Kindle Millionaires, Meet the Worst Book Signing in the History of the World

This is a guest post from bestselling novelist Nick Earls.

Years ago, as a junior hospital doctor, I met Australia’s last surviving veteran of the Boer War. He was 108 at the time and could still share some fascinating details of the war he had fought in 1900, when he was 20. If I can live long enough, I can be that guy for the publishing industry of the late 20th century, and I can wax anecdotal about the things we did to sell books, back when they only came on paper. And the listener will be amazed and I will sound like someone who walked with dinosaurs.

I will by then be one of the last relics of book tours and stock signings and days of back-to-back regional radio interviews. If I can live to 108, I may be one of the last authors telling his/her Worst Book Signing in the History of the World story.

Let’s admit it – any author who has toured enough has one. We can’t let them go and can’t resist the masochistic urge to keep telling them – whether to fake self-deprecation or as a cautionary tale or because some wounds just won’t heal but we’re addicted to the talking cure.

You know what’s next: The True Story of the Worst Book Signing in the History of the World. It’s of course mine, and it’s offered here for the edification of all recent authors thriving from the comfort of their own homes with the help of KDP Select and all the other cunning means of selling books in 2012, while at the same time thinking, ‘It’s great to have sold a million on Amazon, but I wish I could go on a book tour.’

Yes, you know you’re missing expense accounts, room service and a lot of pre-recorded flattery from publicists needing to boost frequently flagging author morale, but you’re also missing having your own Worst Book Signing in the History of the World. Rest assured, it would not have been worse than mine.

The incident occurred in a regional Australian city, in a franchise store located in a shopping centre that the citizens were in the process of abandoning for a more glamorous new centre down the road. More than half the shops were empty. There was a card table waiting for me outside the bookstore, and for the next ten minutes I watched occasional clumps of people in the distance moving between discount stores in flannel shirts and Ugg boots.

Then the bookstore owner, with the whiff of failure already in his nostrils, came over to me and tried to sound upbeat as he said, ‘This’ll fix it.’ He tossed me a name tag, with my name recently written on it in blue marker pen in a spidery hand. Misspelt.

No one was coming within 50 yards of me. It was only going to work if the discount stores were selling truckloads of two-dollar binoculars. Which they weren’t.

Another ten minutes passed. By which I mean 600 seconds passed, each with the slow-motion drag of the last weeks of a too-long childhood summer vacation, but this time with the horrifying overlay of a feeling of abject failure.

Then the owner appeared with a PA system that looked like it had done its best work around the Big Band Era. He turned it on, and static seared the empty halls of the shopping centre. Way in the distance, a few heads turned. And then turned away again. Undaunted, he proceeded to read from a shiny faxed copy of the book’s media release, which my publicist and I had spent a lot of time writing and which I had, until that moment, thought was pretty funny.

By ‘read’ I mean misread, of course. It hadn’t faxed clearly, there were lots of awkward pauses and he pounded any punchline flatter than pizza dough. Fortunately, the distortion was so bad as it echoed through the empty labyrinth that not a word could be heard clearly, and it sounded more like an industrial accident in progress rather than a human reading something. Meanwhile, the rep from the publishing company stood next to me mouthing ‘I’m sorry’ over and over.

At the forty-minute mark, with not a single books sold, a girl ran over to my table. The rep smiled. The shop assistants smiled. The owner put his microphone down and beamed. The tide was turning. Our first sale beckoned.

And then the girl said she needed to write down a phone number and could she please borrow my pen? I said she could keep it, and called time.

The new ways of selling books may mean fewer scars like that landing on the souls of authors. The world will be just a little diminished as the anecdote supply dries up, but authors will be saner.

It’s expensive to tour an author, and usually more sensible not to. I want to ignore that and I still want to do it. I still love bookstores, still buy paper books at my favourites and hope to keep doing events in them indefinitely, but there’s a whole world of readers who will now only point and click and then read from a non-paper-based device. They’re rapidly shifting the cost/benefit analysis of a lot of author tours.

Selling e-books, it seems to me, is not so much about working out how we sell p-books and adapting that. It’d be extreme to say it would be as relevant to look at how we sell chickens or Toyotas, but maybe not completely out of line. Selling a physical object in a particular place is very different to selling a blast of digital signal.

This is a new paradigm, not a slow evolution. It’s frighteningly fast, giveaways abound because there are no unit costs, and millions of people have found new ways of browsing that we may not have properly pinned down yet.

An e-book needs to be findable and discoverable. It needs to have the right look and the right price. And perhaps it needs to be pitched into promotions that will see a lot of copies given away in the hope that talk and reviews and sales will follow.

In the end though, when I’m 108 and the young intern is re-siting my drip, I’ll be telling her/him that the most important thing has always been word of mouth, even if, by the early twenty-first century, the author needed a whole new bag of tricks to kick-start it.

We may be selling it in a new vessel, but a story is still a story and what will matter most is what happens when it’s read.

You can find Nick’s work on Kindle here, and on Nook here.