One Word After Another – James A. Autry

Selling a Book in the Time of COVID

As you know or may surmise from the fact that I write a column for dsm, I am an author. Yes, some years ago I achieved a lifelong goal of becoming an author. But contrary to my assumptions, it is not a rarified profession. There are 45,860 writers and authors in the United States—not in the world but just in the U.S. Talk about competition!

When we think of books, we tend to think of bestsellers, but the average book sells about 250–300 copies in its first year and, with luck, about 3,000–4,000 in its lifetime.

So being an author is not a get-rich-quick occupation. In fact, you could say that it is more like a go-broke-slowly occupation.

But in no profession does hope spring more eternal than in book-writing. We authors like to say we write because we “just have to write” or we are “called to write” or we write just “to tell our story.” But the truth is we write because we secretly hope to be among those authors whose book will break out of the pack and sell more copies than “Gone With the Wind.” There, I’ve said it.

With the odds as they are, what can an author do in the midst of a pandemic to promote and sell books?

Well, this isn’t my first book-sales crisis. My first management book, “Love and Profit,” came out on the day the Gulf War began. As part of the promotion, I was on a daytime talk show in Detroit. The first question from the host, having seen on my bio that I had flown jet fighters, was, “So, Jim, what are those pilots thinking right now?’ ”

Dumb question. What I wanted to say was, “Well, they’re probably thinking, ‘Wish I was back in the States reading Jim Autry’s new book.’ ” But that’s not what I said.

A pandemic is different, with all the social distancing. So what to do? There are remote possibilities like Zoom. You could read from the book, but let’s face it, the objective of these kinds of book readings is to sign and sell books. Tell me how you put a virtual signature on a book.

Many bookstores have abandoned regular store hours or gone to curbside pickup. Of course, that could work if the author is willing to stand outside the store, pen in hand, and sign books when the buyer drives up.

I suppose most authors would turn up their noses at such an unsophisticated activity, but come to think about it, not me. So if you drive by a bookstore and see a guy standing with a sign that reads, “Buy A Book; Signature Free,” it will be yours truly, pen in hand.

James A. Autry of Des Moines is a well-known author, poet, musician and business consultant who has written 15 books on such topics as gratitude, servant leadership and his Southern boyhood. His newest book, “The White Man Who Stayed,” was published last September by Ice Cube Press.

We chatted with Autry on a recent dsm CultureCast podcast. You can listen to that here. 

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