We are back in Red Lodge, but not with a bookstore. Phoenix Pearl Tea is our tea and game business on Broadway, right next door to where Red Lodge Books and Tea was located. Come see us, or order your favorite teas online!
The bookstore Kathy and I purchased in 2001 is closing. For the first time in thirty years, the town of Red Lodge will be without a bookstore. I feel sad and guilty about it, but I also feel giddy and excited about what’s coming. If ever there was a personification of “mixed emotions,” it’s me. Right now.
A group about an hour away in Billings has purchased all of the assets of Red Lodge Books & Tea and hired me to be the General Manager and create a new store for them.
When we bought our store from my friend Randy Tracy, it was a small store smack in the middle of downtown Red Lodge, Montana, right across the street from the iconic Red Lodge Café. It was called the Broadway Bookstore, although I changed the name when I discovered that (a) Broadway Books is trademarked by Random House, and (b) there was an “adult” bookstore called Broadway Books & Videos just an hour away.
When I took over the store, it was mostly used books, and the new books were predominantly local history and guidebooks. Over the next few years, we shifted the focus to be more about new books, finally eliminating the used books entirely when the library a few blocks away started doing monthly used book sales (it’s hard to compete with 25 cent books). We tried many experiments, some of which succeeded wildly (like our tea bar), and some of which flopped horribly (like greeting cards).
The store has been a family affair. I’ve been there full-time and Kathy’s been there part-time for as long as we’ve owned it. Both of our kids have worked at the store (one is still there, as the Tea Bar Manager). When we were publishing the Red Lodge Local Rag, the office was in the back of the bookstore. When the Local Rag book came out last winter, it launched at the bookstore. Our grandson is as comfortable in the store as he is at our house.
Perhaps the greatest thing about the fifteen years we’ve spent running Red Lodge Books & Tea is the people we’ve gotten to meet. The book trade is simply filled with great people, and most of them are eager to share what they know. I’ve learned from other bookstores in Montana, like Chapter One, Fact & Fiction, Country Bookshelf, Montana Book & Toy Company, Thomas Books, Vargo’s Books & Jazz, and Barjon’s Books. I’ve met bookstore owners and booksellers at book conferences all over the West, and they’ve been helpful and friendly.
And then there are the authors.
We’ve had self-published local authors and New York Times bestselling authors, locals and authors from thousands of miles away. We’ve had events where nobody showed up, events so big we had to move them to the library, and events even bigger than that which we had to hold at the Elks. We’ve had events with police protection, parties with free beer & wine, cookbook signings with free food, and midnight Harry Potter parties with lines out the door and down the sidewalk. You want to know where I got a lot of the material for my new book about book signings? Right here!
The toughest part of this whole deal is my feelings that I’m abandoning Red Lodge. For almost fifteen years, Kathy & I have been active parts of the community. Between us, we’ve served on the boards of the Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Merchants Association, Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary, Red Lodge Festival of Nations, Convention & Visitors Bureau, Red Lodge Proud & Beautiful, and Beartooth Elks Lodge. We’ve worked on City committees, the Red Lodge Branding Initiative, and the Christmas Stroll. We’ve sponsored events all over town, and I’ve emceed events all over town. But most of all, we’ve given Red Lodge a place to buy books, hang out with other book lovers, meet authors, and have a great cup of tea. I’m going to miss that.
Kathy’s staying active in many of those downtown groups, but for the next year while I’m getting that co-op up and running in Billings, I won’t be able to. I’m not moving, but I’m not quite staying here, either.
Closing Red Lodge Books & Tea is, indeed, the end of an era. It’s been a good era. And I think the new era is going to be a good one, too. We’ll never be able to fill the gap that Susan Thomas left behind when she retired and closed up Thomas Books, but we’ll do our best to build a thriving bookstore and literary hub right in the middle of downtown Billings. It’s a big challenge, and I’m looking forward to it.
There are a lot of things that are different for an author who writes books for children — especially picture books. I’ve talked about some of these things before, but I’ve never specifically addressed how to actually sign the books. Most of the generic book signing tips and guidelines apply (see my 14 book signing tips for authors and 11 MORE book signing tips for authors, among others. Here are some specific things to keep in mind for children’s picture book authors:
- No cursive. I was born in 1958, so handwriting was a big thing in school. We learned to write beautiful cursive script, and that’s what our generation uses for formal occasions. Today’s children, however, are often not taught cursive. Schools in our area have dropped it, and many others around the country as well. If you handwrite a clever little note to the children, odds are they won’t be able to read it. This doesn’t apply to the signature itself, but…
- Use a clearer signature. When I’m signing a check or a legal document, my signature is a scrawl. If you didn’t already know my name, you’d never be able to decipher the signature. As grownups, we get this. An illegible scribble is the standard for signatures. Little kids don’t necessarily get it. If the family is plopping down $11.95 for a copy of my book, I figure the least I can do is make it readable. I know kids who don’t read cursive won’t be able to read a signature, but the letters are close enough to identify if you know what you’re looking for. Speaking of which…
- Sign on the title page near where your name appears. When the child is looking at the book, they see your name printed in the book and your name signed close by. The younger the child, the harder time they have grasping that you’re the person who created this book. That proximity of printed name and signature helps reinforce it.
- If you’re the illustrator, draw something. Nothing fancy. Even a little smiley face. What you drew doesn’t matter. What matters is that you drew it just for them (anecdote below).
- Always include the child’s name. You probably do this anyway, but it’s doubly important for little children. One of the first things they will learn to spell and recognize is their own name, and it’s infinitely cool to them when they see their own name in the book.
- Always ask the spelling. Again, you probably already do this, but it’s more important with children’s books. If you are signing a book for a 60-year-old named Ellen, it’s almost a sure bet that her name is spelled E-L-L-E-N. Young parents today are much more likely to use unique (strange, odd, phonetic…) spellings than their parents or grandparents. A six-year-old with that name is much more likely than previous generations to spell it Ellyn or Elin or Ellan or Ellin or Elhen or Elen.
- Talk directly to the child. I see far too many authors of children’s books that speak to the parents and barely make eye contact with the kids. The book is for the kids. The experience is for the kids. Ask children what their names are and how to spell them, and look to the parents for confirmation if you can’t understand. Children are used to being ignored by grownups. Be the exception.
I promised an anecdote:
At a Cheetah Conservation Fund event years ago, I met Tippi Hedren, the actress who became famous for the Alfred Hitchcock film, The Birds. She had written a book called The Cats of Shambala, and I bought a copy. When she signed it for me, she added three simple little birds around her signature (see the picture under the book cover at right). I told her the birds were really a cute touch.
“I wish I’d never started that,” she said.
When I asked why, she told me about when she first started drawing little birds. It was a random thing. Sometimes she’d draw two, sometimes three, sometimes four. Then, when she drew two birds by her signature in a book, a fan complained.
“How come my friend got three birds in her book and I only got two in mine?”
The little birds had stopped being a cute improvisation and became a part of her signature; an expectation rather than an extra.
Be prepared, as this could happen to you, too.
When I sign books I always write the same thing: “Watch where you step,” unless people ask me to do something else. That makes my life easier, as I’m not scrambling to think of something clever for each book I sign, and people really seem to like it.
I’ll add a little caveat to all of this. A really good book signing for me is a hundred books in three hours. Call it an average of 30 books per hour. With two minutes per customer, I have plenty of time to chat, write my little personalized greeting, and even get pictures with fans. If you are Mo Willems (Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus) or Eric Litwin (Pete the Cat), then you’ll have massive lines and no time for such frivolity. Of course, if you’re Mo Willems or Eric Litwin, you’re probably not reading my blog.
I originally wrote this article for Writer’s Weekly back in 2003. It can be seen in its original form on their website. I’ve placed it here on my blog because of something that happened last month that got me thinking about it. See that story at the end of the article.
Websites for writers and publications like WritersWeekly.com are filled with information about scams perpetuated upon writers. We see everything from “contests” that bilk money from aspiring writers to markets that never pay the promised compensation. One subject that’s rarely discussed is scams perpetuated by writers.
Often, a new writer will come up with innovative “out-of-the-box” ideas for promoting a book without realizing that (a) they may actually hurt sales and (b) it’s been done many times before. “Scam” is probably too harsh a word for many of these ideas, but some of them are downright unethical and illegal. That’s what we’ll focus on in this article.
The book buyers at the big chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders have seen it all. It’s hard to pull anything on them that hasn’t already been tried. You may assume that owners of small, independent bookstores exist in a vacuum, but that isn’t the case, either. Over 1,200 independents are members of the American Booksellers Association, and members communicate through newsletters and online members-only message boards.
Do we really do this? Yep. There are regional book shows around the country, and owners of bookstores do sit around and share tales of scam artists and unethical book signing conduct. If you own or manage a bookstore, I’d recommend joining your regional association. My home state of Montana is claimed by two regional associations: Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association (MPIBA) and Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association (PNBA).
Some authors have placed false orders for their own books through bookstores, hoping to pump up sales. Since most POD (Print On Demand) books are non-returnable, they figure the store will be stuck holding the bag and that they can pocket the royalties on the “sales.” This is actually inaccurate. Bookstores that are the victims of this scam WILL return the books and they WILL receive credit from the distributor or publisher. If they don’t, the bookstore will alert their fellow bookstore owners and everyone else in the industry to not do business with that distributor, publisher, and author. If your book is involved in this type of scam, you can kiss your future as an author goodbye, because nobody will do business with you. There are blacklists of authors in the industry and they are shared.
Authors may also face legal consequences for scams like this, and it isn’t difficult to prove who perpetuated a scam. Despite the huge number of books published every year, the publishing industry is a small world. Bookstore owners, book buyers, and librarians communicate with each other, and are eager to press charges if it will drive unscrupulous people from the business.
I spoke to one POD publisher who found out that one of their authors had tried this stunt. They instantly canceled the author’s contract and alerted the distributor and the bookstores of the attempted fraud. Rather than building up thousands of dollars in royalties, the author ended up with nothing; no contract, no book and, of course, no royalties. Not only that, but there are now hundreds of bookstores that will never order one of that author’s books, even if they do get it republished (which they probably will not).
I don’t want to imply here that all, most, or even many POD authors behave unethically. The overwhelming majority are honest people trying to sell their books the right way. It’s a shame that scam artists make so many bookstore owners and managers nervous about POD.
Needless to say, this scam can’t be pulled off at all with returnable books. Even if the author’s timing is perfect, and a royalty check is issued before the books are returned, the returns will show up on the next royalty statement, and the author will have a serious problem and some explaining to do to the publisher and bookstores.
There are plenty of variants on this scheme, like the “I’ve been getting lots of people from your town looking for a place to buy this book” lie and the ever-common yet never-believed “I used to live near your store and I have a ton of friends and family that want to buy copies from you.” The common factor in all of them is trying to trick a bookstore into ordering a stack of non-returnable books that they may not be able to sell. And, like I said, they’ve heard it all. I got one such call and told the author if he’d send me the list of people who called him, I’d be happy to get them the books right away. As it turned out, he didn’t even know where my store was located.
One author contacted a bunch of small bookstores and organized book signing events. The stores ordered stacks of books, and the author canceled the events. Now, many stores tell authors to bring along their own books, and they don’t order anything up-front unless it’s arranged through a publishing house they know. The author who pulled of this scheme will never have another book signing.
Another trick is misrepresenting the content of a book. A store thinks they’re ordering a big fat book of local bicycle trails, and they get a 60-page book of trails (and only one of which is within 100 miles of that town). A scam like this might work once, but if it does, your name is mud.
Another dishonest “program” that’s making the rounds is authors trying to get everyone to buy their book from Amazon.com within a 24-hour period in an attempt to get on the Amazon.com best seller list. Trying to twist the outcome of the Amazon best seller list in this way is unethical and does not represent a fair and legitimate tally of daily sales for your book (meaning calling your book an Amazon.com best seller when you tricked the system is being dishonest to your future readers and to the press when using this statement on your press releases). Booklocker.com is one publisher that won’t allow its authors to scam the Amazon.com system in this manner, and other reputable publishers are following suit. The scam is now so well-known in the industry that an author that claims to have an Amazon.com Best Seller is now considered by many to be dishonest unless it can be backed up by data spread over a period of weeks or months.
It’s unfortunate that some authors feel the need to lie to and steal from others in this way. It hurts all of us, and makes bookstores much more wary about stocking POD books at all. When marketing your book, remember that the tried and true methods are the most successful ways to market your books and achieve an excellent reputation: pound the pavement, pay your dues, send out press releases, arrange book signings, take out ads, and arrange radio interviews. I have sold thousands of copies of my self-published books by attending trade shows, putting on seminars, and marketing through my website.
Treat others the way you want to be treated, and market your book to others as you would want other books marketed to you.
So what happened last month that got me thinking about this article? A small publishing house that my bookstore buys directly from gave me a call to tell me about a new book they had out. It’s not the kind of book I normally sell, but it is local-oriented, so I had them throw a single copy in with my next order. When the book arrived, I took a look and decided not to carry it in the store.
A few days later, someone called and asked if we carried the book. I said I had one, and the caller asked me to set it aside to pick up later that day. I set the book on the desk, and nobody showed up to get it. The following week, another call asking if we had it, and another “customer” who never showed up to get the book. This happened four times in three weeks — always people I didn’t know who never came in.
Was it the author (plus friends and family) calling me, hoping to get me to place a larger order? I’ll probably never know. But I most certainly won’t be ordering books for inventory based on phone inquiries like that, and I view that publisher with a bit of suspicion now.