State of Independents

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Overcoming Authors’ Reticence. Or, How to Make Bookshops Love You and Your Book

Posted on October 3, 2011 by

A couple of weeks ago I was deeply honoured to be asked to join a panel at the Society of Authors in Scotland to discuss ways in which authors could promote themselves and how it was nothing to be frightened of.  Unlike my fellow panel members the wonderful Peggy Hughes from the Scottish Poetry Library and the equally wonderful Colin Fraser of Anon poetry magazine and social media expert, I’m not able to speak intelligently off-the-cuff so I had a prepared talk for my ten minute slot.  Some peope have asked about it and so here’s a tidied up version…

Good morning. I’m delighted to have been asked to join you today to talk about how authors can promote themselves to bookshops. It’s a sad fact that just as publishers’ lists are shrinking, so are budgets for marketing and promotion and so are the teams of sales reps who tell bookshops about new titles. It is essential that authors are willing to market their books to some degree, whether on-line or in person. And I do know that that’s hard for some people – being a writer is about having time and space and solitude and when your book comes out you’re suddenly expected to become an extrovert willing to talk about all aspects of writing and your life as well as the actual book and to devote time to blogging and Tweeting and maintaining your Facebook page etc.

I do sympathise with anyone who is horrified by the prospect of promoting themselves to bookshops and readers but I’m here today to tell you what bookshops need from you in order to sell your book and to share a few of the awful encounters I’ve had with authors – names have been changed to protect the guilty though, so don’t worry. What you have to bear in mind, more than anything, is that finding good books to sell is as essential for bookshops as breathing is to you and I and that we need to work together to do that.

Publishers big and small have fewer reps out on the road talking to booksellers and I know that there will be thousands of books that simply pass under my radar, so we need authors to bring their books to our attention. One of my raisons d’etre is to discover great books – it’s a wonderful feeling to have someone come back to the shop to tell me that the book I pressed into their hand changed their lives. It’s why I’m a bookseller.

Lovely books and lovely authors make bookselling a great way to make a living. And books and their authors are not inseparable – there are books that I only take one copy of or ignore altogether because the author is vile and there are books whose authors are so talented and charming that we take multiple copies and put them face-out, on the table, in the window etc. We’ve often joked about having a Lovely-O-Meter and where authors sit along it, but joking aside, being nice gets you an awfully long way. Never, ever forget that, whether you’re the top of the best-seller charts or just dreaming of when you can give up your day job to write full-time.  I know that I have a reputation myself for being fairly sharp-tongued at times but many people will tell you that I’m quite nice really and always willing to chat to people about their books and to see whether it’s a title that could work in our shop.

So, why would I choose your book? Roughly 135,000 books are published in the UK each year. My shop stocks around 3,500 titles, depending on the time of year. Even if we ignore the truly awful books that are published, that still means that I don’t have space for all the books that are worth stocking. Therefore, I have to be really picky. Every single title in our shop is hand-picked. I know my customers and their tastes and I’m always looking for lesser-known titles to surprise them with. Books that are half-price in the supermarkets or cheap-as-chips on Amazon aren’t, with some exceptions, particularly attractive to me. My customers typically buy a lot of books but few buy exclusively from me and so my stock has to be unpredictable, comforting, challenging, entertaining, quirky and reliably high quality. And I like to be able to recommend books that they may not have seen elsewhere. But my aim is to sell books – if I can’t sell a book then it isn’t worth wasting space in the shop on it and I don’t stock books just to be nice to writers. It’s a harsh economic world out there and every book in the shop has to earn its place on the shelf.

A good example of the mid-list, not-especially-well-known book that I love to stock is Diamond Star Halo by Tiffany Murray. This book was read and enjoyed by a bookseller friend of mine, who hand-sold it to a mutual friend of ours, who in turn passed it onto me, telling me how much she loved it. I read it and I’m now selling it to masses of our customers. That I mentioned on Twitter how much I was enjoying it and Tiffany popped up to say hi didn’t hurt. She was friendly but not pushy and that’s nice. It’s a mid-list title, by a fairly new author, from a small publisher, Portobello, and although they have an excellent sales team, it had passed me by. It’s a lovely novel but without a hefty publicity budget to buy space in promotions or advertising it was dependent on word-of-mouth to build awareness. If you extrapolate the sales seen in our bookshop and my friend’s bookshop and can replicate that across say 50 bookshops, that could be around 1,000 or so sales in a year. And our shop’s best-selling fiction title has sold over a hundred copies since it came out in February. Imagine that extrapolated across a few dozen shops…

If you’re a mid-list author you need to befriend your local bookshop because if your publisher isn’t paying for you to be in promotions, your book will be shelved in the back of big bookshops or languishing on Amazon where it will be relying on people going to look specifically for it. Or you’re relying that their ‘you might like this’ algorithms are working in your favour. Given the random stuff they’ve suggested to me, I wouldn’t place too much hope on that.

When you befriend one bookshop you befriend many, because booksellers are among the gossipiest people on earth. We love to talk about books – after all, none of us are in this game for the money or the glamour – and when we get together we talk about books we’ve loved, books we’ve hated, books that that came out of left-field and pleasantly surprised us and authors who’ve been a joy or a disaster to work with. Seriously, when it comes to the last of those, half a dozen of us can spend a riotously cheery hour and several glasses of wine swapping horror stories.

So, how do you make a bookshop love you and your book? How do you give your book a chance to make our hearts sing and how do you establish yourself on the Lovely-O-Meter? I should point out that I’m not speaking for all booksellers, just myself. Although I think many of my points would be echoed by others…

Firstly, tell us about your book. But not a couple of weeks before Christmas when I am running around like a headless chicken; not when I’ve got a shopful of customers and never, ever on a Saturday because I’m just too busy selling books. Drop a copy of your book off, marked for my attention, and if you want it back, enclose a padded envelope with enough stamps. I don’t like having to keep lots of books hanging around as we don’t have the space so if there’s no envelope I will assume that you don’t want it back and it will end up in the charity box or the recycling bin.

I’m actually quite a nice person and I know how much you love your book and how proud of it you are and I don’t want to trample on your dreams. However, when you ask me what I thought and I say something vague about it not really being right for our market or whatever, please understand that I might be trying to let you down gently. Of course, it might just be that I don’t think your book’s right for our customers so don’t over-analyse it.

Don’t tell me that you know better than I what my customers want to read. Especially if you’re not actually one of our customers.

Don’t nag me. My husband and our accountant will tell you that doesn’t work. I have a business to run, I am busy and I have a to be read pile by my bed that looks like one of Waterstone’s unlamented 3 for 2 tables. There’s some fantastic stuff in there that I’m looking forward to reading and some stuff that’s probably dross. But if you ask us to consider your book and drop one off, I will read as much of it as possible and if I like it then I’ll order it in. If you really want to know what I thought, emailing is hugely preferable to ringing me or rocking up at the shop. If I didn’t like the book then the latter two put me on the spot a bit and I would rather tell you the bad news by email rather than face to face. You’ll look downcast and I’ll feel as though I’ve kicked a puppy and that’s not nice for either of us. Just because you haven’t heard from me doesn’t mean that I didn’t like your book though – it might well have been ordered and be just waiting for the right customer.

Don’t pitch your book to me on Twitter or Facebook or our blog or wherever. Be professional – send me information and don’t harrass me.

Love your local bookshop. Don’t do all your shopping on Amazon or wherever and then try to play up the fact that you love our shop so much and you’ve written a book that you think I should stock. If you buy a book now and again and are friendly and chatty then when you tell me about your book I’m already predisposed to give it a go.

Don’t do what one author did recently when he called in on a Saturday and wanted to talk to me about his new novel.  His wife cheerfully pointed out that they’d never been in before because they lived in the New Town. I live in Stockbridge and those of you that know Edinburgh will know that the cross-town ride on the number 23 isn’t the most arduous of journeys. Geography alone is not a reason for me to stock your book. Being local and an occasional customer will ensure that I at least read it though. No-one is too big to concern themselves with their local bookshop – you can ask some of my customers who have sales most writers only dream of.

And when you make it big, and if your work is good then I hope you do, remember the people at the independent bookshops who championed your work. They are the people who made sure that the big old world out there actually read your book by actually putting it into people’s hands and telling them how good it was.

If you were at my talk you’ll see that I’ve tweaked this a little just to make it more coherent for those who weren’t at the conference.  I hope it’s of interest/useful and thank you to everyone who has said such nice things about my talk.

You might also find this blog post I wrote a couple of years ago about how not to sell your book to a bookshop interesting.  Almost all of it is completely true although it will take wine or chocolate to persuade me to tell you which bits…


10 Responses to “Overcoming Authors’ Reticence. Or, How to Make Bookshops Love You and Your Book”

  1. Colin Galbraith
    October 3rd, 2011 @ 1:15 pm

    Great article with some great advice. Thanks for posting it for those of us who weren’t there.


  2. Ashley Dartnell
    October 3rd, 2011 @ 6:44 pm

    Thank you Vanessa for your article. Gives new authors hope that they can actually find a market separate from the behemoths. Best, Ashley Dartnell

  3. Stephanie Zia
    October 4th, 2011 @ 8:35 am

    Great article, thank you. I recently visited my old local bookstore for a launch. I had both my novel launches there and had a good relationship with the owners. When I asked if they’d be interested in stocking my new novel they threw their hands up in horror because it is a POD paperback. They wouldn’t countenance it in their shop. Assuming this would be the response everywhere, I haven’t approached anybody else. Is this assumption correct? What’s your view on PODs offered by the author as sale or return? Is there any point, do you think, in going into my new local Daunt’s?

  4. Dark Puss
    October 4th, 2011 @ 8:11 pm

    Thank you, such good advice thoughtfully given. I hope the right people will read it!

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  6. David Darracott
    June 28th, 2013 @ 4:55 pm

    Thanks so much for this post that shows us the challenge of offering good work–from your side of the fence. Too bad most bookstores in the U.S. do not agree with you or do not bother to try finding new, high quality books. The major distributors have a lock on the books that are shelved here, in the big chains and the small independent shops. I would be delighted to find your counterpart here in the U.S. who would give me a moment to explain why they should take a look at my work.

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  9. Connie Grudzinski
    July 3rd, 2013 @ 6:28 pm

    Very much appreciated this article, yes, a high level of professionalism is a good thing

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Welcome to State of Independents. I'm Vanessa Robertson. I live in Edinburgh and my husband and I run a tiny publishing house. We also used to own the award-winning Edinburgh Bookshop. This is where I write about the book trade as I see it and I'm not always as diplomatic as I should be...

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