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5 Things Working in a Bookstore Taught Me About Writing

Most writers have day jobs, which feed into their writing. Every Friday I’ll be asking a writer what unexpected lessons their day job has taught them about the craft.

This week, I asked writer Gretchen Schreiber to share her experiences working at a large bookstore chain.

Writer Gretchen Schreiber

Gretchen Schreiber moved to LA for graduate school and never left. Between freelance jobs, she works at a bookstore and tries not to spend her whole paycheck on books. During her off hours, she's working on a YA fantasy novel about palace spies. You can find her on Twitter @GretchSchreiber.

Gretchen: I've been working at a book store for the past three years and I've been a writer for even longer. There are so many things I learned about writing and craft and characters, but working at a bookstore taught me a lot about writing and about being an author; developing both will help with your career.

Lesson #1: Selling books is a team effort--be nice to everyone

The industry is small. I feel like this can be said about any industry. And while I think a lot of writers are nice to the "above the line" people agents and editors, writers should also be nice to the "below the line" people like booksellers and bloggers.

Be nice to the people selling books because they're the ones actually putting books into customers' hands. We talk about authors who are nice to us and try to push their books and to the authors who aren't, we send their books back straight away.

Stay humble and be nice. We're all working towards the same goal = selling books. Work with people.

Lesson # 2: The Art of the Pitch

As a bookseller I pitch books every day. Over the years, I've perfected my pitches on a few books. Part of my MFA was pitching, but it wasn't until I was in a non-educational environment that the gloves really came off and I learned how to pitch. Customers will instantly show whether or not they're interested.

Their faces fall, they start looking around--customers are not your CPs or friends, they want something good and they are not afraid to tell you when they're not interested. The thing is once you've lost them, very very rarely can you turn it around.

As a writer a strong pitch is also helpful to keep me centered. Whenever I feel like I've hit a way or feel "blocked" I go back to the pitch. The pitch should be the hook and a quick sum-up of the plot.

By looking at the whole in such a confined way I can usually backtrack to where I've erred. Most of the time I find it's when I've strayed too far from the pitch.

Lesson # 3: There's being a writer---and being an author

Writing is what the writer does, but there are so many more things an author is responsible for. I'm good friends with our Events Manager and we often talk about what writers can do to be successful. I've found you can't always rely on the store to bring you the outreach you need or want for an event. You have to sell yourself.

Selling books means getting involved in the community. Make friends and invite them to events--better yet if you have several author friends combine forces and do a multi-author event (again remember lesson no. 1: Be Nice to Everyone). Giving out door prizes, swag, or specialty items is also a way to get people there.

I've found it's important to start thinking about this now so that you can develop your public persona along with your writing.

Lesson # 4. It is a business--and that's important to remember

When I first started writing, I had all these romantic thoughts about sitting in front of my computer on a rainy day, wrapped in a warm sweater, with a steaming mug of tea next to me while I composed wild prose.

And while that's a nice image, and I've certainly achieved that level of grandeur at least once, it's not the every day--or even every time I sit down to write. Clearly because I don't live under a perpetual rain cloud, but also because sometimes writing isn't glamorous. I realized it was a business the first big Tuesday I worked. For those of you who don't know, Tuesday is the big release day in the book world.

I learned quickly that for every book coming out, a book would be leaving the shelf. Sometimes I would put books on the shelf and they would sit there until I had to return them. It was hard because even if I knew it was a great book, I couldn't get anyone to pick it up.

This quick turn over taught me to not be precious with my work. There is little space in writing for ego, but seeing how fast books can be sent back made me more inclined to take CPs advice to heart. To ruthlessly attack my novel to make it the best product out there. Revisions for me are often overhauls. New scenes. Smoothing out or adding subplots. Changing characters to better fit the story. It means the first and final drafts often look nothing alike--but the end product is always better than where I started.

Lesson # 5: There's so much out of your control--focus on what you can do, not what you can't

Every week I adjust displays or put up new ones at the store. These are things that have been agreed to between the company and the publishers. It's a reminder that after the book leaves your hands it's really out of your control.

I'm a control freak by nature, so learning how to let the work go was hard. I've watched friends go through different paths to publication from self-publishing to traditional big four houses. Some choices will give you more control than others but they do always come with a cost.

Who gets more reviews or who gets a big marketing deal for their book is really out of your hands, so focus on what you can do. Write. Meet other writers. Work on your author presence online--no you don't have to do this and it might or might not boost your sales depending on what you do, but meeting people and having friends in this industry is always a positive.

It all comes back to writing and that is something you can control.

Thanks to Gretchen for this week's post! Any valuable lessons you've learned from your day job? Do share!

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