What Fruit and Veg Taught me about Selling Novels

By Susan Roberts

Many years ago I worked in a beautiful old building in Johannesburg that had been converted from a market to a very successful theatre. Some of us jokingly used to refer to it as the Fruit & Veg building. It’s strange how things change as life moves on, but it’s even stranger how some things circle back to you.

I now work in a genuine fruit and vegetable building, selling actual fruit and vegetables. It wasn’t something I ever envisaged doing, but I enjoy it.

Food is, of course, one of the essentials we all need for life. In addition to fruit and veg, our store sells meat – good quality, from local sources – and we sell a lot of it in bulk. Some customers in the shop buy huge quantities, and I know that for many of them, it’s because they run restaurants, help to support footy clubs or cook for charities.

We have a lot of special deals, and many customers see them advertised on our Facebook page, so they come in when there’s a special and buy a lot more than they otherwise might. I guess that many meat buyers have large freezers and will use it up over time.

There is a pensioner discount on weekdays, and many of our sweet older customers buy the cheaper fruit to put out for the birds. We also run a coffee bar and often those who come in for the coffee, cake, sandwiches and a cosy place to have lunch or tea, will then browse the shop afterwards and find tasty things to buy and take home.

As I enter my sixth week of gainful employment, I find that I’ve had a few thoughts about how my present situation relates to my writing. Although I sell food every time I go to work, writing is as essential for my existence as food is for most other people. I have to do it every day, and the more I write, the more I want to write.

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My aim in life is to keep writing novels for as long as I live. I’m diligent about writing them, but not very good at selling them. So in my new job, I’m trying to observe my boss and his selling habits in order to glean from him how one sells things successfully.

I think he runs a great business, and he does it well. His chief aim is to please the customer and give them friendly service with a smile, good deals and anything that makes them feel special. He is almost always in the store, chatting to customers, making them laugh, and joking with the regulars, most of whom he knows on first name terms. The atmosphere is friendly, busy and pleasant.

I have to say, though, I’m a little disappointed in some of the customers. I shouldn’t be, because they’re only exercising human nature, but it doesn’t bode well for my novel selling. Here’s why:

We all like a bargain, we all love getting a good deal, and we especially love getting something for free. However, when it becomes the norm to expect to always get a special deal, the greedier side of human nature rears its head. A special deal that is always special is not really special, is it? It should only happen from time to time. That’s why it’s called a special.

The careful shopper can browse all sorts of sites and take advantage of specials all over town, but the shopper who becomes abusive when the special that was on last week is no longer on this week? Well, that’s just ugly.

Yesterday a customer bought a bottle of pasta sauce along with her other things. When I rang up the bottle of sauce at the register, she complained that the price was expensive, and that last time she had bought it, a week or so back, it had been on special. I refrained from telling her the basic definition of special.

She asked if it wasn’t perhaps on a two-for-the-price-of-one special, so before she sent her husband back to get a second bottle, I scanned the bottle a second time to see if we had some kind of deal on it. We didn’t. When I voided that second scan, she asked me to void the first as well. She said she wasn’t prepared to pay so much for a bottle of pasta sauce.

That’s her right as a customer, of course. I smiled cheerfully as I voided it and put the bottle aside. I scanned the rest of her items, she paid for them and departed in a happy mood, but it got me wondering…

If we live our lives getting something at a bargain price, or for free, why do we begrudge paying the full price when the special is over? The sad part is, I think we’re all a bit like that, to be honest. I scan the web-pages of the pet stores every month, hoping to catch a special on the cat food and litter that I buy. If there’s no special, I pay the full price because I have to. Inside I’m a little disappointed, but I know there’ll be specials again in the future, and I’ll win another time.

How does this work with selling books?

I think that people who like free things or special deals are always going to look only for those, and why buy when there are hundreds of thousands of books available for free? Many people I know have downloaded scores of free books onto their Kindles and haven’t read them. If they already have more books on there than they can read in a lifetime, they are certainly not going to pay to buy mine.

I don’t rely on book sales for my income any more (fortunately!) so I think I’ll keep my books just as they are – for sale; not for free – and hope that serious readers will find them. Maybe I’m an ostrich, but at the moment my head feels lovely and warm, buried here in the sand…

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