How to Win Over Your Local Independent Bookseller

Strategies for Writers Shared by Bookstore Owners Themselves

This article was originally published in a slightly different format in the Fall, 2018 issue of Write! Magazine, the newsletter of The Writers’ Union of Canada. Booksellers wishing to print and distribute copies of this article to give to authors are welcome to contact me for permission.

More than ten years after the popularity and viability of self-publishing took off, most post-publication options available to conventionally published authors remain almost inaccessible to those to choose to publish their own books.

Very few self-published books are reviewed in traditional media, and with the exception of an agency or two, their authors remain ineligible for grants and conventional awards. But the literary world is changing. In 2015, The Writers Union of Canada – long the bastion of authors of traditionally published books – voted to admit to membership self-published writers who have “successfully demonstrate[d] commercial intent and professionalism”. Libraries in at least two Canadian cities – Vancouver and Victoria – are taking active roles in helping local self-published authors to find their audiences.

Times are changing in the bookstore sector, too. I recently contacted five independent booksellers from Nova Scotia to British Columbia to discover their current thinking about self-published books, and I found that most have at least developed some kind of store policy to help them manage the increasingly frequent requests from self-published authors to stock their books. Their responses to such requests vary widely – from reluctant to warm-hearted – but none is outright banning all self-published books, as many were doing even a few years ago.

However, the accommodation these booksellers extend to self-published books and authors remains exactly that: accommodation. When it comes to ordering, billing, and returning books, it is much easier for them to deal with traditional distribution outlets than with individual authors: the former require less “paperwork,” and involve fewer egos. In the vast majority of cases, when booksellers stock self-published books, they are doing so out of kindness more than from any anticipation of significant profit. And yet, many of them told me, far too many self-published writers approach bookstores with expectations and attitudes that range from presumptuous to rude.

Booksellers say that most authors, whether traditionally or self-published, have very little knowledge about how independent booksellers operate. Much of what I learned will be of use not only to self-published authors, but to any writer who finds they are expected to contributed significantly to the promotion of their books – which, today, is almost all of us.

Bookselling Basics for Writers

The following basics are among those of use to would-be petitioners:

  • Booksellers love books. Some of them are also writers, but all of them are avid readers. Often they have actually read most of the books they stock, and they know many of their authors. They also know the likes and dislikes of their customers. Over time, their bookstores have developed a particular character that is unlike that of any other. Curation, care and attention are what distinguish independent booksellers from the mass-market outlets that treat books with the same level of affection they accord to refrigerators.
  • Bookstores do not have unlimited space, which means that of all the books they would like to carry, booksellers can only stock a fraction. Since it is almost as hard to make a living from selling books as it is from writing, bookstore owners also need to consider which books will actually sell – rather than merely stocking books to make the authors happy.
  • Authors whose books are considered to be of sufficient merit to be stocked by an independent bookseller are privileged to bask in the reflection of the store’s reputation. That same reputation is undermined if the authors’ books are poorly written, edited and produced.
  • Booksellers who deal with self-published authors will sell their books on a consignment basis. They will typically retain 40% of the cover price of books sold, which is the same percentage they retain with traditional publishers and distributors, and the balance will go to the author. Books that do not sell are returned to the author.
  • Booksellers are extraordinarily busy, and it is always of more value to them to use their time to talk to prospective customers than to prospective vendors – whether publishers’ representatives or individual self-published authors.
  • Booksellers are human. If you exhibit no interest in them or their bookstore until the day you stop by, plunk down a stack of books, and explain that your title is going to sell like crazy and they’d be fools not to take it, their response may be less warm than you might like.

Booksellers’ Perspectives: A Range of Responses

Some highly curated bookstores continue to refuse approaches from self-published authors almost every time. Ben McNally at Ben McNally Books in Toronto says, “We basically say ‘No’ to self-published authors, but then we usually say ‘No’ to Simon & Schuster and Random House as well. We are in the business of selling books, not displaying them.” Any exceptions McNally makes are going to be for books that fit their very particular niche.

Michelle Berry, herself an author and also the owner of Hunter Street Books in Peterborough, ON and a widely published fiction writer herself, explains that she has set up a bookshelf specifically dedicated to the display of self-published books, and she provides their authors’ contact information to customers who are interested. She has found this a viable approach since she is the store’s sole employee and her time is so limited.

Lexicon Books in Lunenburg, N.S. – where two out of the three owners are also published writers – does stock a significant number of self-published books, mostly non-fiction, some children’s literature, primarily local. They do not accept books that have been published by Amazon’s self-publishing arm, due to Amazon’s business practices.

Co-owner and author Jo Treggiari says that Lexicon Books sees itself as a community centre, and welcomes group activities on its premises, like book discussions and readings. Staff members as a group review and select self-published books carefully, typically accepting only those by authors from the area, or ones on subjects that are so specific to the region that traditional publishers would be unlikely to accept them (e.g., a book on Nova Scotia mosses, or a memoir by a local fisherman).

Similarly, Audreys Books, a large independent bookstore in Edmonton that has been championing Canadian books and authors since 1975, also describes itself as a “cultural community centre,” and has now assigned a staff person to acquire and manage its inventory of self-published books. Deborah Hines says that half a dozen self-published authors approach the store each week, and she estimates that there are between 40 and 60 self-published books on their shelves at any given time. Authors must drop their books off along with an information sheet, and give Hines and her colleagues time to examine the book and make a decision on whether or not they will stock it. Like other bookstores, they prefer to stock self-published books by local authors, or those with a particular local slant.

“Authors should have a marketing plan,” Hines says, “so that people will come in and buy the books we stock. Otherwise, no one is going to notice them.” Audreys will also host a book launch, for a modest fee to cover costs.

Munro’s Books in Victoria, arguably Canada’s best-known independent bookstore, has also developed a list of guidelines and a questionnaire for its Consignment Program. Jessica Paul, assistant manager at Munro’s, recommends that authors not approach the store in person, but that they request the guidelines, complete the form, and then wait for a decision.

“The biggest piece of advice to self-published authors,” Paul says, “is to acknowledge and then treat their book as either a ‘vanity’ project (i.e., really of interest only to friends and family, which means that we are not likely to want to stock it), or to come at it like a publisher would, with a marketing and publicity plan. They should also keep in mind that getting a book on a bookstore shelf is not a publicity plan.”

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Coming Soon: “To-Do List for Authors Who Want Booksellers to Consider Their Books”
Thanks to Doyali Islam for editing this article pre-publication in Write.

Book Publicist Wanted: But not just ANY book publicist

Book promotion is a career option with a big future. This is what my ideal book publicist – the book publicist of the future – looks like.

Media technologies conceptI am looking to hire a book publicist, so this post is sort of a job posting. It is also a blueprint and discussion paper for other writers who are looking for really effective people to help them promote their books, and it is a primer on the state of the industry for people starting out in the book-promotion business.

In future (starting now, for some of us), a freelance book publicist will be one of the two truly essential members of an author’s team – the other being (of course) the editor. Soon, great book publicists (like great editors) will only represent the books they love and believe in, and the fact that a specific publicist has taken on your book will act as a credential for the quality of the book itself.

Needless to say, for that to happen, the world is going to need a lot more freelance book publicists than it has right now. Unfortunately most of the ones who are around today – they mainly work for publishers – are just not going to make it past the jump.

I am going to tell you why existing book promotion methods have become ineffective, what does work, and why book promotion is becoming a really exciting and potentially profitable income option for enterprising, creative people who love books.

Why Traditional Book Promotion Doesn’t Work

In the past, book publicists have worked primarily with traditional media (newspapers, radio, television) on behalf of traditional publishers. There are two reasons why this approach is of no use to those of us who are producing quality books independently today – and, in most cases, not to traditionally published authors either.

For self-published authors, traditional outlets are next-to-impossible to crack – no matter how good our books are. Unless our sales suddenly skyrocket as a result of years of dogged hard work, or there is a spontaneous word-of-mouth epidemic, or we engage in some ridiculous public stunt — in other words, unless we become “news” – no one in the traditional print media or the broadcast sectors is going to even look at our books, much less review them, or interview us about anything. To them, we are pariahs.

There are several reasons for our pariah-hood: 1) If traditional media open the doors to one self-published author, kazillions of others will inundate them with their books and demand equal time. At least when media receive books from traditional presses, they can be fairly sure that the books have some merit – no matter how slight it may be. There are no such guarantees with self-published books, many of which are garbage. Who has time to sort the wheat from the chaff? 2) It’s a lot easier to work with the devil you know: publishers’ promotions people and writers’ agents make sure authors and their books arrive on time for interviews, and may even supply book summaries and questions for the interviewers to ask. And if media outlets say “No” to those publicists because they aren’t interested in a book, the publicist doesn’t take it personally. God knows what a self-published author might do if media outlets said “No” to them. To them, it is better to say nothing. 3) Publishers and media people know each other. Many have been friends for decades. To promote a self-published author over a traditionally published one would be like cheating on a spouse. Besides, isn’t it better to go down on the Titanic with your friends than to try to survive alone? 4) Publishers and booksellers buy ads in newspapers and sponsor events. Nobody wants to threaten that (very) thin thread of income.

But perhaps of even more import than the pariah status of self-published authors is the fact that, increasingly, book promotion through traditional media doesn’t work for any author. (Not that it ever was that effective.) People just aren’t reading newspapers and magazines cover to cover they way they used to. TV audiences are no longer captive, either: thanks to PVR/DVR, people only watch the programs that they want to watch. How many people download a book review or author interview from Netflix?

So what does book publicity look like today? Well, aside from the inundations of book promotion by self-published authors on Facebook, Twitter and other social media, we have traditional book-promotion strategies that no longer work – and people who have been trained in those strategies who are no longer useful.

What Book Publicity Must Look Like Now

Those of us who have chosen the freedom of self-publishing over the traditional route need to get creative. We need to think about how our books are going to be received, by whom, and where. We need to think about unusual ways to tell the people who we know are going to love our books that they exist. The routes we need to take to find these people are not the traditional promotional routes. Trying to get reviewed or interviewed in the places where every other writer goes to be reviewed or interviewed just doesn’t work. (Not that it helps traditionally published writers much, either: traditional promotion is like throwing blurbs at blank walls to see what sticks: it’s a one-size-fits-all approach that fits about as well as one-size-fits-all fits anything.)

What we need is a promotional program that is specifically designed for each of our individual books. If I have two books to promote (which I do right now, although several others are waiting in the wings), I need two promotional programs. I need to sit down with my book, think clearly and honestly about its prospective audience (and recognize that it is not for everyone–no book is for everyone), and devise really ingenious ways to find its audiences and tell them about my book. Once I’ve found them, I need to make contact. After that, the quality of my book will do the work for itself. People will love reading it, and they will tell other people, and once the ball is rolling, I’ll be able to turn my attention to one of the other books I want to tell the world about.

In my case, for example, when it comes to the novel Rita Just Wants to Be Thin, I want to reach women everywhere who love reading good fiction and are interested in body-image issues. Men will be interested too, but my primary audience is women. I know how to find these women: I just haven’t had the time to do it. The Adventures of Don Valiente and the Apache Canyon Kid is likely to attract a very different audience. Here, John (my co-author) and I are looking for readers who love to read an unputdownable, thinking-person’s romp. We have a particular focus on those who love Westerns or historical fiction set in the early 1900s, but also on those who have a passing acquaintance with the story of Don Quixote (which includes those attending performances of Man of La Mancha and the opera Don Quichotte), readers of lesbian fiction, and several other groups. I have tons of specific ideas (some ingenious) as to how to reach my audiences for both books.

As authors, we can come up with a lot of great ideas for book publicity ourselves, but such lists are potentially endless and we can’t think of them all. We need creative input. We need help from someone who approaches our book as a reader, rather than a writer. We need to brainstorm ideas, and then focus on the best ones … and then we need to act on them. Consistently.

We can’t do a great job of book promotion on our own—especially when we’re writing the next book at the same time. It’s too time-consuming. It’s also disheartening to us and frowned upon by others. If we do it the wrong way or too often, it can damage sales rather than improving them. We need someone who loves the books we are promoting to help us. And we need to pay them. (And I don’t mean promising them a share of royalties. I mean paying them a reasonable hourly rate that is based on their education, experience, and the ideas and energy they bring to the table.)

Who Is NOT the Publicist I am Looking for

I am not looking for someone who has done a lot of promotion for the books industry, who thinks that he or she knows how to do it and that traditional methods are the way to go. Yes, I am interested in being interviewed on Between the Covers and getting my books reviewed in The New York Times – who wouldn’t be? –  but that’s not likely to happen in the near future (see section on “pariah-hood” above), and it doesn’t matter anyway because such coverage will only reach a tiny part of the audience I want to reach. My audience is a specific segment of the huge huge world of readers, and most of them don’t listen to CBC or read the NYT.

My audience is also international. The new books world breaks down all borders. Therefore I am also not interested in promotions people with a purely Canadian focus.

Publicists who offer to help me create an effective social media strategy incorporating Facebook and Twitter, and to help me build a great website and an attractive blog, are not welcome either. These platforms ONLY sell books for people who are already selling tons of books, and even then they probably don’t –  in and of themselves – sell books. As I’ve explained before, you can’t sell books on Twitter and Facebook.

Finally, I am not looking for former or current literary agents who are trying to earn a few shekels because their traditional paths to riches are closing down (which was the logical future given the state of the industry five years ago, as I described in the first-ever post on this blog: “The Talent Killers: How literary agents are destroying literature, and what publishers can do to stop them.” That was then.)

The Publicist I AM Looking for – Right Now

I am looking for a book promotions person who wants to work with me because he or she has made him- or herself familiar with the range of writing I have done and do, loves my fiction, and wants to work with me to promote my books (specifically Rita and Don Valiente at the outset) in unexpected, fun ways that no one else is using. I want him or her to have an Internet focus and a real-world focus rather than a traditional-media focus.

I am looking for someone who is already interested in the kind of work I am describing. Someone who is just starting out in the field would be ideal. An advanced student in a communications program would be welcome. This is a very part-time gig to start with.

The candidate must be an avid reader of literary as well as popular fiction, and must be creative, energetic and gutsy. Promotion is the really fun part of writing and publishing, and I want to work with someone who gets that. Someone who moves as fast as I do, and thinks as fast as I do. I want someone from whom I can bounce ideas, and who will bounce his or her own ideas back.

I want someone who will see me as a mentor as well as a client and employer. After many years in the books business myself – as former editor in chief of a publishing company, former executive director of a writers’ organization, and an author with more than thirty years of experience, I have been involved with all kinds of traditional books promotion. I know what works and what does not, and I have been intimately involved in the transition to self-publishing (read back through the history of Militant Writer blogs for evidence of that.) I have a wealth of innovative and unusual ideas for my books. To a book publicist who is building up a stable of clients, the ideas I am exploring and want to test are going to be valuable in promoting other people’s books as well.

If you’re in Toronto, that’s great, but it’s not necessary.

This will be a very part-time position at the start, but the hourly rate will be reasonable (you will need to suggest a reasonable rate at some point in our discussions). Just because I want to work with people who have new ideas who also want to learn doesn’t mean that I think that they should work for free.

Those who are interested in helping me promote Rita and Don Valiente should contact me via mary at marywwalters dot com I’ll get back to all emails within a day or two.

To my writer friends: comments and additional thoughts are, as always, sincerely welcomed and appreciated – not only by me, but also by other readers.