Fresh and Hot

Fresh stories.  Freshly written.  Come get them while they’re fresh…

When I was a kid you’d literally wake up in the more urban areas (not thank heavens, the village) to the yells of various food vendors.  The sun would barely be looking out of a still-darkish sky, when bread vendors, pastry vendors, vegetable vendors and everyone else would be roaming around screaming their heads off.  It was all “fresh and hot this” “cold and tasty that.”

The screaming in the village started at around noon.  We were small enough that everyone knew who had what kind of vegetables just maturing that time, and so there was no point hawking.  People would go – quietly – to their neighbor who had a bumper crop of carrots and enter upon a mutually agreeable arrangement, sometimes in exchange for a few eggs “because I hear those hens of yours are laying like crazy.”  (I did mention at some point that until I went to middle school, in the next village over, I thought money was a wholly superfluous affectation and couldn’t understand why some people were so attached to it, right?  Of course most of the stuff bought and sold in the village WAS for money– the big stuff: rents paid, an account run on the general store for food, clothes – but all I ever saw as I followed my grandmother around – she was the most entertaining person of my acquaintance – was this sort of “accommodation dealing”  that involved a chicken for an arrangement to provide milk for a month, or a bag of onions for a basket of pears.)  The stores provided what little the village didn’t grow or make for itself, and everyone knew where those were too.  Bread was a gentlemanly thing, quietly arranged, paid a week in advance and delivered before people woke up.

I still miss that and more than once have wondered if there would be a market for that sort of service.  (There probably would be in NYC or somewhere similar, and probably not in this type of economy.)  People made their… bread subscription, then hung a bag at their back door (I imagine here there would need to be locking delivery boxes, particularly in the big cities.)  These bags, needless to say immediately became a matter of competition among village matrons, so they were fantastically embroidered, adorned with lace, spotless and starched.  Into that bag went whatever your daily order was: six rolls, two pastries and four sweet rolls, say.  (Ours was usually only ten plain rolls.  Mom didn’t believe in fancy, though she might buy me a sweet roll when she went grocery shopping on Saturday.)  So when you woke and groped your way downstairs, you would collect the bread from the door while coffee was brewing.  It was usually still warm and crusty-crackling.  Yes, I missed it when I moved here.  (Though it’s no longer done that way in Portugal, because they too would need lock boxes and even so, trust me, someone would steal the box.)

Anyway, so the only people who yelled like banshees were the fishwives, who usually got to the village around noon, having stopped at the other villages on the way from the seaside (by bus.  Picture that.)  Oh, there was also the oil and olive seller, but he came only once a week.  Also prone to shrieking their (irregular) visits down main street were: the pot and pan mender, the rag dealer (mostly buyer) and the elastics and lace woman (for some reason, and proving I had to be a writer, or they’d lock me up in the madhouse, because the poor lady had one leg shorter than the other and walked funny, at age three or so, I decided her legs were made of elastic and she ate children.  I was utterly convinced she used her elastic legs to reach upward into second floor windows and steal sleeping children from their beds for a snack.  I still can’t think of that poor creature without shuddering.  Of course, my loving family catching on to my fear, used the poor elastic seller as a boogey man to keep me under control.)

Anyway, the point of this – if you’re not quite catching on – is that in commerce reduced to its elementary form, people had to hawk their own wares – UNLESS they did something established, in an established place, in which case people knew where to find them.  You wouldn’t catch the pharmacist roaming the streets screaming.  You wouldn’t catch even the local dairy farmer going around yelling “Exceptionally fine cheeses.”

Now, if these people – not the apothecary – had booths in one of the local fairs around the village – and many of them had – there they would yell.  The way the fairs are, many of them have permanent infrastructure, anything ranging from stalls to tiny buildings, usually made of stone, and with iron gates (the buildings.)  This infrastructure belongs to the fair, and the vendors lease a spot.  Buildings are more expensive than a stone table, and a stone table covered with a awning of course more expensive than a mere stone table.

The fair takes place once a week, and usually is arranged in “sections.”  If you’re a clothes seller you’re put with the clothes sellers, not the fish mongers.  If you’re a meat seller, you’re also in a section.  (BTW and because I’m long-winded, some of the infrastructure was built by Roman Emperors.  Some by medieval kings, and the more modern dates from the nineteenth century.)

Anyway, the sedate village sellers who wouldn’t dream of screaming their wares, do scream like nobody’s business when they’re in the fair.  “Juicy Oranges, the sweetest” might get someone to come to you instead of the guy next door who waxes his oranges so they shine.

I hear there was a time that writers were more like the staid sellers and farmers in the village.  They wrote their books; they handed them in.  It was the job of the publisher to tell people how great your books were and to put them in the place where people expected to find books.  I also hear – and this is probably rumor – that at one time all publishers were more like Baen: they had a slant into the market, a view they pushed, something that made them unique.  The reader related to the publisher and appreciated the publisher’s seal of approval which, in turn, made it possible to buy anything from the publisher, sight unseen.  After you read a few by an author you might look for an author, TOO but up till then it was “I trust this publisher, so I’ll buy this month’s books.”

I say I hear these things, because I’ve never experienced them, and what is reported of the field is often unreliable self-mythologizing.

But I do know that it wasn’t normal, until at least the nineties for writers to have to sell themselves to the extent they do now.  I think part of what ate the individuality of the publishers was the fact that the people they hired all went to the same schools and all lived within ten square miles of each other.  A “collective point of view” was established that it wasn’t considered decent to buck, and all of them agreed on what was “good” – which left only Baen out of the circle j– of love, and only because Jim Baen was a stubborn cuss… er, had a very strong personality.  Otherwise, it would have gone the way of the others.

Then next hit the small number of distributors, the concentrating of the bookstores into chains, and next thing you know, every author was those vendors in the stalls at the local fair.

Even if you’re a Baen author and what you’re selling is, in point of fact, Japanese pears, how are you going to even be seen, in the middle of all the orange vendors.  And for that matter, how are people going to know they might like Japanese pears if no one else sells them and they’ve never tried them.  (And to an extent, this explains – but doesn’t justify – big publishers’ obsession with books just like the last book.  You might be producing twilight clones, but at least people know what that is, how to ask for it, and might decide they want one.  If what you’re selling is unique, you first have to convince people to take a bite.)

So, if you’re a writer, say, like me, who could be called unique (mostly because the other things you COULD call me are probably obscene and not safe for a family blog) what in heck can you do but cross the metaphorical streets of the literary village yelling “Fresh hot fiction, come and get it while it’s fresh.”

That is actually possibly worse (though better too – more on that later) in the global market place indie publishing has opened for us.  So many offerings.  And why would people buy it, if they don’t know it exists?

Trust me, if people don’t know your books are there, they won’t buy them, no matter how good they are.  For the years I worked for traditional publishing, grinding out sometimes six books a year which – none of them – made it to bookstore shelves, or at least no bookstores near me, and which – OFTEN – got accidentally left out of the publisher’s own catalogue, I learned this dictum well.

So you have to self promote.  And there are ways to do it.  What are those ways?  This is one of the most frequently asked questions by newbies.

First, as with writing, what I’ve found is this: use the medium that works for you.  I am long-winded and odd, so this blog seems to work for me, as do blog tours when a book is ready for release.  Facebook too, to an extent.  I never got Twitter which seems to require your living more online than I’m willing to do.  But this is personality.  If you feel Twitter is your thing do it.  If your easiest publicity is via pintrest, use it.  If you’re personable, have a winning smile and enjoy the company of others and – this is important – if you live in the Eastern part of the country where there’s a con every weekend in driving distance, then the con circuit might be for you.  If your book is about quilting, you might consider getting a booth at craft fairs.

But all of that is to our purposes nothing.  More important is to remember two things: to whom are you selling?  And what are you selling?

In the old days when you had to sell to publishers or never get in at all, it paid to affect the sort of personality they were taught to admire: intellectual with a touch of the bohemian and something mysterious about you.  It also helped to be visually appealing (though you could get around that by being SPECTACULARLY unappealing there triggering the “must prove I’m not prejudiced” reaction) and by blowing your own horn.  I know at least one “major” author who climbed very quickly via telling every publisher at every con how wonderful he was.  He was telling everyone he was the next best thing in writing before he sold a single pro story.  Because publishers were fundamentally insecure and unable to tell what was good (there are reasons for that, but it’s long and not here) they believed him.  Success.

I watched this tactic in a sort of awe, because well…  It worked.  And yet, it was so weird and so against all my early training in behavior, that I would need to not be myself to use it.

But it worked, because what the publishers were buying was not the writing but the writer as a marketable product, which is what they believed in.  Books were, after all, fungible, so they wanted a writer they could trot out and tell people was wonderful.  How much easier to do that when the author himself believes he’s the second coming of Charles Dickens?

Nowadays… well…  It might very well still work.  There are people still getting in the old route.  I suspect though those are mostly you know, old college roommates and second cousins and other people personally KNOWN to the publisher.

For the rest of us they seem to be looking at how you sell indie.  (And if you’re smart, you’re looking at how you sell indie, too, and comparing it to what the traditionals offer.)  Or, if you’ve gotten in at a low or midlist level, the publisher is looking at your numbers.

How do you increase those?  Well… you hawk the book.  The method you use is your own.  It might even be youtubes of your cat dancing with the book, for all I care.

Remember, though, it’s the book you’re selling – not yourself.  Telling the world how wonderful you are seems to provoke in most people a sort of recoil and a doubt.  I know a local writer whom con organizers call ‘the rudest man on Earth” – he’s not.  He’s trying to self promote and is completely clueless.  So instead of telling people about his book, about his subject and how wonderful it is, he behaves as if he were selling to an old style publisher, and acts like he’s an a’tist and tells everyone how wonderful HE is – which when people are looking at micro-press books and pays in copies publications fails to have much impact.  (It also, as he gets desperate, acquires a tinny, off-key tone that makes the whole thing worse.)

The readers don’t think books are fungible, and readers care about THE BOOK, not you.  (Of course, when you have a blog, it’s hard not to talk about yourself, but do try not to make it just a series of boasts, okay?  Write about the interesting stuff around you.  There must be SOMETHING. [ Hey, if I blog long enough I’ll find something interesting about me, too])

This I can do.  As a writer, my life is usually circumscribed to the desk, though I have wildly exciting grocery trips and kid-related stuff.  HOWEVER as a writer, I think up interesting worlds and read interesting stuff to setup those worlds, and spend a lot of time analyzing society and the world.  So, you see, I have stuff to talk about that relates (at least sideways and backwards) to my books.  And I’ve found talking about THOSE with lots of enthusiasm works.  It certainly works far better than walking down the village street shouting “Buy me, I’m hot.”  (Well, we didn’t have THOSE in the village.  Too small for that.  Besides, the two ladies willing to… never mind.)

As for those who are totally indie and in the global market place: if your marketplace is big enough, even hawking won’t do.  You can do a minimal and get people buying one or two books and then word of mouth might take off.  You can even get books to blog reviews, and that sometimes helps.

But ultimately, in a big enough market place, what seems to work is to have the big shop.  People who are strangers are more likely to see the big establishment or the stall with the colorful cover.  How do you do that?  Well… mostly by having a lot of merchandise out.  That way, if someone stumbles on you and buys one, they’ll come back and buy all the others: hundreds of books, perhaps, if you have that many out.  (And keep in mind a short story is a “book” in this market.)

All the ones I know making a living in this manner put out a lot of books on a regular schedule.  I only have a few so far.  But I’m writing more.

And meanwhile, because I’m also on the traditional market place, I’ll continue the yelling, “Good, Fresh Fiction, hot and … er… fresh.  Buy it here.  We don’t wax our characters.”

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