Monday, September 19, 2011

Chatting About YOUR Book

This week we were given a choice on topics because some of us already posted about the query letter process and didn't want to do it again, I even went so far last spring as to post my very first rejection letter.

Instead, I plan to talk about selling yourself and your novel in basic converstaion. I'm not talking about an elevator pitch to an agent, I'm talking about to a potential reader, which in my mind is much more important.

First and foremost, we are all readers -- get that important fact through your head. Some of us may be more well-versed about speaking on the concepts of the craft (the writerly folks) and others only have time to read emails, but we all are essentially readers at one base level. If someone isn't reading a book right now it could be for many reasons: their work or home schedule, health issues, or sheer lack of interest in reading (the latter being much harder to overcome).

I had the pleasure of reading an interview from a former co-blogger of mine, Sharon Hamilton, where she interviewed the succulent eye-candy man himself, Jimmy Thomas. When he revealed he doesn't read anything but his emails I lost a lot of respect for him. I admire his work ethic, his attitude, his martial arts skills (a love since my first Tae Kwon Do class when I was five)… but to tout over and over about being on so many book covers and you don't even like to read books? Even if it was another genre… something!!

That's like being the cover model for the number one selling clothing line in the world and you refuse to wear it.

Okay, I digress, back to the topic… how do you discuss your books? First off, develop a rapport with the person. It's also called "make casual conversation". Could be about the weather, about the game last night -- whatever. The first thing you need to do is get someone talking.

I do this everywhere I go, with every person I'm standing next to for more than five seconds. Much to my husband's amusement (he no longer is shocked), I'll even talk to the people at the table next to us at a restaurant. Sometimes, it's just a pleasant passing comment in an elevator, other times it is an actual back and forth exchange. If you are unpracticed in this art form, you will need to read cues from the other person. Do they refuse eye contact? Do they nod and not verbally answer? Is their tone clipped and they seem distracted?

You never know what someone is going through in their lives at any given moment, so be respectful. If they send out the signs they don't want to chat, leave them be. Read body language. We all have the innate ability to do this, it's just that most of us have become so damn lazy with acknowledging our fellow human we need to brush up our skills and remember our manners.

Before you attempt to start talking to strangers in the grocery store check out line or the waiting room at your doctor's office, you must know one very important thing: your target audience for your book. I'm not saying you don't chat up the bulky delivery guy with the clip board because you write a romance, but I am saying analyze the person and accept that they might not be your target, but I bet they have a family member who is.

Understanding if they are your target audience or not will make the difference in how you approach them on the topic of your book. If you did your research, you know you market well and you know the people who watched ____ movie, live in ____, or like ____ sport or activity will also like your book.

Granted, this concept of talking to people will not always garner an opening where you can steer the conversation around to your book, but even if it doesn't, by speaking to lots of people you get past your introverted shell and start to feel more comfortable talking to others in a public place.

I honed this skill for years in sales. This is not an ability you will pick up over night. Be patient and swallow your fear. Do you want me to tell you how I know these things? I was almost abducted when I was seven. I ran when the man tried to pull me into the car. It gave me a unique perspective at a very young age about the wisdom in not traveling alone and to make connections with your fellow human being for safety.

I started talking to people around me simply because there is safety in numbers. If you said hello to the large solitary gentleman in the overcoat, or the tired mother of three, they may be more likely to step in if you were harassed in the hallway by a group of hoods. We're stronger when we stand together.

It's human nature. You can't easily avert an eye to someone's situation after you have made a personal connection. I honed this Chatty-Cathy side of myself in an effort to be safe, and it worked. Of course, I learned the hard way in a pre-Giuliani NYC that making eye contact and meeting the world head on was a no-no, but hey, we all have to learn life's hard lessons ;-)

Now, let's move on to the point where you've practiced your small talk and you no longer seize in panic when you have to speak to a stranger. Notice them, see if they carry a newspaper, a magazine, a book, or an ereader. No visible clue they might be a reader? Ask if they saw something on TV "did you catch that local story on….?"

What I've found works best is if you talk about something obvious about them -- "Those are great shoes, where did you get them?"; simply "that's a nice coat"; "That color looks great on you" (okay, that last one works best if it's between two women, but you get the idea).

Use your observation skills to keep the conversation going. Learn to steer a conversation graciously. Don't just bumble out with "What do you like to read?" unless you have the spectacular opening of seeing them with an actual book, newspaper, or magazine.

Good God, now that I really sit down and write this post, I see I would do better teaching a damn class on it -- which is essentially what I did when I used to teach sales to a bunch of corporate types. Essentially, it's all about making a connection. How about I list some bullet point ideas and you try your best.

  • Make an observation to start a conversation (game, weather, clothing, book they are holding)
  • Ask questions to get them engaged and answering you
  • Pay attention to body language and responses, shut up if they are not open to talking and leave them be
  • Share an anecdotal story that is short and will help you relate to them (example: if they are a mom with a crying kid, talk about your own issues with the rugged nap-time/refusing to nap)
  • Carry a Kindle, have one in your hand or purse -- if it draws their eye they will ask. If not you can ask "have you tried one of these yet?" then formulate responses based on how the conversation is going "Oh, your cousin has one? What do they say about it?"
  • Within a few exchanges about reading you can mention your book

Is it really that simple? Yes, it is. Carry lots of business cards and have the book's description printed on the back. Don't be shy in saying "Here, can I give you this for your cousin?" be self depreciating and honest "The publishing industry is changing so much right now, the best way to spread the word and reach readers is to shamelessly hand out my card." And smile when you say it, be genuine. I know I sure as hell am. 

That fact that a total stranger took the time to talk to me about anything for two minutes makes me feel like a winner. After all, who the hell am I? Just some damn pushy redhead.

When talking about yourself or your work be sure to remember -- make a connection first. Stop if they seem uninterested. Hold your head up proudly, there is no reason you need to feel awkward about what you have done in creating a book. Sure, if it has explicit sex in it like mine do there is that weird moment that may clutch your heart when you have to admit what you write, but hey -- if I survived it, then so can you.

Wishing you all the best and may you go forth and converse!

Have any funny stories you'd like to share about trying to talk about your book? Please share! I always enjoy knowing I'm not the only one who has crashed and burned so spectacularly.

~~ C.J. Ellisson ~~
Guest Speaker at Vamps at Sea – a Vampire Themed Cruise to Alaska


  1. I love this. I totally freeze when someone asks about my manuscript. I mind draws a total blank. Do I give them the memorized elevator pitch? do I focus on one character? Plot? OMG I go nuts and they're family! I have to practice. =) This helps. Thanks!

  2. Excellent post!

  3. Great post. I do this at the observatory in the summers. I know they're at least interested in space.

  4. E . Arroya -- Thank you! Bets approach with family - short and to the point, if they want to know more, they will ask. Trust me. I think my standard line with friends now is "I write vampire books with lots of sex in them."

    I'm tried of being embarrassed to admit I writes sex, so I just get it out there right off the bat!

    Thanks Olivia! Appreciate you stopping by to comment.

    Mary - I recall reading your post about the observatory. FANTASTIC spot to talk about your sci-fi books. Kudos!!

  5. Great post, CJ. I never know how to talk to *normal* people about my writing. For some reason, I'm always shocked when people get into it and want to know more about it (esp the vampire fans, that seems to be a big hook). I keep expecting people to brush it aside, but instead they treat me like a celebrity and I am so NOT used to the attention! I clam up and get cold feet LOL. But I should stop right now and practice taking about it. At the very least, I think I should be able to answer questions when it comes up in conversation (so...what do YOU do?) !! :D

  6. Yeah, that sales thing still gets me. Someone on the set is awed that I'm published but when they ask about the book, I get tongue-tied, like maybe I should have a synopsis sitting in my head for just such occasions.

    This might be one of those times when being a pantster doesn't work so well.

    Another great post, C.J. As always.