It became clear during my first retail job between my junior and senior year of high school that selling things was not a gift of mine. Rather, encouraging someone to buy something wasn’t. No, it was even earlier than that. I had the lowest sales of Girl Scout Cookies in my troop. When they sent home those tacky gift catalogues to get your parents’ friends to buy stuff to raise money for the school, I seldom had a sale beyond my parents. If someone said no or didn’t seem interested, I thanked them and moved on. I wasn’t pushy. (Though some men I worked with would question that, but that’s patriarchy.)
This holds true today. I love-in person book events and sorely missed them during lockdown. I love talking with people about writing and my books. I’m rare for a writer; I’m an extrovert who gets off on engaging with people. I’ll tell you all about my books, but if you walk away without buying, I let you go.
Now, I don’t consider that a character flaw. Rather, I detest having a “hard sell” done on me, and I’d be a hypocrite if I did it to others. Has that cost me book sales? Maybe, but it’s far more satisfying to me after I’ve answered a person’s questions about my books that it’s their idea to buy one. (If my marketing consultant reads this, she’s likely shaking her head right now.)
What I don’t want is for someone to buy one of my books thinking it’s one thing only to discover when they get home and start reading it, that it’s something that isn’t for them. And then end up with a bad review.
I write realistic dialogue, so there are F-bombs and references to excrement, as well as “fade-to-black” sex scenes. Only on occasion do I include an explicit sex scene and only when it fits that point in the story. The same holds true for violence. There is violence in my books, but I don’t drag out the description of the act itself or its aftermath. Again, there are exceptions. When I wrote about ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, that had to be explicit. The recent rough draft I finished about Northern Ireland’s Troubles in 1979 had to have explicit acts of violence because that was the reality.
I generally write for age 16 and up, though I have indicated 18 and up on a couple of books, namely the ones in the series, A Perfect Hatred. In those books, there are sex and violence but also abhorrent racism and anti-semitism from the bad guys.
So, when someone stops by my table at a book event and has teenagers with them, I’m honest with them about the language in my books and the content. Most are appreciative of it. Some have even bought books for their younger than 16 children with the indication that they would “read it together.” Only a few have hustled their children away, shielding them from my “evil influence.”
A Recent Example
This past Monday, I had an in-person event as part of a celebration for a local bookstore’s anniversary. When I arrived, the owner told me a man with his three children had been in the store for the story-time event–two preschool aged boys and a teenaged daughter. The daughter, she told me, was “very interested” in talking to a real author. Uh, me.
Sure enough, I’d barely gotten my table set up outside the bookstore when they arrived. The father, who was wearing a Phillies tee-shirt, and I talked about the woes of the Phillies and my team, the Yankees. While we did, his daughter first touched each one of my books and asked if she could read the back covers. Of course, I said yes. I did the typical spiel I usually do: I write realistic espionage stories based on historical or current events and involving a fictional intelligence organization out of the U.N.
The daughter held onto a copy of Spy Flash, the first in the series of short story collections of which my newest book, Spy Flash III: The Moscow Rules, is the third.
“This one looks really interesting,” she said. “May I get this one?”
I expected him to take the book and look through it to assist in making a decision. He asked me, “Is it appropriate for a 14-year old?”
Well, I would have let my 14-year old read it because I’m a firm believer in having children exposed to reality, but I didn’t say that.
I remembered that book contained one story–only one–with a fairly explicit sex scene which is being filmed for blackmail purposes, and because I’m not going to be dishonest I told him one story wasn’t suitable for someone under 16.
He took the book from her hands and placed it back on the table. He wasn’t rude to me or judgemental, but it was clear he made the decisions about what his 14-year old could and couldn’t read. He told her no.
They were all wearing masks, but I could see her eyes. I’ve never seen a kid so disappointed in my life, not even my own when I tried to bow out of taking them to see New Kids on the Block.
I launched into telling the father about how I wanted to read Rise and Fall of the Third Reich when I was maybe 12 or 13. My dad didn’t think it was appropriate–he’d been in World War II–but he knew my interest in history. He let me check it out of the library, and he would read a chapter, let me read that chapter, and then we’d discuss it. Being me, I’d read ahead, but the fact was he didn’t want to shield me from the reality of history because he’d be there to mitigate any negative effects.
Went right over the guy’s head. We chatted some more, and the daughter looked longingly at my books. It was clear the subject matter intrigued her. When I had talked about a strong female protagonist early in the spiel, her eyes had lit up. This was something she wanted to read.
The father thanked me for taking the time and for being honest, wished me a good day, and left.
And also being me, I couldn’t keep that girl’s disappointment out of my head. Disappointment and learning how to deal with it is also part of understanding life, especially adult life, and whether she knows it or not there was a lesson in that. Somehow, though, I doubt that was foremost in her mind.
She wanted a book, and I essentially talked her father out of buying it for her.
In the long run, my being honest with a potential reader is preferable to that dad getting home and discovering that scene then excoriating me. Trust me, I know the type.
But I was still disappointed in myself, not because I lost the sale of a $10 book, but because I should have pushed for that sale, because that kid wanted that book for what were possibly important reasons to her.
I should have gone for the hard sell for once in my life.