One of the most perennial topics of discussion that comes up among members of the ABC is the (sometimes tricky) relationship between booksellers and authors.
In rare moments of quiet, booksellers on the front lines share their war stories about off-putting cold calls, misguided interruptions, unpublished manuscripts about pets and grandchildren, and frustration at the number of would-be authors who want stores to carry their self-published books on consignment.
On the other side, ABC fields hundreds of calls from authors and publishers every year about who we are, and whether or not we can help them promote their books. (We can’t, other than providing a great network should they want to join.) Clearly, there is a hunger to figure out a way to penetrate the market.
To be sure, we sympathize with their position because getting a book published is like threading a very fine needle. And once that book is published, getting it into the hearts and minds of independent booksellers is even tougher. After all, not every single book coming out of a publishing house can receive the same amount of marketing resources. That’s just the reality of publishing in an age where thousands of new books are released every season.
More and more, authors in the current publishing climate think that a little guerrilla marketing might help them get ahead. That perhaps by hustling on behalf of their projects they can do their part to get the word out. (That is—when they’re not writing, or illustrating, or doing free school visits, or running their business, or taking a shower and putting the kids to bed—to paraphrase my delightful friend author/illustrator Mary Newell de Palma.)
They recognize that building relationships with booksellers is important. And they are right, but how to do it? What’s most effective?
In a recent guest column entitled The Proper Care and Feeding of Booksellers, and How It Can Work for You, blogger Bookseller Chick put out a call for authors to dispense cookies liberally when visiting bookstores. The theory here is that a bookseller will form a favorable opinion of the visiting author, and will recommend that author’s book next time they have an opportunity.
Nice author + cookie = sale.
So, should authors everywhere get out their oven mitts? Does the cookie theory work?
The question sparked a lively debate among ABC members. Here’s what Carol Chittenden, the owner of Eight Cousins bookstore, and the hardworking children’s buyer for Bookstream had to say about it on a recent post to the ABC list serv:
“There are plenty of opportunities for good relationships between authors and booksellers. At the head of the list—waaay above everything else—is to WRITE A TRULY EXCELLENT BOOK, of course. But I’m adding some others, and hope other booksellers might chime in.
- Offer a day’s gift-wrapping backup during the holiday season.
- Put up posters for bookstore events.
- Help staff an out-of-store event.
- Help read and evaluate galleys.
Those are just a few of the things that take time but not much training, and help an author see the world from the back room perspective. And any bookseller is prepared to respond to the offer to sign stock: they’ve handled it before, or else it’s time they figure out a gracious response. No need to be shy: tactful will do nicely.
And none of this should be construed as a disdain for cookies. I am the Cookie Troll at Eight Cousins: there’s even a remodeled troll doll (green pantsuit, flowered scarf, silver in the hair, glasses, button that reads “I Love Cookies”) that stands alert atop my computer. But I’d rather have a fine, fine book than a cookie any day.”
Clearly, there is more at play here than just slinging cookies. The principal of being nice to bookstores and booksellers goes a long way, but I would urge authors to dig a little deeper. At the most basic level, creating successful and long-lasting relationships in the children’s book business is really about understanding and helping booksellers do their jobs better.
Want to make friends with a bookseller? Then help them build their business.
Here’s my top five suggestions:
1) Patronize your local independent bookstore. Be a regular. Nothing shows your commitment to independent bookstores like putting your money where your mouth is. Your loyalty will go a long way in building a successful and honest relationship. All of Carol Chittenden’s excellent suggestions above speak to this. Get involved.
2) Put a Booksense link on your website. It’s amazing how many authors talk about loving independents, but then send their web visitors directly to Amazon. A Booksense.com link is such an easy thing to do, and independent booksellers notice. Believe me.
3) Know your audience. When communicating with booksellers, keep it short, sweet, and respectful. A written communication trumps a cold call or a visit. If you are visiting a store for the first time, be very sensitive of a bookseller’s time and priorities. Introduce yourself, [hand over the cookies], get an e-mail, and ask if you can send information about your book. Don’t let your passion for your own project blind you to a bookseller’s priorities and make you pushy.
4) Act like a publishing professional. Learn everything you can about the business. At the very least, subscribe to Publisher’s Weekly, and to a bookselling newsletter like Shelf Awareness. Talk knowledgeably and intelligently about the business. Booksellers work with thousands of titles and authors every year, and they do not need all of the fluffy marketing language you might use for end readers. They don’t want the emotional presentation, they want the publishing facts. Specifications, season, publisher, BRIEF synopsis, notable review successes, publicity, a local angle, a sales success, why this book is different than others in the same category. Don’t inadvertently piss them off by talking about how well it’s selling on Amazon or in the chains. And don’t be like the author that called the ABC office recently and read their entire book about feelings over the telephone. If your verbal pitch lasts more than twenty seconds and your written pitch doesn’t fit in three short paragraphs, you’re talking too much.
5) When developing materials, think about things that would be really useful to booksellers in building their business. Go beyond bookmarks, postcards, and such. Think authorless event kits, downloadable materials for kids, essays in your area of expertise that would be great parent resources. One ABC author member who does this really well is Debra Frasier. Check out the materials she has designed at her website. She regularly does things just for bookstores, and always lets us know when something is available. This is a way to reach a wide audience effectively and cheaply. If you take it on the road, put together a presentation that makes it easy and fun for booksellers. One great example of this is author Brian Lies‘ package for his book Bats at the Beach. We’ve heard nothing but raves about this program, how well planned it was, and how well it worked. (Also, notice the links to independent stores where he’s appearing. Bravo!) Don’t think you have to convert your car into the Batmobile to pull a successful program together. A thoughtful program with an advance kit that might include a poster and press release, good structure, interactive activities, and inexpensive giveaways is great.
Conversely, here’s the five LEAST effective things you can do to work with independent bookstores:
- Mail a single flyer and then follow up with a hard sell either by phone or in person
- Make a cold call to a bookseller, and then monopolize their precious time with a lengthy sales pitch
- Interrupt a bookseller who is working with a customer to talk about your book
- Pull a primadonna and ask why a store isn’t stocking 15 of your book
- Launch your book tour in the chain store down the street
As a final caveat, I would echo Carol Chittenden’s sound advice: Write a good book.
All the cookies in the world won’t save a badly written book. If the book doesn’t have what it takes—good writing, good design, professional illustration, appropriate format, a real binding, a tangible sense of success—it doesn’t matter how nice you are. Bookstores aren’t charities; they’re there to make a living for the people who own them, and it’s a very difficult thing to do these days. Know the hard truth: bookstores can’t carry every book, and they may have to say no to yours.
However, if you’ve got a good book and you know and love your local bookstore, a good cookie can go a long way.
Check out these FABULOUS cookies made by Sarah Varon, author of Robot Dreams for a recent store appearance. (Let me just say, I *heart* her books, and will review this new one in an upcoming post.) Here’s an author with a wonderful book and wonderful cookies.