James Crossley on the Bookseller’s Perspective, for Authors

As noted on Monday, I’m kicking off my book tour this week. Tonight I’m at the University Bookstore in Seattle with Cat Rambo and Cherie Priest. Tomorrow I’m at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. Friday, Nov. 6, I’ll be appearing with Jay Lake, Cat Rambo, and Jeff Johnson at the Press Club in Portland–and then doing a solo reading at Powell’s in Portland on Saturday. Sunday, I’m doing a Booklife workshop at the Hugo House in Seattle, and then a lecture titled “Bookwork for Booklife” Monday night, Nov. 9, also at the Hugo House.

Today, an excerpt from the Booklife appendices, which include a variety of opinions and resources to support both your creativity and your career. James Crossley works for an independent bookstore near Seattle:

Island Books, an independent, family-run business, is one of the oldest bookstores serving the greater Seattle area, with an experienced staff that helps match readers of every age and interest to the right books, whatever they may be. We ship for free to any location in the US, but you’ll have to come to Mercer Island in person to see our collection of antique typewriters.

Here, he shares some tips for writers in their dealings with booksellers. – Jeff

(James Crossley)

(1) If you’re reading at a bookstore or participating in any other similar event, remember to be gracious. Audiences are forgiving of many faults, but they don’t usually enjoy arrogance. One writer’s opening appearance in front of a substantial, welcoming crowd consisted solely of staring at the lectern and saying, “I’ll read for about fifteen minutes, and then I guess we’re supposed to move on to a Q&A session, but hopefully we can dispense with that, because I don’t really see the point.” Now, these kinds of appearances can become tiresome and repetitive, but there’s certainly a better way to express discomfort with the process than by announcing, in essence, that you don’t want people to buy your book.

(2) Your graciousness should extend particularly to the store staff. Ideally, a reading will result in some immediate sales, but for a writer without an established reputation, the more significant impact will come later on as booksellers spread the word to their customers. If your book is of interest to the staff, it will be one that’s remembered and recommended, and making a good personal impression can only help in this regard. I worked with a woman who was a big fan of a journalist who’d co-authored a couple of edgy and informative books about marginalized industries including punk music and adult films, and she heavily promoted his work whenever she had the chance. She was delighted to help arrange an event for him, but in person he proved bizarrely hostile and demeaning, and by the end of the evening she’d been reduced to tears. Thereafter, his sales fell off more than slightly, not surprisingly.

(3) When trying to convince a retailer to carry your book, similar rules apply. Before you pitch whatever it is you’d like to sell, check the store out in person if you can and be honest with yourself about whether you can imagine a place for your book on its shelves. A shop that emphasizes business titles and vacation thrillers may not be suitable for your young adult novel. Try to engage with the staff about the place and what they like to read and sell, not in an artificial way, but to size up how well your book fits in. If you find someone who seems amenable to what you have to offer, expect to give away a copy to sway the decision maker. A bookseller will pay far more attention to an actual book than she will to a postcard or flyer. If you can’t make an actual visit, at least research online as best you can to better target your approach.

(4) When you’re communicating with a retailer, be conscious of how he’ll sell your book even if he hasn’t read it. What’s its intended audience? Don’t say everybody, provide a specific hook. “It’s great for fans of smart, action-oriented historical fiction, like Patrick O’Brian’s books,” or “It has a very contemporary setting, but the characters are discreet and the story unfolds gently, so it has more appeal to the Jane Austen crowd than it does to Sex & the City viewers” or “It’s for literary readers who find Pynchon too simplistic.” If there’s a local connection, highlight it. You may feel as if you’re reducing your work to a caricature, but once you’ve shown that your book can sell to somebody, you’ve established a beachhead of sorts and word of mouth will begin to push it in other directions.

(5) If at all possible [if you don’t have the support of a traditional publisher], make sure your book is available through the major distributors such as Ingram and Baker & Taylor. The terms won’t be quite as favorable to you as they would be if you supplied copies yourself, but easier availability makes it much more likely that your book will be stocked. Many independent stores will work directly with you, however, especially if you’re willing to consign your book. Self-publishing no longer carries the stigma it used to, but customers are still concerned with aesthetics, so pay attention to the design of your book if only to make sure it doesn’t stand out in a negative way. This is an area where an expert can really be of service.

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