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.