Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Independents, Chains, and Drive-By Signings

Last week, I did a formal signing at a midwestern independent with two other authors. Afterward, I received a thought-provoking email from the son of the store’s owner, who is also a lawyer and the stores’s corporate counsel. The email raises two questions: first, is it okay for an author who does a formal signing at an independent to also do stock signings at chain stores in the same town? Second, even if it is okay to do stock signings, is it rude for an author to acknowledge these signings to the independent?

I asked the sender twice if he would object to my publishing our exchange on my blog, and twice he didn’t respond. Although his omission probably means he doesn’t object, I thought it would be polite to refer to him only as “G” in the following exchange. I’ve similarly changed other names, but otherwise publish our exchange verbatim.

What do you think? Are extracurricular stock signings okay? And even if they are, should we conceal them from independents? G, if you're out there, I continue to welcome your thoughts. Read on…

From: G
Subject: Feedback
Date: June 15, 2006 8:01:21 AM PDT

Dear Barry,

It was a great event, our customers were pleased, and the sales reflected their experience. We do enjoy selling your books, Barry. Your work is atmospheric, with carefully thought out characters and plotting. Your books definitely show the effort you put into them.

A bit of information that you may want to consider as you move forward: Your book had a street date of June 1st. This is a hard on-sale date, adherence to this is demanded by the publishers for many reasons. The most obvious is that first week sales of a repeat author are particularly important for hitting the New York Times Bestseller list, a “label” that helps sell the book in perpetuity. Another other is that it gives all of the outlets for your book a level playing field in terms of being able to market the book to their clientele. Breaching an on-sale date is supposed to raise alarms, and result in the suspension of future shipments of restricted titles.

As your sales department can confirm, two area Borders and two Barnes & Noble stores (including the one you were in last night) placed your book on sale on Friday May 26th. This happens often with restricted titles. The response from Penguin when we reported it? Nothing. We were angry about the breach, the response, and the fact that we hadn’t even received our shipment yet, but we held back and waited for your books to arrive in our shipment the following Tuesday. They didn’t. In fact, your new book never arrived until the following Monday, the 5th. At that point, we had missed ten days worth of sales and more importantly the same number of customer impressions. We feature Event books prominently on the front counter.

So despite all of that negativity, we pushed on and had what we call a successful event.

You will recall our discussion about business cards and the Japanese. My family considers authors to be guests in our city, and at our event. Our goal is to make the event a comfortable, enjoyable experience for everyone. I hope that you agree that we made an effort to be professional and courteous to you, [co-signing author], and [co-signing author], as well as to our patrons.

We did background on all of you, and used that to market awareness of your books on radio (V’s weekly radio show), on TV (her weekly TV show) in print, and at all of our events and in the store. We know that we cannot sell every book in our city, but we can raise public awareness through our events. We try to make our event the pinnacle of the PR push for the book. There is a city-wide recognition that authors we host are important people. We choose who to host, not the other way around. Many people in New York City click on our web site each day because we are a reliable barometer of what sells, but more importantly we are on the cutting edge of the industry on how we sell it.

I want to clarify a few things we talked about last night. Signing stock at chain stores signals to the people who did take the time to come to your [our independent bookstore] event and support you that their effort was not necessary. More importantly, calling attention to that fact that you need to leave to do such a thing is insulting to your hosts. If that was something you felt compelled to do, you probably should have done so without drawing attention to yourself. I chalk it up to you not understanding the dynamics of the situation. Other booksellers may not be very forgiving. Some in particular that we know would simply stop carrying your books without comment.

Put another way, bookselling is a very small club. Independents talk to one another regularly. We love to make people stars, it’s why we do what we do. The chains are always late to the party, the wholesale outlets even later. Independents may not do the volume, but we definitely pick the people when we want to. Conversely, much like John Rain, when we want to kill an author we can always make it look like natural causes. There’s always a different book to push.

This is not to suggest that I did not enjoy our conversation, nor do I not look forward to continue selling your books. On the contrary, as I said you didn’t have all of the information.

To drive my point home: the full page New York Times ad for The Da Vinci Code book release quoted just one bookseller. She paid for your dinner last night. You might want to consider that when you talk about how B&N is really driving sales in this country, particularly in the presence of an independent bookseller.

Or as your agency training would put it, know who you’re talking to. Fortunately, we’re in the Midwest so we can laugh it off. If we were in Japan, I’d have killed you to avenge the family honor.

Really, truly.

Keep the faith,

From: Barry Eisler []
Subject: RE: Feedback
Sent: Thursday, June 15, 2006 11:49 AM
To: G

G -- glad the event went well from your perspective; we certainly seemed to have a good crowd and good atmosphere and I enjoyed it a lot.

Thanks for the info about the laydown dates. This isn't something I know much about, but I will forward your email to the relevant folks at Putnam.

As for your other points... you must have misunderstood me when we were talking about B&N. I didn't say, nor do I believe, that B&N is "driving sales in this country." If anything, for books like mine, I would ascribe such a role precisely to independents like [yours]. I did say that the chains are important distributors of mine because they sell my books in volume. I don't think that's a controversial point.

So I can't apologize for signing stock at chains, my friend. They're important distributors in my business, and I can't make a living selling through independents alone (nor would I have been able to build my business as I have without the backing of independents). If I insulted you by doing I see as best for my business, I regret it, and am somewhat surprised, as it's not a reaction I've run into before.

If you'd like to have me back for another event, I would be delighted, as you, along with other key independents, have done a tremendous amount to get me where I am, and where I hope to go. You also run a first rate signing and seem like good people. But whether I do a signing with you or not, you should know that I'll also sign stock at as many chains in town as I can. This is a business decision for me, not at all personal, and you shouldn't feel insulted by it. I assure you I wouldn't feel insulted by any business decision you were to make about my books, whether pushing them, carrying them, or "killing" them, as you put it. I would similarly understand if, knowing that I will be doing stock signings at chains while I'm in town, you were to decide not to invite me back to present with [your bookstore]. I will always expect you to do what's best for your business, and will respect your decisions even if I don't agree with them. I hope you'll be able to extend me the same understanding.

As you may know, I write a blog at . Mostly it's on politics and language, but occasionally I post something on the biz. If you like, I could publish our exchange, which I think would lead to a good amount of illuminating commentary. Just let me know.

Best wishes,


From: G
RE: Feedback
Date: June 15, 2006 11:30:10 AM PDT

Dear Barry,

Levity apparently requires clarity. Penguin wants to push you to “the next level.” This is an exact quote from one of your publicists. This was repeated by our rep who sells your imprint. I spent the time to give you some feedback because I respect their request, and I respect your work enough to give you some constructive criticism. I did it because I thought it was the right thing to do, given the expectations of your publisher. I don’t have to do anything other than sell your book. Really, truly.

What I’m trying to communicate to you is that independents are independent thinkers. We don’t make decisions that are purely corporate. We sell a lot based on emotion, gut instinct, the desire to offer our customers something special. Many independents have been hurt by B&N, Borders, Amazon. Like I said, we talk with one another. It’s a small club.

Like many of the key independents, we’re in the business of selling books and we also produce author events. In order to drive the publicity for an event, particularly for genre fiction, there has to be a unique quality to the experience we’re offering. Part of that uniqueness is the opportunity to meet the author and purchase a signed book. If someone can go anywhere in town and purchase a signed book, then that unique aspect of the event marketing is lost. Your publisher expects us to sell books when you come to town. They expect us to generate media. They expect us to build your audience. This requires a degree of cooperation.

It makes complete business sense for you to make as many personal contacts with booksellers as you can, chain or independent. These are the people who will actually sell your book. This aspect of your zeal to self-promote I respect. My instinct tells me that you’re doing whatever you can to achieve success. That’s the first rule of business growth, determination.

Do I feel insulted because you signed at B&N? Of course not. Many authors do when we host them. Did I think you asking directions to B&N was an odd request? It’s the new number one. Did we laugh about it afterward? You bet. Would other independents have been offended and done something about it? You better believe it. And that’s the lesson you need to learn, friend.

Michael Barson can confirm that there are not a big number of people who buy books in this country. I’m referring to the group of people who decide what goes on the shelves, not the readers. I’m suggesting that you may alienate some of these people with your approach. Amazon doesn’t like B&N. Wal-Mart doesn’t like Borders. And the leading independents don’t like anybody who doesn’t read what they sell. We walk the walk. We know who you are.

Again, I’m spending my time writing to you today because I’d also like to see you go to “the next level.”

Travel safe on your way there.


From: Barry Eisler []
Subject: RE: Feedback
Sent: Thursday, June 15, 2006 5:09 PM
To: G

G, I do appreciate your efforts to explain the independent world view. I'm not sure I understand your point, though -- it's okay for an author to sign at a chain, but he shouldn't admit to an independent that he's doing it?

I suppose it's an issue of sensibilities, like the Victorians and sex -- "of course it occurs, but it shouldn't be discussed." And sensibilities, even when they aren't apparently logical, are an important part of culture. So if I offended you -- even if you managed to laugh it off -- with my inquiry about the whereabouts of B&N (as opposed to with the signing itself), please accept my apology.

I think what's made me overlook this sensibility issue is two things. First, many independents have proactively steered me to the chains in their towns after I've finished a formal signing, and (mistakenly, it seems) I assumed that all independents would be equally comfortable with acknowledgment of such stock signings.

Second, I tend to be comfortable with such acknowledgment myself. For example, I certainly don't have a problem with you pushing and selling the works of other authors, and I don't expect you to try to conceal it from me. Why would I? You couldn't make a living selling only my books any more than I can make a living working only with independents. That's why I recommended other writers to you at dinner last night; that's why I was happy to do an event with other authors at your store.

Anyway, thanks for your understanding about the importance to an author of stock signings at chains. The sensibility issue aside, signing stock at chains helps me move more books -- as I'm sure you understand, given that you yourself bought two of the copies I signed at B&N last night.

I recognize this is a private exchange and won't publish it if you don't want me to, but I do think this would make excellent blog material because there are a lot of other authors who could benefit from knowing what you've tried to explain to me. What do you think?

Best wishes,


From: G
Subject: RE: Feedback
Date: June 16, 2006 7:21:48 AM PDT

Dear Barry

V and R read our exchanges yesterday and said laughingly “it’s obvious you guys are lawyers.” I thought that was pretty funny. I’m not getting $250 an hour to keep this up so I’ll just stick to selling books.

Travel safe and keep writing great books.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Television and Your Future Self

I've done 15 signings in the last two weeks, and a lot of people have asked for advice on how to write a novel. I tell them, "Don't watch television."

There's a common misconception that novels get written in a mad rush over a month or two in an isolated cabin or on a mountain top. They don't. They get written an hour or two at a time, day by day, over the course of many years (eight years, in the case of my first novel, Rain Fall).

"An hour or two at a time, day by day, over the course of many years"... well, that's exactly how people watch television, isn't it?

There are only 24 hours in a day, and only so many days in our lives. If you use those daily hours doing one thing, you can't use them for something else. It's that simple.

Television is seductive in part because when you watch an hour-long show, it feels like you've finished something. By comparison, an hour spent on something that's going to take you years to finish feels like nothing at all -- certainly it feels like something that can be skipped without consequences.

But those hours add up, one way or the other.

Think of what you can do with an hour a day for, say, four years. Become a black belt in a martial art. Acquire a foreign language. Learn a musical instrument.

Write a novel.

Or you can have watched many award-winning prime time television shows, all of which are no doubt excellent entertainment and thoroughly enjoyable.

What you can't do is both. You have to choose. There's no right answer; it's a question of what's important to you. But you should choose knowingly. Don't delude yourself into thinking, as you plop down on the Barcolounger and fire up the remote, that one day you're going to rent that isolated cabin and write that novel you've always been thinking about. It won't happen. That one day is today. It's right now. It's every day to come, however many you have.

Having trouble deciding which to do? Here's something that might help.

Have you ever wished you could send a message back in time to your past self, warning yourself to do or not do something you did in the past? Wouldn't it be great if we could do that? Sad that we can't.

But we can do something just as good as sending messages to the past. We can receive messages from the future.

If your future self could send a message to her (or his) past self -- you, today -- what message would she send? Listen hard, and you can hear it.

Is she telling you to watch television for an hour a day? Or is she telling you something else?

Listen to her. She's smarter than you are because she's lived longer. You know she has your future interests at heart. If you listen, really listen, she'll show you the way.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Cell Phones, Cars, and Guns

Various states have banned drivers from using cell phones. Other states are contemplating similar laws. Proponents of a ban argue that cell phone use in the car is distracting and causes accidents. Opponents ask, what's next? Listening to music, eating, conversing with your passengers? Some people suggest a compromise: it's dialing that's distracting, so let's permit drivers to use their cell phones only if they are wearing a headset or speaker phone.

I find public cell phone shouting so widespread and deplorable that I'm tempted to suggest permitting cell phone use only when driving, and with the windows rolled up. But I digress...

I don't think there's any reasonable debate that punching numbers into a tiny keyboard while trying to operate a motor vehicle will cause more accidents. Let's accept for the moment that it does. The more interesting question, I think, is whether talking on a cell phone, even with a headset, ear piece, or speakerphone, is sufficiently distracting to cause more accidents.

There's something about using a cell phone that suppresses people's awareness of their environments. Not all users, but certainly a significant percentage. How else to explain cell phone shouting? A diner sits in a restaurant, murmuring to his dinner companion in a tone carefully modulated to match the surrounding ambiance, and the moment the cell phone rings and is brought to his ear, he's shouting as though oblivious to the presence of anyone else in the room -- as indeed, he suddenly is.

A global experiment has been conducted, and the results are in: cell phone use dissociates the user from awareness of her environment. I don't know what could be more obvious, or less controversial. And if there were a drug that dissociated the user from awareness of her environment, surely we would ban its use during the operation of motor vehicles and heavy equipment.

But here's where we come to the heart of the matter. No doubt, cell phone use in the car will cause more accidents. Equally doubtless, it is enjoyable and economically productive. The first has to be balanced against the second. I don't have any data, but let's start with an extreme example to illustrate the point: if cell phone use caused ten additional road deaths per year but added $10 billion to GNP, would opponents still want to ban it?

Maybe. It's an uncomfortable thing, assigning a dollar value to human life.

I'm in Texas now. In many stretches along Interstate 10 from El Paso to San Antonio, the speed limit is 80 miles per hour. If you've taken this drive, you'll know that 80 mph can seem agonizingly slow. I'm told there's a proposal in Texas to boost the speed limit to 85 mph. Opponents argue this would increase the number of accidents and deaths. I'm certain that it would. I'm equally certain that lowering the speed limit to 45 mph would save lives. Why aren't opponents of the faster speed limit agitating for a still slower one?

Because, like all of us, they don't like to admit that in crafting laws we must always be mindful at some level of the dollar value of a human life.

All reasonable people care about human life. All reasonable people care about the economy. Where we draw the balance is what separates us. But acknowledging the existence of that balancing act might bring us together.

Before someone tells me that every human life is sacred and can never be measured in dollar terms, let's do a quick thought experiment. To use my previous, extreme example: if each life lost to highway cell phone use added one billion dollars to the GNP, how many lives might then be saved with that additional money?

One more thought about cell phones:

It's clear that use of a cell phone induces behaviors that otherwise would not be expressed. Absent a bad row, people don't spontaneously begin shouting in restaurants and other public places. The cell phone might not be the cause of the rude behavior as such, but it is certainly the behavior's catalyst.

Now let's think about firearms. What's that saying? "Guns don't kill people, people kill people." Let's try putting it another way: "Cell phones don't cause public shouting, people cause public shouting."

I own firearms and enjoy using them. My views on the subject are complex. But watching (and being forced to listen) to people using their cell phones, I can't deny that there are tools the use of which dramatically alter the behavior of the user. In other words, certain tools cause people to do things they otherwise wouldn't do. We therefore ought to be open to the possibility that the ability to simply pull a trigger might induce behaviors that a knife or stick or garrote would not. That wouldn't be the end of the conversation, only its beginning. Still, I'd like to think it's worth talking about.

Hopefully without any shouting.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Shhh... It's a Secret...

Since the Kepler's launch of The Last Assassin on Thursday, I've driven 1000 miles, visited 35 bookstores, done eight interviews, and gotten an unenviable amount of sleep. So no time for a longer piece today, but here are a few thoughts provoked by what I've picked up on the televisions people insist on watching while they exercise in LA hotel gyms...

Apparently, the movie Superman cost something like $270 million to make. I heard it reported like this: "And Superman, which opens in July, cost over $200 million to make... although industry insiders tell us the true figure is closer to $270 million."

Hold on a minute, I thought. $270 million? Come on, we're talking about a movie, not an aircraft carrier. And then I realized... it's bullshit!

Book publishers inflate figures all the time to create hype. When you hear about a 100,000 hardback print run, figure the real number is 30 or 40,000. When you read about a $300,000 marketing campaign, figure about a third. (The one area where publishers seem to be scrupulously honest in their publicity efforts is the number of cities they report an author as visiting on a book tour. For example, the entire Bay Area gets counted as a single city. When you're doing the driving and the appearances, it feels like more than that. But I digress...).

The theory is, if the publisher reports that it's spending a lot of money marketing a book, that in itself will make people take notice. Why should the movie industry be any different? The feeling is, "Damn, $270 million, that's gotta be some movie. Great sets, great computer generated imagery... I ought to see it, just to know what someone spent so much money on." The alleged $270 price tag itself becomes the news.

My hat is off to Hollywood for knowing exactly how to get the public to swallow these ridiculously inflated reports. They don't say, "Superman cost $270 million to make because of the awesome set designs and CGI." The public wouldn't be impressed by that. Instead, they pretend to try to hide the actual size of the budget while "industry insiders" go around "leaking" the "true" inflated figures. If it's a leak -- if it's a secret the studios are trying to keep -- we'll believe it much more readily than we would if they just openly reported it.

When someone acts as though he's trying to hide something, we often don't notice that the dissemination is in his interests. So next time you read a "leak" about something going on in the government, ask yourself if this is something the government in fact wants you to know about. What works for Hollywood works elsewhere, too.

I've got another piece on the subject that will appear on MJ Rose's terrific blog Buzz, Balls & Hype soon.

Okay, gotta head to San Diego -- see you soon.