Friday, September 30, 2011

A Chat with Jenny Milchman

I met Jenny a few months ago while trying to figure out how to maneuver my way around the minefields disguised as Amazon Author's Forums. She gave a rookie some good advice, serious heads up on what I could expect on the rocky road of Indie publishing, and made me feel welcome in the process.
A few weeks later, I downloaded her short story, THE VERY OLD MAN, and loved it.
Since then, I've been able to share our path with her, and get to see her goal of being published come to fruition. Her book, COVER OF SNOW, a literary thriller, is forthcoming from Ballantine.

It couldn't have happened to a more deserving woman.

Jenny recently completed a cross-country tour of some 60 bookstores. See what she had to say about it!

1)      What made you decide to undertake such a pre-book tour?   

We actually call it a pre-pre-book tour, since we’ll be doing another one next summer, which will be six months before my book is out!
Anyway…how it came to be is a bit of a story.
Last year, I got the idea for a holiday called Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day. I’d been taking my own children to bookstores since before they could walk, let alone read—actually, the first thing I did after learning I was expecting was visit Borders for a gift to give to my parents to announce the news, so you could say my kids have been going to bookstores since they were embryonic. And I’d been reading a lot about the demise of this bookstore or that, and for me each one was like a little death. Take Your Child Day grew out of that.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the response people would have. Bloggers took it viral. The national e newsletter for people in the book industry, Shelf Awareness, covered the Day. Then the ABA (American Booksellers Association) wrote me. Before you knew it, book lovers everywhere had brought Take Your Child Day to over eighty bookstores in thirty states and two foreign countries.

So our first tour of bookstores happened before I even knew a book of my own would ever be coming out. We visited bookstores in New York, and up through Massachusetts, spreading the word about Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day. By the time news of my contract—which was a long time in coming, over 11 years—arrived in May, it just made sense to expand it to a cross-country tour of bookstores. We could see for ourselves the state of bookselling in America. Were the dire reports really accurate?

In the midst of our trip, of course, Borders went bankrupt. But I am happy to report that that loss notwithstanding, not only did things not seem to be dire, they were thriving. We saw brand new bookstores opening, flagship stores hailing second branches, and others expanding into new spaces above and below and to the sides of their original stores.

2)      How did you decide which stores to visit?

Every morning my husband, who is a hack smartphone user, would figure out which bookstores were closest to where we needed to be going, and plan our route accordingly. We drove out of the way sometimes to reach a particularly tempting one, but with only a few exceptions—say, some places in North Dakota—you can’t throw a stone, or drive a car at any rate, through this country without hitting a bookstore. Most days four or five.

3)      How did you approach the staff at each visit? 

This was harder than I thought it would be. I learned that I really am not comfortable—suffer a lot of anxiety—going into places where I’m not positive of my welcome. And trying to sell anything of mine just puts me over the edge. I feel like the guest who knocked over her wine glass at a dinner party. But having Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day to talk about helped. I really believe that what we are doing with this Day will help the industry—show the next generation how unique are the pleasures of spending time in a store, surrounded by books and people, instead of online. We’re fostering readers—we may even be creating tomorrow’s bookstore owner. So I enjoyed talking to the booksellers about that.

Some of them just naturally asked how I came to be doing this, did I own a bookstore or work in one? And then I found it possible to say, “Actually I’m an author,” and even offer them one of the bookmarks we’d made up with advance blurbs for my book.

We also bought books at every single store. My clothing allowance—possibly our kids’ college funds—went to funding this trip. But I really believe that if I want a store like Night Heron Books & Coffehouse in Laramie, WY to exist, for it to be there with a welcoming soul, and a piece of pie, and volumes to pore over, then I have to support it with everything I have.

4)      Since your book isn't coming out until 2013, how did the bookstore staff respond to your visit?  Will you keep in touch with the bookstores?

Most of them seemed to feel that wasn’t long at all! They’re booksellers, they know all about sales forces coming in with catalogs six months out. But you’re right, it does seem like a long time, and I am making an effort to keep in touch. Some of the bookstore owners—such as Becky Chapin of Calico Books in CO, who is the second generation of booksellers in her family—have become Facebook friends, or even people I’ll call.

At a pure gem of a bookstore in Salt Lake City called The King's English Bookshop we met a bookseller named Rachel who was the most enthusiastic person-under-twenty-five I've ever chanced to meet. Her love of books was positively radiant. She walked around the store, pulling volume after volume down, each one a better choice than the last, and described them in such detail you could tell she read as voraciously as her lucky customers.  

The owner of OldFirehouse Books in Fort Collins, CO, Susan Wilmer, not only dug up treasures for my eight year old that made her beam, she invited me to return for Mountains & Plains, the trade show where booksellers come together to talk about what’s new and exciting. Others imagined events we could do when my book comes out—a bookseller named Judith who owns Judith's ReBook in Midway, UT talked about getting her church group in. I felt as if I didn’t just meet bookstore owners, I made friends.

5)      Did your publisher (Ballantine) know about this tour? 

My editor definitely knew—she asked me to send photos of the stores! Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day was actually one of the first things she asked me about when she took me and my agent to lunch after the deal was made. I think publishing and bookstores are close bedmates and anything that’s good for one is good for the other. I also think some of it is pure altruism: my editor, like the best of editors everywhere, adores books and was happy I’d get to be amongst so many of them.

6)      Did they encourage this tour?

My agent and I have spoken a little about Random House’s role in my marketing efforts, and though I can’t say much now (and actually don’t know all that much for certain at this point) it does seem as if they are very enthusiastic and supportive of the kinds of things I want to do. Which is to say, very little “marketing” at all, and more building the kinds of relationships that come together over a mutual interest and passion: books.

7)      Since a lot of our readers are Indie writers (and we're always looking for new ways to promote), do you think you'd recommend such an experience for Indies?

That’s a very complicated question. It gets right to the heart of the difference between the two publishing paths. There’s the traditional path, where even if you never visit a bookstore yourself, the major house is going to get your book into most or many of them—for a time. (About two months if you’re lucky). And there’s independent or small press publishing, whereby getting into bookstores…will take work. (I was going to say, is a fight. Both can be true).

At the same time, I think that being in bookstores is crucial for many reasons. First, it’s hard for a book to really break out, sell in enormous numbers, without the help of bookstore sales. Some do—but most of the successful ones do all right, maybe even do well, but never reach the numbers that a book that covers all the bases does. Amanda Hocking sold millions of copies, but still felt that a traditional house would give something to her, and one of those things is likely a bookstore presence.

Second, the number one way to sell books is word of mouth, and booksellers—to paraphrase Harrison Ford in the film Witness—are heck at word of mouth. These are the folks who will hand sell your book, not just to every customer who comes into the store, but to other booksellers—the people responsible for Indie Next Picks and Indiebound bestsellers. Bloggers are great at WOM, too, and I definitely feel that a balance between face to face kinds of promotion and virtual ones is key. But ignoring the good, old-fashioned, real time, live interaction element is a mistake, I believe. In fact, I believe that as our world goes increasingly virtual, F2F will become new-fashioned—enjoying a resurgence as its import is felt more and more.

There’s also a final reason, a touchy-feely one, which has to do with a dream most writers have. To riffle through the pages of your book between covers. To catch someone in the act of reading it and say, “That’s mine. I wrote that.” To walk into a bookstore and see it on the shelf.

What I would recommend for the indie author is a modified version of what I did. You don’t want to be met with a lot of no’s or blank stares—these caused me discomfort when I experienced them simply because I was doing this in an unusual way, in advance of the sales force the publisher sends. And you don’t want to spend an indie author’s hard won budget fruitlessly.

What I would do as an indie author is first begin frequenting the bookstore or stores nearest you. A lot. Attend events, author signings or, hey, story time with your kids. Buy books if you can. Make friends of the booksellers. Chances are they will at least let you leave a few copies of your book on consignment, but I would try and stack the deck a bit better than that.

Find out which bookseller is responsible for staff picks, and/or who reads in your genre. Ask them if they’d be willing to read your book. Bring a plate of cookies—offer to shelve some books so they can get a little extra time—anything it takes to drum up a willingness to flip through yet another volume, one they don’t have advance reviews telling them is good. If your book delivers—if it’s as good or better than the one that got that starred review—this will take you places you might not have imagined you could go.

Susan Novotny owns The Book House in Albany, NY, and she printed up copies of one of her customer’s books, using it to launch her own Staff Picks Press. A sales rep from Simon & Schuster spotted this book, read it—and went on to make an offer. The book sold at auction a few months after that.

"Many booksellers go out of their way to support local, independent, and small press authors already, so it's always a good idea to seek them out. Greg and Mary Bruss of Mysteries & More in Nashville, Tennesse had no fewer than four author events scheduled the month we visited. At least half of those were with local, small press authors."

If you’re now convinced about how important bookstores are, draw a radius around your home—as far as you can afford to drive in a day or a weekend—and identify the bookstores within it. Then do the same thing. Visit, say hi, buy a book or two. Go there more than once. Perhaps your local bookseller read (and loved) your book and will put in a call about you, say, “So and So is coming up.”

The bookselling community—like all worlds built around a mutual passion—is ultimately a small one. One or two contacts can spiral exponentially. 

8)      Did you talk about your Amazon anthologies with the bookstores at all? 

A new e press published one of my short stories “The Very Old Man” in a collection called Lunch Reads 1 last year. That’s my only publication to date, and I didn’t mention it to booksellers. They can’t sell an e volume—not yet anyway—and it’s only a short story. I have another story coming out in a print anthology called ADIRONDACK MYSTERIES II to be published next fall, and I hope to have ARCs to bring around on our next bookstore trip. The other authors and I featured in the anthology will actually be doing some touring for that, so I’d love to set up events in the nearer places.

9)       I guess, mostly, I'd like to know if you think it was worth it?  I know it's impossible to tally at this point, but do you think it was a good experience?

It was a wonderful, joyous, soul-changing experience, for me and my family.  
Every day was a new adventure, and only partially because we saw the Rockies melting into the Badlands to salt flats and volcano ruins then the Sawtooths all around us. The bookstores were the real adventurous part. How different every single one is from the other, the singular nature of each store. The conversations we had with new people shopping, browsing, and working there. The cozy place to sit in one, the smell of burnt sugar in another. The sight of the books, a volume in Montana that would never be stocked in Illinois. The bravery of every single man or woman selling books today—how they are giving their all to the thing they love best.

We brought presents for the booksellers—candy tins that we filled and decorated with a photo and the name of my book. My husband called this swag. And to this day as we’re leaving the house, calmly and a tad boringly by comparison back at home in the suburbs, my five year old will call over his shoulder, “Got the swag bag?”

The trip affected all of our lives, and I can’t wait to do it again.

Enjoy some interesting pictures of Jenny's journey....just click on the links.

Other interesting links:

Shelf Awareness

The ABA:

Jenny's Blog