Let The Right One In – by Alethea Kontis

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I asked my friend Alethea (Princess Alethea to those  who know her) to be a guest here on MW for us this week. Her name may/should be familiar to some of you; she’s written here before and I hope she’ll be back again in the future.

Her second picture book, H is for Halloween is just out, and she running a fun and funny contest about it. Do check out the link below to see what she’s up to there. So, with no more blathering from me, here’s Princess Alethea.

***

Change is good. Change is constant. Change is inevitable. Change is a pain in my butt.

Inside and out, books have been my whole life. I was one of those kids who could read before she knew how to dress herself. The day I graduated college, I put in an application at a bookstore. From printing to selling, I’ve been involved in just about every single aspect of publishing since then. Based on empirical evidence over the past three decades, I can honestly tell you: things have changed. Drastically. But you knew that.

This much change is a double-edged sword. For the reader: Before, you only had the offerings of your local library or bookstore at your hands (based on your income). Now, you can hold almost more titles than your library can shelve in the palm of your hand and your choices are unlimited–from Shakespeare’s works to the memoir that the lady next door just uploaded to Lulu. But your time is precious and your patience is dwindling. How do you find a decent needle in this haystack?

For the writer: Who needs a traditional publisher anymore? Have a book under your mattress? Publish it tomorrow! Write your own teacher’s guide and post it on your website. Publicize yourself on social networking far and wide. But don’t expect to live the traditional life of those writers you see on the big, or small, screen. Frumpy Joan Wilder crying in her dirty apartment with a cat-sitting editor… Those days are long gone. Or, at least, rare enough that they should also be shelved in Fantasy.

And yet, everyone still believes in it.

I’ll give you an example. I recently went to my local B&N here in Northern Virginia to purchase the latest Robin McKinley book. Turns out I was a few weeks early, but there were some on order for the store, so I put my name in to reserve one. While I had the attention of the lovely employee (for I was a lovely bookstore employee once), I asked after the availability of my own book, AlphaOops: H is for Halloween, as it has been notably absent from every store I’ve visited since its release. (So noticeable that I staged a contest to test a hypothesis–curious folks can click here for details: http://aletheakontis.com/2010/10/my-very-first-contest-ever/)

Since there was no one else waiting, the bookseller cheerfully looked up my title and confirmed that there were both no books in the store and none on order. She complimented the cover and remarked on how cute it looked. She noted the publisher and complimented them as well. When I told her that the book had received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, her eyebrows raised, and she said again that she had no idea why the store wasn’t carrying it. Since I was local, she printed out the book’s information and took my card to give to her manager.

“Because you asked the right way,” she said.

That comment has been bothering me every since.

Let’s forget the original anomaly for a second: that a widely- and well-reviewed book (and its prequel) from a major publisher is somehow missing from bookstores shelves during the very small window of time it has to sell before the end of the holiday season. Maybe the sales rep skipped a page in the catalog, the book missed an ordering window, the computer glitched and the order didn’t get through, a truck got stuck in the mountains of Oregon… whatever. Things happen.

Despite all of that, I’m still human. I still frequent my local bookstore on a semi-weekly basis. One of the first things on my agenda when I moved here was to find the local library. I enjoy both reading and writing at Starbucks. I like browsing magazine racks to find articles written by my father. I’m still an avid reader. I like browsing the bookshelves to see what’s new by my favorite author, what the employees are recommending, or what covers catch my eye. I’m just a girl. How else am I supposed to inquire after my book?

I was not issued a card with my original contract in 2004 that said “This Author Is For Real.” I am not the lady next door with my mother’s memoir in hand adorned by cover art from my six-year-old daughter. But what if I were? Should that lady not also be treated with respect? Do bookstores turn down their noses now at everyone who is not accompanied by a media escort, a publicist, Nathan Fillion, and Emily Deschanel?

I tell my friends and writing students that, unless they’re solving for x, there is no right or wrong. The only bad decision is to not make a decision. In this case, there should be no “right way” to ask a question about my own book. For the only “wrong way” would have been to not ask the question at all. And I won’t tell you how may loops I walked around the store before I got up the nerve to do even that.

Nor can I tell you the “right way” to publicize your own book, because I’ve seen more than one super-spammer win a Stoker Award. These people flood you with annoying Facebook invitations and emails you didn’t ask for… but you know their names, don’t you? They are shameless used-car salesmen when it comes to putting themselves in front of complete strangers, and the publishers LOVE THEM because they have a built-in audience and it’s one less thing they have to spend money on.

Once upon a time, authors wore magical capes and rode flying carpets and made enough money writing books to quit their jobs and buy castles in Ireland. Times have changed. We now all live in a world where a brainless chick from the Jersey Shore got a book deal. And I bet she’d have no problem walking up to the information desk and asking about her title. If she knew what a bookstore looked like. Or knew her title.

I’ve seen the Joan Wilder of the twenty-first century: her name is Sherrilyn Kenyon. She has a cat and sometimes cries when she finishes a book. She also has to divide her time between writing, publisher meetings, conventions, social networking, international signing tours, and–oh, yeah–that pesky, loving family of hers. You know what? She still goes to bookstores. She still likes meeting people. She carries around her own “Autographed by Author” stickers. She drinks Starbucks and has a library card. And I can tell you for a fact that her publisher has not once offered to cat-sit.

So I say to all you authors out there, from those published by Ballantine to those published by their mothers, don’t be afraid to ask about your book. Step right up there and let that bookseller know that you’re local, and you’re for real. The only way the twenty-first century will break away from this Myth of the Famous Author is to ask the questions. All of them. The ones that feel smart, and the ones that feel stupid. Especially the ones that feel stupid.

And if you ever stumble across a “right” one, please let me know.

***

Alethea Kontis is the New York Times bestselling author of the AlphaOops series of picture books and Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark-Hunter Companion. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. She can be found online narrating short fiction for Apex Magazine, reviewing books for Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, or blathering on at her own website: www.aletheakontis.com. Alethea currently lives in Northern Virginia with her Fairy Godfamily and a teddy bear named Charlie. 

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17 comments to Let The Right One In – by Alethea Kontis

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  • This touched a lot of chords in me. I’ve had the exact same experience (starred review in PW, no sign of the book anywhere) and it is just soul destroying. We talk blithely about how word of mouth is better than big marketing but this is generally a lie to make us feel better about our unpublicized books. If the book isn’t where people can see it, they aren’t going to buy it. Simple as that.

    As to asking for the book in stores, getting them to order it and such… Yes, I guess you have to and I do, but it gets very old very fast.

    I admire your spirit, Alathea. And I agree with everything you say here. But, man, is it hard after you’ve gone through all the work of writing a book, all the anxiety and frustration to get a real agent and a legitimate publisher only to have some chain store buyer banish said book to the special order department because they don’t like your cover art or whatever. You are absolutely right here. I just wish–for all our sakes–that it wasn’t so freaking hard.

  • Alethea, My first thought when I read about the bookstore employee saying you “asked the right way” was that the employee had probably had some prima donna come in and make everyone’s life unpleasant. I’ve heard several horror stories along those lines. I think a writer should never be afraid to ask, but don’t be obnoxious about it either. Not that YOU ever would…

  • Alethea, it is frustrating. So much of our jobs is pure luck. My hope is that when I hit the bestseller lists (LOL) the underappreciated books in my past will find new life. That’s as positive as I can be about a very negative situation.

    As to the *right way to ask*, I agree with Edmund. Some authors are just horrid about asking and have the manners of barbarians.

    Story: I walked into a bookstore one day in DC, and passed Ms. BigName Author marching out, with a fancy-schmancy yes-woman on her heels. BNA was tight-liped and ticked off. Inside were two booksellers in tears. Literally.

    It seemed that Ms BNA had come in with her privately-hired PR person, unannounced, and told them she wanted to sign her stock. The new employee they approached did not know her on sight, did not know her work, and did not know where the books were. BNA and PR-witch went into a tirade and gave her a tongue lashing. The other booksellers hastily gathered the books and brought them up front where BNA signed them all and demanded they be put on the front shelf, never once acting polite. Rather, the *ladies* acted as if they had been wronged and the booksellers were fools. The booksellers complied with all the demands. And the two idiots left the store, satisfied that they had put the booksellers in their places.

    That is where I entered the story– to find the furious, crying booksellers ripping her covers and sending all the books back. Unsold. And when they finally allowed themselves to be talked into telling the above-detailed story, they assured me that BNA would never sell another book in their store. They would conveniently be lost. Forever. And the story was to be passed up the line and across to other stores, where the same thing would likely happen to all BNA’s current and future books.

    In case you are interested, they put my signed books where BNA’s had been — at the cash register. All because I was kind and polite and not pushy, and because I promised to never tell the author’s name or the store, and because I cared that they had been abused. Did I become a bestseller from that? No. But I made some friends.

    Asking with kindness, not getting ticked off, is the right way. Even for BNAs and their hoitytoity PR-witches.

  • Faith, that’s an amazing story (though, tragically, not the first of its kind I’ve heard). As the bumper sticker has it (with apologies to Stuart for the almost-tautology) Mean People Suck.

  • Mind-blowing. Makes you wonder how somebody arrives at a place where they really think that’s the way one behaves. Unbelievable.

  • Faith, you are absolutely correct. I’ve been on the other side of those counters, and “Don’t Be a Jerk” is always first on my list. I just can’t believe how nervous I become just getting up the nerve to ask…when people like BNA have that nerve worn down to a nub.

    I realize there is no shamed in being “critically-acclaimed.” Those works may be owned by fewer individuals, but they are certainly loved. AlphaOops: H is for Halloween appeared on the NYT Sunday Book Review this morning — in stores or not, I absolutely can’t fault my publisher for getting review copies into the right hands!

  • Young_Writer

    Poor sales clerks. I can honestly say I don’t blame them for ripping out the covers.

  • Agreed, YW. You may be young, but now you know better, so when you’re a big, famous writer yourself you won’t make the same mistake.

  • Ed, I’m going to leave it to you to tell me when I’m big & famous. Kay?

  • I see how this works now!
    I’ll go in to a big chain store, tell them I’m Stieg Larsson and yell at them until they cry so they tear out all the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books. Then I’ll go in on another day and be really nice using my real name and bingo! I get the sales position of Stieg. I’ll be famous, I’ll be rich and I’ll be a hero.
    Maybe that won’t work, for more than just a few reasons.

  • This post hits home, Alethea. I couldn’t say how many times I’ve been in the bookstore and left without mentioning the anthology my story’s in. I guess part of what keeps me from saying anything is because it IS an anthology and not a full-blown novel. Maybe I just need to grow a pair.

    Scion, one of those reasons might be that Larsson is no longer with us, eh?

  • Lynn Flewelling

    Great post, Alethea, and great to read you here. I’m appalled that they didn’t have your books! The book selling business is beyond me these days. I’ve *never* had a PW review, much less won any award or been a best seller, and at least some of my books usually are there. What gives that yours wouldn’t be? (I get snubbed at our snooty local library, where after four years, they still don’t have them) I’m a bit worried that the way Big Publishing and Big Box Stores are going, it’s going to kill writers in the crossfire.

    I find going into a store to see if my babies are represented is always a gut tightening experience, even after a decade and a half of doing it. Will they have them at all? Will they care? Will they ask me for ID? (They almost never do.) I’ve had every shade of experience and remain tight gutted.

    Faith, great story. I’ve always been told that publishing is a small, small world and that words of ass hattery gets around fast. Sounds like the same goes for book selling, and rightly so. There is never an excuse for that kind of bitchy behavior.

  • Thank you, Lynn — it’s lovely to be here!

    I wish I could be your entourage and walk into your local library for you and be terribly irate on your behalf. (It’s so different when it’s someone else doing it, isn’t it?) How hypocritical of them to not support local artists. Seriously.

  • Late to the party, but back in town. Alethea, my love, it’s wonderful to see you here. Your post reinforces a couple of those lessons we’re always repeating to new writers. First, we have to be the advocates for our own books, because really no one else will be. If we wait for our publishers to do everything, we’ll be left out in the cold, wondering why our books can’t be found in the bookstores we frequent, or dealing with some other similar annoyance. And second, we have to fight for our books with smiles on our faces. We have to be courteous, considerate, patient, and mindful of the fact that while our books might not always be where we want them to be, that’s not the fault of the bookstore employee standing in front of us. These are the people who are going to sell our books; why would we want them to think that we’re jerks. Faith’s story boggles the mind, and yet I have no trouble envisioning any number of professionals doing such a thing.

  • *hugs*
    David, you are a treasure. Thank you.

  • Young_Writer

    Thank you, I’ll pray for that day. :)