Monday, May 4, 2009

In praise of independents

If you read the comments to the previous post, you know I went to a couple of independent bookstores on Saturday and inquired about them carrying my books. I chose poorly, it seems--these stores were more into literary books. And science fiction. And, well, graphic novels.

But not romance. Their romance sections were tiny, and I immediately knew I was in trouble. One woman said romance readers in the area get their books at the chain bookstores, discount stores, or at the grocery. Independents simply cannot compete with the discounting.

Well, in my unrealistic mind, I envision independent bookstores stocking small press romance--the books you can't buy at those other brick and mortar outlets. One of the owners showed me the catalogs she receives from which to order books. It's a hassle to her, finding time to go through all the catalogs and decide what to buy. Our books, of course, aren't in any of those catalogs. They might as well be invisible. I might as well have been invisible.

I didn't handle the conversations as well as I should have--so, much of the disappointment I felt afterward was my own fault.

I did meet a couple of very interesting store owners who feel passionately about books. And there were other customers in the stores, so I guess what they're doing is working for them. But I do wish things had gone differently. I believe customers would give small press books a chance if they actually saw them on store shelves.

I'll likely go to more independent stores before long, because I refuse to believe this is impossible. And because I think independent booksellers are, as a group, cool.



  1. Hey,
    Your Friday's post really got me thinking. I'm glad you continued on today about this topic. It's a good one. I am taking a Dave Ramsey course called Financial Peace University. Yesterday he was talking about negotiating. And in the context of that, "win win" situations. You want to sell books, and so does this bookseller. So, what can you do for her that can make it a win win situation? Well, how about going in on publicity together. If there is no risk to her in you doing a booksigning. In fact, if it means more customers walking in the door, how could she not take that opportunity? One big problem is you have to be pretty assertive and self-confident to pull it off. And if that isn't an option, how about going in, meeting with her, and telling her you would like to either take her out to lunch, or (better yet) bring lunch to her one day, and you all sit down and you charm the socks off of her. I saw on Good Reads (I think) an author who was knew the kids' names of the bookstore owners in his town. Now, that's someone who gets his books sold. And, hey, if you get some good friends out of it, even better. Okay. Sorry to take up so much space, but you got me excited.

  2. Good ideas, Jennifer, and I'm glad you're excited about the topic! Maybe do some more brainstorming by email or on the loop. ...Or should we do it here and get more small press authors involved?

    I have several places I want to go, but it takes me a while to get up my nerve after a day like Saturday.

  3. You're a brave one. I'd be so nervous approaching a bookstore about stocking my book, or other small press books. I did send an email to one here in Louisville asking if they'd like promo materials to give out to their customers, but haven't heard back ) - :
    You would think they'd be more inclined to stock small press romance since they don't have to compete with a lower price elsewhere on these types of romances.
    Hmmm... Maybe you could offer to sign any small-press books of yours they order. People love signed stuff. We could all give that a try.

  4. Crystal, I read this somewhere--I think Shrinking Violets?--remember it's not about you, it's about the book. I'm not at the store to sell *me*, which also means when they turn me down it isn't personal.

    I've had zero luck with email contacts. If you hear back from yours, I'd love to know about it.

    The personal touch is something that we, as small press authors, can give the stores. And yes, signing is good if you're certain the books will sell, or if you're doing consignment. If the store actually purchases the books from the publishers, a signed book may negate the return policy.

    Another thing that was mentioned by one of the store owners is that small presses that don't use Ingram's or Baker & Taylor charge for shipping to bookstores. Whether or not this is universal, I don't know. That extra cost makes a big difference to her.

  5. I totally understand where you are coming from. I went to NY city and walked to the majority of the indies and most of them sneered at me and said, "We do not have a romance section." As if the very thought was unheard of. Geesh, these people do not know their business very well. Romance novels sell more than any other genre.
    So I walked away with sore feet and dissappointed that these small bookstore owners who are struggling to compete with the big boys are not willing to open their minds and make money with romance novels.

    And then they get cranky when we support Amazon. Geesh. What can you do?

  6. Hi, Lyn! Welcome to Magdalenaville. You sure had a worse time of it than I did--at least I didn't get sore feet. I don't know how to reach the indies in a meaningful way. Not giving up yet, though.


  7. I promote buying from independents but also have trouble trying to get my books there as an independent author. We have the same issues as small press. The last Borders I went to offering signed bookmarks for their patrons wouldn't even take them because she looked up and said she couldn't order my books. That was a slap in the face since they are in a couple of Borders stores, but apparently the full stores have a different ordering system than the express stores.

    If you want to leave promo material, you need to go and take it, though, not email asking if they want it. I've switched to finding other outlets and selling on commission, such as artsy, off-beat places that have a variety of items for sale. With my next release that deals with a rescued animal and a boat theme, I'll approach animal shelters that sell stuff to support themselves and the local marinas.

    Bookstores outside your local area are a hard sell unless you're from one of the top 5. Is it worth the time to fight it? I'm not sure. Bookstore signings don't generally do well, either. Sitting for 2-3 hours in an indie bookstore that doesn't tend to cater to romance readers will likely only be discouraging. Commission may be your best offer because they don't risk losing money, especially if your company doesn't take returns.

  8. Magdalena,

    The good thing is, you took your courage in your hands and went. Kudos to you.

    Your books aren't in the Ingram’s or Baker and Taylor. That’s okay. Those companies protect them because if they don't sell they Ingram’s takes them back and handles the returns. This is a safety net for them.

    This is where you get creative. If people order directly from the publisher website, is the less expensive than ordering from Amazon? Does your publisher offer wholesale to book buyers? Most small presses do. If so, then you could approach your bookstores in your local area—chain or indie—and try to work a deal. With Chains, even those with three or four stores in the chain, you will have to approach the book buyer for that store. Find out who they are and when they are in your store or which store they are in during the week.

    Next, offer the book buyer your latest book to read—no charge. I’d also offer the store owner or book buyer, one of the Legend Anthologies to read because they give a sample of your sister author’s writing. This is a BIG thing. Why? Because you are bucking against the vanity press stigma—justified, I might add, because many of these books were poorly written and the Cover art is poorly executed. If you can get the book in their hands, and your books have been well edited, in content and format, they will see the difference and this is a selling point.

    When you talk to her, hit that stigma head on. “I know there are many vanity press books out there that are poorly written, Resplendence is a small Independent PUBLISHING company with an editing staff, (pull out your book and hand it to her) and we have professional cover artists designing our covers. I think if you take the time to read it you will quickly see the difference. If after you read it and see the quality, I’d like to talk to you about setting up a small display of my books.”

    I’d suggest this: Offer a deal. Tell them, you will provide the books free of charge for 30 days. Give them a discount on the cover price. At the end of 30 days, we can settle up. If the books aren’t selling for some reason, tell them you will come in and take the books back. These books can be order directly from the publisher website (hand her a card with that website address—make it a pretty business card) at a wholesale price. I will be the liaison and will handle any returns (which is what Ingram’s does).

    Are you the only Resplendence Author in your area? Anyone live close by? Could you get at least one or two of your sister authors to come set up a signing? Book buyer has read the book, sees the quality and is interested. Tell her you’ll do a Saturday signing event. Do you homework and use your connections with the radio station, do flyers, talk to the library, really advertise it—tell your friends and family, anything to get people in the store. This way the buyer sees you are invested in this and the display you leave would be comprised of a selection of Resplendence books. Have a poster board with the Resplendence colors and logo—it’s really pretty. Provide a table if needed, and cover it with a pretty cloth, and a selection of your book marks and books, some pretty trinkets, or a pretty bowl of chocolate kisses to have on your table. The kisses will draw people--it's free and it's chocolate, lol!

    This will also work with the local chain store. Be a presence. Check back after the display is set up after the signing. Perhaps you can find a nice small acrylic book holder to leave behind with your books in it.

    Sorry, this is long. But I've done this with another indie publishing company--not with my books but with their books. It works.

  9. Welcome to Magdalenaville, LK. You bring up lots of good points. I hadn't heard of the separate policies in different types of Borders store, but that's worth noting. Ouch--no doubt that hurt.

    Approaching different types of stores sometimes works. Going with the book theme is a neat idea! I've done some consignment, though I prefer to avoid being in the middle of the transaction like that. But if it's the only way a store will consider the book, at least it's a step. If the first effort does well, perhaps future sales might be made directly from one's publisher.

    Independents are often very limited on financial resources as well as shelf space. Every inch of inventory has to be worthwhile for them, which is another reason we authors need not to take things personally. They're trying to make a living, too.

  10. Sia, my goodness--do not apologize for your comment being long. It's wonderful! Some of what you said had not occurred to me. I think I might need to memorize your comment and plug it into conversation with booksellers as appropriate.

    So far I have the table (fits into the back of my Jeep), pretty cloth, and dark chocolate kisses, which I sprinkle on my table at every signing. The rest of it, though, I need to work on.

    Wow, everyone, what a great day here. I'm learning so much!

    Wouldn't it be neat to have some booksellers telling us their side of things?

  11. Magdalena, sorry you had such a disappointing visit with the indy bookstore. I'm envious that you even have bookstores. We don't have any here. Wal-mart, K-mart, and one indy Christian bookstore that won't allow anything that's not an Inspy through the door. My book is listed with Ingrams, for all the good it does. We used to have a couple of small independent stores here--they were mostly used books--but they've been gone for several years.

    I'm not even going to go into my experience with our county library. I had hoped to have a signing there because they do occasionally do signings for local authors. Suffice to say I'll never darken their door again--yes, they were that rude to me. Not only rude, but downright insulting!

  12. Devon, we have a Christian bookstore and a used bookstore, but nothing else that sells exclusively books. Anyone who wants to purchase a book does so at the grocery, drug store, or online. We do have a wonderful library/librarian, which makes me almost feel guilty after what you say about yours. :(

    The stores I visited Saturday were an hour's drive away from where I live. We were out for the day, and I thought (since I never stop thinking about the business) why not scout out some bookstores online and visit them?

  13. About the book catalogs. This store owner was clearly exhausted by the idea of having to page through those and figure out what to buy. She said publishers used to send knowledgeable reps to the stores, who would sit down with her and help her choose what would likely sell to her customer base. She said that was very helpful, but it no longer happens.

    I wonder if small presses created a catalog a few times a year and made it available to their authors to do the in-person store visits... Would that help booksellers see that these are "real" publishers? It would seem a nice introductory piece.

  14. Wow -- what an interesting and informative post, Magdalena! I'm definitely going to have to make some notes from this one!


    Tracy P. :o)

  15. Hey there, Tracy! Thanks for stopping by!

  16. Hey Magdalena. I understand your frustration. It's frustrating for the independent seller too. As you know our store has a larger than average romance section and we do try to support the local authors, especially when it comes to book signings.

    The problem when dealing with small presses is that they often either don't take returns at all or it's such a hassle to return them that the owner just won't mess with it. I've been told the small presses don't offer the discounts that the larger publishing houses do but since this isn't something I deal with, I don't know for sure.

    With the economy the way it is, most stores are reluctant to even carry mid range authors that aren't well known. Unless they are best sellers or at least well known, the chances of getting a big response from any bookstore is slim.

    Promote yourself as a local author and if your stories are set in a reasonably local area, contact stores near there and let them know about the book and it's setting. Many people will take a chance on an unknown or little known author when it is a local book.

    We take promo materials from all sorts of authors but we also tend to give out a lot more than a lot of store. I made goodie bags for the author signings and that takes a lot of different promo and sells quite a bit of small press books. As long as the customer is willing to pay any additional expenses from us having to order from a small press, the owner is usually willing to order it. When we get several special orders we are more likely to carry the book in the store.

    Hope that helps a bit from the booksellers view.

    Best of luck!

  17. Wow, Deb, YES, that helps so much!

    If anyone has the opportunity to visit The Bookstore in Radcliff, KY, it does have a really nice romance section, and hosts signings every once in a while. Such a neat store!

    What I think you'll find is that small presses vary in their policies on booksellers discounts and how returns are handled.

    The Bookstore is doing a lot for the small presses and their authors, and we sure appreciate you, Deb!

  18. Wow! What an nformative blog. Wish I was a little further along inn my career.

  19. I think if you can remember all the good info people are sharing today, Jennifer, you already ARE further along in your career.