Six Lessons my Five-Year-Old Can Teach You About Selling Books

It was a cold, rainy day and I was at the college where my wife works to meet with an acting student who needed to record an audition for a film role. Although college was in session, the elementary school was closed for the day and so my job after coaching my student was spending time with my five-year-old son.

Those of you who follow me regularly on Twitter (@pauljennynyc) and Facebook often see photos and hear stories about this little boy’s abundant energy, wild craziness and free-flowing imagination. He inspires me to write and to tell stories for a living. Seeing the world through his eyes keeps wonder alive in me. He’s always saying or doing something surprising, silly or even profound and I’m a better person in his presence.

After finishing the coaching session with my student, I came back to the lobby and my son had set himself up behind a low bench that he was using as a table. He had five paper cups festooned with push pins, screws and paper clips with hand written price tags next to each decorated cup.

I knew right away what those cups were. They were Daleks. My son is obsessed with the Daleks from Dr. Who and loves to make models of them with whatever he can get his hands on.


Fair use. Uploaded by Edokter to Wikipedia.

Three of the Daleks had $1.00 price tags. One had a $10 price tag and another cost $1001. Each handmade Dalek pretty much looked like every other one, but he was trying different prices to see what would sell.

LESSON ONE: Try different price structures on your books. Most of them will probably sell at $.99-$2.99 but I think it’s a good idea to put a few of them out there at a higher price. There is even some research to suggest that setting the price higher and then marking that price down during a sale will suggest that the book is a really good deal. You already know that it IS a good deal, but the psychology of the good deal is well-documented.

I asked him why the one Dalek was so expensive. He said, “Well, if someone has that kind of money and really likes Daleks, they might buy it for that much.”

I had to agree with this kind of thinking, but I thought the more expensive Dalek needed something to set it apart so I took a gold paperclip and made it into a kind of antenna for him. I said, “Here put this on the expensive Dalek and say it is a ‘Special Edition’ and then people will think of it differently.”

He grinned from ear to ear and poked a few new holes to put the “golden” paperclip antenna on the special edition Dalek. Now it was different. Now it really was a special edition compared to the other Daleks.

Students wandered by the bench as they were passing from class to class. With each and every student, my son would hop up from behind his table, run over to them with a big smile and say, “Do you want a Dalek?”

The students would come over thinking he was giving them away, but then he showed them the price and their smiles would turn into frowns. Most would say they didn’t have any cash and then walk away. My son started to get frustrated.

I said, “You should always say, ‘Would you like to buy a Dalek?’ that way they know you are selling them and the people who are interested in buying will come over and look at what you’re selling.”

He agreed. He tried it with the next group of students. They were interested and came over to check out the paper cup Daleks.

LESSON TWO: Make sure you let people know you are selling your books. Just putting them on the various sites for sale but then never doing any kind of outreach won’t be very effective. You have to reach out and let people know that you have something they might want. There are may ways to do this without being spammy. By doing some research you can find the best ways to do this for the genre you’re working in.

Those students still didn’t buy. It seems college students don’t carry a lot of cash on them during class. So, I made another suggestion.

“Next time someone comes by, politely say, ‘Excuse me, would you like to buy a Dalek?’ then, when they say, ‘I would like to but I don’t have any cash’, offer to trade them something for the Dalek instead.”

He tried this tactic with the next student – a young man with glasses who was definitely a Dr. Who fan.

“Excuse me, would you like to buy a Dalek?” my son asked.

“How much are they?” The student looked amused and slightly uncomfortable and pushed his glasses back up on his nose.

“This one is $1001 but that is a special edition with a gold antenna. These are only $1.00.”

“That’s a great deal! But I don’t have any cash.”

“Would you be willing to trade something?”

“Let me see…” The young man pulled out his wallet and checked his pockets to see if he had anything he could trade and in doing so, noticed that he did have a dollar.

“Actually, I do have a dollar. Here you go!” The young man handed him a dollar.

My son beamed. He jumped up and down. He waved the dollar in the air.

“Don’t forget to give him his Dalek and say thank you,” I said.

“Oh! Here you go. Thank you!” He handed the young man his Dalek and continued to do the money dance while squealing and leaping around the room.

LESSON THREE: By engaging with your customers you can make more sales. By letting them know there are many ways to purchase what you have to offer you give them lots of opportunities to become a buyer. Being polite by saying “Excuse me” and “Thank you” is always a good practice. Also, money dances are a lot of fun and fill me with joy!

For the next three hours my son asked almost every person who stopped buy if they wanted to either buy or trade something for a handmade Dalek. After awhile he started offering them to buy or trade and his “sales” slowed.

I said, “You should lead with, ‘Would you like to buy a Dalek?’ then if they say they have no cash, offer to trade with them. By giving them too many options right away, they can’t decide and then make no decision at all.”

He thought about this and nodded. Then he started making some drawings to sell. He was getting low on Daleks. The only ones left were the $10 and $1001 Special Edition Dalek.

LESSON FOUR: Giving your buyers too many options all at once is confusing and can cause people to not engage with you. I have a few friends who are selling classes, books, lectures, seminars, workshops and I get so many emails and notices from them that even if I wanted to take part, I wouldn’t know which offer to take because there are so many of them. Some offer free things for participating, some offer discounts if I act by a certain time, but all of them are being offered at once and I get overwhelmed. I know I’d rather just get one solid, convincing offer that is a great deal than tons of offers all at once.

The drawings he made were almost as popular as the Dalek models. He drew a picture of New York City, Dark Vader (he insists that’s what he should be called), tanks fighting, a train, some scribble marks, a page full of ‘W’s and lots of pictures of R2-D2 and BB-8, his newest obsession.

LESSON FIVE: Diversify! You really need more than one book to make any money. Look at what other authors are doing. They are usually busy building up a catalog. The more product you have to offer, the more diverse of an audience you can reach. He needed more than one product to keep people’s interest. Not everyone is into Dr. Who. There were a surprising amount of college students who didn’t know what a Dalek was.

As the day went on he sold four of the five Daleks. (He let the $10 Dalek go for a pen/stylus combination that matched his tablet. Pretty good trade!) The $1001 Dalek went home with us, it was a Special Edition after all.

handmade dalek

He sold or traded all of his drawings. He earned $3.95 in cash, plus a 10p coin and a Danish coin (perhaps a 50 øre). He traded for a green pen with no top, a catalog from Mrs. Fields, a gorilla key chain with no arms that he said had a 3D butthole (turned out to be a small screw in the gorilla’s backside), a half pack of gum, a piece of a sugar cookie, a piece of a brownie cookie, the pen/stylus and a bobby pin to hold his money together.



At the end of the day, as he was packing up, he gave away all the leftover drawings to his lucky last customer. The money dance was danced many times. He had a great day interacting with people of all ages and backgrounds. He earned enough money to go to the toy store later and buy himself a new toy, but he also learned a very valuable lesson:

LESSON SIX: By creating something from nothing, putting it out there in the world and saying “If you are interested in this, I will trade you something for it” you can have a very rewarding life. There might not be a ton of money involved but you could end up with a bag full of treasure by the end of the day.

If you take these lessons from my five-year-old and apply them to your book sales, you’ll be doing the money dance in no time! Leave a comment if you do. I love hearing from you.

Kurt Vonnegut – Writing Quote Wednesday


I took this Writing Quote Wednesday from Kurt Vonnegut (November 11, 1922–April 11, 2007). I was part of his lost NYU lecture on what it takes to be a writer that was recently posted on Brain Pickings.

I once ran into Mr. Vonnegut at Penn State. He was eating at a table across from me. The way I remember it, he was by himself looking off into the distance almost as if he was thinking up the plot to some new story he was working on or thinking about what kind of drawing he might want to do next.

I wasn’t brave enough to approach him and say hello, but he certainly made an impression on me, sitting there by himself, thinking.

It is even more moving, thinking about that moment, when I read the full quote:

I’ve heard that a writer is lucky because he cures himself every day with his work. What everybody is well advised to do is to not write about your own life — this is, if you want to write fast. You will be writing about your own life anyway — but you won’t know it.

And, the thing is, in order to sit alone and work alone all day long, you must be a terrible overreacter. You’re sitting there doing what paranoids do — putting together clues, making them add up… Putting the fact that they put me in room 471… What does that mean and everything?

Well, nothing means anything — except the artist makes his living by pretending, by putting it in a meaningful hole, though no such holes exist.”

I’m doing some work right now to push through to the next level in my work and my life and one of the techniques I’m using involves drawing what I’m experiencing and then interpreting those drawings to gain insight into the situation. In my last session, which was a few weeks before I saw this quote, one of the drawings I did was of a man with several holes surrounding him. I had no idea what the holes were when I drew them and the man in the drawing had no idea what to do with them either.

Now I know that those holes I drew were meaningful holes to put my pretending in. Those holes do exist. Even though nothing means anything, putting our pretending in those holes is the way we, as artists, make our living.

Penn State English professor Kevin Boon had this to say back in 2007 about Mr. Vonnegut, “If I had to sum Vonnegut the man in one word, I would say he was, in all matters, gracious. If I had to sum his work, I would say that, in the end, the message threading his oeuvre is that people, as a whole, are cruel, but people, on an individual basis, are precious. Team players who are blindly loyal to ideologies are the primary reason the world has experienced so many atrocities (Dresden, Hiroshima, Auschwitz, slavery, racism, sexual intolerance, sexism, greed and the contemporary horrors of Iraq, Katrina, Darfur and so on), while the best results of our presence on Earth — a sonata by Mozart, a painting by Van Gogh, a poem by T.S. Eliot, a statue by Rodin, Gene Kelly dancing, Maria Callas singing — are the result of brilliant individuals producing single, epiphanous moments of beauty in a world that is largely inhumane.”