The book trade has been changing so quickly, it’s hard for authors to know how best to go about establishing themselves and disseminating their works. Laser printing and print-on-demand technology helped ignite the self-publishing revolution, just in time for e-readers to come along and change the game all over. Meanwhile, with Amazon and other online outlets taking over, many have proclaimed the death of the bookstore itself.
I have a friend who’s fighting valiantly to keep the traditional bookstore alive. My friend has asked me to keep her name and employer private due to the nature of this article, but we’ll call her Nicole. Nicole is the buyer at a small but prestigious independent bookstore in the Southeast. She believes that even as big-box bookstores like Borders are bankrupted by Amazon, this actually creates more of a niche for local brick-and-mortar establishments. I asked her, “How can a self-published or beginning author get on your shelves?” Here were the main points she shared with me:
1. Email the bookstore for a copy of their consignment form.
Bookstores get most of their stock through the major publishing houses and distributing conglomerates. Unless you’re represented by one of these larger entities, you’ll have to sign a consignment agreement. Nicole says you should generally email rather than call, as a retail environment can be hectic and customers are always the first priority.
2. Make sure your book fits their inventory.
For example, Nicole’s store specializes in fiction and poetry, and does not carry textbooks, so if your book is a textbook, you’re not going to be able to convince her, no matter how good your pitch is. She also advises me that appearances matter. Retail buyers do “judge a book by its cover” and so do customers, so make sure you’ve invested some time and money into making your product look just as professional as its potential shelfmates. “Have a spine,” she says, “and I don’t mean courage.”
3. Think local.
“We’re far more likely to give a chance to a local author, especially if the book itself has local appeal or subject matter,” says Nicole. This is in keeping with her store’s goal to be a community hub, a mission which is not merely a matter of altruism or civic duty, but a very hard-headed business decision: this is the competitive advantage they can provide that Amazon cannot.
4. Be gracious.
“I have to turn down a lot of requests. We can’t afford to operate as the retail equivalent of a vanity press, so generally I only take books I’m pretty sure we’ll sell. Again, the rare exception being an occasional community author. They don’t always take it well. I’ve been cursed out over the phone.” Remember to be courteous, even though, of course, your book is your baby — after all, your next one might have more appeal, but not if you’ve burned that bridge with the buyer.
So there you have it, the inside dirt on getting sold in stores without a publisher. I hope this guidance helps your writing achieve wider exposure!