Sunday, October 4, 2015


I visited an artist-friend yesterday at her studio, where many paintings she would like to sell cover her walls. She would not charge very much for them. Heck, a lot of them she’d just give away for the satisfaction of finding the right home for the piece; somewhere it would be appreciated. But she, like myself, is not a salesperson. I identify with her plight. I don’t have what it takes to market myself. We talked about this, about her passion for painting, mine for writing, and how we couldn’t stop even if we wanted to (which we don’t); and about not being able to sell our work, to connect with a purchasing audience, to “monetize” our creativity.

The “selling gene” is absent from my DNA. During the years when I had children at home and their schools and sports teams sold things to raise money, I always bought out. If each baseball player was supposed to sell 10 candy bars, I paid the coach for the candy bars and told him to keep them. Magazine subscriptions, tulip bulbs, every conceivable variety of tooth-rot candy, seed packets, event tickets, you name it and I could not sell it. Neither could my children. I passed my failure at sales on to them. None of us could sell a thing. My children and I could not even talk anyone into sponsoring the children when they participated in events, such as Jump for Heart (to raise money for the American Heart Association). We couldn’t even sell raffle tickets. You would think that I would have won something during those years when I bought $10, $20, $30 (however much was required to remain on the team, to help the school, to promote the cause) worth of raffle tickets myself so that my children and I didn’t have to sell them. But I never did. The raffle-winning gene seems to have bypassed my DNA as well. This is often a good thing when you live in a progressive rural community and the item being raffled is, say, a cow or a colonic. But I would have liked winning a trip to Hawaii, a quilt, or a case of wine. Rural raffles are sort of a crap shoot that way. But all I ever got out of the raffles were the tickets.

Some of my children’s teammates demonstrated impressive selling talent. One boy on my older son’s sports team sold $600 worth of peanut brittle one year. I don’t think I know anyone who eats peanut brittle. In fact, I’m not even sure what it is. I can’t remember if I have ever seen this substance. Peanuts set in concrete? I say this because most of the things the baseball teams sold to raise money were designed to inflict severe damage to teeth. Maybe I could have made some money selling dental care gift certificates to the people who purchased the $600 of peanut brittle. Anyway, if I remember correctly, you don’t actually need teeth to play baseball. The baseball fundraising was the worst. Fortunately, my older son dropped out of baseball early on and his younger brother, who was passionate about baseball for a few years, lost interest in the game before he lost any teeth. He preferred soccer and water polo, which thankfully didn’t require me to sell things.

I realize that it’s deeply un-American for me to be incapable of selling, unpatriotic in fact. Our political system is built on sales. Without advertising, how would anyone know who or what to vote for? I suspect that I am unclear on the concept of closing a sale. I have brought homemade cookies to the school bake sale only to buy back the same cookies I baked from the bake sale table for my children. Since I bought the ingredients, I have then paid for the cookies twice. Perhaps it’s my math disability kicking in. (My disability is that I can’t do math. I need to drink four cups of anti-stress tea to balance my checkbook, which never balances.) I have no doubt that if my life depended on me selling an aspirin to a shopaholic with a whopping migraine headache that I would wind up pretty much dead, in fact completely dead. I’d probably manage to talk the shopaholic out of ever taking an aspirin again as long as s/he lived. I couldn’t sell wood shavings to a nesting hamster. I’m hopeless.

So what was I thinking when I self-published a book? That the entrepreneur fairy would appear and zap me with her magic wand? If there is a word for the opposite of an entrepreneur, that’s me. The entreprenot. I know what I want to buy and I don’t let salespeople talk me into buying anything I don’t want to buy. So I wander through life clueless because I imagine that everyone else is the same way. I make that dangerous error of not being able to view the world from someone else’s perspective. I make assumptions about others based on my own worldview. I assume that if people want to buy my book they will. I don’t need to make a nuisance out of myself by getting in anyone’s face about it. No matter how wonderful the product, no matter how much I believe in it, no matter how much I think the buyer will love what they buy from me, no matter, it feels morally wrong to me to try to talk someone into buying something. The first thing that publicists tell us authors is for us to write our “elevator speech,” a one-sentence pitch that authors can rattle off in the event that they find themselves in an elevator with Steven Spielberg. I feel 100% certain that if I found myself in an elevator with Spielberg I would offer to carry his briefcase and not mention that I am the author of a book that would make a great movie.

On the other end of a sales pitch, I am vicious. On the rare occasion that they get through all my filters and do-not-call listings, when they call, I hang up on telemarketers, pollsters, and salespeople in under five seconds. I refuse samples in food stores, actually mark junk mail “return to sender” and send it BACK to the perpetrator, leave coupons for products I don’t buy at the cash register when they print out with my receipt, and mute the TV during commercials while watching football games. I am the anti-marketer, the original non-consumer. If I am in the market for something, like a car or a bed, and the salesperson says they can offer me a special deal but I have to take it in 24 hours to get the special price, I’m out of there faster than the Roadrunner. My aversion to being sold to is probably the underlying reason why I can’t sell to others. If I would hang up on myself, walk away, throw the flyer in the trash (or refuse to take it when thrust at me), then I don’t feel comfortable making the call, approaching the prospective buyer, handing out the flyer.

It’s ironic that I have spent more years self-employed than working for others. You would think that I would never manage to get work because I don’t promote myself. But that’s not the case. I started a contractual grant writing business and I have consistently secured great clients for over 15 years without ever having set up a website for my grant writing biz or doing any promotions or marketing. I started a publishing company and sold 2,000 copies of my book despite my reserved marketing style. (When I think of how many copies of my book the kid who sold the $600 of peanut brittle could have sold it makes me sick. But so would peanut brittle.) While 2,000 may not seem like much, the truth is that less than 2% of books published sell more than 1,000 copies (and less than 20% sell more than 250 copies). If only I had that sales gene, I would be a famous writer by now. A bizarre twist to this is that I write grants for a living, for heaven’s sake. I convince the federal government to give my clients millions of dollars, and I think that pretty much qualifies as selling on some level. But it’s different because my job is to convey an excellent narrative; and if the narrative is excellent enough (and follows all the instructions), then the funder awards the money. If only selling was nothing more than telling an excellent story.

In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, he shows that Jobs was not a computer whiz or a brilliant engineer but a masterful salesman. Jobs knew how to market the stuffing out of a product. That’s what really made him so successful. If Jobs held a bake sale, you can bet that the cookies would be hyped so much ahead of time that millionaires would fly in from all over the world in their private jets to purchase one of those chocolate-macadamia-nut specials. Of course, if any of those cookies crumbled then the buyers would need to take the cookies to an authorized Apple cookie repair agent to be reassembled and uncrumbed for eating. Jobs knew how to work it. He would never buy his own cookies back at the bake sale. I bet he even knew how to balance his checkbook.

I just don’t know how to work it. I can’t bend it like Jobs. There must be lots of people out there who would enjoy my books, who would get something of value out of them, something to take on the journey through life. There must be more than 2,000 people in the whole world who would enjoy my books. But these hypothetical people who populate the world simply don’t know about my books and I don’t know how to connect with them. I can’t monetize. I can’t close the sale. Sigh. I confess that I do get a sense of satisfaction from the fact that the kid who sold the $600 of peanut brittle drives a UPS truck for a living and my non-salesman son has a college degree and makes a six-figure income. No selling involved. Perhaps there is some justice in the world. Have a cookie.

I didn't know what picture to put on this blog post so chose 
chocolate macadamia cookies. Eek. Now I want to eat some.

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