Maybe YOU can, but I sure couldn’t.
I’ve found a few different ways of doing collateral advertising for my books. For example, since I also sell used books on eBay on the side (mostly from my library-sale acquisitions), I send out a flyer about my memoir with each of my packages. It’s an inexpensive gimmick and has the added benefit of targeting people who are known readers. Well, since I’ve reached a point at which my accumulation of used books has exceeded the rate at which I can sell them, I had the idea of taking them down to the flea market and trying to unload some there.
I didn’t really expect to sell a lot of books. I think there’s a reason why you don’t see a ton of booksellers at flea markets, and it’s because used books are a very heavy, very bulky item with – I hate to say it – low dollar value. I knew it was going to be a pain and likely not very profitable, but I also thought it would make for a worthwhile experiment. What if I brought down some of my own books and tried to sell them there, too?
I didn’t get my hopes up, of course. I don’t know that the flea market is the best venue for book sales, but on the other hand, you do get book-hunters showing up there, and there was, I figured, a certain logic in it. If I was selling mostly used books, I’d be more likely to draw buyers who were looking for books – just like with eBay.
So I spent the week boxing books and organizing books and sorting through other household goods that I wanted to take with me. I spent maybe two hours packing and loading the truck – no mean feat with my frozen shoulder – and then finally, yesterday, it was time.
Now I have done flea markets before. In fact, back in the days when I moved all the time, I pretty much did one every time I was planning on heading out of town for a while, so I had what I thought were realistic expectations based on actual experience. And in my experience, I have never walked out of a flea market without at least three hundred dollars for my trouble, even when I was just selling my household garbage. So even if I didn’t sell any of my own books, the worst-case scenario didn’t look bad at all.
But, like every other business venture I’ve tried in the past two years, even my lowest expectations somehow managed to be ridiculously high. Twenty hours of work and I made exactly forty-two dollars. Sheesh – for that amount of work I can make that much selling my books online. And without all the heavy lifting!
It still might have been worthwhile if I had sold even a single copy of one of my own books, but alas, even that was evidently too lofty a goal. It was an interesting experiment, though, with plenty to show about the behavior of shoppers. Probably the smartest thing I did was buying this display stand and placing it prominently at the edge of my stall:
And I have to say, it was a fabulous attention-getter. I very quickly lost track of the number of people who stopped specifically to examine my memoir, but I’d hazard a guess that it was several dozen, which sounds great until you realize that not one of them bought it, even at the discounted price of six dollars. One lady came close – a fellow seller at the market who said she would buy it if she made enough money at the sale. She did not – according to the buzz around the booths, nobody was making money that day – but she did come back for my card at closing time so that she could contact me later. But another gentleman (and I use the term loosely) seemed almost offended by my display.
“Who’s this Lori S – Sc – Sca?” he asked loudly of no one in particular.
“That’s me!” I called from where I sat next to my truck.
“So why would anyone want to read YOUR memoir?” he snorted, as if only the life of J. Lo or President Obama is worth memorializing.
Hundreds of people HAVE read it, I wanted to say. Unfortunately I was too busy being dumbstruck to formulate a clever answer, so I came back with a dull one instead. “Uh….because it’s an interesting story?”
“Okay, well you gotta give me more to go on than that.”
As reading a blurb was clearly beyond the capacity of this particular customer, I explained the story to him as quickly and patiently as I could.
“Did you end up crazy, too?” he responded when I was done.
Well, if I did, then maybe you ought to be more careful how you speak to me.
“No, I actually turned out fairly normal,” I answered.
“What about drugs? Did you end up on drugs?”
By this point, I was really curious as to the point of this line of questioning. Was he trying to learn the end of the story, figure out whether it’s even worth reading, or evaluate the stranger sitting ten feet away?
“No, no drugs,” I said, wondering whether there was indeed a magical substance that would take the edge off of this conversation.
Fortunately I didn’t have to resort to chemical therapy, because at that point the man just grunted again and walked away.
Mr. Who-the-Hell-Are-You aside, all in all, it was pretty disheartening. While I realize that the flea market doesn’t necessarily cater to readers – or to people who want to pay close to full price for things – being there and seeing how people responded to my book was eye-opening in a less-than-comforting way. The interest was there. The audience was there. Heck, even the author was there. But the bottom line was, I still couldn’t sell any books.
And this makes me wonder – how much better is it, really, selling in bookstores? Granted, then you’re dealing directly with your target market, but there’s also a lot more competition nearby that also appeals directly to your target market. How many people have to pick up my book before one of them buys it? Based on my flea market experience, I’d guess, what, a hundred? Two? That is an awful lot of exposure I have to obtain in order to make my measly two dollars or less on a sale. Indeed, it sounds almost as tough as selling online, if not even tougher.
So today I’m trying another experiment. I didn’t want all of those hours I spent preparing for the flea market to be wasted, so I put in a few more and moved my boxes of books up to my porch along with my tables and my displays. And I put an ad up on Craigslist advertising a used book sale, and then I put up four other ads, too, one for each of my paperback books, describing the books and also describing my sale, hoping against hope that the combination would drag in some customers.
It’s after four and not one person has even come by yet.
And somehow I don’t think these problems are entirely unrelated. You hear all the time about the “golden age” of independent publishing, way back in the late oughts, when it was still possible to become a bestseller by listing a book for free on Amazon.com. I remember back to the nineties, when I was able to make a living selling on eBay. But that was before digital was ubiquitous, before anybody could look up their own special piece of junk and see what it was worth and list it online for the world to find and to buy, before anyone who wanted something could just go online and find it without having to go to places like flea markets hoping to spot a rare gem. I hardly make anything on eBay anymore, and it’s for exactly the same reason that it’s so hard to sell books on Amazon now – because everyone else is doing it, too. Unless I have an item that is VERY unique or VERY rare, I may have only a day or an hour in which my listing has a chance to be seen in the midst of all the others that look just like it and maybe cost less than mine does.
I’m going to keep experimenting, and I’m going to keep trying. But I can’t help but wonder – if electronic sales aren’t the answer, and in-person sales aren’t the answer, then what is the answer? If there is one at all.
Several months ago, when I was planning the promotion for my first book, On Hearing of My Mother’s Death Six Years After It Happened: A Daughter’s Memoir of Mental Illness, I decided to publish some free e-books in order to attract attention to my work. I therefore released a handful of short stories and essays, as well as a self-contained excerpt from my memoir itself.
My strategy was a strange combination of successful and disastrous. My free e-books definitely succeeded in promoting my work; however, as the reviews clearly demonstrate, they also seem to have ticked off a number of potential customers. And this is what’s interesting. Because when you sit down to analyze the reviews themselves, it becomes clear that poor reviews are often unrelated to the quality of the work itself. Bad book reviews are, more often, a result of a failure to meet a reader’s expectations.
Understanding this is crucial to achieving success as an author. We’ve all read book reviews in which we simply disagree with a reader’s opinion. But for authors, it is, to a certain extent, irrelevant if we are right and a reader is wrong. It may not be our fault if someone misinterprets our work. But it is most definitely our problem.
I want to begin here with what I think is a highly illustrative example. Back in November, I released my short essay entitled “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: A Critical Analysis” as a free e-book. I described it as “a lighthearted analytical look at the most beloved Christmas special of all time.”
It’s a humorous essay. In fact, it’s the most popular blog post I’ve ever written, so I can say with assurance that the writing is good and the subject compelling. The e-book, however, although it earned a few high ratings on Goodreads, only received one review, and it stunk:
Rudolph December 23, 2014 (One Star)
Not quite what I was expecting when I had looked for a Christmas book to read to my five-year old daughter the night before Christmas eve.
Clearly, this is someone who saw my free e-book and decided to download it without even looking at what she was getting. Somehow she failed to notice that the cover includes the words “a critical analysis.” There is a school of thought that suggests that you should never offer books for free for just that reason – because it will encourage people to download them who would never be interested in reading them otherwise – and this is a perfect example. This woman didn’t leave me a one-star review because my book was bad – she left it because it ruined story time with her daughter.
That isn’t my fault. I had categorized my essay as humor, not children’s, and my keywords were mostly related to Christmas. However, when I was looking at the book’s page just before I unpublished it at the end of the season, I happened to notice something. In the section marked “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” I saw nothing but children’s Christmas stories. She was not the only reader who made that mistake. Which makes you wonder if I was somehow at fault, after all. Perhaps by including keywords that were related to Christmas, I virtually ensured that the people who found it were parents seeking stories to read to their children. Perhaps I would have been better off using keywords that were related to humor – which is what I will try if I decide to release the book again next Christmas.
Here’s another example. I published an essay entitled “Is Your Anxiety Real? One Woman’s Experience with Mental Disorder.” The description read “Read my story of how I was misdiagnosed with anxiety – and what the problem really was.”
The piece was exactly what it said it was. Several years ago I was misdiagnosed with anxiety and was treated by my doctor with a prescription. Nearly a year later, I realized that the problem was an excess of coffee! Now I didn’t pretend to have some magical solution for true sufferers of anxiety. In fact, the story makes it clear that I never even really had anxiety. But consider this two-star review from Amazon UK:
No help to millions of people who like me suffer from anxiety every day – without the … 28 August 2014 (Two stars)
One woman’s experience. No help to millions of people who like me suffer from anxiety every day – without the help of branded coffee.
This review is not about the value or worth of my little book. This woman downloaded it seeking relief – hoping to find something that would help her with her own anxiety. It didn’t do that, so she was disappointed. The book did what it set out to do – but it wasn’t what she wanted from it. Yet who pays the price for that? I do. Could I have avoided this problem? Probably, yes. I had left the description intentionally vague because I wanted it to be a bit mysterious. But if I had described more fully the point of my story, the narrowness of readers to whom my situation might apply, then some readers might not have gotten the impression that my book would offer them solutions to their own mental health issues. The book “sold” very well, and I wonder now if the title was a bit too compelling in the manner in which it suggests the possibility of misdiagnosis.
However, it was my memoir excerpt “Detention” that resulted in the greatest rending of garments and gnashing of teeth. The e-book did receive numerous four- and five- star reviews across the various Amazon sites, from readers who said very nice things about it like “I really look forward to reading the full book.” But it also yielded a number of poor reviews, mostly related to the fact that it was not a full book. But what really struck me were these rather bewildering remarks:
One Star, 8 Nov 2014 (One star)
Its ok but just getting into it then it ends. Did not realise it was so short.
Unexpected end 4 Nov 2014 (Two stars)
was very good to start with but became to an abrupt end was looking forward for more details but didn’t enjoy
You see the irony here. These were people who enjoyed the excerpt – who wanted to read more. They left me lousy reviews not because they didn’t like my book, but because they never even figured out that it was an excerpt. This, in spite of the fact that I stated that it was an excerpt in the book’s description, on the title page, and again at the end without even inserting a page break. Three places I said it, and they just didn’t get it. In addition, Amazon shows, right in the description, how long a Kindle book is. No one had a right to complain that they had been misled. Yet somehow they were misled, and I think I know why. The only place I didn’t state that it was an excerpt? The book’s cover. And that was probably my big mistake. Because as seems clear from my other examples, people don’t always read the descriptions of what they are buying – and certainly not when books are free. Much of their expectation is based upon the cover, and if the book doesn’t deliver what the cover seems to promise, they’re going to be disappointed, even if the author didn’t do anything wrong. Disappointed readers lead to bad reviews – and potentially lost customers.
This shows that you have to be very, very careful, not just in how you describe and categorize your book, but in the look that you give it. You can have an amazing cover, but if it gives the impression that your book is sci-fi when it’s actually paranormal romance, you’re far more likely to wind up in trouble. And the same holds true if you’re publishing a series, as is, nowadays, so often done. You need to have “Part 1” or “Part 2” showing in very bold letters, because you don’t want your readers getting to the end of your book and being angry because it isn’t the end of the story.
Finally, I want to look at one last example. This is a four-star review for my actual memoir – not the excerpt – which has been bothering me since the day it was posted. It’s a very good review, as most of them have been. However, what she says at the end really ruffled my feathers:
“I would have liked to hear more about day-to-day life at home with her mother. She jumps between big events… without covering the middle ground… It feels like the author held back because these details are probably somewhat mundane but I have a feeling that they weren’t boring details – the fact that the author felt so hurt and angry that she left home and never looked back tells me that there was a LOT that happened in between… Unfortunately, it feels a bit like her inability to trust us as readers has kept her from being very open in her memoir.”
Now this last sentence, I’ll admit, I found rather stunning. The majority of reviews have commented on how deeply personal my memoir is, and how impressed readers were that I had shared such private experiences. Now here’s someone who is complaining that I haven’t been open, that I’ve held something back.
She’s wrong. In fact, I hadn’t left anything out. After reading this review, I wracked my brain for other incidents I could include, and finally came up with two additional paragraphs. That was all. If I hadn’t described much about my last year at home, it was because my mother, as I had explained in my memoir, had to have foot operations and was stuck in a chair for nine months. A woman who can barely get up to go to the bathroom is unlikely to be physically abusive, and is certainly incapable of controlling a teen-aged daughter. There was virtually no day-to-day life to describe. She sat in her chair, and I went back to school.
I didn’t put my memoir in non-chronological order so that I could skip over events that I was reluctant to share. It’s because in many cases I don’t remember the order in which different events occurred. People sometimes seem to believe that because you’ve had a traumatic experience, that your recall of it must be flawless. It isn’t true – at least not for me. A lot of things happened in a very short space of time, and rather than pretend to the reader that I could tell the full story from beginning to end, I chose to assemble it as a series of segments telling what I remember. Yes, it is a bit fractured – but that also perfectly reflects my experience of my mother’s psychosis.
But, to be fair, I did not make this reasoning clear to the reader. The two poor reviews that the book has gotten have been from people who were simply unable to cope with it not being in order. And now that I’ve spent some time analyzing reviews, I think I understand why. Because people expect chronological order. They expect my memoir to be written like ninety-nine percent of personal memoirs on the market, most of which are not written by writers. They expect a traditional narrative structure.
I can’t provide them with that. But if I had explained in the introduction why the story jumps around, why there seem to be gaps that aren’t really there, then no one would have read it expecting it to be chronological, or expecting it to be complete in every detail. Would I have lost some customers because of that? Possibly. But I think it’s more likely that those readers would have gone into it with a more open mindset, more willing to accept a nontraditional narrative, had they been forewarned that that was what they were getting, and knowing that there were solid reasons why it was written that way. Ultimately it would have provided all readers with a more fulfilling experience – which is precisely why I’ve now added a foreword.
When I first read this review, I was also annoyed that this particular reader seems to feel that I didn’t experience enough trauma – that having my mother beat and imprison and threaten to kill me was insufficient reason for me to leave home and never look back. But then I took another look at her final paragraph:
“I hope that someday she writes a more complete story. I would be very interested in reading all of the ‘in between’ scenes and hearing about her final year at home. Not as a ‘looky-loo’ but as someone who has experienced something similar, it’s always a comfort to know that you’re not alone. That someone else has experienced the ‘spies in the attic’ delusions but also the general embarrassment of being in public (in high school!) with someone who is clearly unstable.”
Ultimately, this review isn’t about me at all. It’s about the reader, about her experience. She expected my story to be like hers, the way, perhaps, she would have written it had she been the one telling it.
There is absolutely nothing that I can do about that. I can’t make my story fit what every reader expects, nor should I try to. But this merely emphasizes the incredible importance of setting up proper reader expectations. Because if you can minimize the effect, reduce the instances of not meeting reader expectations to cases like these, which are entirely personal reactions, then you truly can eliminate a large percentage of one- and two-star reviews.
So when you are releasing your work out into the world, remember this always. Because it may not be your fault if your book is not what your readers expected. But it is always your problem.