Had my first crack at hand-selling my books on Saturday when I did a signing at Borders in the middle of Birmingham. Let me make this clear: this was not a signing like Ian Rankin does a signing. When Rankin does a signing, he sits at a desk and signs and chats for a queue of fans. Someone at my level, there's no queue a fans. There is a table and a chair and a pile of books and a whole lot of people ignoring you.
I say it's my first crack, but I had an opportunity to do this a couple of times before. At French (and Belgian) book festivals, they expect you to put in the hours in the dealer area, signing your way down a stack of books. I detected a lot of competition between the authors in trying to push their books, but I wasn't having any of it. It's hard enough talking up your books to a stranger in English, let alone French.
So the obvious question is: Why the hell would I voluntarily put myself through this when no one had asked me to? Three reasons:
- I wanted to do something for my new book, which is going to have to compete with the summer's big releases in a market which is already saturated. On top of that, people are hardly splashing their cash around at the minute.
- Why the hell not? I believe in the book, why not get out there and say it?
- I am a masochist.
So I set up three in-store signings, this being the first.
OK, so the people at Borders very kindly agreed to let me do the event, and set up a table for me in the fiction area with posters front and back of the store. I get there, the books are stacked up tastefully by a nice bookselling person. I can sense a certain lack of faith in one or two of the staff. Do I look that gormless? Possibly, but I am told the problem is that this is not the best kind of Borders store to do this kind of thing. You need a Borders on a retail park, where people go specifically to get books. A city centre Borders is full of people just passing through or killing a few minutes while the wife is trying on skirts in Monsoon. Be aggressive, I am advised. Walk around and talk to them. Seems there is a well-known crime writer who has had a couple of signing events there and that's what he does, to great effect.
Hmm... I'm thinking. Aggressive. Like a boxer. Like... Rocky.
I'm all set to start wandering around being aggressive when a passing customer stops and looks at the books. I blurt something out about David Bowie and it catches - her husband is a fan. A read of the blurb and a bit of a chat later and she's getting me to sign two for her. Man, that was easy. If I can replicate that every five minutes, that's 48 copies in two hours. Piece of piss!
For the next ten minutes, no one else stops at the table. This is despite me blurting random things about Bowie. And urine.
I look at the cover. Maybe Bowie isn't so popular after all? Maybe it's Jimmy Page they want?
Another quiet ten minutes later and I'm looking at the cover again, wondering what's going wrong. Maybe I should drop the Jimmy Page line. And ditch the urine gambit as well, lest people think I'm telling them to piss off. Maybe it's time to take that piece of advice: Get out there and be aggressive.
I walk up and down a couple of aisles, snarling, picturing myself as a prime Rocky Balboa on his way to the ring in Soviet Russia, about to face the unstoppable machine that is Ivan Drago. Eye of the tiger, the ghost of Apollo Creed is whispering in my ear. Eye of the tiger! My fists are balled and I'm ready to beat someone into buying the book. Should be easy: a couple of jabs and then drop 'em with an overhand right, following up with a left hook on the way down, then just drag them to the counter and get their wallet out for them. But I can't seem to do it. No matter how hard I try, I can't seem to beat someone into buying my book and getting it signed by me. I've never been good at throwing the first punch, and it's no different now. Besides, these are my kind of people: book people. How could I physically attack them?
So I wander back to my table, thinking. What would Mickey say, if he hadn't died of that heart attack brought on by the evil Clubber Lang? "Just take a look at youse!" he'd snarl. "Call yourself a writer? You're a bum!" Then he'd calm down and say something like: "What is this? A circus? Are we clowns? No! We're trapeze artists, flying through the air for the amusement of all these people. Except we're doing it between the covers of that damn book, which they don't even know about! Now get out there and whip up an audience! Bark like a dog, you no good Irish bum!" Then he hobbles off to the art section and leafs through a book on nude photography.
Mickey's right, of course. One of my great-great-grandparents was indeed from Clones. But how did he know that?
I work out a tactic: approach people (politely - no snarling or balled fists) and show them the cover of STAIRWAY TO HELL. Ask them if they recognise who those two guys are. They know Bowie alright, but most of them seem to think the other one is Marc Bolan. I don't know what to do about that, but it doesn't matter: I'm already talking to him or her by this stage. We're away from the cover and talking about what the book is about, why I wrote it etc. Some of these conversations lead to a signing, some don't. Most are fun and interesting, hopefully, for both parties.
At the end of two hours, I'd signed nine. "You're a bum!" Mickey's shouting. And he's right. Nine? Jeez... Then the staff guy wanders back and I ask him just how many that well-known crime writer signs when he comes. "Nineteen." So Maybe nine isn't so bad for this store, and I can go away and not feel like such a loser. "Crap!" Mickey's screaming. "You're a no-good, Irish, scum-sucking b--" I shove a sweaty towel in his mouth. Mickey, why all the negativity? Why not just chill out?
I go home, leaving him on the floor behind me, having another heart attack.
Do you know what? Mickey's wrong. That book is not a trapeze act and I'm no circus barker. It's a high wire act, like all good books are. And I'm a relatively unknown writer, putting myself out there and trying to make myself a bit more known. Even if a conversation leads to a signing and a sale, I'm still making someone aware of my book and myself. Maybe they'll think about my book and buy it later. Maybe they'll see my next book and remember me. Either way, it's a bit of exposure.
Thanks to all at Borders in Birmingham for letting me do it. And to all the people who showed an interest. Even that guy who came in the hope that he was going to get this guy's autograph (I had to break the news of his death).
Next Saturday I've got another one lined up at Waterstones in Gloucester. If you're around, do drop in and see how I'm doing in my pursuit for that elusive 10 books. Mickey's not invited to this one, and neither are Rocky, Ivan Drago or Apollo Creed. But I think David Hasselhoff might be there, so you could try and get his autograph.