Approaching Bookstores

There’s a video of me on YouTube, that goes for like twenty seconds. I’m on the driveway of my editor’s place out in the sun. It’s the first time I opened the first box of my first book, and it does absolutely zero justice to the true excitement of that moment. “They’re real!” I remember laughing, because before then, this massive fantasy world had only been an idea in my head, and now my idea was a thing bound up in real pages, and I got to take one out and touch it. Surreal. Satisfying.

cardboard-box-books-white-background-d-render-illustration-29940580There is plenty of ‘surreal’ and ‘satisfying’ that follows reaching a dream like this, but the next milestone in my fledgling authorial career that stands out in the same way was the first time my book landed on a bookstore shelf. It had been a particular goal of mine to see this happen, as I know it is for a lot of authors, and looking back at the way I tiptoed, stumbled and trialled-and-errored my way to reaching this one, I feel especially proud (relieved?) to have managed it.

I’m definitely not the expert. Presently, at this present moment, my books are on the physical shelves of six stores, and out of stock but orderable at another three. There are much more qualified people you could ask, but since you’re asking me, these are some of the things I learned along the way that might be helpful to the next beginning author starting out on the same blind path.

The Reality

The reality is, much as we bookish people hate to hear it, the book industry is struggling in the modern era. It’s extremely competitive, in a number of ways. Books are a luxury item – they are only bought by people with money to spare, and they’re among the first things to be put back on the shelf when money is tight. Unfortunately for booksellers, unlike many other things we consider luxury items, there is relatively little mark-up on books, so compared with say a jeweler with their several-hundred-percent-mark-up, the bookstore needs to be constantly selling books to be covering overheads, paying staff and turning a profit, i.e. staying in business. For many, it’s reading that brings the joy, not necessarily books, and while some of us are digging in our nostalgic heels and sticking to our paperbacks, others are opting for e-literature on their screen devices and enjoying the significant price cut. Added to that is the cultural competition between reading and other story-based entertainment such as film and television. It’s much easier and more time-efficient for a consumer to watch a few episodes of Game of Thrones while making and eating dinner than it is to find enough alone-time to curl up and read the actual book. Bookshops have their work cut out for them to sell books to an increasingly difficult market.

It’s also competitive in a way that’s bad for you and I. There are so many books available to the reader (hurray for the avid reader!) now that they are literally spoilt for choice. Your average bookstore offers customers hundreds of options, all of which are taking up space on shelves while they wait for their forever homes. Now, you come along with your book and want a spot on that shelf too. It sounds innocent enough, but keeping in mind The Reality of bookselling today, consider what you are asking of the store. That’s valuable real estate. Whatever is sitting there needs to sell. What guarantee can you offer of that? As an indie author multitasking the roles of talent, project manager and distributor, chances are you don’t have time or the resources to launch a full-scale marketing campaign. Hop into the bookseller’s shoes for a second and you’ll see it’s really not in their interests to help you out in this regard, at least not in the short-term. So? How do we convince them?

Distributor: person or party responsible for getting the book to the places where it will be sold. Big publishers use distribution companies to move their stock and pitch it to stores. For your book, this is all you.

Advocating

bookshelf-black-brown-1Most of us, as authors, don’t like to sell. It’s a bit yucky and quite invasive. We’d love for the books to simply sell themselves, so we have talented graphic designers create fabulous covers with which to attract the eyes of the elusive readership.

Books do not sell themselves. Fact.

People sell books. Word of mouth sells books, knowledgeable and friendly bookstore staff sell books, authors sell books. As much as you don’t want to do it, you need to start that ball rolling by advocating for your book to the bookshop, and by advocating for yourself. Terrifying, I know, but why should they take a chance on you?

Because you’re polite and upfront. You’re a professional.

Because you’re respectful and understanding of the bookstore’s position, regardless of their decision on your book. You’re a nice guy.

Because you’re dedicated, persistent and eager to learn. You sound intelligent and reasonable, which makes you someone they can imagine themselves dealing with on a continued basis.

Persistent: not nagging. A difficult balance.

The key, I find, is to sell yourself rather than the book. Anyone can make any book sound pretty good if they word the description properly, and other than your glossy cover, the bookstore owner really has no measure of the quality or readership potential of your publication. You, though – they can pass a judgement on you right here and now, so put your best foot forward.

Approaching

Armed with that depressing pep talk, it’s time to approach your chosen store. It shouldn’t need to be said, but by the time you make contact (either by cold-calling, or by actually walking up to the counter) you should have done some basic research. You should have at the very least checked out their selection of your genre. There is no point walking up to the manager of a children’s bookstore and asking them to stock your murder mystery. It’s also worth your while to look for other indie titles on the shelves, as it will give you an indication of the store’s attitude toward independents and their capacity to stock them. As we’ve already acknowledged, shelf space is prime real estate.

Cold-calling: the practice of phoning or emailing without previously having met or been introduced. Some find it very effective, especially if they feel they communicate better this way, and it allows you to commune with stores further away. I actually find this even scarier than just fronting up.

The actual conversation that takes place when I approach stores (I’ve almost always done it face to face) is pretty terrifying, I won’t lie. I usually start by buying a book, since it gives me a reason to be standing at the counter and I’m about to ask a favour, so I feel better about that if I’ve just given them my custom. It also gives me a chance to gauge the person I’m talking to, so I can abort early if necessary. I’m a total wuss, give me a break. I initiate bookish conversation, and then introduce myself as an independent author and ask what the process is for getting my book on their shelves.

Deep breath.

But it’s not normally necessary, because bookstore staff are really lovely and are generally really kind and tactful at this point. Half of them explain that their store doesn’t stock independent books, and that’s the end of that. The other half usually describe some kind of consignment arrangement.

Consignment: an arrangement whereby the author leaves a number of books with the store, to be paid for upon retail sale or picked back up at the end of an agreed-upon period if remaining unsold. Books left at author’s risk, as customers handle these books. This arrangement is in the best interests of the store as they do not need to outlay funds to procure stock.

kfnlkndflnSome stores will buy the book outright (a hard sale), but this tends to be less usual. Most will have a standard form they will use to sign up a new consignment deal. On this form, you agree to any time periods they specify (such as agreeing to pick up unsold books after X weeks or months) and provide your payment details. It will have two spots for prices – wholesale price, and RRP. Wholesale price is what you receive for each book upon sale, while the recommended retail price is what the store should sell it for, leaving the profit in between for the store. So say you would like your book to retail for $20 and you want to receive $12.50 per sale, the $12.50 is your wholesale price, and the store gets the remaining $7.50. Many stores will have a percentage or ratio they expect as part of their dealings. These don’t tend to be negotiable, but a braver and more charismatic person than me could certainly try.

If by this point a store has said yes to you and your book, and you’ve signed up, the next thing you need to do is deliver the stock. You bring your books and a delivery slip, a short document you type up which lists what you have dropped off, for the bookstore’s records and yours. You can google delivery slip template and get an idea of what it should look like.

Then you leave your books there! Alone, in the world, with all the other books in the shop 🙂 Feels good to know they’ve made it, doesn’t it? Now to keep them there, you need to do some maintenance, too. The bookshop has done you a serious solid here. You’re morally obligated to return the favour. Promote your store, promote your book, promote yourself, whatever you can do to draw attention to the fact that their store is awesome and your book is in there being for sale, it all adds up and helps them sell it.

You also need to maintain your relationship with this store. It’s not a matter of dropping the books off and wandering into the sunset, fulfilled in life. You need to periodically check in with the store to see whether the books are selling and what you can do, if anything, to help them along. Your store may like for you to hold a signing, or spread the word about them a little more on your social media. Or some books might have sold! Yay! When this happens, you need to invoice the store. Again, Google will bring up some templates, but this is where you request funds for the books sold. You detail the product (title, ISBN) and the quantity, and put down the wholesale price (what you want them to pay you for each book) for each item and total it at the bottom. They probably have your bank details already from when you signed up, but to speed things along and to make it convenient for the seller, put it again on each invoice.

I think the most important thing to remember in approaching bookstores as an author is to be humble. Lots of them are going to say no, and that’s only going to hurt the ego you bring in with you. They say no for lots of reasons that you do not need to take personally, and most of the reasons boil down to the fact that they don’t think they can sell your book. This is a good sign that this store isn’t a good fit for you anyway, as the store staff usually have a very good idea of what their clientele are into. This saves you from the hassle of negotiating a consignment/sale deal that isn’t going to benefit either of you, and frees you up to go looking for another store that will fit you better 🙂

As with everything, there is plenty more to learn. This article just scrapes the surface, and as I have said, I am no expert. But I think that if you really really want to see your books on a store shelf, your best bets are with a straightforward, genuine approach that highlights you as a professional worth dealing with, and a healthy respect for bookshops, what they know and do, and what an epic favour they are doing for you. Never forget, there are plenty of other books, and plenty of other authors – find a way to positively stand out.

Good luck!

~ Shayla Morgansen

 

 

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Published in: on February 11, 2018 at 4:27 am  Leave a Comment  

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