TW Column by David Biddle
Building Alliances With Independent Booksellers
Getting shelved in a bookstore used to be my ultimate fantasy. My work would be sandwiched in the fiction section between Saul Bellow and Maeve Binchy. (I checked that every time I went to our local Borders, before it fell under the corporate blastgun.)
So, after I self-published my first novel last summer and set up a print-on-demand paperback option, I decided to pursue the fantasy. I trundled off to one of my favorite Philadelphia-area indie shops to see if they’d take my wacky novel.
By this time, I’d done a good amount of marketing and garnered ten Amazon reviews (mostly good). I was sure the store would want to support a local author. The Bellow-Binchy sandwich seemed in sight.
Except that the staff of this lovely shop didn’t welcome me with open arms. The store manager, a distracted woman in her late thirties, held a box of books the whole time she spoke with me. She said they might be willing to shelve my book if I sold at least twenty copies at one of their “local author nights.” Bookstore staff would put out information to their email list and post something on the store’s website, but since it was a small business, they really needed authors to “work their contacts.”
Sigh. Working my contacts? I’d been doing that all along. Later, I realized she probably had good reason to be distracted (by the cumbersome box in her arms, for instance), but back then, I knew little about the bottom-line pressures on booksellers.
Old fantasies die hard, of course, and my sentimental attachment to bookstores leaves me with a quandary. How hard should I push to get my work into local shops?
In theory, there is no substitute for the physical presence of a book in the hands of potential readers. Bookstores, whether indies or chains, are still the best places to find people who are actually paid to talk about books to the public. You’d think indie booksellers in particular would have a lot in common with indie authors—and they do.
Yet, my experience tells me that a variety of traditional publishing prejudices and real-world business concerns keep flinging up barriers between these natural allies. If pushy indie authors assume booksellers are just print-bound old fogeys, with antiquated ordering and stocking systems, then they’ll likely be shown the door. Independent booksellers don’t exist to do local authors favors.
In fact, brick-and-mortar bookstores are in direct (and dire) competition with Amazon and other online distributors. Almost every indie author over the past three years has gone into business online, where they can cheaply and easily publish their work as e-books.
Now, all is fair in love and war—and business—but it’s still a hard nut for a lot of struggling booksellers to swallow. You’ve sold 5,000 copies of this as an e-book on Amazon, and now you want me to sell the paperback here?
For booksellers, whose shops usually have limited shelving or display space, quality is also a serious issue. Many indie authors only offer one book and no proof they can continue to produce. And in almost any story of indie author success that involves bookstores, the person responsible for acquisitions reads the indie book and loves it.
Joel Friedlander, who’s been designing print books for decades and blogs at the Book Designer, told me in an email that when indie authors try to sell books to stores or arrange an event, they find out the “awful truth”:
It’s a business, and dealing with a lot of local, one-book, self-published authors isn’t very good business.
Friedlander is sincerely sympathetic to both indie authors and stores. Bookselling is a low-margin venture. He also acknowledges the importance of bookstores as community institutions that can help unknown writers. But as he notes of indie authors, “If you can pull lots of people into their store, they will welcome you. Otherwise, not so much.”
In some cases, indie publishers and indie bookstores have forged connections that have paid off. These are the stories we love to hear. For instance, there’s Tina Boscha, author of the literary World-War-II novel River in the Sea. As she wrote on her blog, when her indie book came out in 2011, she understood that “[t]he only person who was going to get the book out there was me.”
So, she geared herself up and walked into the University of Oregon bookstore and several other local shops in Eugene. At J. Michael’s, she pitched the owner:
I was upfront about being self-published and being published through CreateSpace (essentially Amazon)…. I told him about my background in writing and overall I was polite but assertive—not aggressive—and had copies right then and there should he be interested. What happened next surprised me: the owner said yes and asked about pricing.
Boscha would be the first to say it’s usually not so easy, but as of that December 2011 blog post, she’d placed her novel “in three different local independent bookstores, and I’m on the cusp of having it at a fourth.”
Then there’s the flip side. Pavarti K. Tyler, author of the indie-published fantasy series Two Moons of Sera, noted in a recent email to me:
[A]lmost all opportunities for bookstore placements I’ve found are on consignment. This means you have to pay the printing and shipping AND you have to accept returns. Unless you have buckets of money, this is near impossible.
My own story is a cautionary tale. When that store manager said I’d have to prove myself at a local author night, my heart sank. “It really requires effort on the part of the authors to generate an audience for the event,” she added. Typically, these evening readings include several other writers. I’d be surprised if thirty people attend. So, it’s an author-vs.-author showdown for a small number of open wallets.
Most of my reader friends in Philly have already purchased my book, so I understood the store’s position. Still, I passed.
Resolving these conflicts is not impossible, but both sides of the indie divide need to benefit. For one thing, success with bookstores may depend on the type of book.
Mike Spinak, the author of the 2012 Growing Up Humming, a 44-page book about hummingbirds, says 25 percent or so of the stores he’s visited in California have agreed to carry his book.
“One bookstore had a large banner behind the counter saying they welcome indies,” he reported in an email to me. Spinak adds:
I’m sure more will welcome indies, as they become an increasing percentage of industry sales, and as [bookstore] systems develop to better deal with them.
Spinak may be right about the future, but Growing Up Humming has been highly praised on Amazon for its beautiful photography and layout. A short book that’s mostly pretty pictures is far different from a 400-page novel like mine.
Joe Konrath counters the optimism about bookstores. Konrath, a traditionally published author for years who’s now an outspoken advocate for self-publishing, is famous for visiting hundreds of bookstores around the country to hand sell his work. However, in an ironically titled 2012 blog post “Amazon Will Destroy You,” Konrath directs this take-no-prisoners nugget of advice at indie authors:
Bookstores and publishers and distributors are NOT essential to the process. You should have evolved.
Konrath is right, too. And this isn’t a question just for indie authors. These days, most writers have to do the heavy lifting with marketing. Even those with PR teams setting up readings for them need to put in time and effort to visit stores, do readings and signings, and participate in Q&A sessions.
The best indie authors are highly motivated to sell their own books. Most have spent the past several years not only writing books worth reading; they’ve also put a lot of time into social media, marketing, and promotions.
That said, in the very near future, we won’t be talking about big-box, corporate bookstores anymore. The only places left will be independents. Successful indie bookstores have survived the onslaught of Borders and Barnes & Noble with the same kind of entrepreneurial moxie. For instance, Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon; City Lights Books in San Francisco; Strand Book Store in New York City; and Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have successfully networked with book lovers and other local businesses.
We belong together. And in truth, savvy indie shops need savvy individual writers. Any bookstore willing to carry a hungry author’s title is a bookstore that hungry author will champion in blog entries, at cocktail parties, and in newsletters to his or her email lists.
So now I’m doing more research into Philadelphia-area bookstores. I may devote a week next summer to meeting with store managers and buyers in order to learn how they deal with author-entrepreneurs—and, perhaps, to discuss new possibilities, such as establishing that all paperback sales of my work will be handled by bookstores.
My knowledge of what’s percolating at small shops around the country is still limited, but I’ve come to see that receiving promotion through a bookstore’s mailing list isn’t chump change. It’s also on me to step up. Maybe I’ll go back to my favorite indie shop and discuss a book-release dance party for my second novel. Maybe I’ll promise copromotion of the store through my own website and mailing list.
Maybe I’ll even hire a live band and hold the shindig at a larger venue on my dime. I’ll invite the bookstore folks and go out of my way to plug them—regardless of whether they’re selling my book—as an investment in goodwill.
That dream of seeing my name sandwiched between Bellow and Binchy? Just another lesson in writerly vanity. At the moment, book pages at Amazon, iTunes, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo, and several smaller sites are good enough for me.
But I doubt any author ever falls out of love with bookstores, especially the independents in our hometowns. Tina Boscha says it well in her 2011 post, starting with the U of O “Duck Store”:
What has been brilliant about having the book there is getting to know the staff to the point that they called me to let me know they had sold four of the five copies and were reordering.
Amazon hasn’t called yet to tell me they’ve sold any of my books. I’m pretty sure they don’t even know I exist.
- Joel Friedlander, personal correspondence, 2013. Also see his post “Indie Bookstores and Indie Publishers—on the Same Page?,” The Book Designer: Practical Advice to Help Build Better Books, April 2, 2010.
- “The Indie Author and the Indie Bookstore” by Tina Boscha on her blog, December 3, 2011.
- Pavarti K. Tyler, personal correspondence, 2013. Also see her website Fighting Monkey Press.
- Mike Spinak, personal correspondence, 2013. Also see Mike Spinak’s website.
- “Amazon Will Destroy You” by Joe Konrath, A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing, February 13, 2012. Also see Konrath’s 2006 post “Tour Day 41, 42, and 43,” part of his detailed log of visiting bookstores.
- "Stack of Books, Den Haag" © Janelle Ward; Creative Commons license.
- "Bag of Books" © Niels Linneberg; Creative Commons license.
- "Self Portrait, Stack of Books Sculpture, Prague Library" © Dave Henri; Creative Commons license.
David Biddle is the author of the novel Beyond the Will of God and two collections of short stories (Trying to Care and Implosions of America). As a freelance writer, he has published articles in such publications as the Harvard Business Review, Philadelphia Inquirer, Kotori Magazine, and BioCycle. He was a contributing editor for In Business magazine for over a decade.