Authors, Please Don’t Do This

Elizabeth Bluemle -- August 19th, 2014

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.

30 thoughts on “Authors, Please Don’t Do This

  1. Douglas Florian

    Here’s my favorite indie bookstore story. About twenty years ago I was invited to sign books at an indie bookstore in a hardscrabble working class neighborhood in Long Island after a nearby school visit. It was inside an old yellow school bus and run solely by an enterprising woman. Well, only about five families came, and they were only interested in paperbacks. I chatted with the owner for more than an hour as we waited for customers. We shared stories about our backgrounds and families, and in the end she confided that she didn’t think her store could stay in business longer with such low sales. Five years later I glanced at the masthead of a major book review journal, and, lo and behold, there was her name. Did that long chat we had help my books get rave reviews? I don’t think so, but hey, it didn’t hurt.

  2. An Industrious Author

    I was surprised by the tone of this article. I always thought that bookstores and authors were in partnership. This was very “us” vs. “them,” or the Misunderstood Booksellers who Must Deal with the Unwashed Masses of Social Clod Mid-list Authors.

    I have spent a significant amount of time on book tour visiting stores, especially independent bookstores. I take time to chat with booksellers and offer to sign books. I always ask if it’s OK and let them get the exact books that they want me to sign, whether its one copy or ten. All in all, I’ve signed about 1,400 copies of my books in 200+ visits to stores in 18 states in the past seven years.

    But if I put signed books back in section (which I always offer), I face them out. Always. Why?

    My books are “signed by the author” now, and according to most sources, they should sell better than unsigned titles. I carry stickers just in case the store doesn’t have any, so this fact is always visible on the front cover. But if they go back on the shelf spine out, no one can tell they are signed. It’s as if I never stopped in. I’m confused how this benefits either of us.

    Look at it from my perspective. I’ve taken the time and energy to seek out your store, sign books and get to know more about your business, often in the midst of a very hectic schedule. I bring gifts for the booksellers, often food since that’s my genre. I promote my stops via social media. Often, I end up selling books, either mine or other authors’ titles while I’m store because I’m outgoing and not shy about talking with customers. But to then just put my book(s) back in section spine out while facing out a copy or two of another author’s book right next to it, well this feels unjust. It communicates that an author’s time and effort doesn’t warrant any value in your store.

    I would never take my books out of section and put them on what’s obviously a co-op table. But I do know that some friends and relatives have done this and I even when I tell them not to do that, it’s hard to stop the well meaning.

    The industry is a bit murky to navigate and I’d like to see bookstore owners be a part of the education for authors, especially as more ditch conventional publishing to head into DIY. I think there’s a lot of money to be made with self published authors (especially genre series) on both sides. This example may sound a little crazy but it shows how hard some authors find navigating the publishing world.

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle Post author

      Hi, Kat. I’m a social clod midlist author myself, so I understand the challenges and effort involved in trying to navigate the world of promotion. I mentioned the face-outs with a smile in my article, as a minor issue. The main article was intended to be about the incredible act of putting books into a bookstore without permission. It surprises me that anyone would take issue with my taking issue with that! I would never walk into your place of business and put my things on your shelf or use your desk. It’s just unprofessional.

  3. Donna

    Here’s a question about face outs in general: they’re good, right? I was a bookseller for many years and shelving is now in my blood. I have face outs in my house. But there is a bookstore near me that will have five or six copies of a book spined. These are throughout the store. And I cannot help myself just turning them around to face out. I hope I’m not violating some co-op agreement or something, but c’mon.

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle Post author

      Donna, I look at what you’re doing as helpful, smart shelving. The books are already there, and there’s room to face out those six within the shelf (not covering up other titles), so if it were my store, I wouldn’t mind that at all! And — at our store, we shelve nothing based on co-op.

  4. Ceci

    You know that old expression, “When you point one finger, there are four pointing back at you.” I get nostalgic for working in publishing; I did for over 16 years, and this article slapped it out of me and made me sad. You are very, very lucky to have a voice. Please use it to be kind, and when there’s a problem, educate people, rather than mock and accuse. You don’t know what that woman’s motivation was. Maybe she is a jerk and a sneak, but maybe because the books have an amateurish look, she may not have any idea how bookstores work. She might be going through a bad time and hoped to offset it by doing something good. To assume that her look was sneaky, rather than shy says more about the observer. As a publisher, we have had bookstores file the books in humorously wrong sections of the store and bookstores who asked if they could not pay the bill because somehow they lost the books, and we’ve received cartons of returns meant for other publishers. The author/bookseller relationship cuts and benefits both ways.
    Rather than insulting authors for moving books around, why not explain in articles that many of those premium positions may have been paid for and that by shifting books around, they may be injuring the sales of their fellow authors. Sure, that may not resonate with all authors (I’ve worked with the public and authors too; I know how it goes), but it might help a little. If an author offers to sign books, suggest that they contact the library and arrange an event and contact their publisher to see if there’s money available for some creative co-marketing. Yes, most likely, the publisher won’t have the budget, but it’s a way of being positive and trying to work things out rather than giving them a kick in the chops for not being a writer with household name status.
    Explain to them that if they sign books, it may make it difficult for the books to be returned and that the money spent on multiple copies and a featured display of best-sellers may bring in enough money to buy copies of a lesser known wonderful author who the bookseller would love to include on the shelves. Make it easy for your staff to advise people like the woman who put the books on the NPR shelf to have the information for where to donate the books to a library. Please be kind. As you said, we’re all in this together.

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle Post author

      Hi, Ceci. I do try to be kind, truly, and I am hoping to educate people with my post. We actually don’t take payment for placing books anywhere in our store, so that’s not an issue for us, but we do arrange sections and face-outs with thought and care. My tone was not meant to mock or insult, but I do confess I was astonished that someone would come into my store and try to trick us into carrying them by placing them on shelves without asking permission of the store owners. That is not okay behavior, and everyone knows that. I can’t think of scenario in which someone would invest the time and money to create books, and then not educate herself about the standard methods of getting them placed in bookstores. If people wish to donate books, they come up to the counter and ask about how best to do that. We have a really friendly staff, and I love welcoming people to the store.

      1. melanie hope greenberg

        Elizabeth, You must understand that authors (even trade published) are given NO education on book selling methods. It was not until I started selling my own out of print remainders that I learned how my industry is set up, took 20 years in publishing for the lights to go on. I taught a class in how to sell your OPs at an SCBWI conference showing the success I’ve had with MERMAIDS ON PARADE and said to take lots of notes, here’s how to do it. Some attendees wrote evaluations upset that I was not doing their work FOR them.

          1. melanie hope greenberg

            I really do not know that for sure because someone did it. Could be an anomaly but with the current attitude of *do for me* rather than taking the time to learn and help oneself I am not surprised.

      2. Ceci

        Ms. Greenberg put it perfectly. I would only add that I’ve worked with over 50 authors, several of them best-selling authors, and only one of them knew how the bookselling process works. Maybe you’re right, and she was trying to be tricky or maybe she was just trying to play it forward because either the book means something to her or your store or your staff have touched her. You don’t know. I was just trying to give a shout out for anyone who has tried to do something good and been misunderstood. As you said, we’re all in this together.

        1. Elizabeth Bluemle Post author

          Ceci, I have definitely had the experience of a nice gesture backfiring on me. I still believe that, if someone intends to give a gift, they either bring it to the counter or leave a note with the gift if they’re too shy to speak with the staff members. I’m sure the person meant no harm and wasn’t being malicious at all — but she was sneaking items onto a shelf for sale that didn’t belong there, without asking permission or explaining. I don’t see another way of interpreting that action.

  5. Ty

    I once had an author call our store and tell me that if his books were spined out on the bookshelf, I might as well throw them away. “Here’s what you need to do. Order 30 copies, and put them up by the cash registers with a nice sign!” My reply was, “Sir, that spot is reserved for John Grisham at the moment.” That sort of presumptuousness did not win him any future favors.

  6. melanie hope greenberg

    I was reading outdoors in front of a store at a street fair. In the middle of my reading the next author up must’ve had friends (or maybe the publisher’s marketing staff?) take my books off the table display and put their books up front. Right in front of me. R.U.D.E.

  7. David Lubar

    It’s always nice to get the book seller’s perspective. Thanks. As a side note, here’s something I learned the hard way: I always make sure I’m on the shelves before offering to sign store stock.

  8. Lynne

    I worked in an indie bookstore for 10 years. Staff had to keep a constant eye out for a few types who felt that the best way to advertise their particular brand of religion was to conceal a bookmark in each and every paperback. Guess they didn’t know the shelf life of a midlist paperback.

  9. Alan Gratz

    Oh! This is a thing now! Here’s an article in the Huffington Post about a guy who does this with his own books at Barnes & Noble. I couldn’t believe it when I read it. The author says, “I told myself at the beginning that making money off the book wasn’t important; reaching people who needed the story was the most important thing. So why not give a few copies away, or ‘donate’ inventory to Barnes & Noble?” Unbelievable. The other part of the idea is that, if a bookstore sees a book selling, they’ll find a way to re-order it, even if they didn’t choose to bring the book in to their shelves on purpose.

    All I can say is, when I worked at an independent bookstore, this would have been seen as very UNcool. Especially because we had a policy of taking two copies of every self-published book people brought in to us and putting them on the shelf. Once they were properly added to the inventory, of course…

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle

      Ha! I thought it might be some bad idea gone viral. It creates confusion and ultimately ill will on the bookseller’s end of things, and honestly, how likely are the vast majority of those books to be sold, much less reordered? I always want to ask those authors how often they buy books (especially fiction) by people they’ve never heard of in any context — by knowing them personally, or via word of mouth or reviews or interviews? How often do they buy a book that looks, as they so often unfortunately do, amateurishly/poorly designed and printed? Why would they expect someone else to buy theirs? (The books mentioned in my post actually didn’t look too bad — somewhat amateurish but not terrible — but that can’t overcome the ridiculous, sneaky way they came into the store.)

    2. Laura

      It is very uncool at a chain bookstore too. We love when authors come into the store, introduce themselves and offer to sign our stock. Moving around books to various shelf locations or tables is terrible. It destroys a bookseller’s hard work plus it may make it harder for us to find the book for a customer. Where else in retail would someone think adjusting their merchandise is ok?

  10. Fred Bortz

    I haven’t done this in a while, but I plead guilty to taking my book out and facing it out where it was on a shelf. As soon as someone looks at it, they will see all the others that are similarly shelved. And I do that in my home area only, where my name is a bit better known than elsewhere and where the store may have stocked it for that reason.

    I can’t imagine replacing a book that the store had placed face out. I just add one more face-out book in a place where there were none.

    Does that excuse my sin? :)

  11. Emma Cosgrove

    I had to read this post twice to fully comprehend this! Amazing the lengths people will go to. Please could you let us know if you hear any more from the author or the mystery lady?!

  12. Maya

    Gracefully put. I have had uncomfortable, passive aggressive encounters with self-promoters who put me on the defensive about my position as a book selector and curator (hours of work and careful budgeting go into this!)

    I couldn’t agree more about being charming and talking about other books you love. If you have enjoyed the services of a particular library or bookstore in the past, please mention that also. It is always more pleasant when authors and other folks in the book business can have mutual appreciation for the work we all do.

  13. marcy goldman

    What an informative piece ! As an author, I never thought of the back story of the bookstore, its staff and book placement. I suppose on occasion, I’ve been guilty of book rearranging.
    But now that I am indie publishing and my books are only available online (except for the very brave and generous, Kitchen Arts and Letters), book arranging is no longer a problem (or an option). Perhaps the next feature might be about another sort of ‘book arranging’, i.e. getting self published books (in my case, cookbooks) into the bookstore. I promise, when that happens, as an author, I’ll just send you a note saying: thanks for carrying my book (and I won’t be by the store to re-arrange nor call anonymously to get you to order copies)
    :)

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