Let me preface this by saying that we’re all more transparent than we would like to believe we are. All of us. I know I’ve done various ill-advised things in the past, every instance of which I’ve later regretted. In that spirit, let me save you from yourselves.
We already know that some authors are going to face out their own books — or ask their friends and family to do this — in our stores. This can be a minor inconvenience for us, since it may be messing up a themed display, or your face-out may be replacing a book we are trying to feature for a special time-sensitive reason. Indie bookstore staff do pretty much always know which books we’ve chosen to face out, but sometimes we smile and let yours stand if we love the book you’ve turned outward. This is a mildly risky move, because if you do mess up a bookstore display and someone on staff notices, they may be irked. And you don’t want to irk booksellers; you want to endear them to you.
A much better approach is to walk up to the counter and introduce yourself, saying something like, “Hi, I’m Charming Author [insert your own name there], and I see that you have my book. Thanks so much for carrying it. I’d be happy to sign any copies, if you’d like.” We at the Flying Pig almost always say yes, though I’ll caution you that this is not universal. Some stores may say no, because stock levels need to be controlled, and bookstores are not supposed to return unsold copies that are autographed. So if that happens, try not to feel bad; they are just being uber-practical, hardcore stock warriors. The strategy then would be to create a nice relationship with them so they remember you and will give your book(s) a second look. You can do this by chatting about some of the new books you’ve loved; there is almost nothing as bonding as shared book enthusiasm. And if you actually buy something at the store, you’ve made the first move in a good faith contract of mutual support.
As tempting as it may be, please oh please do not call bookstores and ask for your own books, pretending to be someone else. For one thing, we all have Caller ID. For another, there is just something obvious about these phone calls. They don’t sound the same as regular inquiries. You know how your voice transmutes into false, stilted tightness when you have to answer an automated voice system on the phone instead of talking to a human being? Suddenly, you can’t even say your own name or the word “Question” or the number “2″ normally. Well, it’s similar with these faux phone calls about your book. The difference is palpable, and it leaves both you and the clerk uncomfortable. Also, please don’t come into the bookstore and do that same thing. We have Google, and you have a website. We can see what you look like.
Even worse, please don’t have friends or family call the store pretending to be interested in buying your book so that we will order copies. If you aren’t planning to send real business our way, it is rude to try to trick us into carrying a book that will not have your support.
Recently, we encountered a new low-point attempt at guerrilla marketing. Our staffer, David, pointed to a couple of books and said, “What’s the story on these?” I looked at them, two different titles in paperback, and shook my head. “I don’t recognize them,” I said. He said, “I think this lady left them in the store.” He told me that he had been helping another customer up front in the store on a busy sale day over the weekend, and he’d seen a woman bend down in front of the “NPR Book Picks” end cap. (This is the first bookcase most customers notice when they come into the store and turn right. It’s prominent.) David said the woman had given him kind of a funny look, and he’d seen her doing something on the bottom shelf, but he was busy helping someone else, so he didn’t have a chance to check in with her before she ducked quickly out of the store. I asked David, “You think she left these books here, hoping we’d sell them?” He said, “I think so. These and the other copies.” Other copies?? I went up front and there were more books on the bottom shelf. The person had left SIX copies of books we hadn’t ordered, displayed as though they were NPR picks. This takes a lot of gall, and is definitely not the done thing.
David had Googled the author, and said she was not the same person who left the books, nor does she live in Vermont. Perhaps it was a family member or friend. We can’t figure out the aim of this move: would someone be calling in a few weeks to see if the books had sold, and want payment? Our staffer, Laura, had a kind thought: “Maybe she asked a friend to drop off some books for consignment, and her friend didn’t know what that meant.” This is a generous idea, but I have to wonder what friend doesn’t ask the bookstore staff, and instead decides to plop the books on a shelf face-out and run.
It has me wondering: is there some lecturer out there advising authors to do these things to get their books noticed? Because I have to say that, at indie bookstores at least, your best bet is not trickery or gimmicks, but is still the simplest (if not the easiest) one: to strike up a real conversation with a bookseller.
P.S. You may be wondering what we plan to do with those six books we didn’t order. They don’t look terrible, and if the author or her friend had approached us directly, we might have tried one or two copies. Given the icky way they came into the store, we removed them from the shelves and will hold onto them for a week or two in the back office to give back to the author/friend if she comes back or calls. After that, I suppose we will donate them.