Sunday, October 18, 2009

A book ordering dilemma

On October 16, I had the pleasure of being the luncheon speaker for 200 media specialists and reading teachers at a conference in Topeka triple-sponsored by the Kansas Association of School Librarians, the Kansas State Department of Education, and the Kansas Reading Association.

But they called it the Kansas Reading Conference rather than the KASLKSDOEKRA.


Duration of my presentation, in minutes: 60
Number of normally separate presentations it consolidated: 4
Number of slides in my PowerPoint: 70
Number of slides featuring me in a Superman costume: 2
Number of book suggestions I got from the audience: 1
Number of good book suggestions I got from the audience: 1
Number of copies of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman I sold afterward: 24 (one carton)
Number of people who wanted a signed book but didn’t get one: well…

Writers asked to speak at events are in a tricky spot. Do we ask our host organization to order books generously or do we let them decide the quantity without our input?

If we ask them to order generously, it may require a greater up-front expense than they are prepared for (even assuming they can return unsold books). Further, unless we’re a big name, it may imply that we have an inflated sense of our appeal. And if the host does place a bigger order but doesn’t sell many, our embarrassment may be compounded.

However, if we keep mum, we run a greater risk—missing sales, as happened here. As the number of books dwindled, a few attendees gestured for me to stand up and peer around the wall behind where I sat, as if I needed to see the (humbling) line to motivate me to bring in more copies, stat. I didn’t want to be inconsiderate to the people waiting so I didn’t do that, but vendors (past whose display tables that line stretched) later told me there were as many as 75 more people who wanted a signed copy. Some of those people even stayed in line to personally (and politely) tell me that they were bummed the book sold out as quickly as it did.

By the time this photo was taken, the Barnes & Noble staff member was still there, but most of the books weren't:

To emphasize the point, one vendor stood at the spot where the line (at its longest) ended. She’s holding out her arms—click to enlarge. The signing table in the foreground sets the perspective.

In this case, I did not know in advance how many copies of Boys of Steel would be on hand. And if I had, I would not necessarily have thought it was too few.

But, as with many other authors, I do tend to sell more copies at events where I speak rather than at festivals or even bookstores where I simply sit at a table. A presentation may make a person realize he is more interested in a subject than he thought.

So going forward, when asked to speak, I will be a bit bolder. I will request that the host estimate how many books we could sell on a good day—and order more. This event reminded me that I might not be the only disappointed one if we don’t.

Anecdote, part 1 of 2:

In my presentation, I mentioned that my first job out of college was at a publisher known for its high-end coffee table books. I joked that coffee table books are more often displayed than read. After, one of the vendors who’d heard my talk told me the book on her coffee table is Boys of Steel. (I didn’t ask if she’d read it.)

Anecdote, part 2 of 2:

That same woman told me that, months ago, her 24-year-old son, a Barnes & Noble employee, had brought the book home and raved about it. (Thank you, son.) She had to bring so much to set up at the conference that she forgot to bring the book to get it signed for her son. So, like I did for the others short-changed, I signed a makeshift bookplate.

Then she asked if I’d be willing to leave a voice mail for her son, saying he’d love that. I said, “Will he love that or is this a mom thing, like what my mom would do—well-intentioned but not necessarily appreciated?” She laughed and assured me that he would indeed love it, so I somehow found the words to leave a message.

End of anecdote

Never to Kansas before 2009, then twice in ten months—with, it looks like, return trips likely. The “Superman’s First Home on Earth” author visit tour may get a second life.

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