April 23, 2015

How can authors partner with indie bookstores? Ask a bookseller


Pictured: Dennis Johnson, our publisher (left), and then going right, Mary Magers, David Unowsky, and David Enyeart,

Pictured: Dennis Johnson, Mary Magers, David Unowsky, and David Enyeart,

Recently at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Minneapolis, Melville House publisher Dennis Johnson organized and moderated a panel about the many partnership opportunities for authors and independent bookstores. It’s a panel he does every year at the AWP — “Most writers don’t know as much as they should about the work of their key business partner, the indie bookseller,” he says — and he invites top indie booksellers from whatever city the conference is being held in to join him in the discussion. This year, some fantastic Twin Cities bookselling veterans were on the panel, including Mary Magers from Magers & Quinn, and David Unowsky from SubText Books

The third panelist, David Enyeart of Common Good Books, who is is also the board president of the Midwestern Independent Booksellers Association, summarized his advice as follows:

1. First, focus on reaching your readers. Simply put, if you get them in the store, we can do the rest. I’m a bookseller, and that’s what I do; if a customer tells me they want to purchase a book from me, I don’t care if it’s a small press, a limited distibution, or self-published—I’ll sell them that book. And please keep in mind that this is retail, and getting your book into a store is not enough. It’ll probably be spine-out, not on a table. You need to tell customers where to buy it.

2. Approach your local indies—but do it the right way. I get a lot of cold calls from authors, and when I have to make a snap decision I base it on A) the book and its likely appeal to our customers and B) how savvy the author seems. Booksellers are busy people, and the sheer amount of books we’re selling or getting pitched can be overwhelming, which is why you can do a few things to up your chance of the local indie taking notice of you.

The first is knowing the store’s audience. Before you approach a store, do a little research ahead of time. Check out the store’s website; see what sort of books they promote/host events for. If you’re able to, drop by and try to gauge what kinds of customers show up when, if there’s a particular “crowd” that would be interested in your book (teenagers just getting out of school? Church ladies on their way back from mass? Tourists?) and then look at the displays; what titles similar to yours are on display already?

When you decide that you’ve found a store that you want to pitch, call ahead to ask when a good time would be to chat with the buyer. (Hint: It’s probably not Saturday.) We don’t get a lot of break time to spread over the course of any given day, so don’t plan to take more than a few minutes. You’ll want to have something to leave behind with us, so bring a book or other material (sell sheet, bookmark, etc). And this next part is very important: Be sure you include the ISBN! That makes it much easier for us to look up your book; if we’re searching by title or your name, there’s a much bigger chance that it could slip through the cracks.

3. Design your your materials and website with an eye toward indies. By which I mean include more than just an Amazon link—you can say it’s available “wherever books are sold” or something like that. We know people buy books on Amazon; this is no big secret. But if you want to get us to sell your book, we need to see that your fans know we’re selling it, and that it’s not just available on Amazon.

And it’s important to know how the book is distributed to stores (Hint: Unless you’re with one of the big NY houses, the answer is not “the publisher.”) There are distributors (Consortium, SPD, University of Chicago) and wholesalers (Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Partners) from which a lot of indies order, and they’ll want to know to which order they can add yours onto when they do. And don’t be shy about talking about what outreach you’re doing! I want to know where other people are hearing about your book, and a bookseller will want to hear that they won’t be the only one promoting it.

4. Self-published books (or, God forbid, books published on Createspace) are a tougher sell than those from an established press. In particular, Createspace is owned by Amazon; as you know, they’re our competition, and unsurprisingly we bookstores get a lousy discount if (and I stress, IF) we decide to carry Createspace titles. You should consider publishing on another platform; most print-on-demand contracts are non-exclusive. In any case, indies will almost certainly want sell your books on consignment rather than purchase up front.

With consignment sales, the author supplies books to the store, and receives no payment until books are sold, usually at a 60/40 split (author gets 60.) This can be an effective way to get your book stocked, but it means you need to follow up with the store regularly!

5. What about events, you may be asking? Wouldn’t that be a great way to sell copies? Not so fast. We’ll want for a few books to sell first, then we can talk about an event. After all, successful events don’t happen on their own. We’ll want to know your marketing plan; do you have any partner organizations, alumni networks, etc? Any established groups of people who will show up and ensure a healthy turnout? And you’ll need to promote your event; don’t rely solely on the bookstore. Which is not to say that a big turnout automatically ensures sales; there could be an event with 100 attendees who won’t buy as many books as an event with only 10 die-hard fans. But you want to err on the side of crowds.

6. There are a number of resources and groups that you should check out if you haven’t already. The American Booksellers Association or ABA has programs and campaigns that can really help a book’s discoverability— check out their Indies First program. Events like Small Business Saturday and Indie Bookstore Day, and programs like Upstream, are all designed to get customers shopping at their local indie, so keep those in mind when you’re planning your outreach.

Additionally, get to know your regional book trade associations (SIBA, NEIBA, MPIBA, etc.) Most have info for authors, and all host bookseller education events like spring meetings and regional shows. Talk to your publisher about being involved in these, because they give you an opportunity to meet face-to-face, and all in one place, the local pros who’ll be positioned to get your book in the customer’s hands. Book Tour Network groups authors and sets up events. They’re not cheap, but they are helpful for reaching new markets/areas. They’re a good second or third step, if you’ve already done a few events and want to expand your reach into new areas.

In conclusion, an author’s aim should be to establish a relationship with a store and with booksellers. There’s no single conversation that will solve all their problems. No postcard or event is going to do it all. Rather, authors should try to begin a conversation with stores. Tell us what’s going on, listen to what we say, and we can all work together to get great books into the hands of readers.


David Enyeart is the assistant manager at Common Good Books, and the board president of the Midwestern Independent Booksellers Association.