Friday, November 14, 2008

No autographs, please!

And now I'll blow your mind (unless you're a published author, in which case you may already know this scenario).

There I was in Barnes & Noble the other day. My book The Marilyn Monroe Treasures has just come out, and I happened to be across the street with my mom, so I suggested we stop in and take a look at it in all its glory.

I already knew it was selling pretty well at that store, because a friend of mine had seen 16 copies on an endcap, then my mom went in two days later and there were 12, and when we walked in this time, there were 5. So at least 11 copies had sold that week. I felt good about that.

Since it was an impromptu stop, I didn't have a Sharpie on me. I went to the customer service desk to borrow one.

"Hi," I said. "I'm the author of The Marilyn Monroe Treasures, which you have in stock up front. I'd love to sign the copies you have if you can lend me a Sharpie."

The clerk actually looked upset. She referred me to a woman I assume was her supervisor, who looked the way you might look if someone offers you a plate of pickled mice.

"Well, we don't usually do that," she said. "But I guess... tell me about your book."

I pointed down the aisle. "It's right there. Why don't I just show it to you?"

She walked with me, with a face that told me she was trying to look polite, but was truly not happy that I had come to the store.

"Oh, it's one of these books with the memorabilia. How nice. People really love these books."

"Yes," I told her. "I love working on them. They're such beautiful coffee table books."

"This will do well for the holidays. Okay, I'll need to see your ID," she said. I laughed. My mom had just asked me in the car if bookstore employees ever ask for ID before I sign books. I told her no one ever had.

My mom laughed, too, and flipped to the back of the Marilyn Monroe book to show the woman my author photo. "There's her ID," she said.

The bookstore worker smiled, but still wanted to see my ID. I pulled out a credit card or something, and she was satisfied. I also mentioned to her that I was happy to see that they had sold so many of my books already this week.

"Well..." she said hesitantly, picking up two out of the five books. "Why don't you sign a couple?"

At this point you may be wondering why in the world a bookstore worker would ever want to discourage an author from signing her books. Doesn't that make them more valuable, more likely to sell?

Yes. But I already knew what this woman was thinking: "If she signs them, we might not be able to return them."

So I tell her, "Oh! Barnes and Noble actually published this book, so you don't have to worry about returns. You're not going to return it to yourself."

She kind of believes me. But she explains, "Yeah, that's the problem. When we try to return signed books, publishers won't take them back because they say they're 'damaged.'"

I've heard this before. I don't know whether this is wholly true or not. I suspect that maybe a few publishers do use this excuse, but I'm skeptical about this being a widespread problem.

See, bookstores still work on consignment. They can order in, say, 25 copies of your new book, then wait and see how they sell. If only 5 sell, they can just return the other 20 to the publisher and get full credit (sometimes including shipping). And generally, they can return those books at any time. They might pull them after just a few weeks, or they might literally let books sit on the shelf for years-- long after the publisher believes the books have been sold and spent the money from them. Publishers know that the money they've received can be taken back at any point. It's a crazy business model, and everyone knows it.

I once had a bookstore refuse to let me sign books at all-- because the books were shrink-wrapped. (This was Celine Dion: For Keeps, which was shrink-wrapped so the memorabilia wouldn't fall out or get damaged. I hated that, though, because it meant no one could thumb through the books and see how beautiful they were-- and how likely are you to spend $39.95 on a book you can't look through first?) For me to sign the books, they would have had to take off the shrink-wrapping, and... you guessed it. They worried they wouldn't be able to return them.

This bookstore worker "let" me sign the five books, and my mother asked if those were the only ones left, or if they might have more in stock in the back.

"I don't know," she said, "But I wouldn't have her sign more than five anyway."

So much for my explanation about how, y'know, they PUBLISHED this book, so they weren't going to return it to themselves. Sigh.

As I was signing the books, though, a woman looked over and asked, "Is that a biography of Marilyn Monroe?" I said yes and handed her a copy to look at. She told me she was going to buy it.

"Great," I said. "Do you want me to personalize it to someone?"

"Um, if you do, I have to ask you to buy it first," the bookstore worker interjected.

I don't mean to blame the worker. I get that she's doing her job as assigned. It was just such a sad state of affairs, as I apologetically followed the woman to the cash register.

I hear this treatment of authors isn't the same everywhere. I suppose a lot of this is because I live in New York, state of authors on every corner. I've even heard tales of authors being treated to muffins and scones and whatnot. Though I suspect the scone author was exaggerating. I mean, seriously. Scones! For free!

You think they'd do this to Stephen King?

"Um, okay, Mr. King. You can sign five of these books. Could you do it in pencil so we can erase it if they don't sell?"

I'm glad I picked a field where they keep my ego in check. I mean, my self-esteem was approaching lukewarm when I entered the store. That could be dangerous!

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