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10 Simple Steps to Handselling Your Book

BY ELIZABETH SIMS Yes, your own efforts really can make an impact on your sales, one reader at a time. Here are 10 simple steps to word-of-mouth success. by Elizabeth Sims

When I was in Girl Scouts, I dreaded Cookie Season. You were given an order form, and you were supposed to get everyone you or your parents knew to order cookies. You were even expected to go door to door asking strangers to place orders. (Times change.) Because my parents both forbade me to do those things and refused to take the order form to work with them, I always sold exactly one box of Thin Mints and one box of Peanut Butter Patties (to them), which amounted to the lowest cookie sales of any girl in Troop 1401, year after year.

I’ll skip over the humiliation of the public tolling of each girl’s sales at every single meeting during Cookie Season. Yes, I’ll skip that.

My point is: I had terrible training as a salesperson.

This guest post is by bestselling author and writing authorityElizabeth Sims. She's the author of seven popular novels in two series, including The Rita Farmer Mysteries and The Lillian Byrd Crime series. She's also the author of the excellent resource for writers, You've Got a Book in You: A Stress-Free Guide to Writing the Book of Your Dreams, published by Writer's Digest Books. Click here to order now.


When I decided to devote myself to becoming an author, I had no idea how much of a handicap that would be. Soon enough, of course, I realized just how important salesmanship is to a writer.

I have since overcome my crippling early experiences, and I’m here to tell you that even if your Cookie Season was worse than mine, you can make people buy your book.

Given how cheap it is to do promotion on the Internet—not that it’s easy or quick, though everybody tells you it is—it’s tempting to simply hunker there night after night before its glowing maw, enchanted by the possibility of reaching millions of readers with the click of a mouse. And yes, you can and should build a presence on the Internet.

But you’ve also got to reach out to the public, in person.

Why? Because building a readership one person at a time, face to face, is incredibly valuable. And because unlike a juicy rack of ribs or a bespoke suit, our product does not sell itself: The appeal or value of a book cannot immediately be apprehended at a glance, sniff or poke.

As you probably know, word of mouth can sell more books than anything—it’s better than advertising, better than reviews. Word of mouth is buzz. Quite literally, when you get somebody interested in your book by talking to him, you are creating buzz. When that person talks to somebody else about your book, he is building on that buzz. Ideally, because most people have more than one friend or family member, they talk to two or more people about your book, and you can see where the whole organic process is going: yes, straight to the bestseller lists.

OK. Here’s proof that being assertive—oh, why mitigate?—aggressive with handselling your book works.

When my latest mystery series debuted, I was invited to do a signing at A Book For All Seasons in eastern Washington. It’s a great bookstore, just the right size for the small tourist town of Leavenworth.

Space being at a premium, it wasn’t possible for me to give a talk or do a question-and-answer session with a seated audience. I was stationed, along with a stack of my book, The Actress, at a little table near the register counter and the front entrance. I’d brought bookmarks and a bag of chocolate, as is my custom. (I share bookmarks and candy liberally. Moreover, if I start to get depressed, I eat some chocolate and that cheers me up.)

The friendly and capable events coordinator made a point of keeping me company. I chatted with her and the other staff members, keeping an eye out for customers approaching my table. The few who did sort of veered off when they: a) didn’t recognize my book and thus b) realized I wasn’t famous.

Because I was essentially unknown, it wasn’t surprising that I sold only two books in two hours, in spite of the fact that the store was quite busy on that weekend afternoon. (This is the kind of thing we authors are supposed to be OK with. Right.)

Six months later, A Book For All Seasons invited me again, this time to teach an off-site writing workshop. Afterward, I did another signing in the store. Same book, same position near the entrance. This time, no staff members were available to hang out with me, so, determined not to look like a sorry loser, I made a point of speaking to just about every customer who came in. None of them had come specifically to meet me. (Participants in the workshop had already received a book.)

I made eye contact like mad. I started conversations, and during each one, I put The Actress in the customer’s hands. How forward of me! To my total astonishment, I sold two books in the first 10 minutes. The bookseller at the register exclaimed, “We don’t have enough books!” and scurried around to find all the copies they had.

About an hour later, I had sold nine copies of my $24.95 hardcover novel to total strangers who didn’t know me from a sack of hamster feed.

To big-shot authors, nine copies might not be much. But for me, nine copies represented a 350 percent increase in sales over my previous signing at that store. Ask any statistician: That’s huge. And the resulting word of mouth, while not possible to measure, seemed promising.

Even better, I realized this strategy wouldn’t work only at signings: I could also use it at book festivals, at writing conferences—pretty much anywhere my book was for sale, either by me or by a third party.

Here’s exactly how to sell your book in person, in 10 simple steps.

1. Open with the basics.
“Hi, I’m today’s author, Elizabeth Sims.” Simply saying that, “today’s author,” gets people to focus on you as a potentially interesting person. (Be sure to substitute your own name.)

You don’t have to be at a signing or event to use this line. While on a self-funded tour for The Extra, my second in the Rita Farmer series, I did lots of informal drop-ins to bookstores to simply sign stock, chat up staff and see if I could sell a book or two. “Hi, I’m today’s author,” works just as well in those situations.

Smile warmly: You are making a new friend every time. It’s true.

2. Put the book in their hands.
This is magic, pure magic. Say, “This is my new book,” and hand it to them. It is the most transformative part of the process, I swear to you.

3. Customize your pitch for who you’re talking to.
In Leavenworth in late winter, I said to male customers, while easing a copy into their hands, “Moms love this book—it’s about a spunky mom. Mother’s Day is coming up, you know.” Guys would stand there holding the book, looking at it, thinking. Then I’d ask where they were from, or what they did, the way I would if we were in a stuck elevator, and we’d just talk. Another great line for a man is, “Is there a woman in your life who might need a gift soon?” This covers the gamut.

To women, I’d say, “It’s about this struggling, insecure actress who finds her balls and solves a crime.”

With either sex, I’d then dish a quick gossipy story or two from my research in Hollywood, like when my actress friend explained how today’s casting couch works. (Now that you’re wondering: It’s not that the director throws you on the couch in the casting studio; it’s that he phones you after your audition, tells you that you did a nice job, then pointedly invites you to go up to San Francisco with him for the weekend.)

By the way, do not be shy if your book is self-published; neither offer that fact nor hide it if asked. Most people are impressed with anybody who’s written a book, period.

4. Position yourself.
If you have control over it, you want to be in a high-traffic area—the highest of which, in a bookshop, is invariably front-of-store. You don’t need much space; a small table is ideal, a chair an extra benefit. I always stand next to the table to better meet customers eye to eye. When it’s time to inscribe a book, gracefully take a seat and be deliberate about writing it. Always ask for the recipient’s name to be spelled.

Or, you can walk around and talk to people, paying special attention to browsers in your section. “Hi, I’m today’s author …” I’ve done this with good results in stores around the country. “I see you like X and Y authors. If you like those, you might enjoy The Extra, because it’s not only a gripping story, it’s funny, too.”

If they won’t actually take a book into their hands, give them a bookmark, which they always accept. If they take the book but then set it down, give them a bookmark.

5. Be charming.
After a bit of chat, I’ve used this line, which works remarkably well:
“I advise you to buy this book today, because it’s a first edition with a limited print run, and with my autograph it’ll be worth thousands on eBay someday.”

If they smile, you’ve probably got them.

6. Make friends with bookstore staff.
Always greet everybody with a friendly, confident smile and handshake, even if you’re expecting to be hauled away any minute by the fraud police for even pretending to be an author.

Learn the names of the staff members, and when you get a minute alone, write them down. I file notes on every bookstore I visit:

Store name: ABC Books
Manager: Latasha
Clerk Lisa, wavy black hair
Clerk mystery specialist Curtis, tall, gave him a copy of
The Extra during drop-in December 2009.

You need to do this because you’re going to be back. And when you do come back, review your notes before you walk in the door, and then call people by name. They die.

7. Give inscribed copies to mavens.
Carry spares from your own stash. If you’ve dropped in to a general bookstore, don’t just give a copy to the first clerk you meet. Instead, ask, “Who’s the mystery (or romance or sci-fi or memoir) maven on staff?” Then, if you can speak to that person, give a quick logline about your book while inscribing a copy for him. If the maven isn’t available to speak with you, simply inscribe one and leave it for him, always inserting a bookmark with your name, book title(s) and website info printed on it.

In mystery specialty bookshops, I make a point of meeting the owners, thanking them for carrying my books (or respectfully suggesting they do) and inscribing a book or publisher’s galley they have on hand.

This is extended handselling par excellence: If that bookseller reads your book and likes it, she’ll handsell it herself, and keep an eye out for your next one.

Mavens are gold. Love them.

8. Chuck modesty.
I’ve said to customers, looking them directly in the eye, “This truly is a terrific book. People are talking about it, it’s gotten excellent reviews and I can really feel my career building momentum.”

They listen. They do. Smile when you say it.

9. Close the sale.
The best way to close any sale is to add value. As your customer is standing there holding the book, you’ll get a feel for the right moment to say, “May I inscribe it for you?” If someone is considering buying it as a gift, say, “I’d be glad to personalize it for her.” This, customers realize, will make the book special. If the answer is yes, you’ve made the sale. To properly inscribe a book, always sign the title page, never the cover or a blank leaf.

I can’t emphasize enough that all of these techniques—from approach to close—work equally well in other situations where you might be selling your book: conference corridors, festival booths, out of the trunk of your car, heck—your neighbor’s garage sale.

10. Know when to quit.
Needless to say, trust your gut: If you pick up an uncomfortable vibe from a customer, back off with a smile. The last thing you want is to alienate somebody or appear desperate. You are Joe Cool Author, friendly and upbeat.

It really is amazing how far you can go, though. Once, at Powell’s in downtown Portland, I even gently instructed a customer to put down another author’s book so her hand could be free to take mine. She obeyed. (Sorry, Janet Evanovich!) After another minute of conversation, she permitted me to inscribe it to her, and the sale was made. I later saw her at the registers with her friend, who was looking quizzically at her as she bought this lone hardcover along with a stack of paperbacks.

“But it sounds really good! I met the author!”

Want to learn about other cheap ways to market your book? Consider:
Streetwise Low-Cost Marketing Savvy Strategies for Maximizing Your Marketing Dollars

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