Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Guest Blogger: Jean Zimmerman and the Un-Tour

BS Chick: Jean is the first of the guest bloggers for the week, and the author of Women of the House, a book (that I desperately want to read) on the life of Margaret Hardenbroeck, a she-merchant in 1600s New Amsterdam. Both she and her historical subject have proven that sometimes it comes down to sisters doin' it for themselves. It's great to have you here at the blog.

“We Have An Author In the Store”
by Jean Zimmerman

Tuesday, the first of August. On this hottest day of the summer of 2006, I spent most of the morning painting the deck railings. At 11 I came inside and sat at my desk. I looked at the phone. No calls.

It was my pub date. Shouldn’t I be at Elaine’s? Shouldn’t there be a fete of some kind? Telegrams of congratulations? (Do telegrams still even exist?) If a book falls in a forest, does it make a sound?

Welcome to the world of a mid-list, middle-aged, not to say middling author. I was putting out my fourth book, The Women of the House: How a Colonial She-Merchant Built a Mansion, a Fortune, and a Dynasty, a work of narrative non-fiction, a popular (I hoped it would be popular) history of four women in a Colonial-era New York family.

From my experience with my previous three books, I thought I had faced up to the Brave New World of post-millennial publishing – a world of limited p.r. budgets, cautious publishers and a brutally Malthusian marketplace. For most of us, the author tour was a thing of the past.

I loved my book. I wanted so much for it to succeed. What could I do to help it along? A phrase from Pound ran through my mind. Go, dumb-born book…

From the start I had been closely involved with the marketing and pubcity efforts made by Harcourt, my publisher, which had the best of intentions regarding my book but was crunched like any publisher in America. This, I decided, was the first responsibility of the Brave New World author – to be actively engaged, not passive, not sit-back-and-let-folks-do-their-job. My team at Harcourt, one of the last independent publishers, was great, and I liked and respected all of them. I swore that in this case, at least, there was going to be an “I” in team. They exhibited a characteristic of all true professionals – they were so good they encouraged me to be part of their process. Together we came up with lists of groups to target that might both welcome me as a speaker and buy my books. Yet as my pub date passed quietly, so, so quietly, I resolved that I would do more on my own to help my book succeed.

The day after my book pubbed, I began a bookstore blitzkrieg near my home in Westchester County – a self-designed, under-the-radar author’s tour, actually an “un-tour.”

At a local Barnes & Noble I skirted the discounted books, looking vainly among the new releases, new nonfiction, new hardcovers, new history. The clerk took a long time fiddling around with her computer terminal. “I guess we don’t have any copies,” she said finally. Nor did the next Barnes & Noble I visited. “Hmn,” he said, “It looks like none of our area stores ordered any copies.”

The landscape changed at Borders, which I expected. The Women of the House had been chosen by Borders as an Original Voice selection for August and September, a national program that was reserved usually for new and emerging writers, and to me it seemed a stroke of great good fortune that I had been invited into this coterie. The Borders store had the book displayed in five different spots, including the Original Voices case at the very front of the store, over a red tag with a witty review. I introduced myself at the information desk, signed stock, and inquired about participating in some kind of store event in the future. Another Borders store I visited also gave WOTH star billing. The floor clerk was a history buff himself, he said, and couldn’t wait to read the book.

Then that night it was back to another Barnes and Noble, a big one at a gigantic area mall. The store seemed to have every book in the world except The Women of the House. Once again, a search turned up zero copies in stock, with zero plans to order any. The clerk helpfully checked every area store. No copies would be on hand, as far as he knew – anywhere.

What was going on? How could I expect WOTH to sell if it had no presence in the country’s biggest bookstore chain? From my editor, I knew that Barnes and Noble had committed to ordering a good quantity. I sent her an email. “I am so happy about Borders!” I said. “But what about B & N? Where is my book? I’m invisible!” My editor swore she’d get to the bottom of it.

I spent a wretched weekend. Then, on Monday, the worm turned. I opened an email from my agent that forwarded a lucid explanation from a marketing exec at Harcourt for what she termed my book’s “choppy distribution path.” Barnes and Noble, it seemed, had stumbled in getting my book into the stores. But the good news far outweighed the bad. The company was eager to compensate for its error. Not only did it confirm its store order of just over 2,000 copies, to be shipped immediately, it would feature The Women of the House on the front tables of its top 200 stores in the major urban markets for two weeks, beginning the last week in August. The company made good on its offer pronto, and now I saw my book displayed along all the other current titles when I walked in the door of many B & N’s.

My first thought was, Cool! The falling through the cracks incident had actually worked out to my favor! My second thought was: what would have happened if I hadn’t done my un-tour of bookstores? The same old precept was rammed home once again. Ya gotta do it yourself. It’s a simple lesson, but a hard one for authors. It’s something we do all the time when we write books. Why not when we sell them?

With The Women of the House out for seven weeks, I am still cold- calling the chains. I’m growing accustomed to the person behind the information desk speaking into her mike, beckoning the manager: “We have an author in the store.” At first I thought the phrase sounded like a Ripley’s Believe It or Not, as though the clerk was saying, “We have an alien in the store.” But now, after my never-ending un-tour has continued, it sounds more natural.

I have found that store personnel I meet will go out of their way to reshelve my book to face front. They tell me it does make a difference for an author to come in; that they will remember to recommend the book to patrons. Store managers may not always have to time to meet with authors, but when they do they just might see a fit between your work and the readers who shop at their store, and work with you to set up a book talk or a session with a reading group. It’s never a pre-determined thing, what is going to happen when you drop in unannounced at the superstores. But more will happen than if you stayed home.


Robin Brande said...

Great post, Jean. Some good information here. Thanks a lot!

David de Beer said...

First of all, congrats on the publication, and bets of luck with it in future!

You seem to be off to a good start, let's hope it continues. This is a valuable post, I see too often on crit groups, and on blogs, a blase attitude from prospective writers when it comes to anything AFTER the book has been sold. I read a remark by an editor once, where he flat out said the bulk of his time and resources are spent on existing clients. The new writers he makes an effort on, are the ones who take an interest and are willing to go the extra mile to help sell the book.

I read a remark from a prospective writer, saying "Market concerns are market concerns, and no concerns of the writer."
The fact that global readership is dropping makes it very much the writer's concern, IMO.

You're a much braver woman than I am (ok, yes, fine, a difference in genitalia makes that a bit of a no-contest), you're a much braver person than I am. You are absolutely correct in your approach, taking a tour of the shops, "cold calling", and getting out there.
If I should ever get a book published, I know that's what you have to do - and I am not looking forward to it. I'd just feel like a right royal twit, marching into a bookstore and offering to do a book signing on my new book.
Luckily, that is not in my near future.

Great article, I hope a lot of hopfeul writers get to read this, will help them a lot.

Anonymous said...

As the manager at an independent Bookstore in Hastings on Hudson, I'd like to suggest that indi booksellers can play a big part in promoting great authors who may not be experiencing the glamorous PR they may very well deserve. Think of us as the fairy godmothers to the middle child (or rather, mid list author). We are happy to to work with authors to promote their books--especially books that are as good as Jean's!

It's even easier to promote books (such as face outs, signs in the window, mention in a newsletter, author appearance) when the author understands the value of self-promotion. It's great fun to collaborate with a writer/publicist as a bookseller/publicist. At our shop, it's been wonderful to work with Jean in getting the word out about Women of the House!

It's not fair that all authors aren't getting the bright lights and front page Book Review attention they deserve, but, hopefully, it's encouraging to know that books like The Secret Life of Bees and the Kite Runner were pushed by independent booksellers who believed in them.

Allison Winn Scotch said...

Jean - Great post and great advice. Thanks for sharing. I plan on following a similar strategy w/my book, and I'm glad to hear that it really does pay off! Congrats!

Noelle said...

You might want to also try going to your local independent bookstore before your next book comes out. They'll be even more likely to remember you, and you'll develop a better relationship with a bookseller in a small store than a random employee of a chain that may or may not be there the next week.

Lisa Hunter said...

Glad to know about your book. It sounds fascinating.

You also just made my holiday shopping task much easier. I have a half dozen friends and relatives who would LOVE to receive this book as a present.

G.O. Garrison said...

Do you know how to contact Jean Zimmerman? I am doing research similar to hers and need to ask her about sources!

Climate Change & Health Topic Committee said...

I am trying to reach Jean Zimmerman...anyone have her email address. Mine is