Book Sales, Seen from the Other Side

Every first-time author dreams of the first signing of his or her book. In my case, I was sitting on the author side of the autographing table at the 2018 New England Independent Booksellers Association fall conference, getting ready to sign Barberton Fried Chicken: An Ohio Original. What made my experience different from those of most new writers was that I had worked on the other side of the table for over 30 years as a bookseller and publisher’s sales rep before retiring.

After I read John T. Edge’s Fried Chicken: An American Story, I thought a study of the Serbian fried chicken restaurants of my youth would be worth writing about. The History Press’s American Palate imprint was looking for books on regional foods. I sent in a three-word proposal: “Barberton Fried Chicken.” The response was: “Tell me more.” Weeks of research and chicken eating ensued. I spent time in libraries and newspaper offices. I collected every book on chicken I could find. I ate fried chicken once a day for 10 days straight.

It was a gamble to write a regional book that would be of interest to readers in such a small area. To a rep, the idea of marketing such a title would cause consternation. There are only a handful of bookstores in the Akron-Barberton area of Ohio. Yet there I was at a trade show, surrounded by some of the best booksellers in the business.

That night at NEIBA was my first effort to show my work to booksellers. No one in New England was all that interested in Barberton, but the booksellers who were at the signing table were people I had sold books to for decades. They made me feel like a superstar as I signed autographs for such booksellers as Michael Herrmann of Gibson’s and Lily Bartels of the Open Door, who was one of the first buyers I ever called on. One bookseller asked me a Penguin Random House question (I took a buyout from PRH in 2014); I couldn’t answer it, but it made me feel like I belonged.

When I arrived at the Heartland Forum, there was momentary confusion as I appeared on the trade show floor. I did not know whether I should act like an author or start opening boxes and set up the displays. I even tried to assemble the furniture in the Arcadia booth; I was a good rep but a lousy handyman, so I decided to let the reps and the publishers do their jobs.

When the trade show opened, I got to meet booksellers from regions I never had the opportunity to sell in as a rep. I met Kate Schlademan of the Learned Owl in Hudson—the best independent in the Akron area. I made contact with Mac’s Backs Books in Cleveland, a store where I used to shop. I also got to visit fellow reps I had not seen in years, from my former bosses Beth Koehler and David Underwood and the PRH crew to old colleagues Stu Abraham, Steve Horwitz, and Julie Schaper. The good people at McLean & Eakin Bookshop of Petoskey, Mich., came to my rescue and gave me a ride to the airport.

Not all authors are fortunate enough to be in this position, to have both sides of their publishing careers mesh so beautifully. However, all bookstores are welcoming to their author friends. And a writer needs the independent bookseller. It takes a bookselling community to sell a book—especially one as esoteric as mine.

The most unlikely bookstore to support the book was the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City. I wanted to have an event in the city that my PRH colleagues could attend, and Mysterious manager Tom Wickersham came through. In the words of Charlie Brown: “I need all the friends I can get.”

Snowball Bookshop in Barberton is a local independent and the best friend a novice writer can have. Though mostly a secondhand bookstore, it has a strong local history section. It was the first bookstore to host an event for my book. As someone who sweated before events, hoping that readers would show up for the authors I represented, it was thrilling to see a line waiting for me. Not only was there a line but there was a line of people who had eaten, served, and even cooked the chicken in question.

As a sales rep, I relied on my booksellers for my livelihood and for friendship; they were my family when I was on the road. However, the trade shows and signings have shown me how booksellers offer support and reassurance to writers. Booksellers who will never sell a copy of my book wished me well with sincerity.

Consider this a love letter to the bookselling community. They kept me gainfully employed, and they supported my obscure book on Serbian chicken. Booksellers make the lowliest of regional historians feel like David McCullough.

Ron Koltnow, author of Barberton Fried Chicken (History Press), was a sales rep for Penguin Random House and was PW’s 2010 Sales Rep of the Year.

A version of this article appeared in the 01/14/2019 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: The Other Side of the Table

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