The Ten Stages of Selling Your Debut Novel at the Bookstore Where You Work

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  1. While grabbing more bags from the basement, overhear one of your co-workers mentioning to a customer that the book they are buying was written by a bookseller at this very store! Hear another co-worker chime in that the book is “amazing,” and feel so much warmth in your heart that you could cry. Then hide under the basement stairwell until you are certain the customer has left the building.
  2. Stand smiling behind the register until you see a familiar turquoise-and-gold cover peeking out beneath a pile of critically acclaimed/universally beloved books. Panic and leave your co-worker to check the customer out. As you disappear into the employee closet, hear the sweet exclamation your co-worker makes when they find your book in the pile.
  3. Check how many books you’ve sold this week whenever you’re alone behind the register. Delete all trace of this search before someone sees what you’re doing.
  4. See your book again in another customer’s pile, but this time, will yourself to be a professional and stay behind the register. Okay, you make your co-worker ring up the purchase, but hey, you’re still here! When the co-worker sees the book and nudges you, brace yourself for the reveal. When the customer claps their hands to their face in disbelief, say, sincerely, that you have the best co-workers in the world. The best co-workers in the world force you to sign the book at the register. When you’re alone again, check how many books you’ve sold that week.
  5. Someone is looking for a multigenerational family novel. Suggest Pachinko, Homegoing, and White Teeth. Your co-workers have been eavesdropping. “Do you want to see a brilliant debut novel that takes place in a Chinese restaurant?” they cut in. They lead the customer over the L’s in the fiction section. Then they point to you. “I can’t believe you didn’t recommend your own book!” You laugh. “That’s what I need you guys for,” you say.
  6. In the spare pockets of time when the bookstore is quiet, take a stack of your books and sign them all, delicately placing an “Autographed” sticker next to the illustrated duck dangling at the center of your cover. Your co-workers now laugh whenever they see you with a sharpie.
  7. See a customer pick up your book and put it on their pile. Follow them with your eyes as they continue to peruse the store. When you check them out later and see that they’ve put your book back on the shelf, feel not the relief you were expecting, but a new kind of disappointment.
  8. A group of customers asks if you work at the bookstore full-time. “No,” you say. “I’m also a writer.” You find yourself hoping that they’ll ask the usual question, and when they do—“What have you written?”—now you’re the one leading them over to the L’s. “You wrote this?” they all say, and then proceed to each buy a copy for themselves. You sign happily and smile for a group photo.
  9. You spot the ol’ turquoise-and-gold and this time you’re ready. “I wrote this!” you pipe up as you scan the barcode, your hand passing over the matte cover that, even a year later, you’re still amazed belongs to you. The customer says, “No way.” You flip to the author photo on the back flap and place it right next to your face. The photo is unsmiling, but you are beaming and so is the customer and so are your co-workers.
  10. Realize there are only a few hardcover copies of your book left in the store, and less than a week before your paperback comes out. A new feeling comes over you. You’re going to sell every last book. Corner your co-worker with the nice handwriting and ask for a favor, notecard and sharpie in hand. Stick the card she makes beneath your book and read the words on display: “Written by Literati’s own bookseller: Lillian Li.”

Lillian Li’s debut novel, Number One Chinese Restaurant is out in paperback today, June 4th, 2019, and available wherever books are sold.