How to Get Booksellers to Love You (And Sell Your Book)

Erin Haire is the manager of the Hub City Bookshop, an independent bookstore run by the Hub City Writers Project.

As a retail bookseller, one of the most exciting aspects of my job is interacting with authors.  The relationship between authors and booksellers, ideally, is mutually beneficial.  We have a common goal: sell some books.  As a bookseller, I’m much more likely to do that with an involved and enthusiastic author.

In the spirit of continued goodwill between authors and booksellers, here is some advice from a fairly successful independent bookseller to authors who are getting their start.

1.  Be nice.  Do you really catch more flies with honey than with vinegar?  Absolutely.  This is the most important and least frequently heeded advice I give to authors, especially those just starting out.  A good attitude and friendly demeanor will open a whole lot of doors when dealing with retail professionals.  When you work in customer service, you have to deal with some unhappy, rude folks.  It’s just comes with the territory.  If you make it your business to avoid the ranks of the disgruntled masses, my gratitude will get you one step closer to having your book on my shelves.  On the other hand, if you get me on the phone and tell me that you don’t think I was raised right because I haven’t had time to review your memoir, I’m not stocking it.  Period.

Once your book is in the store, there is nothing that makes me happier than selling books by authors I know to be genuinely nice people.  Most other booksellers I know feel the same way, so be nice to them.  Also, be nice to the reps at your publisher, because they’re the ones selling the books to us.  Generally, just be nice.

2.  Make sure your book is available.  This sounds like a no-brainer, but the easier it is to get your book the better.  If you know the name of the sales rep I should be dealing with at your publisher, put his or her phone number in the packet you send.  If it’s available from a wholesaler like Baker and Taylor or Ingram, make that clear up front.  If you’re self-published or with a very small publisher, I strongly recommend making sure that at least one of the big wholesalers carries your book.  If the book sells and the only way I can get more is to call you directly, it may or may not be worth my time to get a hold of you.

3.  Include all pertinent information when you make first contact.  Did you go to high school two blocks from my store?  Has your family lived in our town for a hundred years?  Do you teach at a local elementary school?  Is your cover art a photo of a local landmark?  If so, please tell me!  Mind reading is not an ability included on my admittedly impressive resume of personal skills.  If there is a particular reason you think your book will do well in my store more than others, lead with that.  Well, introduce yourself first, and then tell me about your mother’s book club that meets down the street and has a hundred members that are all dying to buy your book.  Remember, I like selling books just as much as you do.

4.  Get on Twitter.  This might sound like silly advice and you might think it’s not for writers who are serious about their craft, but get over that attitude quick.  Yes, Jonathan Franzen doesn’t like Twitter, but he doesn’t need personal contact with booksellers to ensure we stock his book.  After you win the National Book Award, maybe Twitter becomes a bit redundant.  In any other case, it can be an invaluable tool.  Twitter allows you access to a community of people who successfully work in the book business.  Publishers, editors, agents, bloggers, booksellers, and authors are all represented.  Participating in a community of like-minded people will feed you creatively and professionally, and Twitter is a very easy way to get involved.

Hopefully these tips will offer some insight into the minds of independent booksellers.  I think that the folks who make an effort with booksellers without a doubt have more successful events, more publicity for their books, and higher sales.  We love books, and we are constantly looking for the next fantastic piece of literature to champion and the next great author to get excited about.  Be committed to your work, because we’re committed to books. Also, be nice.

E-Books and Issues of Entitlement

By now, it’s unlikely you haven’t heard of the dispute between Amazon and Macmillan. That dispute and its resolution is important, but a larger issue has come to light: namely the sense of entitlement some readers have with regard to getting e-books dirt-cheap. Part and parcel of this attitude is a basic misunderstanding of the breakdown of costs associated with publishing a book.

For example, one of the biggest faux bits of logic I’ve been seeing is that “If the mass market paperback is $7.99, why can’t I get the e-book version from the get-go at that price?” Well, the fact is $7.99 for mass market paperbacks only works if you’re printing tons of books. It’s also important to note that many authors never get their books published in mass market format because the publishers rightly have estimated that based on hardcover and trade paperback sales, that particular book won’t sell enough copies in mass market. So they don’t reach the $7.99-a-book threshold, which includes the print-a-crapload-of-copies threshold.

Other examples show a basic misunderstanding of distribution, or of the fact that the actual physical printing of a book is a fraction of the cost of producing a book.

But what I find most inexplicable is the level of venom directed by some readers at publishers, and by extension writers, like some kind of scam is being perpetrated upon them. It’s especially ironic given that the book industry is usually dealing in unit sales of an individual book of under 20,000 copies, whereas other forms of entertainment like movies and music are dealing in unit sales of over 100,000 copies. In other words, there’s not much room for price discounts.

What’s led to this sense of entitlement? Here are some possible factors, beyond the basic fact of there being lots of free content on the internet.

—The proliferation of free book downloads offered by publishers and writers.

—The constant attacks on copyright, and thus the overall idea of “ownership”, on highprofile blogging platforms and websites.

—General attacks on software limiting a user’s ability to copy an e-book, especially attacks that don’t do so in the context of respect for the creator’s wishes or need to make money from their work.

—Deep discount pricing of e-books by entities like Amazon to encourage the sale of e-books.

—Google’s book scanning project, which, under the guise of “fair use”, has made significant portions of hundreds of thousands of books available online with no regard for the rights of the writers of those books.

Have these factors led to this sense of entitlement? I don’t know, but it’s worth thinking about. It’s also worth noting that we often cause problems for ourselves as authors by thoughtlessly adopting whatever hot new media idea pops up on the internet. In some cases, I think we begin to contribute to our own disenfranchisement in doing so.

If this sense of reader entitlement proves to be pervasive or becomes the norm, then writers will be in a tough position, and the only way to make money on e-books will be to retain the rights yourself and self-publish–meaning you will also have to become your own editor, your own typesetter, your own distributor, etc.

Although you can self-publish more easily today than in the past, it’s not going to help you that much unless you are a celebrity like Wil Wheaton, someone with an existing high-profile platform like John Scalzi or Cory Doctorow, someone who is already a bestselling author, or unless you are prepared to basically become your own publishing house (involving a series of skillsets that most people don’t have).

In such a scenario, if e-books do eventually dominate the marketplace and physical books have only a fraction of their current market share, it’s entirely possible that unless this situation resolves itself into a compromise whereby readers actually show respect for the creators of the stories they love that we will see one of the largest mass extinctions of published writers in the history of literature. They’ll still be writing–but they’ll be largely invisible, and also unable to even dream of writing full-time.

My feeling is that it won’t get that bad, but we as writers have to do our best to make sure it doesn’t–by educating readers and doing our part as writers to make sure that our actions don’t contribute to the problem.

(For the best series of posts on the subject, including the Amazon-Macmillan fracas, visit Jay Lake’s livejournal.)

Good For Your Booklife: In Praise of Indie Bookstores

One thing about my recent five-week book tour behind Finch and Booklife that I particularly loved was getting to read in so many great independent bookstores. Indies are extremely important to the well-being of book culture and often serve as strongholds for author events. This month, Indiebound has listed Finch as one of its Indie Notables, something I’m very proud of.

You can find some longer descriptions of indies in my book tour reports for Omnivoracious, but below the cut I’ve written downpersonal impressions of the indie bookstores I visited during the tour–including some little-known facts about each. A huge thanks to each and every one of them.

I’m also rolling out the new Finch negative campaign ad video (see above). Friends and fans from all over the world contributed to the video. After some bugs in moviemaker, Matt Staggs stepped in to finish it, including doing the voice-over. If you like the book, please feel free to post the video and a link to Indiebound this month, along with your own praise of the indies. Thanks.

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A Grim Future for America’s Bookstore Chains?

Marketing maven and provocateur Seth Godin has the blogosphere talking today with his post “It’s not the rats you need to worry about.” Godin stated that online bookseller Amazon and the Kindle had done to bookstores what iTunes and filesharing did to the once-profitable music store chain Tower Records: rendered them obsolete and even an impediment to the customers who matter most, heavy users. Godin stated that bookstores depend on shoppers who buy one hundred to three hundred books a year and that the Kindle, which offers near-instantaneous delivery, more variety and a less expensive format, is incentive enough to abandon the bookstore.

Certainly, it has been a tough year for the major chains. Borders Group narrowly avoided bankruptcy when creditor Pershing Square Capital Management agreed to extend the pay-off date of a nearly $43 million loan, allowing it an opportunity to take numerous cost-cutting measures, including the closure of 100 Waldenbooks locations. Competitor Barnes & Noble fared better, but experienced hardships of its own as it headed into the holiday season with reported quarterly losses.

Both chains have already taken steps to capitalize on the growing e-market. Borders Group began selling the Sony Reader in its stores some years back, and Barnes & Noble launched its own branded e-reader this year, the Nook. Further, Borders Group announced plans this month to invest in Kobo, an e-book content delivery service spun off from Canadian book chain, Indigo Books & Music. But is all of this enough to save the brick-and-mortar chain bookstore in America? Probably not.

When it comes to the e-reader’s natural habitat, the internet, Amazon holds the home field advantage. Online since 1995, the company’s website attracts over six hundred million visitors annually, has no storefronts to maintain and is already a trusted name in e-commerce. The Kindle reader is estimated by some to already hold up to 60 percent of the US market share in e-book sales. Further, along with big box retailers Walmart and Target, Amazon is putting the squeeze on chain bookstores in the hard copy arena as well by offering selected popular hardbacks for as little as $9 a piece. From any perspective, it doesn’t look good for the long-term future of the big chains.

As the reading public becomes accustomed to e-readers, the market for paper books will grow smaller, limited to collectors of special editions and a dwindling sliver of customers who refuse to embrace e-reader technology. Chain bookstores may wake up to find their commanding share of the American marketplace greatly diminished, forcing them to cut fat, consolidate resources and focus on winning the hearts and minds of local customers. In this arena, they may face great competition from not only Amazon and whatever e-reader platform that’s left to pick up the crumbs, but also the surviving independent bookstores, many of whom have had years to sharpen these very same techniques in their own war against the once-mighty chains.

n653213921_1671825_1056996Matt Staggs is a literary publicist and the proprietor of Deep Eight LLC, a boutique publicity agency utilizing the best publicity practices from the worlds of traditional media and evolving social technologies. He has worked in the fields of public relations and journalism for almost a decade. In addition to his work as a publicist, Matt is a book reviewer and writer whose work appears in both print and web publications.