You’ve just published your first book. You’re brimming with happiness, ready to send your darling out into the world. You know that publishers don’t have time to devote their full attention to each and every book they publish, or perhaps you’ve decided to self-publish, either way you’ve accepted that you’ve going to have to do a little self-promotion. No problem. You grab your galley copy and head straight for the nearest bookstore…and straight for disaster.
I too thought that it would be easy enough for an author to approach a bookseller as part of their efforts at book promotion. That is, until I put in a few years as a manager in a large bookstore and saw so many authors fall flat on their faces at just the moment when they could have given their book wings.
It’s true enough that authors need to do their own promotion. U.S. publishers release nearly 300,000 new titles and editions each year, and that’s not even counting print-on-demand and self-published titles. That’s a lot of new books competing for a limited amount of shelf space. Online bookstores offer new opportunities, but when it comes down to it, real brick and mortar bookstores are special places frequented by those with a true appreciation for the written word and where unknown debuts can catch a browser’s fancy.
So how do you approach a bookstore and get your book in that coveted display window or drive aisle table? Below are a few dos and don’ts. I’ve learned from the mistakes and successes of authors who have approached me.
1. Do be friendly. First impressions count. No matter if you’re talking to a temporary employee who was just hired or the manager who’s been there forever, remember that this person’s impression of you can make or break your success.
2. Don’t just send an email or letter. If at all possible you should come into the store yourself. It’s too easy to dismiss an email with a form letter or just trash it unanswered. If you must send an email, make it as professional as possible, brief, and friendly.
3. Do make sure your book is returnable. This is a foreign concept to most authors, but vital to booksellers. Most books can be returned to the publisher if they don’t sell and their credit can be applied to future purchases. If a book is non-returnable and it doesn’t sell, the bookstore has to eat the loss. Do everything in your power to make sure your book is returnable! If not, be extra humble and as flexible as possible to work around this, perhaps even offering to buy the books yourself if they have not sold in a year.
4. Don’t demand immediate attention. Bookstores come in a range of shapes and sizes. While some managers may have the leisure to stand and chat with you for hours, most of them don’t. If you are asked to wait, do so graciously. Customers will generally take priority over unknown authors. The more customers, the more people will come and see your book once you’ve gotten it into the store.
5. Don’t look down on booksellers. They are the front line of the bookselling industry. If you manipulate and bully your way to getting your book on display (just to get you to go away), it will be promptly taken off display the second you leave, and you can bet that no one is going to be handselling it to customers.
6. Do educate yourself on how bookstores are run. Do you know what a face out means? (The book is shelved with its cover facing out) Or what the drive aisle is? (The center aisle where most customers walk) What about the difference between a returnable and a non-returnable book? (see above)
7. Don’t limit your thinking. If you’re approaching a chain bookstore, chances are that most of their prime display space is already taken up by publisher-bought spaces. But some of these stores don’t always comply with these promotions, and if they really like you and your book they can probably make space. Or if you can convince one bookseller to read it and they like it, it can go up front as a staff selection. Or it could go on a smaller endcap display. Or at least be faced out in the section.
8. Do respect the manager’s time. Briefly introduce yourself, come up with a concise way to describe your book, indicate some of its selling points, and then let the manager explain her/his point of view. You can be as wordy as you like on the page, but now is the time to be pithy. You can always learn more by listening.
9. Do form relationships. Booksellers and bookstore managers are people. If you can create a good relationship with them, you can bet that you’ll be seeing your book on display. Not to mention that they’ll be happy to recommend your book directly to customers, adding that they’ve met you personally and you’re fantastic.
10. Do try to get a reading. Always find out if they have a reading series and ask who you should contact about setting up an event. Then rally the troops and pack the place. Nothing like a full house for a good first impression.
11. Do ask for your book. This is a nice way to start the conversation. If you ask for your book and they don’t have it, ask if it can be ordered. If not, then check with your publisher to make sure it’s being properly distributed. If they have it, check out how it’s currently being displayed. If you’re happy with the display, let them know you’re the author and thank them! Otherwise, mention that you’re the author and ask politely if you might talk to a manager.
12. Don’t forget that a bookstore is a business. If your book isn’t going to sell, it isn’t going to sell. Most bookstore managers know their market a heck of a lot better than you do. If they take one look at your book and tell you it isn’t right for their displays, ask why and listen carefully. Accept what they say and don’t argue. Learn.
13. Do know and promote your strengths. If you’re a local author, say so. If you’re affiliated with a nearby university, or have some other outstanding credentials, don’t forget to (humbly) mention these things. Anything that might make your book more interesting to customers is a plus for the bookstore.
It’s important to bear in mind through all of this that a bookstore exists to sell books. Simply put: all you have to do is show that your book will excite customers and will sell. Always, always remember that you’re on the same team, both trying to sell great books. You just have to convince them of what you already know: you’ve written a great book.