The Path to Publishing, Part 7: What to do (and NOT to do) when calling bookstores…

(Welcome to the latest installment of The Path to Publishing, a series on starting a small press aimed either at the writer who wants to improve their stature or the editor who wants to run an independent publishing house. If you missed any of the prior posts, you can find them here.)

In my last article in this series, I talked about how great bookstores are, and how important it is to make them part of your marketing strategy. Earlier in the series, I talked about some of things you can do to ensure you get taken more seriously by bookstores so that your call can be a successful one.

I’m on a first name basis with a thousand booksellers in the United States, and I now have an understanding of what life is like on their end of the phone. So in this article, I’m going to break down the phone experience for them to spotlight the hurdles that exist for you. They are absolutely clearable, but most don’t manage to do so. If you can do it, as we have, then you have an excellent chance of success in the physical bookstore arena!

The phone life of a bookseller

Your typical bookseller, especially in these days of pandemic, is on the phone a lot. They’re taking orders from customers. They’re handling various logistical and maintenance crises. They’re talking to the sales reps for the big publishers and distributing houses.

And then you call.

More generally, a bookseller gets lots of calls from self/small press published authors wanting to be featured in the store. This is essentially “the slush pile” for bookstores. The fact is, many booksellers are harried, busy people who just want the guaranteed sale. Their inclination is to stick to the bestsellers, especially when times are uncertain. Those are going to be the hardest to persuade. But even booksellers who genuinely want to feature authors off the beaten track often find themselves hard put to make it through the aural slush pile because most self/small press published authors are doing it all wrong.

Here’s a list of common mistakes authors/small press reps make when calling stores:

  • Not doing their homework: Every bookstore has a website these days; if it’s not their on their own domain, it’s on Facebook. If you’re calling a queer-owned store with science fiction/fantasy as its focus, don’t try to sell them memoirs.
  • (Everyone is trying to sell memoirs. Good luck with that.)
  • Trying to sell a book that’s not distributed by Ingram/local distributor of choice: Ingram is how virtually every bookstore in the US gets its books these days. Other countries use a combination of Ingram and other distributors. If you’re hoping to buy author’s copies off of Amazon and sell them on commission, that will usually only work with stores local to the author, or if you really hit their niche perfectly.
  • Referring bookstores to an Amazon page: Amazon is the enemy of independent bookstores. Booksellers hate them. Don’t ask them to buy copies off of Amazon (they won’t make money that way). Don’t ask them to leave reviews on Amazon. Don’t ask them to leave reviews on Goodreads (owned by Amazon now).
  • Being unprofessional: Sales is hard. Telemarketing is even harder. Unless you’re good at it, you will quickly tax a bookseller’s patience.
  • Selling a book on Ingram on less than ideal terms: standard discount for bookstores is full discount, around 42%. If you’re trying to sell a book at 5% or 20% discount, forget it. They can’t make money and they won’t take you seriously to boot. You also need to make your books returnable (note: bookstores almost never return books anyway, so that’s no big deal).
  • Pricing a book too high: You may think your 500-page memoir is worth $39.95, but it won’t move at that price.
  • They’re talking to the wrong person: Most bookstores have a single person who does the buying. Sometimes it’s the owner. Sometimes it’s the manager. Giving your pitch to a non-buyer can be fun, but it won’t generally get your book sold.

Now if you’ve got the book buyer, if you have a good pitch, and if you’re available on Ingram, and if you’re selling something they want, at the right price point, then you’ll have their attention. Then it all depends on their current economic situation, their interest level, whim, etc. I’m in about 60% of the bookstores that carry new science fiction and fantasy books. If you can get a 30% sales rate, you’ll be doing well.

What to Say

Getting your foot in the door for a new store is tricky, but a winning pitch will do wonders. Firstly, make sure you’re talking to the book buyer. You can either do this directly, or you can make a brief pitch and then ask if the person you’re talking to is the one who buys books. When I started, my pitch was something like this:

Hi! I’m Gideon Marcus, a Science Fiction Hugo Finalist out of San Diego. I run Journey Press, and we have a new title you’re going to want to carry. If you’ve got Ingram open, it’s called Rediscovery, Science Fiction by Women (1958-1963).

Short, sweet, to the point. If you’re not Hugo Finalist, you’re probably something. Either way, I was lucky in having a title that sold itself. That got me into hundreds of bookstores before I even got to book 2. One thing I never do is say, “How are you?” somewhere in the pitch. If you want to sound like an annoying salesperson, that’s the way to do it. 🙂 Save “How are you”s for when you’re actually friends.

When I had a few more titles, the pitch became more like this:

Hi! I’m Gideon Marcus, a Science Fiction Hugo Finalist out of San Diego. I run Journey Press, and we have new titles you’re going to want to carry. If you’ve got Ingram open, I’ve got three covers to show off.

Whereupon I’d let them know about the newest one and why it was awesome and then explain why the titles on the backlist were really just as good as frontlist items (great reviews, continued good sales, etc.) It’s vital you get the bookseller to their ipage. If they see the cover, the price, and the terms, they have a chance to fall in love. This is why, by the way, you need a good cover, a competitive price, and a full discount. Otherwise, you’ll likely be out of luck.

Becoming a Regular

Remember how I said that booksellers are often on the phone talking to reps? Reps are people who are doing what you’re doing, only they represent a bigger, more established outfit. But once you’ve gotten your foot in the door (i.e. gotten a bookstore to buy your books from Ingram), you’re on your way to becoming a welcome guest rather than a cold call. After a few books, and if you’ve got a set release schedule, you can set up regular phone calls. You can email periodic press releases. You are essentially on the same level as Penguin or TOR or whomever.

Getting there is a lot of work, and beyond that, it’s a lot of prep work. But if you do your homework beforehand, if you avoid the above mistakes, if you are always pleasant, and if your writing is quality, you can make it onto bookstore shelves.

by Gideon Marcus

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