4 Things Independent Bookstore Owners Want Authors To Know

Congratulations! You’ve published the manuscript that you labored over for months or years, and now you’re actually holding the finished product in your hands. What a wonderful feeling.

Your book is up for sale in the online store(s) of your choice. It’s not getting a lot of traffic but every now and then someone posts a review. It’s time to really sell this thing. So how about placing it in a good old-fashioned store window?

The big-box book retailers are fading, but oddly, many of the independents are holding on or even thriving. Why not email several indie bookstore owners around the country and see if they’ll accept a consignment—say, a box of 50 copies to start with? If people get a look at that awesome cover and can actually pick up the product, it will practically sell itself!

Right?

image (c) The Avid Reader

image (c) The Avid Reader

To find out how independent book retailers can figure into an author’s marketing plan, I joined with some friends from the NorCal chapter* of Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) to chat with Alzeda Knickerbocker, owner of The Avid Reader independent bookstore in Davis, California. As professional editors and writers, my EFA colleagues and I often work with author clients who want to know more about marketing and selling their book, so our conversation with Alzeda was a great way to gather this information.

Alzeda doesn’t claim to speak for every bookstore owner, but here are four main points from our conversation that I think are applicable to most authors who want to sell through stores like hers:

1. We still depend on sales data, even as the publishing world re-shuffles itself and we diversify our products and services.

“I make most of my decisions about what to carry in the store based on the advice of publisher sales reps and my inventory manager,” says Alzeda. Because of publisher consolidation, however, she gets fewer visits from reps these days than in years past. And, as independent publishing becomes increasingly accessible, Alzeda gets more email from individual authors representing themselves.

Still, because the sales reps have been to conferences and know what’s selling, they remain a valuable resource for store owners. Inventory managers, too, influence what gets featured in the store window. They have years of data at their fingertips and can make recommendations based on what has sold well in the past.

That doesn’t necessarily mean your book will always be edged out by the blockbusters. “There’s definitely a place for books that will sell a few hundred copies and not multiple thousands,” Alzeda noted. Independent store owners are often willing to take a chance on something that doesn’t have huge sales numbers, if it fits the specific interests of their market. (See #3 below)

And while some stores are bringing in new customers by offering services such as an Espresso Book Machine, Alzeda has chosen to branch out in a different way. Maintaining an Espresso Book Machine would require more staff than Alzeda wants to hire. Instead, she expanded The Avid Reader into a separate store front where she sells specialty toys and games.

2. Quality is of the essence.

When authors approach her to sell their books at The Avid Reader, Alzeda always asks, “Who’s your publisher?” She is unabashed in her preference for selling books that have gone through the traditional (or commercial) publishing process. That process ensures that the book concept, the manuscript, the art, and all other elements have gone through several levels of vetting. “The quality of the books I sell reflects on me as a business owner,” Alzeda says.

Her store does include a selection of self-published (or independently published) books, but they must meet high standards of quality. They can’t have amateurish art, poor quality paper or ink, inconsistent design, misspellings, or use copyrighted works without permission.

3. Know your community.

Expectations about content that will sell and yes, even a book’s quality, depend on the reading community. Alzeda’s store is just blocks away from a center of higher learning, the University of California-Davis. Thus, many of her clients are used to reading scholarly fare that has undergone peer review and professional editing.

In different communities a store owner may prefer to let readers be the arbiters of taste and good spelling. If their mission is to celebrate the local writing culture and help neighbors support each others’ efforts, then self-published works whose production doesn’t involve gatekeepers may in fact help fuel their bottom line.

What sells in Davis? Because of its university clientele, The Avid Reader is able to carry a deep collection of poetry and literature. Owing to Davis’ status as a center of agriculture and food science, books on gardening, sustainable agriculture, and water conservation do well too. Davis is also known for being a bike-friendly city. So authors who advocate cycling for exercise, family fun, and/or the environment have a good chance of scoring shelf space.

Want an example of a “perfect storm” for sales at The Avid Reader? Locally-authored and self-published book The Toads of Davis sells by the hundreds of copies at the end of each academic term. UC Davis grads and their families buy the book so they can take a slice of Davis’ small-town, earth-friendly culture back with them wherever they are bound. The author has passed away since the book came out in 1999 but his granddaughter keeps it in print and re-stocks Alzeda’s shop with consignment copies whenever they run low.

The Toads of Davis: A Saga of a Small Town cover image

I bought a copy too.

4. Get speaking gigs.

It’s good to have an active online marketing campaign for your book. Go ahead and chat up bloggers and podcasters. Ask them to be “whistle stops” on your virtual book tour. Push your blog posts and announcements to social media. Strew your internet bread crumbs around!

Just understand that if you make it your goal to sell in an independent bookstore, simply “[b]ringing something into the store is not a guaranteed sale.” Alzeda’s store hosts dozens of meet-the-author events per year. She recommends that authors get speaking gigs elsewhere too.

Consider attending book festivals and conferences to get ideas about the types of presentations that draw an audience. Then get yourself a booth, a spot on a panel, or offer your own talk and Q & A session. If you plan to pitch your book to a store owner outside your community, it’s especially important that you establish a good track record of sales at your local store and with specific interest groups.

*Below is a list of others who contributed to the discussion with Alzeda Knickerbocker at The Avid Reader. Are you looking to work with an editor or writer? Consider contacting one of these professionals in the Sacramento-Davis area:

Steven Rose

Danielle Seybold

Roy Sablosky

Elisabeth Kauffman

Robin Martin

Katie Quarles