(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.)
I’ve mentioned in previous articles how important it is to forge connections with booksellers. The average bookstore owner is inundated with emails and calls every day, and unless they are very extroverted (and some are — those are gems), you’ve got about a ten second window to get and keep their interest before their ears glaze over and you’re lumped in mentally with the folks calling about the student loans they never took out or the warranty on a vehicle they never owned.
What this means is every time you have an excuse to set up a welcome point of connection is an opportunity to improve the relationship. But how much is there really to talk about? That’s what this article is about: the ways you can pique a bookseller’s interest not just in your book(s) but your identity as an author/small press runner. I’m focusing on the bookstores who have already carried one’s prior works for this post (I covered cold calling new prospects last post).
Things to discuss
In general, something less than six months old is on “the frontlist”. Bookstores are eager for new material, so calling about a new title is easy. Keep this in mind when you choose your publication date.
So, first and foremost, you call a bookstore to talk about your newest release. What I usually do, after making sure the bookseller remembers me (if they don’t, I make sure “you’ve carried all of our titles so far” is in my script) is ask if they’ve got their Ingram ipage open. 8 times out of 10 they do, and 1 out of 10, they can make it open in short order. If the title is easy to spell, I give them the title; otherwise, I give them an ISBN. In other words, I cut right to the chase. Maybe the bookseller is chatty, maybe they want to swap weather stories, and that’s ideal. But even the most friendly bookseller often has a line of customers, so time is short.
Once they confirm they’ve found your book (which means they’re just a click away from adding it to their cart), I hit them up with how awesome the release is. The keywords, or a big review. Something that makes it clear they’ll want the book.
But what do you do if your title is older than six months? At that point, it’s a “backlist” item, and stores aren’t necessarily as interested in stocking those. This is a shame since books don’t spoil, but new ones are coming out all the time. Here’s how you can make your backlist look like new to keep it on the bookstore shelves.
I’m currently making calls regarding The Eighth Key, and I often preface the pitch for the new book with a mention that Kitra just got featured in a bookshop.org newsletter. This both makes the bookseller proud of me and reinforces their wisdom in carrying the title. If I have time, I’ll mention that Rediscovery was our best selling title for February (because of Women’s History Month) and that I Want the Stars has recently gotten a raft of great reviews.
You can tailor this strategy to your own particular circumstances, with anything from “This book was just listed on Tor.com’s must-reads for the year!” to “This was just reviewed by XYZ Review blog!” The important thing is to reference a recommendation by somebody. It will carry more weight if it’s an entity the seller recognizes, but even if it’s a tiny one-person review blog or a quote from a particularly nice review on GoodReads (don’t mention Amazon!), it will still have more credibility than just saying, “I liked this book, you should sell it!”
It’s also good to namedrop previous releases just so they remember them. Often, they’ll have sold out. And if they have, shouldn’t they get more? 🙂
Feelies and Freebies
If all you have to offer is books, then you pretty much only have books to talk about (unless weather at your location is particularly interesting). Luckily, it’s pretty easy to make some bennies bookstores will love.
A bookplate is a label that goes on the inside cover of a book. It usually has some kind of artwork and is either a place for an author’s signature or for a “From the Library of “OWNER”. Your bookplates will be of the former variety — a way to let bookstores that carry your book have signed copies!
(Thank you, Read-it-Again Books in Suwannee, GA, for pretty much demanding I make bookplates. When bookstores tell you what they want, listen.)
Bookplates are great for so many reasons. They add urgency to a pitch (i.e. “I’m sending out bookplates this weekend if you’re ordering!”). They let you know how many books a bookstore is ordering . They add value for the bookstore and constitute another “touch” between you and the bookseller. When they get their bookplates in the mail, it’s a reminder that they need to order your books (if they forgot, which happens). Unused bookplates are reminders to restock (I always send a couple extra).
Sure, it’s an added cost and effort for you. You have to make the art, print the bookplates, sign them (or have the author do so), and mail them. But the cost per bookplate is pretty cheap to you, and the added value, plus the information about a bookstore’s buying habits, are worth a lot, especially if you keep track of it.
At supermarkets, featured products/products on sale are made to stand out from the rest with their own mini-displays. Bookstores do the same thing. And nothing makes your book stand out more than a nice shelf talker!
I wouldn’t recommend making your own physical shelf talkers. It’d be more expensive than printing bookplates, and they probably would get crumpled in the mail. Instead, I email .pdf shelf talkers with my order confirmation emails. The bookstores can use them or not as they wish (probably printing them out on full page labels and reusing old shelf talkers). Either way, it gives you something else to talk up, especially when the bookstore is not interested in bookplates. (Thanks to Four-Eyed Frog in Gualala, CA for this suggestion.)
Other topics of discussion: If your books are doing well, consider seeing if they want to engage you for a show, either in-person or virtual. I personally have not found that events are great for business, but they are fun. You might inquire if they have a book club or subscription service; that’s often a great way to get your book spotlit.
With these repeated “touches” to engage and keep the attention of a bookseller, chances are you’ve established a good working relationship. It won’t always be easy. Some booksellers will be rude (even ones who carry your books), some will be in a hurry, but some will be an absolute joy to talk to. That’s half the fun of publishing, making connections with like-minded literary folks. They’re part of your audience, too. One bookseller in New York thanked me effusively for having written Kitra, presses it on everyone who walks into his store, and fairly begged me to hurry up on the sequels.
It doesn’t get much better than that!