21 January 2019

Know When To Fold 'Em

Successful poker players recognize when they don't have a winning hand and fold before they toss good money after bad. It's like the Old Kenny Rogers song. Eventually, you learn lessons that work the same way in writing. Some ideas are bad, and repeating them won't make them any better.

 Last year, I participated in three author events that featured a cast the size of a Russian novel. Last March, my library brought 31 authors together, from all genres, and asked us to speak for five minutes each. That's two and a half hours of speakers for an event that would only last three hours.

Many of us cut our remarks short or didn't speak at all, but by the time everyone was through, most of the audience left. So did many of the authors. I sold two books and don't know if anyone else sold more than that.

On a beautiful Saturday in June, the first perfect beach day of the season, I joined 18 other mystery writers at a Barnes & Noble. My experience is that if you put more than four writers in the same genre together, they cancel each other out.

To make things even worse, this store wanted us to speak for 15 minutes each (Math wasn't the manager's strong suit), and a demonstration against the current immigration policy took off a mile away at the same time we did. We outnumbered the patrons who came into the store, even with a Starbuck's downstairs.

The same results transpired with 15 writers at a local venue in December. We represented several genres, but how many people come to an event planning to buy 15 books? I talked to ten of the other writers (most of us left early), and nobody sold a book.

Was it Einstein who said insanity is running the same experiment over and over the same way and expecting to get different results? Whoever it was, he was right.

Last summer, another library where I'd been trying to get a workshop off the ground for four years invited me to participate in a local event. Pending further details, I said I was interested. The tentative date was April, which gave me time to order books, get a haircut, and iron a shirt, right?

Three weeks ago, the librarian sent the result of four months' planning. They wanted four mystery writers to present a panel (No topic mentioned) from 10:30 to 11:30. Three more panels would follow, and all authors could sell and sign books from 2:30 to 4:00. No refreshments, no activity while panels that people might not wish to attend, no further details.

I decided this was a losing hand and bailed out (See Einstein and Kenny Rogers).

Since November, two indie bookstores have opened within 15 miles of my condo. One offers a consignment split with local authors at 55%-45%, the worst deal I've ever seen. Writers pay a fee to get into the store's data base to sell those books, and the store will only take three copies of a book. Given that arrangement, I can't break even. But if they DON'T sell the three books, they don't refund my fee. As real estate magnate Hollis Norton said back in the 80's "It takes money to make money, but nobody said it had to be your money."


The other store requested an email through their site that included a book title, ISBN, synopsis, cover shot, my website, my social media, and a bio. I was tempted to include a blood sample, but couldn't attach it to the email. I don't want to do an author event, but I'd like to know the consignment split. I've sent them three emails over the last month.

They haven't responded yet. This looks like another bad hand.

I only sent a story to one market that didn't pay. They offered to promote my newest book, though. They published a black and white photo with no explanation on pulp paper (the dark cover became three blobs in shades of gray), formatted my story so the right margin looked like a seismograph, and asked me to get two reviews. The people I asked both gave the magazine a two-star review on Amazon and got hate mail in return.

Sayanora, Kid. Have a nice day.

Maybe I'm getting grumpy in my old age. Or maybe I've finally figured out that  I can use the time to write another scene or story. Or practice guitar. Or pet our cat. Or...


  1. Reading this post was like re-living some of my nightmare public appearances. Somestimes it's better to bring a pillow, a stuffed Winnie the Pooh and a pair of sunglasses.

  2. I guess there was a reason why the writers/ journalists section of London was called "Grub Street". The writer's life has never been a bowl of cherries and the internet, which has made a few rich, has impoverished many more.

  3. Yep and yep and yep. And can I add another? My publisher encouraged me to do more, more, more events--often involving not just extensive time over a weekend, but driving, hotel nights, meals, those kinds of expenses. And then that same publisher tried to limit the number of books sent to events to avoid shipping and returns. You can calculate how many books would need to be sold to cover a hotel night obviously.....

    When I pointed this out to my publisher, they just told me to trust them, keep at it, it would all payoff in the long run.

    Your headline says it all, Steve.

  4. Definitely, Steve, know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em. I often won't do certain events if I don't think anyone will show up and that includes most signings. But I will do other events, such as clubs or groups, where there's pretty much a guaranteed audience that's interested in the kind of thing I do. It just doesn't make sense to spend all that time and money, like Art says, for so little return.

  5. And let's not forget all the people who want freebies - in rural states, there's a tendency to call people up and ask you to come down and talk to Kiwanis or some other club - but no sales, please. They'll go to the store and buy your stuff later. sure they will. They're just dying to, aren't they?

  6. Steve, I couldn't agree more. Every writer appreciates being invited to an event, but going to some of these events just doesn't make sense. And I firmly believe that the more authors there are at a multi-author event, the fewer sales each of them will make. Saying NO to this kind of thing is hard to do, but I've learned to to do it. Great column!

  7. Thanks everyone. It's good to know we've all had the same experiences.

    Paul, I had a great time selling The Whammer Jammers, my first roller derby book, at a roller derby bout. Lots of people came up and checked the book out, and a fair number even bought it.

    For Cherry Bomb, my book about teen trafficking along the Berlin Turnpike, I tried to get several of the no-tell Motels to let me set up in their lobby. Their clientele objected, though, so it never happened. Do you think a selfie with a bunch of hookers and cheating spouses would look good on my website?


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