29 March 2014

Pride and Preachiness

by John M. Floyd

Life isn't always fair. You might be paying close attention, listening hard to every word the teacher's saying, but when Doofus Jones in the desk behind yours decides to smack you in the head with a spitball and you turn to him and make a rude and socially improper gesture, that's the one moment the teacher chooses to look in your direction. We all know that. It's the Night Watchman Syndrome: close your eyes for a two-minute nap and your supervisor always shows up to check on you. I think it was Johnny Carson who said that if life were fair, Elvis would be alive and all the impersonators would be dead.

But occasionally all your stars seem to line up, and good things happen.

Ego trip

Last Sunday afternoon I drove into town to a chain bookstore, one that features a vast supply of magazines. As I was standing there at the rack reading a story in an issue of Asimov's, one of the bookstore staff saw me and came over to chat. (Like all writers, I try to meet and get to know the employees in local bookstores. Most of them have the job security of an assistant football coach, but while they're there they can be the best friends a writer can have, both during and between booksignings. They're also a lot of fun. How could you not like someone who chooses to work among all those books every day?)

A quick note: there's something about Blatant Self-Promotion that makes most of us uncomfortable. For an author, some measure of BSP is acceptable and even expected, and I realize that. But it still makes you feel like a combination of telemarketer, TV evangelist, insurance salesman, and Amway representative, so I avoid it whenever I can. Because of that reluctance, it's great to be presented now and then with an opportunity to showcase your writing without bringing it up yourself. It's the feeling a comedian probably gets when he's handed a straight line. The SP without the B.

What happened in my case was that the aforementioned store employee--Andrew--walked up and said to me, "Still writing a lot?"

"Always," I said. "You selling a lot?"

"You write 'em, we'll sell 'em," he said, grinning. He pointed to the magazine in my hand. "Anything of yours in there?"

"Nope. I think you have to be smart to write science fiction."

Another grin. "You've had some stories in Alfred Hitchcock though, right?"

Well, since you asked . . .

"I have one in the current issue," I answered, proudly nodding toward the May 2014 AHMM. "A couple of my writer friends are in there too."

Andrew looked at the cover, saw my name, and his eyes widened. "Awesome," he said. I saw him glance around idly at some of the other mystery magazines.

I kept quiet, hoping he'd notice the one in the next rack.

He didn't, so I helpfully told him that I have a story in the new issue of The Strand Magazine as well. Even more helpfully, I pointed to it.

"Whoa," he said. "You're on the cover there, too."

I smiled (I hope) modestly. What I didn't bother to tell him--just an oversight, of course--was that it was the first time I'd EVER had my name on the covers of two big magazines at the same time. I also didn't tell him that I figured it would never happen again. Some things don't need to be mentioned, right?

"Hey, you're movin' up in the world," he said. He sounded impressed, so I made sure to keep my left side turned away from him; tucked under my left arm were three copies of that February-May 2014 issue of The Strand. Somehow I doubted that a real writer would drive twelve miles to town to buy extra copies of an issue containing his story, to give to his mother and sister.

Andrew and I made smalltalk for a while longer, then said our goodbyes and wished each other well. Afterward, cheapskate that I am, I went back to reading the Asimov's story, which turned out to be excellent. Most of them are.

These sci-fi writers might be smart, I remember thinking, but nobody could feel better than I was feeling at that moment. Everyone likes to be patted on the head, and my confidence had received a pleasant little jump-start. I had managed to brag without preaching, to self-promote without being too selfish, to feel important without acting important. At least I hoped I had.

Excuse me, ma'am--want to buy my book?

A few questions, here. How do you handle the tricky issue of author BSP? Nobody wants the two extremes: one is to sit there like a bullfrog and never contact or say anything to anyone, and the other is to act like the yammering salesman who pesters customers until they want to carve his tongue out with a dull knife. So what do you do? Seek the middle ground? Very few of us are lucky enough to attract fans and potential readers without expending some kind of marketing effort, and even fewer are comfortable crowing about our literary achievements from the rooftops. How little BSP is too little? How much is too much?

Last Sunday, I'm pleased to say, those troublesome questions and doubts didn't come up. In fact I decided to stick around and read another free Asimov's story before paying for my magazines and heading home.

Actually, I was hoping someone else might stop by to say hello . . .


  1. John, I can't imagine your being blatant.
    My method is to greet people and then ask, "Do you read mysteries?" If they say they do, I reply, "Title of whatever I'm promoting is a southern mystery I wrote," and hand them a book or a bookmark. I give them time to read before saying anything else.
    This leads to everything from talking about Callie to discussing their families, their personal problems, and one lady even told me about her bunion operation, took off her shoes, and showed her newly remodeled feet to me.
    The interesting thing is that when I ask, "Do you read mysteries?" if they say they don't, I simply say, "Then I doubt you'd read mine. Have a good day anyway."
    At least half of the "don't read mystery" group will stop, read the back of the book or a book mark and a lot of them buy.
    SleuthSayers is so proud of your recent record-breaking appearances in magazines as well as Rob's and the others who are being published this month!

  2. It sounds as if both you and Fran have the tasteful self promotion down pat.
    I'm envious!

  3. Thanks, Fran. You seem to have a good plan. One advantage, I think, to living south of the Mason-Dixon is that most southerners feel perfectly comfortable chatting with someone they've never met before. That certainly helps, at booksignings.

    I feel fortunate in that the publisher of my books always furnishes little tri-fold brochures that can be helpful in approaching potential buyers. At chain-store signings I often hand someone a brochure, introduce myself, and then back away and leave him or her alone. Later, after reading the brochures, a surprising number of folks come over to my table and buy a book. (There's a fine line there, between being friendly and being overbearing, and I try to be careful of that.)

    Janice, I think I got promoted well just by having my name next to yours and Rob's on that AH cover.

  4. I loved this piece, John. It is a tough nut to crack; especially when you're not particularly comfortable in the social venue. The last time I did a book signing, I felt like that guy sitting in the dunk tank daring folks to throw the ball.

  5. David, I've told this before, but I love it: Erma Bombeck once said she did a booksigning when only two people came to her table. One needed directions to the restroom and the other asked her how much she wanted for the table.

    I accept the fact that signings are necessary, but they can sure be uncomfortable--and lonely.

  6. John, I love the Erma Bombeck quote. She was truly a funny lady. I also share your view on BSP. It's a lot easier, (at least for me), to write 'em than it is to sell 'em. I suppose that is one of the (many) reasons I'm not on the NY Times list. Or the Amazon list for that matter.

  7. Hershel, you're not alone--I think most authors find the writing easier than the marketing.

    And you're right: maybe that IS the reason you and I aren't NYT bestsellers. That clears that up . . .

  8. I've never done a book signing (having not yet gotten a book published), but I've always wondered if it might make sense to just start reading loudly from the book in question. Maybe that would bring people over -- to look at the mad man, if nothing else. What do you think of the idea? Any sense to it in your opinion?

  9. Dix, I've never tried that approach, so I can't say it wouldn't work. Maybe if Ms. Bombeck had done that, she'd have attracted some buyers.

    Herschel, I only just realized that I misspelled your name. Maybe because I haven't seen you in a while (long time no C). Seriously, my apologies.

  10. John, there are over two dozen ways to spell, (or misspell) my name and I have seen them all. Even my own relatives misspell it. So don't feel bad. It has been awhile. Maybe we can change that. B'Con in Long Beach?

  11. If Long Beach is still there, after all these quakes!

    As for the name Herschel, I'll always remember Herschel Bernardi.

  12. NOTE: Jan Grape posted the following comment (I don't know why it didn't appear):

    I started writing a comment and realized I could do a whole blog on this and I'll do it. I will say that a few years ago Sisters-in-Crime did a little booklet titled, "Shamless Promotions for Brazen Huzzies." You could order it for $5. Don't know if they still sell them...updated...could be more expensive too. But it did have good tips.


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