joe and Barry are signing.
Upon seeing Barry Eisler enter his store, this bookseller (center) ran out to his car to get his Book-on-CD of Hard Rain for Barry to sign. His father has read all of Barry’s work.
(Photo by Elizabeth Krecker. All Rights Reserved)
Back in the car, Barry says, "Joe and I have a slightly different approach to the stock signings. I like to call ahead and have someone pull the books. That saves me five minutes, probably more. We've talked about the value of meeting as many store employees as we can. Well I guarantee one meeting for myself when I call ahead."
"I do not call ahead," Joe says. "I've been to so many bookstores now that I have a pretty good idea of where my books are. I find them within two minutes, then I take them up to the front desk and say, 'Hey, I'm the guy who wrote these. Do you mind if I sign them for you?' It builds a heightened sense of emotion when I show up all bubbly because I've found all these copies of my book. Then I do a circuit of the entire store and make sure everyone gets a handshake. That means the guy making coffee and the guy behind the cash register. Everyone."
Joe proves the point in the next store. Affable, he shakes hands and exchanges a pleasant word with every employee he finds. After signing his pile of books, he eyes a woman carrying a handful of mystery novels toward the register.
"Excuse me, ma'am, do you like mysteries?"
She looks up. "Why yes, as the matter of fact, I do."
"Well, here's my novel Bloody Mary." Joe shows it to her. "It's about a woman named Jack Daniels. Now, it's...it's graphic. It's scary. Can you handle that?"
"Oh," the woman straightens. "Why, yes!"
"Well, it's funny, too," Joe continues. "You'll be laughing and, and then you'll be locking all your doors."
She smiles, moves her head to get a better look at the title. "It sounds like something I'd like."
"Wonderful," Joe opens the book. "I'd love to sign a copy for you. And do you like spicy stories?"
She demures, color creeping along her cheeks.
"Well, my novels aren't spicy." Joe's voice softens. He leans toward her. "But my friend here, Barry Eisler, writes some very spicy scenes. In fact, there's one right here on page eleven of his newest novel, The Last Assassin. I have a feeling you'll really enjoy this, too."
The woman heads toward the cash register, beaming, Joe and Barry's books placed prominently atop her purchases. At the register, she shows the books to the other ladies in line, her words unintelligible, but the excitement in her voice clear.
Elizabeth turns to Barry, "Brilliant."
Barry nods. "Joe is one of the two or three smartest writers in the business. Joe is one, and M.J. Rose is another. In any game you're playing, you want to play with people who are better than you to help get you up to the next level. So I love to talk to Joe and M.J. and get their ideas. I'm a lot smarter on the business level than I would be if I were trying to figure this out by myself."
Phoenix' summer heat peaks at mid-afternoon. We melt from the short walk back to my car. I pass out more cold drinks. Barry and Joe voice their appreciation. Bound by their shared sense of humor, they are obviously good friends.
Elizabeth asks, "Are there any other marketing techniques that you both find valuable?"
In his best radio announcer voice, Barry answers, "Joe has found that placing his DNA in all his books significantly increases their value. A lot of people wouldn't do this without a medical professional on hand, but Joe is keenly focused on reducing costs."
"I will say that after the fifth bookstore…well, I'm just not a teenager anymore," Joe quips.
"The problem with the DNA approach is that even with lots of hydration and multivitamins, Joe has found he has an upper limit of five bookstores a day."
Joe lifts his right hand, demonstrating a firm handshake. "But I will say, feel that grip. Huh! Just feel that grip!"
"I'd help you out, Joe, but I just hit five bookstores myself."
"It's nightmarish, Barry. I was at a Barnes & Noble the other day; they had 35 copies of Bloody Mary. God, you have to be Superman."
We climb out of the car, and the heat slaps our faces. We enter the next store. The bookstore manager meets us with an offer of cold drinks. We accept gladly, impressed that he has set up a comfortable signing area in the cafe. While Joe and Barry sign their books, the manager asks them about their tour. They field his questions and greet curious customers. Barry, who had been single-minded and focused during our previous visits, engages a customer wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with a CIA logo.
"I flew helicopters. In Africa," the gentleman says. Barry mentions that he spent some time in the Agency, too. The gentleman goes on at some length.
As we leave the store, Barry turns to us to explain, "It's important to let people talk. We have a pretty grueling schedule, but if you walk away from an opportunity like that, you're losing a lot of the value you get from visiting each store."
Joe finishes, "The best conversations you will have with anybody, is when you let them do the most talking. People like to be heard."
J.A. Konrath talks shop with a bookstore manager, while Barry Eisler signs stock including bookmarks advertising his novels in each copy.
(Photo by Elizabeth Krecker. All Rights Reserved)
Both authors finished their tours near the end of August. Was it worth it?
Here are Joe's final stats:
Miles driven: 11457
Books signed: 4066
Books hand sold: 214
Booksellers met: 952
Bookstores visited: 504
Days on the road: 55
Joe says, "It was well worth my efforts. And I did it at a cost of $11.91 per store, which includes food, hotels, gas, and the free hardcover of Rusty Nail each store received. Stores placed my books in high traffic areas without coop, ordered more of my titles, and many of the booksellers will become fans and continue to sell my books for years to come. I've recruited a nationwide sales force. And I've also recruited my publisher, who is very happy with my efforts. Plus, and here's the best part, I got over 80 free cups of coffee."
Barry tells us, "In the course of nine weeks, I drove 11,600 miles, flew about 20,000, visited 338 bookstores, and signed close to 6000 books. I can't prove causality, but The Last Assassin hit the L.A. Times bestseller list and is already in a fourth printing. Sales are way up compared to the previous book, and I think the tour had a lot to do with the new book's success. Thank God, or my body would be shaped like a car seat for nothing."
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
M.G. Tarquini is a novelist, and Elizabeth Krecker is a freelance
writer. Both live in Phoenix, Arizona. This is their first collaboration.
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