Direct Sales—going out in public to make retail sales to end customers—give you some of the highest highs and the lowest lows in publishing. On the good days, you’re in a high-traffic area, selling books at a great margin to customers you never would have reached otherwise, making sales as fast as you can write them down, swept up in the surging adrenaline rush of conversation and money. On the bad days, maybe you’ve spent money on table fees only to end up at a small festival with little foot traffic, so it’s all vendors sniffing each other’s butts: you’re desperately trying to sell to them, and they’re desperately trying to sell to you. Or, even worse, you’re outside and the weather’s turned bad, and you’re worried about all your books being ruined—losing money when you’d thought you were going to be making it. Emotional extremes—that’s what this channels about.
We made our first direct sales at Chicago’s Printers Row Lit Fest in 2012. Our founder (who is writing this post, and who accidentally dropped an “I” in the last post but will still continue referring to himself using the editorial “we,” no matter how absurd it gets) started Tortoise Books in no small part to launch his novel Resistance, so at the time, that was our only title. It was a pretty busy summer; we were getting married that month as well, and were expecting a baby soon thereafter; we’d also funded the project via Kickstarter and sprung for a decent-sized print run of both hardcover and softcover books, so the months leading up to Lit Fest were a blur of wedding invitations and ultrasound pictures and book shipments. (Project video here, if you’re curious…we’re told it’s kind of funny.)
The fest itself offered two days of bookselling, Saturday and Sunday; we lived in a condo overlooking Polk Street, the foot of the festival, and were literally close enough to watch out the window as the festival tents went up that Friday. We’d spent $325 on the table, which was not one of the tented ones, so we’d been obsessively checking the weather; it ended up being blisteringly hot, but (fortunately for the sake of the books) free of rain, and all we had to do to get set up was borrow a cart from the building and roll our boxes of books a few hundred feet out the service entrance to our table.
Everything did not go perfectly. We hadn’t physically inspected all of the books in our shipment, and it turned out there was a printing defect in a few of them; when the first customers started perusing, there were pages coming out in their hands. (Needless to say, this was tremendously embarrassing.) And we were new enough to the direct selling thing that we didn’t yet have any of the necessary accoutrements; we may or may not have had a rudimentary table covering (memories on that point are hazy, but it was probably a repurposed piece of white cloth curtain), and we certainly didn’t have a credit card reader, or any of those folding book stand things like you see at the bookstore. So we were feeling somewhat anxious and idiotic as the first customers started inspecting the books and the first books started falling apart and we waited to make our first sale.
Still, we had done some things right—we’d spent some of our Kickstarter funds on baller print ads in in The Onion and the Lit Fest Literary Supplement (RESISTANCE: A WORLD WAR II NOVEL FOR EVERYONE WHO PREFERS THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV TO THE SISTERS KARDASHIAN), and we still had plenty of good books, more than enough to pull the defective ones off the table and replace them, so we did get customers coming by, taking a look at the book, saying “Huh, I heard of this,” and shelling out their hard-earned cash for a copy. (We, of course, couldn’t help thinking “You heard about this because we paid you lots of money to hear about it.”) So we sold a solid number of books—over $650 worth, when it was all said and done. Not nearly enough to turn a profit, given the table fees and advertising expenses, but enough to give us a taste of the addictive direct-sales rush, and get us thinking about how we could experience that again, hopefully while actually making money.
We didn’t sell at Lit Fest the next year—we didn’t have any new books, so it didn’t seem like it would be a worthwhile expense—but somewhere in 2013 we did do something far more important, and picked up Giano Cromley’s The Last Good Halloween for publication. It was an excellent book, and a perfect pick for our first project from an outside author. We were transforming from an editorial “we” to a literal one.
We had a lovely book launch for Giano—a magical little shindig at Uncharted Books in Logan Square, with food and drink and readings, and family members of his showing up out of the blue from the other side of the continent. (We were pretty humbled to see so many people putting in such great expense to show up; we—and I mean I—were tremendously grateful that it came together on our end.)
But our first real direct selling experience with Giano was far from auspicious, though—through no fault of his. The Chicago Book Expo was held that fall at St. Augustine College in Edgewater; it seemed like a great chance to dip our toes back in the direct selling waters. Unfortunately, the waters were frigid. That was the start of the epic winter of 2013-2014, and somehow in early November it was already bitterly cold. Foot traffic wasn’t great, and we were stuck in the back of the event space with two high-quality but otherwise very dissimilar books on the table, sharing the table with a man selling a book about the War of 1812, and perilously close to an amiable but possibly delusional gentleman who billed himself as “Greatest Poet Alive” and was hawking a collection called The Book of 24 Orgasms. (Come to think of it, “amiable but possibly delusional” could be applied to many people in the book business, ourselves included.)
There are people who tell you to buy books from the other vendors at these events, or trade them. Sometimes that’s good advice, and sometimes it isn’t. We possibly should have sprung for the War of 1812 book. We did not want to sell or trade to get The Book of 24 Orgasms.
We didn’t sell any books. We’d paid $50 for the table.
It was the type of experience to make you want to quit—if we were the type of people to quit.
It isn’t always easy to tell the difference between a positive vision of the future, and a crazed delusion. Or perhaps there’s no clear demarcation point. Perhaps what gradually separates one from the other is the ability to enlist others in the vision, to get them to see the same thing and work towards it. (If so, we owe Giano a tremendous debt for sticking with us through low moments like that when we, too, probably seemed a little delusional.) BUT it’s also necessary to keep comparing that vision with reality, to keep totaling up the numbers and doing the math and staring your wins and losses in the face. Persistence is important, but it must be mindful persistence, focused on the end goal, but also willing to look at different ways to get there, and figure out what is and isn’t working. As they say in Friday Night Lights: Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose! (That exclamation point seems a little aspirational when that motto’s applied to bookselling. But you get the idea.)
We won’t bore you with the details of every other direct selling opportunity since then. We did our best to learn from our mistakes—to buy a tablecloth and a bunch of those little book stand thingys, to get a Square account and start accepting credit and debit cards, to show up to every event with a cash bank of fives and ones to make change, to inspect every shipment of books upon arrival and return any unsaleable ones before the customers see them, to price our books in a way that incentivizes customers to buy right away while also giving us a decent margin. We’ve made it back to Lit Fest every year since (albeit usually by renting tent space from other vendors, so as do so economically), and we went to every subsequent Chicago Book Expo. (That fest also seemed to be learning and changing and growing; it moved downtown to Columbia College, and steadily became a better and better sales opportunity—before somehow, sadly, going MIA; there was no expo in 2018, reportedly because they lost the venue; we’d love to see it come back, because it did end up becoming a worthwhile event.) We had some events where we sold books almost as fast as we could write down the sales. (For the launch of Giano’s second book, What We Build Upon the Ruins, we did a joint event and launched Joe Peterson’s Gunmetal Blue at the same time; it was at a bar in Hyde Park, so we didn’t have to pay any table fees or give them a cut of our sales; we sold 42 books in a couple short hours, which was all of our inventory of one, and nearly all of our inventory of the other.) We had other events that weren’t much better, sales-wise, than that first Chicago Book Expo.
But—and this is important—we learned to keep our eyes open for opportunities, even when an event didn’t go as expected. The event where you drive twenty miles to sell books in a basement may ALSO be the event where you meet a bookseller who sets up another direct sales opportunity for you; the literary festival where you don’t sell any books may ALSO be the one where you meet an author who becomes a new best friend (as was the case at that first Chicago Book Expo, where we first met Ben Tanzer, who, in addition to writing some great books, is also one of the a most exuberant, delightful, and all-around-fun-to-talk-to people we know); the fest where you don’t sell many books may ALSO be the one where you make a sale to a super-enthusiastic customer who not only tracks you down at a subsequent fest to tell you how much he loved your book, but also arranges two paid speaking opportunities for you to talk about the book and make further sales.
It's our oft-stated belief that indie publishing can be as hip and respectable as indie rock. Certainly there are other publishers leading the way in that regards, ones that we admire and try to emulate. (We met Rob Spillman of Tin House Press a couple years back and asked him for advice on running an indie. He advised persistence, and also said: “People do judge you by the company you keep. So be mindful of that.” And that is something we pay attention to—trying to hobnob with, and learn from, people outside our orbit who are writing and publishing great books, while keeping a respectful and friendly distance from the lovably delusional oddballs.) But it’s also worth looking at our heroes in the indie rock world, people like, say, The National, who spent their share of time playing to miniscule or nonexistent crowds. You hear stories about bands like that in their come-up phase playing to a crowd of ten people as if it were ten thousand, and you realize, inasmuch as possible, you need to keep up that level of enthusiasm. It’s a fun game, and like any game, you want to win as often as possible—but you’d get bored if you won all the time. Plus, it’s not entirely in your control how many people show up, or how many of them are willing to spend money; the customer who talks to you for fifteen minutes may turn away without making a purchase, while the one who chats for two minutes may buy $70 worth of books. If you’re making your happiness contingent on reaching a certain dollar amount in sales, you’ll probably be disappointed; if you try instead to enjoy the game, and greet everyone you meet with enthusiasm, you’ll be amazed at how much fun this channel can be.