Hey, those are my books! The familiar covers stood out among the new arrivals at the humane society’s Pick of the Litter thrift store in Newport. Stories Grandma Never Told and Childless by Marriage, the two books I’m most proud of, now sat among the other titles discarded for one reason or another. They didn’t look as if anyone had read them. Did the people who had them before not even bother to look inside? Were the books brought in by family members after a loved one died? Did they somehow gravitate from the local bookstore that closed without paying me for the books it had on consignment?
Once $18.95 and $15.95, they could now be had for $1.50 each. In perfect condition. Ouch. Maybe I should buy them and sell them again. On the other hand, maybe someone who couldn’t afford them before will buy them now. Maybe I should sneak in an autograph. Or would that be too pitiful?
Our books are our babies. We spend years writing them, and then someone reads them in a day. Or doesn’t read them at all. Once your manuscript is published, you cannot control how it is received.You aim as carefully as possible, but an unseen wind may blow them to someone who doesn’t want them, someone who takes them to Goodwill or the thrift store or, God forbid, throws them in the trash. Some people don’t even read books. The Pew Research Center says roughly a quarter of Americans have not read a book in the past year. That’s hard for me to imagine, but it’s true.
Getting people, even avid readers, to read your book is a challenge. More than one million books are published every year in the United States alone. Why should they read yours? The trick is making sure someone hears about your book and knows where to get a copy. Which is why it sometimes feels as if we spend a little time writing and a lot of time marketing.
Pre-Covid, I spent many hours at tables and booths hawking my books. Sometimes I sold quite a few copies, but sometimes sales were slow. Sometimes people stood there for 20 minutes reading parts of a book, then set it down and walked away.
But maybe when they got home they thought, shoot, I should have bought that book. Maybe they told a friend, hey, I saw this book the other day I think you would like.
What’s the secret to book sales? Being famous helps. When Tom Hanks spoke in Portland a few years ago, the audience bought hundreds of copies of his book of short stories, Uncommon Type. I never saw so many copies of one book in one place, and they rapidly disappeared because the author was Tom Hanks. It’s a good book, but even if it wasn’t, they were buying it because he was a famous movie star.
If you’re not Tom Hanks, you tell as many people as you can about your book, hope they spread the word, and let it go. Yes, it hurts to spend years writing a book and have people reject it with barely a glance or to find it among the books at Pick of the Litter. But you know what? Every famous author’s books eventually wind up at a secondhand store priced at almost nothing. I have purchased many a beloved book cheap that I might not have bought when they were new. They might have been a little wrinkled, but they were still good. It’s the story that counts.
I can take comfort in my recent trip to the Nye Beach Book House where I was piling up used books by John Grisham and Maeve Binchy when a man said, “Hey, that’s you.” I whipped around to see he was holding a copy of my novel, Up Beaver Creek, looking from the photo on the back cover to me.
“Yes, it is,” I said.
“What’s it about?”
I told him. The bookstore owner overheard us and started raving about my book. The man, visiting from Alaska, bought that copy of my book and took it home.
I remember being thrilled to find my books on Portuguese Americans in the New Bedford, Massachusetts library when we visited there. And I was surprised when an excerpt from Stories Grandma Never Told was translated into Portuguese and published in a magazine from Portugal. I know people in Australia, India and the UK have purchased copies of my books. And people right here in Newport will buy them at Pick of the Litter.
You can’t control where the physical book will go once you send it out into the world. So I pat my books at Pick of the Litter, say, “Good luck, friends,” and move on to see what other treasures are there for me to buy.
If you’re local and get to Pick of the Litter soon enough, you may be able to get these books cheap. If you really want them, I’ll give you copies for free. I just want my babies to find good homes.
Do you buy used books? After you have read them, do you donate books to thrift stores or pass them around to your friends? Do you think less of a book when you find it on sale at a secondhand store or do you think hooray, I have always meant to read this?
Writing books is a crazy way to earn a living, but I keep doing it. A sequel to Up Beaver Creek is coming soon. Meanwhile, visit https://www.suelick.com to see a list of my published books and download my Blue Hydrangea Productions catalog.