Me and Tom Hanks Selling Our Books

WW authors at Wordstock
Kerry Blaisdell, Jack Estes, John Dover, and Sue Fagalde Lick at the Portland Book Festival      Photo by Gail Pasternack

 

It’s 5 p.m., and the Portland Book Festival is winding down. Where once one couldn’t move for the crowds, now there’s space between the bodies. Formerly known as Wordstock, the festival has once again drawn thousands of book lovers to the Portland Art Museum and surrounding venues. Everywhere you turn, someone is giving a talk, reading from his or her books, offering services for writers, or selling books. People bring their babies and their kids, hoping to turn them into readers. Food carts line up selling tamales, pizza, donuts, and other goodies.

In a world where half the people say they never read books, it’s wonderful to see so many celebrating the written word, even if they wander around in a word-stoned daze, making it hard to move. We stand in line for the readings and talks, for food, for coffee, to buy books, and to use the restroom.

Now, with the festival ending in one hour, it’s getting easier to breathe, but it doesn’t bode well for sales. With several other Willamette Writers authors, I have drawn the last shift for selling and signing my books. My book bag is heavy coming in, but I hope it will be much lighter going out.

We stand behind the table, behind our piles of vastly different books and exercise our best selling techniques. Debby Dodds flashes her technicolor smile and plays her connections with seemingly everyone in Portland to sell her young adult novel, Amish Boys Don’t Call.

Jack Estes, whose wonderful books are about soldiers, shouts out, “Do you know any veterans?” because, well, who doesn’t, and tomorrow is Veterans Day. Sometimes the question backfires. People are like “What? Why?” Plus, people don’t give Veterans Day gifts. Maybe they should.

John Dover, creator of the “jazz noir” Johnny Scotch series, plies his local connections and offers readers a good time with his books and stories. Kerry Blaisdell hands out free calendars to lure people to her urban fantasy novel, Debriefing the Dead.

Me, I pass out postcards with the cover photo from Up Beaver Creek. “Would you like a pretty picture, something to look at and de-stress?” Mostly women accept it. A few turn it over, read my pitch and come back to take a look at the book. Success.

Since our table sits under the Willamette Writers banner, we give out information about the organization, about the various branches, our program for young writers, and our literary magazine the Timberline Review.

But it’s a tired crowd, with going home on their minds. It’s getting dark outside. Their bags of books are already too heavy. Many don’t even glance in our direction. Some dart in to grab the leftover Halloween candy set between the books. And some stop to chat. And chat. And chat. I want to scream, “Move on. You’re blocking my books. I don’t want to carry these damned things home.” Just as I wanted to scream when I was on the other side perusing the booths, “Pass on the right!” and, “If you’re going to stand still, get out of the way.” But I don’t scream any of those things. I smile and offer up pretty pictures.

My photo technique works. I sell a book. The buyer hands me a credit card. It’s the first time I’ve used the credit card app on my phone. Will it really work? It did when I practiced at home, but . . . Look! It works! I hand her my phone. “Finger sign here, please.” How crazy is that? In a minute, I get an email saying $15.00 has been deposited into my account. Magic. Somebody else buy a book. Let’s do it again!

Up until this year, I have not accepted credit cards. Cash or checks only. But that’s old-fashioned. Now we all have our little card readers on our phones. Zip, zoop, sold.

That one sale is it for the night, which is as good as any of us except Debby does, but as John Dover notes, this is not about sales. It’s about shaking hands and making connections. It’s about getting people to take our cards and our swag so that they might go home and order our books or at least remember our names.

It’s also about being with other authors after the solitary process of writing our books. We compare notes. Best and worst selling experiences. Bookstores that treat authors well or treat them badly. Places we might give talks. Favorite flavor of Ghirardelli chocolate squares. (Mine is mint.)

And it’s fun. I think of myself as shy, but I have spent the day talking to strangers, putting myself “out there.” “Hey, you need another book!” I hear myself shouting. I’ve turned into a huckster.

Afterward, walking the six blocks to the parking garage, my bag is no lighter than it was coming in. I couldn’t resist purchasing one more book from a Facebook-only friend I finally met in person. I don’t mind. My feet hurt, but my heart feels good.

It has been a long day, which started with standing in line with approximately 2,000 people for over an hour in 36-degree weather outside the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall to see and hear Tom Hanks talk about Uncommon Type, his new book of short stories. The ticket price included a copy of his book. We grab our books from the thousands piled on tables in the theater lobby and cuddle them like kittens. Tom Hanks does not have to stand behind a table with postcards and chocolate bars trying to get people’s attention. It helps if you’re an Academy Award winning actor.

Tom Hanks’ hour-long talk was fabulous. It was funny, sweet, loving, and wise. I’m in love. We all are. Last night, I dreamed about Tom and his big gray dog walking up my driveway. I greeted them like old friends, casual, not star-struck at all—until my sweet Annie dog turned into Cujo and attacked his dog.

I’m so sorry, Tom. Would you like a pretty picture of Beaver Creek?

***

  • Fun fact: Back in the early 90s, Tom Hanks spent a night camping in an Airstream trailer on my grandfather’s property at Seacliff Beach, California. Or so says my father, who is not impressed with all this book nonsense, but thought it was pretty nifty that I got to see Tom Hanks.
  • The Coast branch of Willamette Writers meets this coming Sunday, Nov. 18 at 2 p.m. at the Newport Library. Rachel Barton will lead a free poetry workshop. Everyone is invited to join us for lunch at the Chowder Bowl at 11:30 that day where we can chat and fill up on chowder. PM me or email me at coast@willamettewriters.org if you’re coming to lunch so we can save you a seat.
  • I just discovered this is my 500th post! That’s a lot of blogging.

 

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New novel coming, buy it, pass the word

PD is coming.

What? No, not the police department. PD is what the protagonist in my new novel Up Beaver Creek is calling herself these days. It’s her initials, and she’s not saying what they stand for. Back in Missoula, people called her Cissy, her nickname, but she does not want to be Cissy anymore. Widowed at 42, she is determined to start over with a new name, a new look, and a new home on the Oregon coast, where she will pursue her career as a musician–if things ever stop going wrong.

Eight wonderful, brilliant, generous beta readers have given the book a careful going-over, finding numerous typos and a few discrepancies I need to clean up. Next steps: Finalizing the cover and formatting the inside pages. I’m starting to get nervous. I want everyone to buy the book. I want to do readings here, there, and everywhere. I want everyone to say they love my book. I want to show the IRS and my father that I do actually write and sell books.

I want . . . what every writer wants.

For Oprah to love it.

Why am I telling you all this? Because these days, whether you’re published by one of the big New York publishers, a small indie press, or doing it yourself, authors are required to build “buzz.” We need to become salespeople drumming up interest and doing everything possible to make sure everybody knows about their books and can’t wait to read them.

That’s Up Beaver Creek, coming in June from Blue Hydrangea Productions.

This sales business is tough for writers who prefer to sit quietly at their computers and get lost in the worlds they’re creating. We prefer art over commerce, readers over buyers. Once upon a time, publishers did all the marketing while urging writers to hurry up and write the next book. Not anymore. Promote, tour, build that audience high and wide.

Buzz, buzz, buzz.

Our Willamette Writers Coast Chapter meeting yesterday was all about building buzz. Jennie Komp of Myth Machine talked about building one’s “fandom.” Cultivate one loyal fan who loves everything you write, and that fan will attract others who attract more. Pretty soon you’ll have thousands. At least that’s the plan.

It can work. I got an email on Saturday from a writer who has a new book coming out. I ordered it immediately. I haven’t read a word of it, haven’t seen the cover, and I don’t usually pay that much for a book, but with this author, I’m buying it. I buy everything he writes. I’m part of his fandom.

Up Beaver Creek, coming in June, read an excerpt here.

Komp used J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books as an example of maximum merchandising. Fans don’t just buy the books and see the movies; they buy the tee shirts, the little cauldrons, the round glasses, and all the other swag. The books have turned into an industry.

We can look at our own books for things we can promote: songs that appear in the book and might be used in the movie, merchandise that could be sold in conjunction with the book, real-life locations to which we can direct our readers, articles we can write that will direct people to our books, outtakes we could sell, and quotes we can combine with images to create “memes” that we post on social media several times a day. We can create YouTube videos about something in the book, invite our fans to post testimonials, and set up “meet-ups” for our fans to get together. In other words, sell everything you can from the world you have created for your book.

I thought I was doing well to write blogs and list my books in my email signature. I feel old and slightly nauseated. Would Mark Twain have done this? When does a body have time to write? Of course, we can hire Myth Machine or another publicity company to do it all for us.

Up Beaver Creek, coming in June. Meet PD and her friends. Did I mention the tsunami?

Buzz, buzz, buzz

Book nerds gather at Wordstock

img_20161105_134332574_hdr1You know all those socially-challenged people who would rather read a book—or write a book—than anything? Well, about 8,000 of them gathered in Portland, Oregon Saturday for the mega-event known as Wordstock. Unlike at the famous rock concert with the similar name, folks at Wordstock were stoned on books instead of drugs. The stage performances were all about words instead of music, and the only naked people were the sculptures at the art museum. Still, it was pretty mind-boggling. Alice Hoffman over here, Sherman Alexie over there, Richard Russo across the street, workshops all day, books to buy everywhere, oh my God.

img_20161105_122427661_hdr1Wordstock’s hub was the Portland Art Museum, but within easy walking distance, other events happened at seven other venues on the South Park blocks, including the Arlene Schnitzer concert hall, the glorious First Congregational United Church of Christ, and the Oregon Historical Society. Red Wordstock signs appeared everywhere. The people I met leaving the parking garage were also going to Wordstock. Of course. Everyone was going to Wordstock. Well, there was that guy yelling in Spanish at a mannequin in a store window. But everybody else.

I was a Wordstock virgin, compelled to go this year not only because I always wanted to but because I’m now co-coordinator of our Willamette Writers chapter in Newport. We had a table at the Wordstock book fair. If I volunteered a couple hours, I could sell my books.

Portland is a long drive from here. Three hours each way if I’m lucky. Much of it was in the dark, and it was raining the whole time. Blinded by the deluge, I prayed my way home and still can’t believe I survived. I also can’t believe the guys in pickups who passed me going 75 mph on Highway 20. God watch over the people in their path.

So, as a newbie, I had a lot to learn about Wordstock. For example:

* Once you pay your $15 (do it in advance online) and get your red wristband, you can attend any of the talks in any of the many buildings. Just walk in. This blows my mind. I thought you needed to pay more for an extra ticket. Nope.

* Get the program online at Literary Arts or in the Willamette Week newspaper and plan ahead. There is way too much to see and do. Picture a massive buffet at which everything looks delicious, but you can only choose one plate-full. Which do you want more, the lobster or the raviolis?

* Don’t open that door to the stage balcony between shows. I decided I wanted to sneak a peek at one of the theaters and got locked in. Locked double doors on each end of a concrete-floored hallway. Luckily there were stairs. Eventually I wound up in an alley. As the doors shut behind me—locked—I gazed at the wrought iron gates that separated me from the street. What if they’re locked, too? I pictured myself gripping the bars like a prisoner and hollering for help. But they opened.

* Expect to get wet. It’s November in Oregon. You will get wet walking between buildings. You will get wet acquiring food from the food carts. You will get wet trying to find a place to eat that food. Wear your raincoat; think about bringing an umbrella. And don’t even think about complaining about the rain.

* It will be crowded. Did I mention there were 8,000 people there? That’s almost the whole population of Newport. Most of these people are too busy gazing at books, authors, their programs or their phones to watch where they’re going. If you try to take an alternate route, a red-shirted volunteer will herd you back into the stampede. Note that many of the attendees are kids, who get in free.

* If you live far away, stay overnight so you can start Wordstocking the minute it opens and stay to the end. None of this sneaking out to beat the traffic and the darkness, neither of which is actually possible.

* You’re in an art museum. Take time to enjoy the art, too. Featured this year was the work of pop artist Andy Warhol, famous for his Campbell’s Soup Cans and prints of famous people. Wild and colorful stuff.

It’s all pretty amazing and a little daunting for this small-town author who skipped her church bazaar to attend Wordstock (which my phone keeps autocorrecting to Woodstock). Of course I spent more money than I made selling books. I thought I was going to die on the road. But will I go next year? As long as Literary Arts keeps putting it on, I plan to be there. Unless it’s snowing. Maybe even then.

The Magic of Tidying Up (aka The Satisfaction of Throwing Shit Out)

IMG_20160822_095957009[1]Tidy up your house and you tidy up your life. That’s the thesis of the book I’m reading now, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. At a writing workshop recently, the teacher made fun of the book, but I felt it calling to me at the bookstore, so I bought it.

Kondo is Japanese and young. The book has been translated into English. There are cultural differences and concepts I just cannot buy. I don’t think she understands how big a modern American house can be and how much stuff is in it. And how rarely Americans use the word “tidy.” But never mind. I like the idea of simplifying my space by keeping only what “sparks joy” and storing it so I’m not looking at my junk everywhere I turn.

She talks to her things, thanking them for their service, urging them to rest when she puts them in the drawer. She asks her house where things should go. My house doesn’t seem to have an opinion.

Kondo’s way of tidying up is radical. It amounts to discarding at least half of your possessions. You must do it all once, not a little at a time, or you will never get done. (I’ve noticed). You must pull everything out, handle each item, and ask if it sparks joy. If it does not, get rid of it. Not just if it’s useful or still good, but do you love it?

Only when you have discarded everything you don’t need should you think about how to store what’s left. Kondo says, “Putting things away creates the illusion that the clutter problem has been solved.” Oh, how I know that. I have moved many times. As soon I pull everything out, I begin to realize just how much I have. Oh for the days when I could fit everything in a pickup truck.

Reading this book, I couldn’t wait to start tidying up. I began with my socks, a big mismatched mess. I threw away socks without partners, socks in bad shape, socks that I just hated and never wore. On Kondo’s direction, I rolled the rest like sushi rolls and set them in my drawer. I love it. Now I can find my blue socks, brown socks, and black socks easily. There are no loser socks anymore.

Moving on, I sorted and rolled up my underwear and my stockings, making a satisfying display. It got harder with nightgowns. If you never wear them, Kondo says they have to go. But wait, that one’s so pretty; if I ever have a gentleman companion again, I’d want to wear it. And that one’s so cute. . . .

If Kondo were here in my house, we’d end up screaming at each other. I was raised to use things up, to keep them if they were good, even if I didn’t love them. Never to waste anything. So now to say if it doesn’t spark joy, I need to throw it away? It cost money. It’s still good. I might use it.

It gets worse. Kondo prescribes getting rid of all paper. I repeat: ALL paper. Credit card statements, owners’ manuals, books you’ve already read—out with all of them. You don’t need them. But . . . .

Keepsakes? Keep the memories, get rid of the mug, the tote bag, the photograph, the ash tray your child made in first grade. Greeting cards? Out. It’s the only way you can process your past, she says. Hold on, Marie Kondo.

I like a tidy, uncluttered space. I have been trying to winnow down my possessions, knowing that someday I will probably move to a smaller home and will have to “downsize.” I know that after I die, somebody will get stuck with my stuff. But right now, I like my stuff. It’s easy to get rid of loser socks, but the last Christmas card with my mother’s signature? My wedding gown? Fred’s aquarium jacket with all his badges still attached? My financial records and notes for my books? Not yet.

It’s crazy that we’ve reached a point where we have acquired so much stuff we need a best-selling book to tell us how to sort it out so we can breathe in our own homes. And yet we keep buying more.

This book has more than 10,000 reviews, most of them five stars, on Amazon.com. On Goodreads, a site for booklovers, the reviews aren’t as good. As one writer says, “This book does not spark joy.” Okay, it’s goofy with its talking to things, and it assumes we can all afford to throw stuff away because we don’t love it, that we can always buy another one. But there’s a lot of wisdom in there, too.

My mother would agree with most of what Kondo says. She did not hold on to things. She was always after me to clean up my room, especially my closet. She threatened to throw it all out if I didn’t. But hey, I’m a grownup now, and this is my shit. Hands off. Don’t mess with my joy.

How about you? Are you ready to purge? Where do you get stuck?

Can you find one square inch of quiet?

I’m spoiled. The place where I live is quiet. Sitting in my back yard, I hear mostly birds and the wind. Occasionally a plane or helicopter flies over from the small airport a half mile south, and sometimes I hear a truck gearing up on Highway 101. Sometimes the ocean whispers and sometimes it roars, but overall it feels quiet. Or maybe it’s just that I don’t hear as well as I used to. As noted in earlier posts, I have a measurable hearing loss typical of people my age. But in my yard, I can almost hear the quiet.

Gordon Hempton, author of a wonderful book called One Square Inch of Silence, would disagree. He would say it’s pretty good, but it’s not truly quiet here in South Beach. If he measured the sound levels here, he’d probably come up with about 35 decibels coming from cars, waves, and miscellaneous mechanical sounds that I don’t notice. When a helicopter passes over, it would go up to about 90. Wherever we live, we become accustomed to a certain level of noise: cars, lawnmowers, TVs, appliances, dogs barking, people talking, and so much more. Some of us even become uncomfortable if it’s too quiet. We reach for our iPods or turn on the TV. I confess that sometimes I sleep with the radio on.

Gordon Hempton specializes in sounds. He makes his living mostly from making and selling recordings of birds, beaches, and train whistles. But his favorite sound is no sound at all. He prefers quiet, quiet enough to hear your own footsteps or the chorus of birds that greets the new day. But quiet is hard to find. Even places billed as quiet are filled with the noise of cars, planes, trains, and people. He’s on a mission to set aside one square inch of silence in Washington’s Olympic National Park, making it a place where people don’t speak and planes don’t fly over. As part of that mission, he drove across the country to Washington, D.C. in a VW bus, measuring sounds in cities, parks and wilderness areas. His book is the story of that journey. I found the book fascinating and enjoyed the way the science is folded into an engaging story. I also learned a great deal about sound.

Did you ever think about the fact that our hearing is designed to keep us safe, that most animals depend on their ability to hear predators coming so they can react to protect themselves. Animals won’t nest where it’s too noisy because they can’t hear, Hempton says. For us people, that might mean hearing a car coming so we don’t get run over, hearing a rattlesnake before we step on it, or hearing someone knocking on the door. We need to be able to hear a baby cry or a loved one shout for help. We need to hear each other in order to communicate. Hempton says we don’t have “ear lids” because we need to be able to hear all the time.

But it’s getting to be so noisy we can’t be sure we’ll hear anything. On his travels, Hempton visited a symphony hall, the Indianapolis speedway, and a basketball game. All were so loud it was nearly impossible to converse and the sound levels were high enough to cause damage to people’s hearing. Even in many of the restaurants he visited, it was too loud to talk. The roar of conversation, kitchen noises and Muzak added up to an audio attack. Even in places where people assured him it would be quiet, places like national parks and areas deep in the wilderness, Hempton found planes flying overhead every few minutes and power plants roaring 24/7.

All of this makes me glad to live where it is relatively quiet. Of course, there’s a price to pay. Mid-morning on my street, I’m the only human around. It gets lonely. At my desk, I hear a hum from the refrigerator, I hear my computer keys clacking, I just heard a fly bounce off the window. If I pay attention, I can hear myself breathing. But as soon as I get in my car, I turn on the radio as I ease into a world of noise, a world where quiet is becoming harder every day to find.

Find out more about Gordon Hempton’s One Square Inch of Silence campaign and watch a video at his website, onesquareinch.org.

I found a free app for my phone that measures sound. It rates the sound here in my office right now as a whisper. Is it quiet where you are? What kind of noises surround you? Do you notice them most of the time? Let’s talk about it in the comments. Quietly.

Portuguese grandma book lives on and on

Stories_Grandma_Neve_Cover_for_KindleStories Grandma Never Told was conceived one day more than 25 years ago when I was hiding out in my parents’ vacation trailer making random notes in the wake of publishing my first book, The Iberian Americans. That book was an overview of the experiences of immigrants from Portugal, Spain and the Basque Country. My roots lead back to all of those places.

What about the Portuguese women, I asked myself. What has been passed down from my great grandmother to my grandmother to my mother to me that makes me who I am? The eyes, the nose, the body, yes, but what else? Who were these women? The few books about Portuguese immigrants that I had found focused on the men, as if the women didn’t come at all. There were stories to be shared.

The result was my next published book, Stories Grandma Never Told: Portuguese Women in California. The title is slightly misleading because the book does not include my grandmother’s stories. I never heard them. Instead, I looked up “Portuguese” in the phone book (pre-Google) and started interviewing women: family, friends, people who were active in the Portuguese community and the people they insisted I speak to. I had never been exposed to much of the Portuguese culture. A few words, a few foods, but not much more. My parents’ generation insisted on being as American as possible. Forget the old country. But I got involved, I learned, and I wrote.

It took almost a decade to get this book published. We had already moved to Oregon when I finally got the letter (pre-email!) from Malcolm Margolin of Heyday Books offering to publish Stories Grandma Never Told. It was released at The Dia de Portugal celebration in San Jose in June 1998. That was one of the best days of my life. My family was there, and the books sold like crazy.

Eighteen years later, the book is still selling, but not in the same way. After nine years doing a fantastic job with my book through three printings, the people at Heyday decided it wasn’t selling enough to be worth doing another printing. But it was still selling, and I wasn’t ready to let it go, so I started my own publishing company, Blue Hydrangea Productions, hooked up with a local printshop, Lazerquick in Newport, and produced my own edition with a gorgeous new cover photo of my grandmother, Anne Avina, on her wedding day.Stories Grandma Never Told_justified text.pmd

That first Blue Hydrangea edition kept selling. I went through three printings, and I’m still getting orders. I’m out of envelopes and almost out of books, but Stories Grandma Never Told lives on. I am releasing a new edition this month through Amazon’s CreateSpace print-on-demand program. You can order it online right now. Again, we have a new cover. This one features my great grandmother, Anna Souza. Why go through Amazon this time? Cost and efficiency. It costs me nothing, saving me a big printing bill and allowing me to charge less for the book. I can also offer it as a Kindle ebook for the first time ever. Plus, since most of my orders come from Amazon, they won’t have to get the books from me, meaning readers can get copies more quickly. I will still get paid and should make more money than before.

Why self-publish? These days, it’s a big question in publishing. It’s so hard to get accepted by traditional publishers, although I have done it several times and expect to do it again. Some self-published books are poorly written and badly edited, but many respected authors are taking control of their own careers by publishing their own books. We have the technology now sitting on our desks. Why depend on someone else?

“Grandma” was originally edited and formatted by the best at Heyday Books. I’m just keeping their work going. Why? Because the readers still want the book, and they don’t care how it came to be. I marvel at this, that I wrote something people want to buy and share with their mothers, daughters and friends. How could I let it die?

Grandma Souza, who died in 1954, would be shocked to find her face on the front of a book. She never learned to read in either Portuguese or English. But here she is, digitized in 2016 and being written about in a “blog.” As she might have said, “Ay, Jesus.”