After I got my PhD, I went to work at a bookstore. This was partly because my brain was fried and I wanted to relax with the pretty books. It was also because, as I writer, I wanted to understand how the retail end of the book business actually functioned – and how real humans behave when choosing new books. It was revelatory – and now I share those revelations with you.
Five MORE Ways a Book Becomes a Bestseller
In Part 1, I talked about factors influencing book sales that the author has little or no control over. Today, as promised, the
Ways In Which You, As The Author, Can Help Rock Your Own Sales
1) GET THE WORD OUT. Take blog tours. Do store signings or school appearances. To the extent possible, arrange for newspaper reviews, especially in your hometown. In the real world and online, be places readers hang out. Customers remember books they’ve heard about, even if they don’t remember the details. They clip newspaper reviews and bring them into the store (helpful customers do – unhelpful ones say “it was in the paper six weeks ago, what do you mean you don’t know what it’s called?”).
Statistically speaking, you and your book will not appear on Oprah or The Today Show. The good news is, like writing, book promotion is mostly about persistence. As my alter ego the scientist would say, viral marketing is a geometric function – it takes a while to get going, but when it does, it’s unstoppable.
2) ENSURE YOUR BOOK IS CARRIED BY THE CHAINS. Of course, you’ll want to get your book into as many independents as you can, but there’s no denying that the chains have them outnumbered. Yes, it is true that some small publishers aren’t stocked by chains, and therefore a lot of great books get overlooked. Initially. If your book picks up steam, that will change. Furthermore, there are a ton of books that chains don’t stock in stores, but will offer for customers to order online or through their favourite location. If your book is available through the online catalogue, individual locations can also special order it, to offer in store. And if the staff like the book enough to recommend it, they will.
3) IF YOU’VE SCHEDULED PUBLICITY, LET BOOKSTORES KNOW. And let the store know early enough that staff can order your book before you hit the airwaves. The last thing you want is for customers to mob the store in search of your gem, only to discover it’s out of stock. Only a fraction of them will actually bother to order it. And those that don’t will have forgotten all about it by the time it comes back into stock.
4) VISIT BOOKSTORES. Locally of course, but also when you travel. If possible, call ahead to set up an appointment with the manager for your book’s category. Find out whether your book is already in stock – if it’s not, bring information, or better yet, a copy. Be polite and friendly. Be charming, not creepy. Be professionally dressed, and if you have an appointment, for goodness’ sake be on time. If your book is good, and you have the social skills of a even well-trained golden retriever, booksellers will do what they can to help you. If you’re an obnoxious, pretentious, arrogant jerk, it will not matter if your book has the literary value of Dickens and the sales potential of Patterson: booksellers will wait until you leave and mock you in the staff room.
When I was a graduate student, I had to mobilize hundreds of hunters, trappers, wildlife officers, and biologists to collect the over 4000 DNA samples I needed for my research. I quickly learned that the only way to get people to help you is to make them want to help you. Which brings me to perhaps the single most important thing you can do to help sales of your book: MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE BOOKSELLERS.
Booksellers can be one of two things to you – your most powerful advocates, or your worst enemies. Unlike managers, who are often busy managing, booksellers are interacting directly with the book-buying public, every day. They’re the ones making recommendations and influencing customers’ decisions. Give them a reason to recommend your book. When you drop by, say hello. Ask them what they’re reading. Find a bookseller who likes the kind of books you write, and if you can, donate a review copy (booksellers are drug addicts working in a heroin factory – the staff discount can only take them so far). Here are just some of the ways I supported books I loved during my career as a bookseller:
– Adding staff picks stickers
– Spining books I didn’t like so I could face ones I did
– Hand selling
– Special ordering out of stock books, for the purpose of hand selling
– Telling my coworkers how awesome a book is, and what kinds of customers it would appeal to
– Writing reviews for the Indigo company magazine, which was read by every Indigo bookseller in Canada
– Adding appropriate titles to understocked displays (we never had all of the books required by co-op in stock, but if I loved yours and it fit, I’d add it to the display)
I also, on more than one occasion, told customers not to buy a book I hated. Or a decent book by an author who was a total jerk. However, if I’d met you and you were a lovely human being, I wouldn’t sabotage you, even if I secretly believed your book wasn’t worth the toilet paper it was printed on.
5) BECOME A BOOKSELLER YOURSELF. Trust me. If you’re even remotely likeable, your coworkers will support you. Mine planned release parties for books I hadn’t even submitted to publishers. Plus, booksellers get to meet people from the chain’s head office, who make big buying decisions. Not to mention publishers’ sales staff, and really, what writer doesn’t want those kinds of connections?
As A Special Bonus, The Thing You, As The Author, Should NEVER Do
6) GUERILLA MERCHANDISING. Don’t move your book from one part of the store to the other. If booksellers can’t find it, they can’t sell it. Don’t add your book to displays. When staff see it, they have to remove it (see Part 1 re: co-ops). Don’t turn your book face out if there are only one or two copies, because the store’s merchandizing standards require staff to come along right behind you and switch it back. In short, all of these things MAKE MORE WORK FOR BOOKSELLERS, WHICH BY THE WAY THE CUSTOMERS ARE ALREADY EXCEPTIONALLY GOOD AT, AND THEY HATES IT PRECIOUS, THEY HATES IT SSS SSS. Spend your time on numbers 1-5, and try not to make us resent you, ‘kay?
What online “advice” for dealing with bookstores have you seen? Pose your questions in the comments and I will give you the inside scoop.