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.”