Writers Engaging Readers: Shall We Dance?

Fred Astaire dancing with readersRecently I’ve had several different opportunities to get out and meet readers to talk about writing and publishing. Doing this was a good reminder of something I learned quite a while back: that the best way to sell books is by not selling.

What the heck does that mean? Let me explain.

Years ago, I was at a huge book festival. My table abutted the table of a man who’d written a non-fiction book about creating and maintaining quality relationships. A worthy topic, to be sure. However, this poor man was almost rabid in his sales efforts. If anyone got within five feet of his table or, god forbid, made eye contact, he was out from behind his table, book in hand, shoving it in their faces, talking a blue streak about the book and the ways it could benefit them. You could see the expressions in the readers’ faces change from mild curiosity to abject fear. As soon as the man broke his spiel to take a breath, they were pulling away, stammering excuses, almost running from the area. Then the man would sulk back behind his table, impatiently waiting for his next victim.

I, meanwhile, was standing behind my table, books spread out before me, handing out free bookmarks and candy and chit-chatting with whoever strolled by or stopped to talk. If people wanted to talk about the weather or the great crowd at the festival, I was up for that. If they wanted to talk about another author they had come to see or another book they’d bought, I was up for that, too. If they wanted to talk about my books, of course I could do that, as well. I let them lead, and I followed them to wherever they wanted to go. My agenda was their agenda.

When I made my first book sale of the day, the man next to me almost had an apoplectic fit. “You sold a book??” he asked incredulously. “You sold a book??” Here he was working easily ten times harder at selling than I was, but he had not sold a thing and I had. Obviously the book gods were not smiling on him. There was no justice in the world.

I just kept doing what I was doing — not selling. And the number of books sold continued to climb.

running away from a hard sell panic-149063_640More recently, I was strolling a town festival as a participant, not behind a table as a vendor. I walked past one table and a man jammed a flyer into my hand. It was a full page of text, and just glancing at it, there was no way to tell the gist of it. I didn’t know if it was extolling the benefits of Ginsu knives or revealing the secret to cold fusion. Possibly seeing the confused look on my face, the man said, “That’s from the back cover of my new book.” I handed him the flyer back and said, “Maybe later.” Much, much later.

Similarly, I find myself cringing when I see an author on Facebook or Twitter with the same posts over and over: Buy my book! Over … and over … and over. The message seems to get more strident each time I see it, but the problem is, it’s a monologue. There’s no discourse. There’s no discussion. These authors, like the ones at the festivals, act as if they are on a hunting expedition, hunting for sales. Each potential customer is a target, and the authors are taking aim, firing off their best shot, hoping for a score. The people targeted have only two possible recourses: buy the book, or don’t buy the book. Beyond those two possible outcomes, they are inconsequential to the author.

Happily, I don’t see it that way. I see the interaction between author and reader as a dance. A pas de deux. They lead, I follow. They twirl, I twirl. They dip, I dip.

I got an invitation to meet with a book club some weeks ago, as they were reading one of my books for discussion. I was happy to oblige. I took some freebies to hand out, but I did not take one extra book to sell. That wasn’t what I was there for, and I would not twist that generous hospitality into a commercial event. By the end of the meeting, I felt a real comradery with the members, and I have a feeling a few might buy some of my books later on.

I recently taught a couple of workshops on self-publishing, one on paperbacks and one on eBooks. For the paperback class, I did take an array of my books but only to show the quality of the product and to illustrate choices available in size, paper color, cover designs, etc. At no time did I ever think about selling any of those books. It just wasn’t part of my lesson plan. After the fact, however, I had more than one student email me and say they were going to buy some of my books.

Not long ago, I had a book signing in a book store. Again, I had freebies to hand out, and my main priority was meeting the people who came, listening to their stories, and hearing their likes and dislikes. I know it sounds odd (and possibly unbelievable), but I did not even think about selling. I had zero expectations on that score, and would never assume that people were going to buy. But usually, after some lighthearted talk, they would.

So my suggestion to authors wanting to sell books to a live audience? Quit selling. Put the gun down, get the readers out of your crosshairs and ask them to dance, instead. Meet the people behind the wallets. Find out their names, ask them questions. Take the time to listen to their stories, and then they just might want to hear yours.

And if they don’t, well, you’ve had a good time anyway.

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic, award-winning author who writes in a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres. She has been both traditionally and independently published and lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

33 thoughts on “Writers Engaging Readers: Shall We Dance?”

  1. Excellent points, and a good way to look at it. Love the metaphor.
    Off topic: I wonder why every comment at this site “times out” the first time. (It usually works the second time.)

          1. We cannot duplicate the error. Next time it happens, I’d appreciate it if someone would get a screen capture so I can tell the support people exactly what error you’re getting. Thanks.

  2. Great article! The same could be said for the aggressive tactics authors use on social media, etc. The rage these days is to build up their email/Facebook/twitter lists and spam everyone with “newsletters” (sales pitches). Or perhaps to conduct a GR giveaway and find a way to harvest a list of those who entered (which is a big no-no).

    I personally love the authors of “how to sell lots of books on Amazon” who conduct free webinars to unlock the secrets of book marketing – only to get a heavy dose of “buy my book and sign up for my seminar for a steal of only $500.”

    These guys turn a dance into a forced march.

    1. Bruce, you’re so right. You’ve added a few more examples of how not to sell books. I know I hate to be bombarded and manipulated, so I don’t do it to others. Coming to a mutual agreement in time is so much nicer.

    2. I just started a monthly newsletter and decided beforehand that there’s not going to be anything in it about selling – no pitch, no links, no bait-n-switch, nuttin’. That’s because it’s for aspiring writers (and other dreamers!) and will have writing tips, advice, helpful links, and mostly encouragement.

      Two years ago I had a Goodreads Giveaway. It never crossed my mind to spam the people who entered. Three books were given away, and … not one person reviewed the book. 🙁 They don’t HAVE to do that, but it’s suggested. Oh well…

      This is not for introverts, yet here we are. lol

      1. Candace, I think your newsletter sounds great. I like that tone much better than the constant bombardment for sales. People will keep following as long as they’re getting good info from it. Switch to sales and you’ll see the unsubscribes go up in a hurry. Good luck!

  3. I like your approach better. It’s not just practical; it suits my introverted personality. I am NOT a people person, so working in sales isn’t the role for me. But I am confident in my writing – both creative and technical – so trying to convince someone to give my work more than a passing glance wouldn’t be problematic. It’s also important. I know I don’t like aggressive salespeople; therefore, I wouldn’t dare to force that on others. Handing out bookmarks and candies is a great idea. I’d personally like to hand out little bottles of water and wine coolers, but that might be cost-prohibitive on my freelance budget.

    1. Alejandro, so many of us are introverts, I think this button-holing and hawking is very unnatural for most of us. But having a conversation, talking about our passion? What could be less threatening–and more engaging–than that? Thanks for commenting.

  4. One of my favourite sales venues is a Christmas craft fair. Most people who stop to talk are interested in my books, but I spend my time trying to find out what kind of reader they are buying for. Then I suggest what book that person might like. That’s as far as I go towards selling.
    I even try to restrain my enthusiasm at how good my books are 🙂

  5. Totally agree Melissa. My wife and I did art and craft shows for over a decade, setting up in malls etc. Always followed your guideline. People like other people when they’re real. 🙂

    1. They do, Felipe. And studies have shown that people are more apt to buy from someone if they feel like they know them and LIKE them. Somehow I think getting in someone’s face and talking a blue streak doesn’t quite fit the bill.

  6. Excellent advice, Melissa. The first few times I participated in a book signing with other authors I made it a point to stop by every table to chat and get to know the authors. After only a couple of signings I (sadly) learned not to do that. The “hard sell” I kept coming up against was just too overwhelming. My first impulse when faced with someone like that is to run. I’m sure I’m not the only one with that reaction, and I certainly don’t want to be the one to cause that reaction in others.

    1. Wow, Melinda–I would NEVER try to sell to another author. I guess I’ve not taken the time to mingle so much at book fairs (thankfully), but I’ve seen others go from booth to booth just to chat. As far as I’m concerned, they’re readers, too, and they get the same respectful, non-selling conversation as everyone else. People who turn every single contact into a selling situation give me the heebie-jeebies. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

  7. Great post, Melissa! I keep thinking about that author at the table next to you who kept doing the same thing over and over and apparently expecting a different result each time. You’d think he would have asked how it was that you were selling and he wasn’t, or at least just observed your approach. Poor guy!
    Your warmth and personality shine through in cyberspace, so I can easily see how people would be drawn to your table and feel relaxed when you genuinely want to chat. One day soon, I hope, I will get up the nerve to do a book signing! Somehow that intimidates me, whereas a book club presentation does not. Go figure.

    1. Candace, it’s a process, one I’ve learned and refined over the years. As you pointed out, just watching and noticing what other people do and what works and what doesn’t is a huge part of success. I saw one woman at a book fair sit behind a pile of her books, head down, arms crossed, never making eye contact. Guess how many books she sold? Right–zilch. I can only hope she took note of how others were doing it differently and revise her thinking.

  8. Loved this article, Melissa. It reminded me of a multi-author book signing I was at a while back where another local author (not part of the signing) showed up and started hawking his mystery to the attendees. The desperation in his pitch was such a sad thing to see that after my first reaction of mild annoyance I felt a touch sorry for the guy.

    1. Yes, very similar to this guy I was next to. I just cringe when I see someone like that, so desperate and with no clue why people are running away. Desperation is easy to recognize and most people don’t want to be around it. Lighten up, loosen up and have fun. Even if you don’t sell books, you’ll have a good time!

  9. Great article. Love the imagery. And yes, it’s much better to get acquainted than be a salesperson. Recently, I was carrying a draft print out of the cover of my latest book. On my way, I decided to call into the shoe shop. I did buy a pair of shoes, but the woman in the shop noticed the double spread cover and asked about it. By the time we’d finished, I’d given her my website details so she could look me up, then she phoned me and later I called into the shoe shop again. She bought one each of two other novels and, I am certain, will buy The Girl from County Clare when it comes out at the end of the month.

  10. Excellent post, Melissa. I’ve done a few events with “aggressive” authors, and I feel the same way. It’s a tough balance, being another introvert. And maybe it’s me—maybe I’m allergic to being stuffy, so I try to keep it fun for the readers who have given their time to show up. Even if I don’t sell a single book, it could still mean a connection, helping someone with his or her self-publishing project, or just more experience getting out in public.

  11. I agree with most of what you say, Melissa. However, I also like Laurie’s reference to balance. Those who just sit back and wait for people to come to them most often do not make many sales. I get off my rear end at art and craft shows, as well as other events, and reach out to people; not pushing my book at them, but breaking the ice and engaging in conversation. Eventually the subject of your books will come up. That’s when you let them know what you are up to and why you are there. I catch 75% of my readers that way. Then again, I am not a total introvert. My mother-in-law (water color artist) is that way. She just sits and waits. Frequently her sales are much lower than they should be. Whatever works for you.

    1. John, no, I totally agree with you–I stand up, make eye-contact and offer freebies, just to get people to stop. The conversations start from there and eventually get around to the books. It’s definitely a balance. We want to engage them without being overly aggressive or one-note. At my very first book fest, I tried the sitting-and-waiting and it didn’t work big time. Never did that again. Thanks for commenting.

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