Voodoo and Fiction Sales

Two questions.  (If you don’t already know the answer.)

1) What kind of books does she (yes, that’s me) most like to read?

2) What kind of books does she write?

Answers:

1) Historical Fiction involving Slavery & Civil Rights.

2) Historical Fiction.

Does that match what you thought?

I’m a thirtysomething, suburban, white, stay at home mom, and I’ve always had a passionate interest in books about slavery and civil rights.

I’m also obsessed with all kinds of historical fiction.  Don’t get me wrong–I’ll read anything–but when you ask what I LOVE, what I’ll always buy, recommend, and write, it’s historical fiction.

Yesterday I had a book signing at Borders in Annapolis.  The Annapolis Borders has a great vibe, so I always enjoy my time there.  I obviously enjoy selling my book, but I also enjoy the hidden perk of bookstore signings: watching people.  When I’m alone in public under any other circumstances I’m either writing, reading, or messing around on my cell phone.  At a signing, I just have to stand and stare.  Well, I try not to stare.  I don’t want to intimidate people or make them uncomfortable, but I find them fascinating.  I also find it fascinating how very wrong I am about a) who’s interested in buying my book, and b) which books will appeal to the different people I see.

I tried (and failed) all day to predict who would buy what.  Here’s some of what I found:

a) A businessman in a starched, collared shirt:  I thought he’d pick up a book on business, politics, or sports.  He picked up Ozzy Ozbourne’s Memoir.

b) Two, teenage boys:  I predicted horror or some kind of graphic novel.  They were at the romance table.

c) Teenage girl:  I thought she’d go straight for the Twilight and adolescent angst section.  She actually wanted a book on Russian phrases.  Why?  Because Caps hockey star Ovechkin is Russian, and well, if they ever meet…

That’s just a small sample of all of the inaccurate judgments I made.  Even my Borders help desk friend said “I didn’t see that coming” after a few of my sales.  Some of the people who bought my book were a teenage girl, a thirtysomething woman who spoke broken English, a sixtysomething male journalist, a twentysomething male art student, a fortysomething woman who loves historical fiction, a sixtysomething woman who generally reads romances, a thirtysomething woman who loves mysteries, and on and on.

Do you detect a trend, here?  I don’t.

All of this is leading to my inevitable conclusion that selling books, particularly fiction, is voodoo. Publishers don’t educate their authors how to market their books because selling fiction is like trying to play pin the tail on the donkey.  There’s no science. There’s no rhyme or reason.  You have a general idea where to aim, but you’ll never get it exactly right.

It all goes back to what M J Rose said in my last post.  You just have to write the best book you know how to write.  If it resounds with readers and if the story is memorable there’s hope it will attract a large audience.  There are, of course, no guarantees, but all we can do is write great books and hope they find their way into the hands of those who will appreciate them.

Do you agree or disagree with my observations?  Writers who’ve done signings, have you had similar experiences?  How about those of you in marketing or publishing?

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7 thoughts on “Voodoo and Fiction Sales

  1. Selling of any kind is a hit and miss / who will buy what type of thing. The point being is you never know who will buy what based on what you think should sell and who would buy it. Yes, there are “serial” buyers who buy almost anything but to meet them face-to-face you’d never know it or have even guessed it.

  2. A. Jarrell Hayes says:

    I have to agree with your observations. Readers know what they like to read more than writers know what potential readers will buy. The saying goes “you can’t judge a book by its cover”; well, you can’t judge a reader by their appearance.

  3. Sara McClung says:

    oooo I love this post! I do the exact same thing at Borders 🙂 (Well, I mean, no book signings yet, but still! The people watching & guessing game!)

  4. A man startled me yesterday with this question: Is your book a guy-book or a women’s-book? Well that simple question flabbergated me (fluster/flabbergast). At first glance, it is a woman’s-book, after all, the title is NOAH’S WIFE and it is not only about her, it is written completely from her perspective. On the other hand, men who have read it have really liked it. Maybe they like the historical aspects or the adventure. Maybe women like the issues and relationships. But I suspect, it is a voodoo mixture and to predict would be like guessing who is going to buy what in the bookstore.

    Postscript: I told him the above and he immediately turned to his wife and referred it to her. 🙂

  5. It has been a delightful and unexpected surprise to find that men enjoy reading my novels. Perhaps they believe in love and “mushy stuff” more than they dare let on to their peers? My internist has read all three of my novels and, in case you think he’s just being polite, his wife has told me he ‘s always impatient for the next one. I have concluded that they enjoy the descriptive prose in regard to sense of place. On the other hand, perhaps they want a different person’s viewpoint in matters of the heart. It could be that they are just pussycats under the macho exterior. Regardless, it’s a thrill to get positive feedback from readers of the opposite sex.
    Have any of you had a similar experience with your writing?

    • erikarobuck says:

      I recently had a male journalist buy my book. He told me he put it aside because he assumed it was a woman’s book. Then he picked it up, read it, and loved it. It’s nice when men not only enjoy books by women, but also give feedback.

      Of the 25 book clubs I’ve visited (about 200 people) only THREE people have been male. It is nice to see so many women coming together to talk books (or drink wine) but I also enjoy the balance in the discussion with the male point of view.

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