AWP was less challenging and overwhelming for me this year, partly because I knew what to expect. Imagine three huge halls, in an unclear spatial relationship to one another, each filled with dozens and dozens of tables and displays, promoting and selling literary magazines, MFA programmes, and independent presses. Among these tables walk thousands of writers, people who want the same thing you want, who may be geniuses, who may be frauds, you forever wondering in which camp you fall, while in side rooms, talks are going on about literature and teaching and publishing, and, across the city, that night, are parties and readings and networking dinners.
I was extremely glad to have come with the Story Quarterly table, which gave me a little status in the nightmarish crowd (AWP whiffs a little of the unpleasant air of haves and have-nots) and as soon as I arrived at the conference, early Friday morning, I found (with difficulty) our table, and, finding it not yet occupied, I began selling.
I love it.
I love selling the journal at AWP, as it brings out the gregarious me without invoking his sullen, moralistic twin, as might happen were the product more expensive. What was funny was that all weekend, people complimented me, and, when he arrived, my friend Matt Blasi, on our sales technique. My teachers and classmates watched me talk, and, slightly amazed, often began giggling at key moments in my pitch, or yelled out a price of their own devising. Neither intervention was helpful.
This next fact is worrying: many, many people, as we chatted, suggested that no other table had really worked to get them to buy, or even look at, a magazine. I spent a lot of time wandering that floor, and I would agree that at best, four or five tables, out of dozens, made any effort to impress their magazine or book on me. Rose Metal press, Dos Passos, Rougarou, the Florida Review, Ploughshares, and a few notable others tried to engage me in either their work or the process of being that work’s editor. The majority seemed to consider it my duty to be interested in the stories and poems they published.
Here, in contrast, is my sales method, which has been very successful both years I’ve been to the conference. I’m lucky to have a reasonably big-name product, but with different words, the same process could be used for even the smallest magazine or chapbook (I would then stress personal involvement, authenticity, smashing convention). The goal is simply to distinguish yourself from the noise of the fair.
First, catch someone’s eye as they meander past. Anyone who avoids looking, or is pacing at speed, ignore. Let them go: you don’t need them.
Say to the slow, with a smile, “Hi.”
If that gains you their attention, ask,
“Do you know Story Quarterly?”
This usually gets the customer to come to the table and pick up a copy, leafing through its many pages of fiction. I found that speaking a little quietly worked well, as it forced people to step closer. Then, once they have a copy in their hands, and are admiring its firm binding, say:
“Do you write fiction? You do? I could tell. You didn’t look like a poet. They wear those funny hats. If you are a fiction writer, you need to read Story Quarterly. It’s a distinguished literary magazine, been around for decades, now run out of the Rutgers-Camden MFA—if you find anyone in this hall with white hair, and ask them about Story Quarterly, they will cry a little because they admire it so much. It isn’t easy to get into, but we take submissions all year round. You should sign up to our mailing list. We’ve got distinguished, established writers in here, and completely new writers, too. Madison Smartt Bell, Adam Mansbach, Paul Lisicky. And we’re selling it at a big discount today.”
The person asks, “How much?”
“Okay. Normally, it’s ten dollars. But today, we’re selling it for half price: two for ten. You get both the latest and the previous issue for just ten dollars.”
Later, we ran out of issue 43, and so the deal changed to simply half price.
If the person says, “I’ll come back later,” say, “All right, but last year, we sold out. I had to kill people just to keep the last copy in my hands. So come back early.”
If the person says, “I’ve already got too many magazines,” reply, “Throw those other ones away.”
If, “I’m a poet,” then say, “Move along. We can’t help you.” Poets love it when you say that.
I also, while walking around the bookfair, mentioned to other journals that I was working on the SQ table, and that we were selling at a big discount, and apparently a few people did come by, one mysterious individual throwing money at my colleagues and running off with a copy.
Other great lines I heard:
From Ploughshares, “This competition’s so good, I want to quit just so I can enter it.”
From Rosemetal: “You buy this book (the Field Guide to Flash Fiction), and the worst thing that can happen is you end up with six great new pieces of flash fiction.”
On Friday, one young woman asked me, “Are you even allowed to sell things at AWP?” She was mistaken, of course, but had walked through the bookfair in order to reach my table, so had managed to continue believing this after passing twenty or more stalls. This, I think, is a worrying sign, in American Literature’s biggest annual market for small presses. Over and over that weekend, I wondered about this literary world, which often seems determined to produce writing that is not intended to be read.