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.

Against Professionalism

Behaving in a professional manner, for writers, is really quite easy. Professional behavior basically means writing publishable work, meeting deadlines, not plagiarizing, and not libeling anyone with one’s work. The problem with discussions of professional behavior is that this brief list really is pretty much it, and if one is not yet writing publishable work then none of the rest matters. Well, that’s no way to become a publishing guru, or to sell aspiring writers all sorts of goods and services! And so was born “professionalism” which is running especially rampant in the field of science fiction and fantasy.

Professionalism is a complex of supposedly mandatory and proscribed behaviors that makes a writer “professional” regardless of their ability to write interesting material. Recently, at a science fiction convention I met a former student of mine, and he was very concerned about…his blog. Which he does not have. He was told, however, that today professional writers must all blog, but that these blogs must not offer up controversial political opinions, or negative reviews of popular books, or “ruffle feathers.” Everything must be “politically correct” he believed—to use that famously meaningless term I try so hard to get my students to stop using. I’d told the class Ronald Sukenick’s famous dictum, Use your imagination, or someone else will use it for you over and over.  Maybe one day it’ll stick. So, what to blog about? he wondered. What does a professional blog look like, and how does it lead to publishing deals? I recommended that he concentrate on finishing his book first, and making sure it was as good as it could be.
Continue reading

You Are Not a Gadget…Or, at Least, You Shouldn’t Be

One of Matt Staggs’ links last week was to a New York Times Book Review piece on Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget. I haven’t read the book, but the description of its main points really resonated with me, especially because I’m currently taking a break from Facebook and my personal blog.

This part of the review made perfect sense to me:

Mr. Lanier, a pioneer in the development of virtual reality and a Silicon Valley veteran, is hardly a Luddite, as some of his critics have suggested. Rather he is a digital-world insider who wants to make the case for “a new digital humanism” before software engineers’ design decisions, which he says fundamentally shape users’ behavior, become “frozen into place by a process known as lock-in.” Just as decisions about the dimensions of railroad tracks determined the size and velocity of trains for decades to come, he argues, so choices made about software design now may yield “defining, unchangeable rules” for generations to come.

This argument and others from his book mirror my own concerns about new media. Even as I’ve embraced much of what new/social media has to offer, I also strongly recommend, in Booklife and in my lecture for MIT, thinking about what you’re doing and remembering the importance of balance. In particular, these points:

(1) New media tools like Facebook and Twitter are exactly that—tools. They are not strategies. Just getting on Facebook, creating a blog is not a strategy or a plan. I can’t repeat that enough.

(2) It’s when you mistake the tools for a strategy that you begin to not only become tactical and reactive but also limited in your thinking because of the limitations of the tools.

(3) The most successful writers in the future will be the ones that stop responding in Pavlovian fashion to our current need for that little food pellet in the form of a response to a Blog entry, Twitter line or a Facebook status message.

(4) Further, the tools which you help realize both a creative project and create interest for it are constantly changing. Thus a focus on the tools is a focus on what will all too soon be the past.

(5) A focus on tools thus also means that you are in some ways limiting your options by letting the limitations of the tool and the preconceptions the tool engenders shape your project. Don’t let your imagination become a lackey to a new media tool. If a tool controls your actions, it to some extent controls your imagination.

Lanier’s book also seems to make strong arguments about not supporting mob behavior on the internet, something that we’ve seen too often—in which sheer force of numbers seems to win an argument, even when there hasn’t been true or logical discussion of the issues. Nuance suffers and the facts tend to become distorted.

Food for thought–and a book I’ll be picking up shortly. Amazon has an interesting interview with the author here.