“What could be better than putting a table of books for sale inside a full-size shopping mall?”
Small Business Saturday
An independent publisher faces retail customers
By Steven Semken
Oh, wait, someone was walking
by; I jovially said to the well-
dressed woman, “You might not
have heard, but for the next five
seconds, if you buy a book, you get a free
diamond ring.” Puzzlement. I start
counting down: “Four.”
“A book. One.”
Dead stop. No comment from the
woman. I say, “Well, the sale is over now.
Sorry.” She walks off, staring straight
ahead, no smile, no scorn, no nothing. I
smile to myself. Honestly, I thought it
was a clever conversation starter.
Never fear, I tell myself. Another person is walking by: “Hello, do you like to
read?” I ask.
“Do you like to read?”
With the next person, I try something
different. I ask, “Have you ever thought
of writing a book?”
“Writing a book?”
“Yes,” I hold up a book. Perhaps a
visual aid is needed. “Oh, no,” he says.
And that was the end of that. A few
more minutes pass, and another person
comes by. “Hello,” I say. “Do you...”
“...like to read?”
This person didn’t even break stride. I
Next up, two mall security guards
appear. Perfect. I have just released a crime
fiction murder mystery.
“It’s your lucky day,” I
tell them. “I have just
the book for you guys, a
novel about a private
detective solving a mur-
der right here in the
Quad Cities.” They reply
in slow motion, “Uh...
we’re... not... into...
that... sort... of... thing.”
“What do you mean you aren’t into this
sort of thing?” I ask. “You’re both practi-
cally in the detective business.” They
smile and move along. I look around: the
other authors are at their booths sitting
politely behind their tables, books well
organized in clean formations.
I notice two kids waiting for their
mother by the jewelry store. I ask, “You
two like books?” They reply, “Our mom’s
buying a $1,000 ring right now.”
“Wow, think she’d buy each of you a
book?” They laugh as though I’m a
Things continue like this for the next
three hours. Somehow, I do sell five books.
You could say I never fully lose hope.
At 4 p.m., everyone packs up. I only
made a few sales, but even so, I can say I
enjoyed being out in public engaging
people about books. Many of us in the
publishing industry know the feelings of
being isolated—of working day after day
on writing, design, editing. Of those five
people who purchased books, who
knows, maybe they belong to a book
group, or will suggest the book to their
friends, who might purchase a copy, too.
At the very least, I can dream these
dreams. And honestly, that’s one of the
requirements of publishing: the ability
to dream big, even on Small Business
As an independent book publisher for
the past 24 years, I’m often asked to participate in Small Business Saturday, that
counterpart to Black Friday and Cyber
Monday that encourages holiday shoppers to patronize small and local stores.
When I agreed last year to set up at an author fair in a local shopping mall, it
seemed like a good idea. What could be
better than putting a table of books for
sale inside a full-size shopping mall? I
told one person a few days ahead of time
about the event, and he said, “Good luck;
that mall is empty.” Huh, I thought.
This is the U.S. of A., where shopping is
a way of life.
Upon arrival, I was slightly surprised
to find a parking spot near a main
entrance. And I noted that there were no
banners displaying Small Business Saturday Book Fair. I found the group of participating authors huddled quietly at
their tables, each of them with nice displays. Everyone was full of smiles, their
books ready to be sold.
At 1 p.m., our official start time, nothing happened. Perhaps, I thought, our
event didn’t actually exist? No one was
there promptly to see, purchase, or ask
My booth was across from a jewelry
store. Thinking of a well-crafted novel
with smooth chapter transitions, I raised
my voice and announced, to no one in
particular, “Buy a book and get a free
diamond ring.” Two authors heard me
Still no one in the mall approached.
Steven Semken began the Ice Cube Press, now
located just outside Iowa City, in 1993.
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