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A few book signing observations from Yellowstone

Last week I made my annual pilgrimage to Yellowstone Park to sign Who Pooped in the Park? books. There are two concessionaires in the Park: Delaware North, which operates the gift shops, and Xanterra, which operates the hotels. Some years I go to the Xanterra sites and some years I go to the Delaware North sites. Some years I hit both. This year, I was invited well in advance by Xanterra and offered one of the choice sites in the Park: the lobby at the Old Faithful Inn. Since it’s a busy time of year, I decided instead of my usual routine (a few hours a day for a week in various locations around Yellowstone), I’d just do two long days in the same place.

Signing at the Old Faithful Inn in 2013

Signings at places like this are very different from bookstore events. For one thing, no bookstore is going to ask you to spend eight hours behind a signing table. For another, the foot traffic is simply amazing. For a second-tier author like me, selling 30 books at a signing is pretty good. I did that in the first hour in the Old Faithful Inn. Also, the questions you answer are quite different (I’ve talked about this here before).

This year’s top questions

  1. When is the next eruption of Old Faithful? See that thing on the wall behind me in the picture above? It’s a clock showing the estimated time of the next eruption of Old Faithful. This question was #2 last year and jumped to the top this year for some reason.
  2. Where’s the bathroom? Usually question #1. Maybe folks weren’t drinking as much water this year.
  3. I took a picture of some scat. Can you identify it? Maybe. Unless it’s a blurry picture with no context and nothing to give it a sense of scale. But what the heck? I’ll give it a try!
  4. Is that POOP? See below.
  5. Where are the animals hanging out? I try to answer this one. Really I do. But Yellowstone is over 2.2 million acres of wilderness and I just got here yesterday. This is what the interpretive staff is for.
  6. Are these free? Really, people? You think I drove down here to give away free copies of my books?

Yep, that’s poop

Props are a highly effective way to start a conversation, and starting conversations sells books. Lest that sound entirely mercenary, I’m a social animal and I do love having conversations. But back to the main point…

Signing at Old Faithful 2013 from above

Having a six-story lobby with balconies all around gives people a unique perspective on book signings.

In this picture, you can see a row of round things on the table in front of me. You can also see rows of books. Sometimes I do rows, sometimes big spiral stacks, sometimes pyramids. The round things on the table are samples of animal scat (a.k.a. “poop”) that I have cast in resin. The big one in the middle is bear scat — always a crowd pleaser. That thing in the lower left is not poop. It’s my lunch.

As a complete non-sequitor, I inscribed books to hundreds of people this week. The vast majority were children. The most common names were Emma and Wyatt. Do what you will with that information.

Something new and different

I have done a lot of book signings in my time, but every year brings something new. This year it was an evacuation.

It was about 6:15 p.m., and I had been sitting at that table since 11:00 (minus a few bathroom breaks). I was chatting with a family when an alarm sounded. I made some quip about someone opening a door they shouldn’t have opened, and then a recorded voice came on asking everyone to evacuate the hotel. The restaurant was full, with a line halfway through the lobby. The bar was full. The gift shop was packed. There were lines at registration. People were unpacking their bags in their rooms. Everyone began streaming out.

I had my handy-dandy leather satchel with me, so I swiftly stuffed my important possessions in it (signing pen, poop samples, phone) and headed outside. The books and the sign were left to fend for themselves.

Cell service at the Old Faithful Inn is spotty. Did I say “spotty”? I really meant “lousy.” In the interests of keeping Yellowstone as pristine as possible, there is one cell tower in the area, and it is utterly incapable of handling the data traffic that people attempt to use it for. When I went outside, I found myself surrounded by hundreds of people all trying — with varying degrees of success — to tweet about the experience. I managed to get a tweet to go through myself, shot a text message to my wife so she could find me, and then settled in to chat with people.

“We had just gotten our dinner,” one woman lamented. “I had only had one bite of my steak!”

“There’s the difference between men and women,” I told her. “I would have brought the steak with me.”

In general, people handled the situation with grace and humor. Someone commented that a vendor with a beer cart would be making a mint. Someone else said if there was a fire in the kitchen, at least the food wouldn’t get cold.

The signing was scheduled to end at 7:00, and that’s about what time we were allowed back in. It wasn’t until the next morning that I found out what had actually happened: low water pressure in the fire sprinkler system had triggered the alarm.

Guerrilla marketing

I believe in using whatever tools lay themselves at my feet when it comes to marketing. When we checked in and went to our room, we found that there was no WiFi available in the hotel except for “Dave’s iPhone.” I don’t know who Dave is, but he had a password on his WiFi, so it didn’t do us any good.

Luckily, however, I have my iPhone set up to become a mobile WiFi hotspot, too. Using it for that does suck the juice out of the battery, so I don’t use it that often, but this situation gave me an idea. There was only one visible WiFi network in the hotel, and it would probably be going away soon. So I changed the name of my iPhone and activated the mobile hotspot app when my signing began the next morning. What did people see when they searched for a WiFi hotspot that day?

Who Pooped WiFi network

That, my dear readers, is called free advertising.

I’m a celebrity, by golly!

Every writer should have the experience of being recognized. It’s an amazing feeling. When I was having breakfast with my wife the following morning, someone came up with a book she’d purchased in the gift shop right before the evacuation and hadn’t gotten signed. She recognized me, of course, by my ruggedly handsome face and thoughtful, intelligent demeanor. It had nothing whatsoever to do with the Who Pooped in the Park t-shirt I was wearing.

Yep, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

A Square credit card update

Last April, I wrote about credit cards from an author/bookseller perspective. Since then, we’ve switched our credit card processing from a major bank to Square running on iPads, and invalidated much of what I said.

To provide a bit of background, my bookstore and tea bar have been doing credit card processing through a special deal negotiated with Bank of America through the American Booksellers Association. Over time, we’ve seen that the actual amount we pay is significantly higher than the quoted rate because of extra fees. The customer uses a reward card? We pay more. The mag stripe is worn so the scan isn’t clean? We pay more. Need to enter the card number manually? We pay more. The ZIP code doesn’t match? We pay more. Add in the monthly fees and it’s a big difference.

After my wife, Kathy, attended a seminar on credit card processing at the World Tea Expo this year, we decided to give Square a try. It’s a flat fee of 2.75% of each transaction. No per-transaction fees. No extra “gotcha” fees. No sign-up fee. No charge for the scanner. No charge for the software. Visa, Mastercard, Discover, and American Express are all the same rate. We decided to give it a shot. It was a perfect opportunity to get myself a new iPad for home and take my old first generation iPad to the store as our new credit card processing system.

Square Register

The Square Register running on an iPad, showing sales of Who Pooped in the Park? books.

Since we set up Square, they’ve completely changed the user interface on the register, which threw us off a bit. The system is designed to operate as a full-blown POS (point of sale) system now, which we don’t need. With the bookstore having thousands of inventory items and direct links to distributor databases, we’re better off with the dedicated Booklog software we use.

For shows, fairs, and other events where we are selling books (like my Who Pooped? series shown in the picture), we tap on the items they want to buy and swipe their card. Processing is generally fast, although it’s sometimes a bit slow and glitchy on the old first-generation iPads we use. When we want to use it offsite, we have to either use it on a phone or arrange for a mobile WiFi hotspot.

As a straight credit card processor in the bookstore, we do the transaction as if we were using one of the old standalone terminals. We scan everything using the POS system, enter the total on the iPad, and swipe the card. If the total is over $25.00, the customer signs on the iPad, and we’re done.

On the plus side, payment is fast, there are no extra fees, it’s easy to use, and we have new capabilities like emailing or texting receipts. We don’t have to pay for extra software (and maintenance contracts) to add another register at the store. Also, the smartphone app that allows customers to open a tab and charge without having the card is convenient for us and the customer.

On the down side, our old receipt printer doesn’t have WiFi, so we can’t print receipts from the iPad. Having to enter the total by hand leaves room for error. When we use Square on an iPhone at an event, the box is too small for many customers to sign in using their finger, so we have to carry a stylus.

Overall, though, it’s a good system, and it has saved us a substantial amount of money since we switched this summer. If you do a lot of credit card transactions, you should look into Square.

A few misconceptions about credit cards

“All generalizations are false, including this one.”
— Mark Twain

Credit CardsWhen I discuss credit cards at bookselling conventions, or with customers in the bookstore, I hear a lot of absolutes. “We don’t take American Express because it costs so much more” is a common one. Some are rooted in truth. Some are generalizations that just don’t apply any more. I’d like to address a few of them that drive me crazy.

Myth 1: American Express

Let’s start with the example I quoted above. That used to be true. But today, you have to understand how the credit card business works. Credit card companies exist for the same reason as any other company: to make money. They make it from every side. Customers pay interest and a wide variety of fees. Merchants pay monthly fees, a percentage of each transaction, a flat fee per transaction, and a wide variety of fees.

Customers have a choice about which card to carry. Merchants have very little choice about what card to accept: if you take one Mastercard, you take ’em all. So the credit card companies offer special deals to customers and pass the cost on to merchants. Does your VISA card pay you back a 1% bonus? It’s the merchant who accepts your card that’s paying the 1%. With all of the reward cards available today, stores pay pretty much the same to accept VISA as they do to accept American Express.

Myth 2: You need a store to accept cards

When I’m doing book signings, the store typically handles the money. But there are times (especially with my Who Pooped in the Park? books) when I’ll want to set up a table somewhere and peddle books. The system we use at the bookstore was pricey to set up, and requires a computer, Internet connection, receipt printer, and mag card scanner (or we can use the old “knuckle-buster” with carbon-paper forms, but that costs us extra: see below).

GoPayment Scanner

We looked around a bit for options for book sales, and settled on GoPayment. We already use QuickBooks (which comes from the same company), so it was quick and easy. We filled out the forms and they sent us a scanner that plugs into the top of my iPhone. It doesn’t use the bookstore’s merchant card account, and if you spend a few minutes entering each of your books (or candles, or whatever you sell), you just have one button per product.

Myth 3: They can’t DO that!

When we bought our store in 2001, the merchant card agreement was pretty clear: we must check signatures on every card, we can’t charge extra for credit card transactions, we can’t set minimum transactions for credit cards… The list goes on. We assumed these were hard, fast rules. In reality, the bigger companies negotiate their own deals.

We aren’t allowed to charge extra for credit card transactions, but there’s a sign down at the County Assessor’s office that says they do. We have to check signatures, but the grocery store clerks don’t look at the card at all. We don’t set minimums, but the convenience store I stopped in last week had a big sign declaring no credit cards on transactions under $5.00.

Consumers: If you don’t like the rules a store sets for your cards, pick a different store.

Merchants: If you don’t like the rules your credit card merchant account comes with, shop around for a new one.

Myth 4: The costs are a simple formula

We were trying to figure out all of the fees on our statement, and learned quite a bit about how cards work. Credit card companies would like you to believe that it’s very straightforward: on each transaction, the merchant will pay 20 cents plus 2.7% (for example). Perhaps there’s a monthly fee on top of that, but that’s it, right? Nope. That barely gets it started.

  • If it’s a premium card (e.g., a Rewards VISA), the merchant pays extra.
  • If the mag stripe doesn’t read and they have to manually enter the number, the merchant pays extra.
  • If the total number of transactions in a month falls below a specified minimum, the merchant pays extra.
  • If the merchant enters your ZIP code and it doesn’t match your billing address, the merchant pays extra.
  • If the phone line/Internet connection is down and the card is processed manually, the merchant pays extra.

As a merchant, what can you do about this? Not a whole heck of a lot. Ask lots of questions when you set up the account, and budget an extra percent above what you expected to pay. Be courteous to your customers. If you happily accept their tattered old card for a dollar candy bar, they just may remember that and come back later when they have a hundred bucks to spend.

As a consumer, how can you help out? If your mag strip doesn’t work, get a new card. Try to carry a few bucks so you don’t have to use your card on tiny purchases. If your card isn’t billed to your regular home address, memorize that billing ZIP code.

Update November 2012

I’ve posted an update to this article, as our store has changed to the Square credit card processing system.

Intro to Macintosh Computers Adult Ed Class

iMacI will be teaching an adult education class called Introduction to Macintosh Computers in the Red Lodge High School computer lab starting later this month. It will be on Thursday nights from 7:00 to 9:00, beginning March 8 and running through April 12 — a total of six sessions. This will run concurrently with the Social Networking course I’m teaching there.

Macintosh computers include free software to manage your calendar, music, photos, contact lists, and email; and programs that let you create movies, browse the Web, chat with friends, and even create music. Attendees will learn the basics of these programs and the Mac itself. You don’t need to have a Mac to take the class: we’ll be in the computer lab at the high school, where there are enough computers for everybody.

WEEK 1: Toto, we’re not in Redmond anymore!

Macintosh computers don’t work like Windows machines (thank goodness!), but all computers fundamentally do the same things. In this first session, you’ll learn how to start up and shut down a Mac, where all of the files are, how to adjust basic settings, and how the Mac OS differs from Windows. We’ll take a look at some of the programs that are included with the computer and what they do, and then pop online and browse the Web from our Macs.

WEEK 2: Managing your life – setting up calendars, contacts, and email

These days, we don’t just use computers to … well … compute. We keep our lives on the computer. This class session will cover creating calendars and contact lists, and then using them for scheduling events, sending emails, and synchronizing to your phone. We’ll look at some of the differences between Apple’s philosophy and Google’s philosophy and how to work with both.

WEEK 3: Pictures! Loading pictures and using iPhoto

It’s hard to find a camera that uses film these days. Everything’s gone electronic. Luckily for us, Apple provides absolutely amazing photo management software for free with every Mac. In this class, you’ll learn how to load all of your pictures into iPhoto and how to work with them once they’re there, including organization, basic editing, printing, emailing, and uploading.

WEEK 4: Cue the music! How to load, manage, and even create music on a Mac

Apple revolutionized the music industry with iPods and the iTunes store. A lot of people, unfortunately, think that if you use iTunes, you have to buy all of your music from Apple. Not true! In this class, we’ll load and share music (legally) from a variety of sources, create playlists, create ringtones, and learn the tricks of synchronizing your music with iPods, phones, and other computers using the iCloud.

WEEK 5: Entertain me! Videos, podcasts, ebooks, audio books, movies, TV shows, and more

For more and more people, their computer is becoming their TV, and vice-versa. This week, we’ll take a look at how to connect your computer to a big-screen TV and use it for movies and TV shows, using both Netflix and Apple’s own store. We’ll take a short video in class, transfer it to the computer, do some simple editing, and play it on a TV. Finally, you’ll see where to get an amazing amount of free entertainment, including podcasts, ebooks, and audio books, and then see how to buy even more online.

WEEK 6: Using your Mac with other devices

Few of us carry our computers everywhere we go. Most of us, in fact, end up using more than one computer, along with a smart phone and a plethora of other electronic devices. We’ll spend week six learning how to share your files and pictures among your devices – even if some of those devices aren’t from Apple! We’ll share files with Windows computers, set up portable storage devices, and – here’s the most important part of the class – set up Time Machine, Apple’s backup system that keeps your important files safe.

I like to keep my classes very informal, very hands-on, and highly customized. Feel free to ask questions about your own Mac. To sign up for classes, contact Red Lodge High School at 406/446-1903. The cost is a paltry $15.00 for the entire six-week program. Deadline to sign up is February 17. See you there!

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