“Excuse me, could you sign this for my granddaughter?” an elder gentleman asks, pushing a copy of The Hunger Games across the table to me during my book event at a major book store.
“Um, I didn’t – I didn’t write that, sir. This is my book.” I gesture to four copies thinly stacked beside me. No, I hadn’t sold through piles of stock. The manager forgot I was coming, despite the confirmation email she had sent two days prior. Thus, she had no signage and no books beyond the ones she scrounged from the shelves. What was in place? A lonely author trying to make eye contact with shoppers determined to do anything but.
And now this. The man squints at my book cover. He retrieves The Hunger Games off the table and marches off.
Rite of passage, rite of passage.
I whisper my debut book mantra and watch the clock, waiting until I can retreat home to the security of my family and to my writing. Writing. That thing that started all of this, that thing that now feels like a luxury in the midst of a desperate race to sell enough books so that my publisher will let me do it all again with the next book.
Hello, I’m an authorprenuer.
In the grand scheme, it’s a good thing. I’m lucky enough to write for tweens and teens, who make for enthusiastic fans. I’ve had kids at school visits ask me to sign their Tic-Tac boxes. My local library recruited such a crowd for my launch party that the police were called on a noise disturbance. I’ve had a 10-year-old send me a video review of my book in which she confessed to sneaking a flashlight under her covers to find out what happened next.
I am very blessed.
I’m also lucky in one other key respect. I once worked in publicity and promotion for a major movie studio. I get that this is how it works, that publishing (as in the film industry) is, above all, a business. In that role, I also learned the magic rule of marketing: Share Don’t Sell. I always approach an event – whether proposing a workshop for a conference or helping the Girl Scouts coordinate a bus tour so a hundred tweens can scavenger hunt through New York City to all my novel’s locations – with the attitude of “What do I have to offer you?”
I recognize that I’ve not yet achieved New York Times best-seller status; simply offering to grace an event with my presence is not going to cut it. I need to offer true value: a writing workshop for teens at a library, attracting a crowd to a bookstore signing by emailing every teacher in a 20-mile radius, signing books to give away to a school auction. That’s the hustle. That’s how the very best business models work, publishing or not.
“Author” today encompasses much more than simply “writer.” I’m also part social media maven, part marketing director, part events coordinator. Some days, I look at the Upcoming Appearances page of my website and gulp. I cast side-eyes at the famed boozy-lunch lifestyle of F. Scott Fitzgerald and at J.D. Salinger’s hermit status. But at the end of the day, I don’t have a taste for gin, and I can live in my writer’s cave for only so many weeks before I’m ready to get out in the world again, to chance the small indignities inherent to the job in favor of the bigger payoff: getting to gush about books with fellow booklovers, share tips and tricks with eager young writers, and reach readers (which sounds, and is, far more palatable than “moving stock”).
I don’t think authors nowadays have to be Shark Tank-savvy, but I do maintain it helps to think of yourself as a start-up. Of course, publishers can be integral; consider them your company’s investor – critical in making essential business connections, helpful in advising with the wisdom of their experience – but, ultimately, you’re the CEO of your books and careers. Accepting this is the first step to embracing it.
I hope to see you at one of my upcoming IPOs – er – book releases. Just to hedge my bets, I’ve been working on my Suzanne Collins signature.
Jen Malone is a middle grade and YA novelist (not to be mistaken for Jena Malone of The Hunger Games film series).