Monday, November 4, 2013

My First Time: John Clayton

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is John Clayton, author of The Cowboy Girl: The Life of Caroline Lockhart and the recently-released Stories from Montana's Enduring Frontier: Exploring an Untamed Legacy. His first book, Small Town Bound: Your Guide to Small-Town Living, was featured in Time and Harper's magazines and on the Today and Oprah Winfrey shows. He currently lives in Red Lodge, Montana--a small town whose history he explores in the Images of America book Red Lodge.  He has taught at Rocky Mountain College and is on the advisory board for the Montana Center for the Book.

My First Costco Book Signing

When I told other authors that I was about to do a book signing at Costco in Billings, Montana, the reaction was curiosity, jealousy, horror, or all three.  So what’s it like to be a non-famous author doing a book event at a warehouse store?

Everything ran incredibly smoothly.  The event was set up by my publisher, The History Press, and Costco’s book distributor, American West Books.  Advance emails reminded everyone of their responsibilities.  The store set up an attractive display table on the main traffic corridor.  All I had to do was show up.

In general, I prefer to do a “reading” or “lecture” or “discussion” rather than a “signing.”  Even if very few people show up for a lecture, at least we have a structure in which to discuss literature.  By contrast, a signing involves long periods of feeling weirdly “on display,” interrupted by episodes of partially-faked informality that reside in a netherworld between cocktail party and commerce.  Before I’d done any signings myself, as a customer I tended to avoid signing tables for unfamiliar authors, worried that “meeting the author” would obligate me to buy the book.  (Later, I realized the author is, or should be, delighted for any conversation, and the perfect exit line is, “Good luck with your book.”)

The signing did have two drawbacks.  First, I felt bad about participating in an event that would compete with independent bookstores.  Like many authors and readers, I treasure independent bookstores and want to give them advantages such as personal author appearances.  I would not do a Costco event in Bozeman or Missoula, where I have favorite independents.  But in Billings, a Barnes & Noble is the only new-bookstore within 50 miles of Costco.  This may be a weak self-justification, since Costco draws customers from more than 50 miles away, but it was further enhanced by the fact that I was simply following the wishes of my publisher, which (one would hope) should know more about bookselling than I do.

The second drawback was that the book was selling at a 35 percent discount.  This not only increased the potential competition with other bookselling outlets, but also decreased my royalties by 35 percent.  On its own, the event didn’t even pay for the gas to get there, much less my time.  Of course, the cost/benefit problem extends to many types of book events, with justifications including improved area media coverage (though Costco did no such outreach), improved retailer relations (other Costcos are also carrying the book), and the chance for growing word-of-mouth sales.

But the Costco setting minimizes the drawbacks of a signing, in two ways.  First, there are just so many people in the store, especially on a Saturday at noon.  This was especially true for me doing an event at my local Costco: I bided my time chatting with some friends who just happened to be replenishing their pantries.  And although many, many people passed by without even noticing me--because few people go to Costco to buy books--at least I had an ideal seat from which to do great people-watching.

Second, the Costco tradition of giving away “free samples” has familiarized its customers with the notion of engaging with a product demonstrator regardless of intention to buy.  Inspired by the wonderful author Jess Walter’s story of giving away his own “free samples,” I decided I too would cut up my page-proofs into sentence-sized fragments for the giveaway.

I toyed with going fully ironic, doing the samples as a mocking gesture--perhaps I would wear a hairnet, or mumble “fat-free and low in sodium” as customers walked past.  But as soon as I arrived, I realized two things: first, I felt an incredible solidarity with the other product demonstrators.  (One even bought the book.)  Second, even had I wanted to mock them (or at least the situation they found themselves in), the audience at a Costco on a Saturday noon is not really interested in self-ironic performance art.  The gesture would have been lost.

On the other hand, “free samples” did prove a surprisingly effective sales tool.  For example, one customer said, “Well, this sample mentions the Bighorn mountains, which are my favorite, so I guess I need to buy a copy.”  I’m now tempted to do free samples even at non-Costco events.

Oh, and one more factor, at least when it comes to “my first…”: when I learned about the event, I googled “Costco book signing” to see if someone could prepare me for what it would be like.  I didn’t find much.  So I hope publishing this essay will help others, and bring David and me some positive karma.

1 comment:

  1. I had the same misgivings about my first book signing at Costco. It was at Kalispell and they plopped me down in front of a table heaped with seedless melons. I felt bad about competing with the local independents but it's hard to argue with a retailer that buys books by the pallet.

    I sold a lot of books that day and a man I'd written about but never met came in to offer me a ride in his helicopter. It was a good day.

    A couple days later, I was in a Wal Mart, surrounded by pastel plus sizes and across the aisle from a life-sized Ronald MacDonald. Boy, did I feel like a clown.