Several months ago, I wrote about my trip to Powells bookstore in Portland, Oregon, and many readers told me they learned a lot from my photo journaling of that visit. I had the chance to spend some time in another great bookstore over the July 4th weekend -- Vroman’s in Pasadena, California – so I again chronicled what I saw so I can teach you some important bookstore lessons.
One of the best ways to navigate a bookstore is to go with no agenda, and that’s how I hit Vroman’s on this visit. My husband, Rob, and I went up to see an afternoon showing of the movie Love & Mercy, the biopic about the Beach Boy’s Brian Wilson (an intense and somewhat harrowing story about Wilson’s musical genius and his struggle with mental illness – very unusually told with two parts of the musician’s life converging throughout the narrative.) The movie theater was right next to Vroman’s – a happy accident – and so after dinner, we decided to spend time at the bookstore.
As soon as I stepped in the door, I saw my client Tracey Cleantis’ book right on a prime endcap! Hers is the orange one on the left --- The Next Happy. This is some seriously awesome real estate. The book has been out about three months, which is a critical time in the life of a book. If books don’t sell in that time, bookstores can send them back with no penalty – and they do, in order to make room for the new books coming in. This endcap position for Tracey’s book means it’s still selling well in this store. It’s selling well in a lot of places because Tracey’s publisher just bought her second book, Self Care is Not a Stupid Candle. She sold it on a proposal – which you can do with Book #2. Most publishing contracts include a clause that the publisher gets "first right of refusal" on the author’s next work, and they usually specify what the author has to show in order for the publisher to exercise that right. It's often a simple description and outline.
Note the “autographed” sticker on this book cover. Tracey actually lives in Pasadena and did a signing at the store several months ago. One of the benefits of taking the time to do an in-person event at a bookstore is that you can get on the staff’s radar. I often advise writers to give a copy of their book to the person on staff who might be most interested. It’s not like they get to read all the books in the store – a new book that has been read it no longer new -- and they usually appreciate the gesture. If they like your book, they may be more likely to place it in a favorable spot or write a staff recommendation.
Speaking of book signings… here’s the book signing area of Vroman’s. See all those chairs? If you were to do a signing, who would fill those seats? Who would come upstairs to the second floor to hear you read? Why would they shell out $27 for your book? You have to have answers!
The last time I went to a signing here, I heard my friend Katrina Kenison do a reading and her audience was filled with raving fans who spent 45 minutes tearfully telling her how grateful they were that she had written the books she did. It was a beautiful thing to behold.
Within sight of Tracey’s book, I saw the college admission guides and had to stop for a moment of gratitude that I am finished with that phase of my kid’s life! There were several years when the Fiske Guide was the most prominent book in my house. My youngest child just finished her freshman year – woo hoo!
Down the aisle from the college guides, I spied the Writing Section – and went over to scan to see if there was anything new. I noticed two of my friend Barbara Abercrombie’s books enjoying some face-out shelf space. That’s also some precious real estate (versus a book shelved spine-out) and I was happy to see it. Barbara is the reason I began teaching. She invited me to guest lecture in her class at the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program, and soon after I was invited to teach my own class, and it’s been eight years and counting. I aspire each time I teach to be as gracious, generous, supportive and wise as Barbara.
Note that within ten minutes of my being in this bookstore, I saw books by two authors I know. That’s pretty unusual to be sure – but on the other hand, I try to be part of the community of writers in my town, even if my town is the sprawling city of Los Angeles. Make sure you’re doing whatever you can to connect with writers you know where you live. It’s good for your work, good for the bookstores, and good for your soul.
I wandered around a bit and stumbled upon a competitive title for a work in progress of a client who asked me not to talk about his work in progress. We had just discussed this competitive title two days earlier – a book I had not previously heard about -- and there it was on the shelf, complete with a staff recommendation card. I held the book in my hands, read the cover description, the blurbs, the opening paragraphs, and what the staff recommendation was all about, and came away with a new sense of possibility for my client’s book.
Books are physical objects. They sit on shelves. They occupy space. They have weight and form. If you want your book to sit with them, you need to know what’s out there—what universe your book is being born into. It’s one of the smartest things you can do no matter what stage of the writing process you happen to be in. (Okay, yes, I know – e-books don’t sit on shelves. But they occupy digital space. They have a 2D physical presence. The same imperative holds true if your book will only exist as an e-book: you need to know what books like yours are already being read in the world.)
I spun around and a gorgeous book jacket caught my eye – the cover of H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. I picked up the book, read the jacket copy and instantly decided I would pay whatever the hardback cost was to take it home with me. It’s a memoir about nature and loss, love and obsession, and how hawks are trained. The blurbs all mentioned the unusual and elegant genre-defying structure, and I can’t wait to read it. I would not in a million years have picked up a book about bird training had it not been for that arresting cover. So, does your cover matter? Yes, yes, and yes!
Next I spied a display of dog books, which stopped me in my tracks, because the novel I think I may be writing involves a dog, and the world is suddenly full of dog things. (Do you see my hedging my bets there about my fragile new bit of writing? Think I may be – ha! Until I have 50 pages, I’m not claiming anything…. At 50 pages, a book feels real to me, mainly because at 50 pages, you can throw our 25 and still have something of substance left.) This serendipity – where the world delivers us what we need for our art -- is a crazy and powerful phenomenon that I hope to write about here one day soon.
It took me more than an hour to get to the best part of any independent bookstore, which is the recommended titles section. Here I gravitated towards a book by my daughter’s favorite writer (Margaret Atwood),;the book with the great cover I had just picked up, a book by Jud Apatow, whom I had just heard interviewed on NPR; and a book that the school board I serve on had just had a conversation about -- The Road to Character by David Brooks. The lesson here? Word of mouth sells books. It’s the only thing we know that does.
The next time you buy a book, pay attention to WHY. Odds are very good that someone you trust told you it was worth your while.
What will people say about the book you are working on? What will get them to stop in the bookstore and take note? What will get them to take out their wallet and pay? These questions are as important as your structure and your plot and you need to be constantly asking them.
My husband soon texted me that it was getting late, and we met at the cash register -- laughing, because we each had a boatload of books to buy. I found it fascinating that we'd been in the store two hours and had not once run into each other. We even had books from some of the same parts of the store! That's just part of the magic of a great bookstore: it contains so much space, so many worlds.