Sunday, 12 June 2011

Hand-selling Phenomenon: Interview with Bobbie Darbyshire Part Two

It's interesting to return to my interview with Bobbie Darbyshire after posting a couple of days ago about the wonderful success Louise Voss and Mark Edwards have had by publishing on Kindle. This is because their experiences prove there are many avenues open for writers to reach their public which weren't available even a few years ago. Bobbie has chosen to work with smaller, independent publishers - and many of us do now, because there is a sense that their doors are still open while larger, conglomerate firms may well be more risk-averse and inaccessible than ever. She has also decided to create a direct bridge between herself and her readership - just as Mark and Louise have by means of publishing on the Amazon Kindle. In both cases, social networking has been incredibly helpful as a means of getting themselves known, making connections, spreading the ripples outwards and outwards. All of this should give us hope! As I've said before, working like this entails huge amounts of energy and commitment, so should not be undertaken lightly - but what appeals so much to struggling writers is the sense that we can have access, connectivity, control, interaction, autonomy - and an overall acceleration of the usual publication process, which is so often a soul-destroying plod into oblivion.

Bobbie's USP has been hand-selling: getting out there to talk to the public, making the sale of each book a personal interaction with an individual. Here's the second part of the interview:

What sort of advice would you give to someone who's thinking of hand-selling?

Two dos and two don'ts. Do work hard on a short, enticing pitch that encapsulates your book. I promise people I won't take a minute, and I don't. If they can't spare a minute, but look as if they would like to, I give them a flyer with the same pithy words on it. My pitch is 47 words for Love, Revenge & Buttered Scones, 33 words for Truth Games [see the end of this post for those pitches!]
Bobbie Darbyshire
Do smile, whatever happens. It's a bit like speed dating: not everyone you meet is going to love you, and some will be abrupt or hostile. Smile, say 'no problem', get out of their way. The next person you approach will be delightful; you'll soon forget the rude one.

Don't sit by your books and expect people to approach you. A lot of them are shy or will make negative assumptions about Ms Never-heard-of-her sitting there looking bored or desperate. Approach them politely, seek leave to tell them briefly about your book, be happy to take no for an answer. When they say yes (most do), deliver your pitch and point to the books. Say you'll be delighted to sign. Then, unless they start chatting, say, 'Thank you for listening,' and leave them alone. Lack of pressure impresses.

Don't expect a queue to form. It is slow, steady work. Sometimes footfall is low, no one browses fiction for half an hour at a stretch, or there's a long succession of people saying, 'I'm sorry, but I only read crime/vampires/biography/history' (delete as applicable). Hang on in there. An hour may go by and you won't get a nibble, but don't despair, soldier on. Three buses will come along at once and you don't want to miss them.

I assume that your publishers are delighted that you've been so proactive? What sort of support have they given you?

They are indeed delighted, which is support in itself. They lack resources to contribute practical help, and I don't expect it. Sandstone Press secured a 3 for 2 deal with Scottish branches of Waterstone's when Love, Revenge & Buttered Scones first came out. That galvanised me to start ringing branches around London, and helped my telephone pitch.

How have bookshops reacted to you? Any horror stories or particularly successful events?

No real Waterstone's horror stories apart from the occasional agonisingly low footfall day, but I do have one from the indie sector. I was booked to talk at a small lit fest last May, and the local independent bookshop volunteered to supply books. The event wasn't well advertised, and oh dear, only three people came and only one bought a book. I felt dreadful as the poor lady lugged the boxes back to the boot of her car. Solution: I offered to spend a Saturday with her. Her lovely shop was tiny, but I managed to sell nearly all the stock for her, hurrah. The moral is, it's often safer to take your own stock to speaking events.

A particularly successful event? Well, I still smile to remember the Saturday before last Christmas in my favourite Waterstone's branch, Windsor. The snow had started to come down thick and fast, and the wonderful manager, Fraser, said, 'I've rung the station. The trains are still running. But I think you should go now, in case they stop.'
I couldn't bear it. The shop was so festive, crowded with happy people with pink faces and snow on their hats, and my books were flying off the table.
'I expect they have hotels in Windsor?' I said.
'Yes,' Fraser laughed.
'And I did bring a spare pair of knickers, in case.'
So I stayed, sold sixty-three copies, Fraser gave me a big hug, and, what do you know, while many lines closed and the south east was in chaos, trains from Windsor to Clapham Junction kept running, and one was waiting to speed me home, no delay, through the stunning winter landscape.

How do you go about approaching bookshops and venues?

With Waterstone's branches, I ring and ask to speak to the events manager if they have one. I have a short upbeat pitch worked out in advance. Most of my signings now are return visits that I can arrange at the previous signing or by email. I got some reading group invitations by doing an email shot to libraries across London. More often now, the invitation comes from a Waterstone's customer. Part of my pitch is, 'And I visit book groups too.' I give away bookmarks with my email address.

One thing leads to another. I was invited to Nottingham University Creative Writing Society after selling my books to the mother of one of the students. And I have just been invited to speak to an audience of a hundred (a pensioners' forum) because one of them met me at a library reading group.
I approach almost all UK literature festivals each year by email. I've had no takers yet beyond small festivals in suburban London, but what's to lose, that may change. If anyone fancies the Oxfringe, I'm in a show 15,16 and 17 June called 'Sex, War and Madness' with two other Cinnamon authors.

What have you found most rewarding about this process?

At risk of being sentimental, I think the best answer is to quote you an exchange I had with the organiser of a writer's group I recently gave a talk to.
She: I'm pleased you sold out of books! The students were really struck by your honesty and the way you approach all aspects of your work, from the discipline of writing every day to 'accosting strangers' in bookshops. In the pub, one of the students said, 'She's not afraid of anything, is she?' Have a productive day!
Me: Wow, thanks! For too much of my life I was self-conscious and shy, and as one of your students said, this new career has trained up a different side of me that I didn't know was there. If only for that reason (though there are countless others) the writer's journey has been the best one I ever set out on.

And what have you found most challenging?

It's been hard to write a new novel with all this going on. For a while, I gave myself time off from it; I had invested so much in Truth Games and Love, Revenge & Buttered Scones, and felt I owed it to myself and those books to put all my energy into marketing them. With more systems in place now for marketing, it takes less time than it did, but some weeks it's still a struggle to find time to write. Also, being a publicity secretary is seductively easier than tackling the next blank page ... I can get sidetracked ...
But I'm nearly there. Four years after starting, I should have a complete draft of the new book by the end of this month, hurrah. It will then need reworking and polishing, but I'm looking forward to that.

Do you see yourself on the hand-selling circuit next time round?

Yes, absolutely. I enjoy it enormously. Sometimes when I pitch to a stranger, they stare with round eyes and say, 'I've never met a real, live author before,' and for a moment I feel like a real, live author!

Thanks so much to Bobbie for these insights - I wish her continued success with her sales tactics and with the new novel! I think we can learn a lot from her experiences. One main lesson is this: the old adage about nothing ventured holds true. Bobbie has had the courage, in spite of shyness, to make her approaches to venue-managers and to customers. The other, perhaps more salutary, lesson is that she finds it hard to balance this outgoing, commercial activity with finding time to write her new work. Bear this in mind if you are considering self-publishing or marketing your own work. In an ideal world, we would turn to publishers to take this load from our shoulders, and certainly there are excellent marketing campaigns run by traditional publishers (though often for writers who are already mega-successful and established in the public eye). Many writers do not feel suited to public speaking or any form of huckstering: they just want to be left alone to write. Think carefully about how keen you are on taking on these challenges. If the very thought of converting your text to Kindle or hand-selling your work to a passing customer in a book-shop fills you with horror, you have a choice: stick to the tried-and-trusted routes to publication and sales, or think of Bobbie, Mark and Louise - they did it for themselves. Maybe you can too.

Bobbie's books are available on Amazon: Truth Games and Love, Revenge & Buttered Scones. And here, as promised, are Bobbie's one-minute pitches for them:
Love, Revenge & Buttered Scones: A comedy of errors. Three troubled people dash off to the Scottish Highlands to find their destinies mysteriously entwined around a reading group in the Inverness public library. Twists and surprises, very funny with also some dark, serious threads, it keeps you guessing all the way through.
Truth Games: We're in 1970s London, the blazing hot summers of '75 and '76, and a group of friends are getting way out of their depth in infidelity. Thought-provoking, amusing and with guaranteed naughty bits.

You can find Bobbie on Facebook and you can follow her on Twitter -  @bobbiedar.

Bobbie will be appearing at the Oxfringe festival in Oxford, with two other Cinnamon Press authors, on 15th, 16th and 17th June - their show is called 'Sex, War and Madness', so promises to be lively!

On Saturday 2nd July she'll be giving a talk at the Writers' Conference at the University of Winchester, called 'The Small Publisher Route to Seeing your Novel in Print'. Oh, and I'll be there too: my mini-course on Character Building is on Friday 1st July and my Saturday talk 'Place is Paramount' is about how crucial setting is to the effect of your story. Visit the Conference website for further details - we hope to see you there!

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