Selling books is not an easy task, especially when no one knows who you are. People will gab with you, find out all about you, learn what your book is about, and even laugh at the funny parts in your sales pitch. They’ll tell you how great your book sounds even going so far as to say, “I’m gonna buy it!” just before walking away without a book. Uh, it’s right here. . . in this stack of even more copies of the book I’m sitting next to. . . Sir? Sir??
Yes, at various times in my life, I have hawked books. The first was an idea I came up with and co-wrote, a humor book observing the rabid nature of baseball fans called “How to Talk to a Yankee Fan.” It was mainly for fans of the Boston Red Sox, but also worked as a gag gift for Yankees fans with a sense of humor. And so I sat for hours in bookstores, bars, charity events, baseball card shows, even on street corners in Boston’s Kenmore Square. If there was a crowd, I was there trying to eke out a sale or two.
It was encouraging to learn from the Barnes & Noble Community relations manager at the Manchester, New Hampshire store that the turnout for one of my signings was not as sparse as that of another writer. Dan Brown of “The Da Vinci Code” fame only had sold three. . . his first time there. There with my writing partner, Rick, we sold nine books that one evening — six if you exclude the ones our friends bought. (Of course, once Oprah got a hold of Dan’s little book, there was a line around the building. But still! What a chump he must have felt like. . . upon looking back on his meager sales years later aboard his private jet sitting atop stacks of hundred dollar bills.)
So the question looming over things — How to sell more than nine copies, and make more than the standard bookstore profit of seventy-seven cents per book, which I had to split equally with Rick? I saw the spring training baseball crowd of vacationers and snowbirds in Florida as the ideal market for our demographic and I got on the phone with ballparks where the Red Sox would be playing throughout March. Rick scheduled some stand-up comedy shows while I planned book signings at sports bars, Barnes & Nobles, and two days at Edison Field, the spring facility of the Red Sox, during the first week of our tour. (Solid sales there would mean we wouldn’t have to lug over 300 books around with us for the final three weeks of the trip.)
The park was more than agreeable to us coming down and selling books. Doreen, the events manager, signed me up for a game day plus a non-game day where we could remain in the concourse for those guests who came for a tour of the place.
It was all set. . . and then, my grandmother passed away. So I had to postpone the dates and attend her funeral. Flash forward three weeks. The trip had been a great struggle, with lots of mileage put on the car, sluggish book sales, deceitful comedy club owners, and a publisher we could not rely on.
Monday of the last week arrived. This was the off-day aimed at selling to fans on a tour or meandering through the gift shop. Books that could be had at a bookstore for $15 were raised to $20 where we would get a commission of $9 per. (Isn’t that sweet of them?) Nine books and two hours later, we closed up shop.
So far, the trickle of sales continued. My plan of bringing the book directly to the fans was not looking as wise as I had hoped. It built to a Tuesday morning at Edison Field, where the Red Sox faced the Pittsburgh Pirates and we faced the thought of driving back home with more than unsold 200 books. But on this game day, would be allowed to sell in the concourse of the 8600-seat stadium only until first pitch.
Usher Joe (our liason at the park) told us to get there an hour before the gates opened and he’d take us on a tour of the press box. In the press box, we met Carl, the public address announcer. Carl was about 5’2″ (both ways) with white hair and a white beard, but when he spoke, you knew exactly what he did for a living. We gave him a book and he surprised us by saying he’d give us a plug during the game. (We told him we’d be signing all game, though I knew our marching orders were to close up shop when the first pitch was thrown. Usher Sal, tasked with taking the money for us, would be reassigned to a section in the park at that point).
Two and a half hours later, twenty-eight more books had left our hands. And that was that, our last scheduled book signing for the trip. (Sigh.)
We got our cash, stored the rest of our books and were allowed to watch the game from SRO (standing room only) seats. There was only one main aisle stretching from left field to right field with three rows of seats between the aisle and the field and many more in the “upper deck” area. The park was not big and it was easy to find people. (I mention that now because it’ll come back in a moment.)
Rick went off to find a spot along the left field side while I made my way toward right field and stood alone next to two gentlemen — one in a Cubs hat, the other a Brewers hat — and i started to watch. I overheard these guys ask who was pitching so I answered that it was knuckleballer Tim Wakefield.
Three innings later, we’re on our third beers having a great time, we three new best friends, laughing, and watching some pretty good baseball. I barely even noticed the announcement over the loud speaker for our book which coincidentally came around the time Mike and Bob (my new drinking buddies) asked me what I did for a living.
A few minutes later, Joe comes over with three of my books in his hand. (He found me simply by walking the aisle until he saw me.) He said, “Three people just came by and bought books, but want you to sign them.” I said that I’d be down in a few minutes and continued drinking and having fun. Mike and Bob were now intrigued at this guy who has an usher coming up to him. Then, another announcement over the loud speaker and Mike asks, “Wait, is that you?”
NOW, Rick comes over to me and says, “You gotta get downstairs. there’s a line of people that want books.” He explained that Joe was now taking the money so that would be okay. I had to leave. Mike and Bob playfully ribbed me, “Oh, now that it’s your round to buy drinks, you gotta go,” but they waved me on and said they’d stop by later.
I returned to the concourse to find we’re in code red with all the people around the table with books. (It’s like the final scene in “Field of Dreams” when all of a sudden, hundreds of cars are driving up the road to Ray’s farm to see the baseball field. Now we didn’t have hundreds, but…)
With regular announcements over the loud speaker, we sold another 52 that day for a total of 80. Doreen wasn’t happy with the fact we were selling during the game . . . until she saw the final tally. The souvenir stand was happy. And we were happy. A good time was had by all.
And that was that. A good haul, but still, there was work to be done. We had a comedy show the next night in Winter Haven and then on Thursday in Alabama before beginning the drive back to the left coast, books in tow. So we enjoyed our dinner with proceeds from books sold and planned to sleep in for it was only a two hour drive to Winter Haven.
HOWEVER, that next morning, Rick was awakened by the club booker in Winter Haven screaming at him for missing the show. Turns out, the show was the previous night, while we were at dinner.
Going back through the e-mails, I found one several months earlier where my partner had inadvertently shifted the Tuesday and Wednesday shows to Wednesday and Thursday. And from there, it went into our calendars. Ooops. Not only was he no longer welcome in Winter Haven, but that meant the Alabama show was in nine hours. . . and it was an eight hour drive.
Dealt a whole bushel of lemons, I had to get the sugar and a citrus press in order to churn out a ton of lemonade. A Wednesday show meant we could now make it back to the ballpark for the team’s season finale on Thursday. (Given the nearly $900 we brought in for them, they were only all too helpful to set up an encore.)
The only obstacle remained driving to ‘bama, performing in an hour and a half comedy show, then getting right back into my car and driving back in time for the gates to open at 10:30 a.m. With Rick taking the graveyard shift in my car, while I slept, we actually made it.
Arriving back to our friends at the ballpark, we were told there was an article in the paper just above the previous day’s box score advertising our book. PLUS Carl kept pitching it over the loud speaker. (I think people just wanted to buy it to shut him up, God bless him.) By the seventh inning, we had sold another 125, the last of our supply, basically paying for my trip. (Underestimating sales are better than overestimating them, which, I’ve learned far too many times, happens more often than not.)
Technically, we didn’t sell 200-plus books in a day. It was more like 30 hours. But the moral of the story is that unless your name is Dan Brown, it’s a battle, one where you should take what comes to you and enjoy the experience. Though it is good to know that Dan Brown may have done better than us in Barnes & Noble bookstores, we still outpaced him in ballparks. . . probably.