Jazz in Ecuador, Butch's BBQ, and books
My excuse for being in Asheville was that my niece and her family, who live in Ecuador, were visiting my sister. My niece gave a benefit jazz recital to a sold-out crowd at my sister’s house on the same night that Tony Bennett was performing at a somewhat larger venue in Asheville. She’s coming along as a performer and the crowd was receptive to her familiar American Song Book repertoire. The pickup band who accompanied her are familiar with the music, too. In Quito, however, there are challenges. My niece sings in English, for the most part, and introduces each song with a lengthy explanation in Spanish. Still, this is unfamiliar foreign music to her audiences there. She has to put in long hours of rehearsal with the few musicians she has found who have any notion of American jazz at all. And even though some of them are students in an extension program of Berklee School of Music, the notion that some jazz can include vocals is totally unfamiliar to them. They have heard of but not heard Luis, er, Louis Armstrong and Eja, er, Ella Fitzgerald. That’s it.
Now put yourself in the position of an Ecuadoran listening to my niece. This is foreign music with lyrics in a foreign language (difficult to comprehend even if you speak the foreign language fluently) that tell the stories of a foreign culture. It is an experience similar to attending a concert in the US of a touring group from, say, South Africa. The music is lively and catchy and entertaining, but its foreignness is at the core of your experience. You do not relate to it the same way you relate to the familiar music of your own culture. Once the group has gone back to South Africa and the tour publicity has ceased, what do you retain from the experience? There is no empathic relationship built up between that touring group and you. My niece has that problem selling herself to the public in Ecuador, and for the same reason.
On the way to Asheville, and again on the way back, my wife and I stopped along the road for lunch. Both times we chose a local barbecue place in North Carolina. (On both trips we also carefully avoided eating anywhere in Pennsylvania; experience is a great teacher.)
On the southbound trip, stopping for gas, we spotted a place at the top of the hill. One store promised “scenic souvenirs,” which we somehow managed to avoid, but the barbecue place next door looked clean and reasonable. It had the expected kitschy gewgaws on the wall, along with a number of posters of Andy Griffith and Don Knotts for some reason we did not inquire about. The menu was unexceptional; the service was prompt and friendly, if somewhat impersonal; the food was far better than we had any right to expect. And yet the place was sufficiently unmemorable that I cannot tell you its name or its location along I-77. I’d be hard pressed to find it again unless I happened to need gas at the same point on the next trip down.
On the trip home, though, our experience was different. We knew we wanted to eat somewhere west of Statesville, where I-40 and I-77 cross, because that area is saturated with franchise restaurants. Even if there is some local gem hidden there, we would not have been able to find it. On the tourism informational panel listing restaurants at Exit 103, we saw a promising-looking sign for Butch’s BBQ. Okay, let’s try it. From the outside, the building was nothing special. With different signage it could have been a Dairy Queen or a KFC or a dry cleaner. But in the parking lot we noticed three or four catering trucks. Clearly, the place had a local reputation sufficient to keep those trucks busy on weekends. That was a good sign.
Inside, the place was clean and neat, not laden with quaint decorations. We ordered at the counter, where a middle-aged man in a Butch’s BBQ tee shirt took our order, talking us through the choices of sides. He volunteered, “Now if you try something and don’t like it, just bring it back and we’ll give you something else. You can taste anything you like right now.”
He seemed a little too enthusiastic to be someone who took the job after getting laid off from a software company. So my wife asked, “Are you Butch, by any chance?”
“Yes, I am,” he said. And he continued with his spiel as he rang us up.
A couple of minutes later, after we’d picked up our order and were beginning to eat, Butch was working the room. After a minute or so he was at our table, talking about the food. I had ordered a smoked chicken salad sandwich. Before I got to my second bite, Butch informed me that it was made with chicken breasts he smokes himself. He gave us the recipes for both his white slaw and his red slaw (same as the white slaw but with cayenne pepper added). He offered that the hush puppies on my wife’s barbecue plate were all-you-can-eat. “Just come back and ask for more. We’ll give ‘em to you.” Yes, he makes all five barbecue sauces himself and bottles them. “Taste that bun. It’s homemade. I refresh the sourdough starter every three days, the old-fashioned way. Well, actually, my wife does.”
He gave us a card and continued around the room, pausing to take a call on his cell phone (when we noticed that the back of his shirt listed three locations), chatting up other customers, and then returning to the counter to wait on some more new customers.
Butch and his wife, we learned, started the business thirty-two years ago. And yet here he was, as enthusiastic to talk about food, smile at customers, and act as a role model for his employees as any newly promoted store manager trying to prove his worth to the boss.
I should mention that the food really wasn’t as good as that first place we’d stopped on Saturday. But it’s Butch’s we remember, because the retail transaction is about more than the actual goods exchanged. That’s true when you shop, too, isn’t it?
It’s true for the book-buying public, too.
Whether you self-publish or get a deal with Random House, selling books doesn’t end with creating a marketing plan. The actual selling—making the empathic connection with the purchaser—is your responsibility as an author. Whether you like selling or not, whether you are a natural salesperson or not, no matter how introverted you may be in real life, you have to stand up and smile and shake hands with people and pretend you enjoy signing autographs and expressing your heartfelt best wishes for cousin Jimmy’s wedding and say howyadoin’ like you really mean it. Moreover, no matter if it is all an act, you have to be convincing at it. Shirley has to go home from your reading and tell her friends the story of how you and she really connected, if only for a moment. She has to tell that story for years. So don’t give her a perfunctory brush-off when she dawdles at the signing table to ask about your dog, okay? Because she’ll tell the story of your rude brush-off for years, too.
You can’t sell books sitting on your ass, even if you have to write them that way. That’s what Butch understands. You have to understand it, too.