| This Weeks Column:
BOOKSELLER AT LARGE
... a MobyLives guest column
by Dan Bloom
4 JULY 2005 I write this column from the island nation of Taiwan, far off most Americans' radar screens. I've been in Asia since 1991, five years in Japan and now eight years in Taiwan, and everyday is an adventure. I make my living as a freelance reporter and university lecturer, and I have a weekend hobby working as a book vendor in the country's colorful night markets.
I sell my own books, nothing else. A few years ago, when a large publisher in Taipei asked me to write a book about my adventures in Taiwan, I jumped at the chance. I wrote the text in English, a collection of 32 short chapters on expat life in Taiwan, and a friend translated my English essays into Chinese and the book was published in Chinese only Chinese.
Titled something like "This is how I came to enjoy my life in Taiwan," the book was published in an edition of 3,000 copies, a normal run for books in Taiwan, and I was paid royalties of 10% around 30 days after publication for all 3,000 copies. The concept of "returns" or "remaindered books" does not exist in Taiwan, apparently.
All writers here get paid for all books printed, 30 days after publication date. It's a nice deal, a nice way of treating authors. On the other hand, the concept of an "advance" is unheard of here. You write the book first, you get paid 30 days after publication for all copies printed, and you hope for a second printing . . . .
In my case, the book did not sell very well in bookstores nationwide. That's an understatement, actually. The book did not sell at all. Even though the book was placed on the ''new books'' table at most large bookstores, there was little "name recognition" or even less title recognition. For most foreigners publishing books in a Chinesespeaking country, this is normal and I was not upset.
However, I did want my book to reach readers, at least 3,000 readers, in order to help my publisher make its money back. A Taiwnese friend who ran a small tatooing stand in one of the local night markets suggested that I take some of my books and place them on a table in his booth and meet people face to face as they strolled through the evening flea market.
"Try it," he said. "You can greet people with your smile, say a few words in Chinese or Taiwanese, introduce your book and see if you can sell it that way."
I took his advice and set up my a table. Having never "performed" in public before, and having no idea how to be a nightmarket "barker,' I stood near by table, shouted out my sales chant (which in Chinese came to something like "Come here, come here, take a look at my new book! Just one hundred Taiwan dollars!")
One hundred Taiwan dollars is equal to about three American dollars, so the price was right. Not only that, but the sight of seeing a bignosed, smiling foreigner selling his own book in a local night market was enough to make people curious enough to approach me and start chatting in English, Chinese, Taiwanese, or Japanese.
The first night I sold three books. Not bad, but most importantly, the evening sales gig helped me to get over my initial stage fright, and it also showed me that there was some potential there.
I began selling my books on a nightly basis, visiting different night markets in various cities to widen my potential audience, and after two years of doing this, mostly on weekends when people are out strolling in the night markets in force, I had sold 5000 books.
My publisher was so happy that he ordered a second printing and a third printing, and I went on to sell 7,500 books this way.
Of course, selling the books at half their bookstore price meant that I didn't make much of a profit at all, but I accomplished two things: I found a steady readership for my book, and in the process, I became a kind of "ambassador of friendship" in Taiwan between the local population and the small group of expats from North America and Europe who call this island home now.
As a result of my novel bookselling gig on the streets, meeting potential readers face to face, the national TV networks sent camera crews to interview me and the national newspapers ran stories in Chinese about "the foreigner who sells books with a smile." The publicity generated increased sales and led to a contract for a second book, also published in Chinese only, titled "I Love Taiwan's Night Markets."
I've been selling my books this way for four years now, and although there are now five books in my Taiwan series, the bookstores still have a hard time selling any of them. That's okay with me. I am not a celebrity with name recognition, and I like things just the way they are. The night markets allow me to meet my readers, and all my books sell well now.
Most importantly, I have had so much fun selling my books this way, and have learned so much about Taiwan by meeting and greeting so many people over a four year period, that I have become somewhat addicted to this weekend hobby of mine and I plan to continue selling my books this way.
I'm still not a bestselling writer here, and I never will be one, but the experience and feedback from readers has been wonderful. I found the American Dream in Taiwan. Go figure.
Dan Bloom is the author of Bubbie and Zadie Come to My House and It's Never Too Late to Begin Again in English, and several Chineselanguage books for the Taiwan market. He has made his home in Asia since 1991. The Taiwan Ho website features this article about Bloom and his books.
©2005 Dan Bloom
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TELEVISION WITHOUT PITY . . . Tired of the short story writer's life, guest columnist Steve Almond explains why he's now writing television shows such as "Blog and Order."
READING TO CHAIRS . . . When Quinn Dalton showed up at a bookstore to read from her new book, she was greeted by . . . empty chairs. In a guest column, she asks herself, "Why bother?"
THE KILLER POET . . . When a big haired poet asks the literary gumshoe to whack a librarian, he feels the weight of the whole world of poetry on his shoulder. Will he do the right thing?
All material not otherwise attributed ©2000 2005 Dennis Loy Johnson.