Dear Bookstore Owner, P.S.

Cynthia Compton -- August 19th, 2019

I whined a bit in my blog post last week (Dear Bookstore Owner) about my frustrations when working with (mostly) self-published authors and their sometimes ineffective marketing techniques to promote their new books. As you may remember, I offered some advice on how these newly published writers could best approach independent bookstores and potentially endear themselves to the owner and staff, rather than antagonize or damage the relationship before it even begins. Clearly, this is a common concern among my bookselling colleagues, as I spent a good chunk of the weekend responding to their commiserating emails and messages, reading LOTS of humorous (and horrifying) tales of hand-to-hand combat…errrr…. promotion techniques used by authors on the prowl, and tut-tutting over the sadly lost time and energy that all of this can take.

I wanted to revisit the topic just a little, for two reasons: one, there are some GREAT local self-published authors in my community who make a real effort to understand the challenges of running a bookstore or ANY business, and think of ways to promote both of us in what they do. I owe those folks a bit more respect and acknowledgment, because I truly appreciate them. Two, I recognize that a tiny independent bookseller such as myself complaining about a growing segment of our bookish community choosing to go OUTSIDE of the big corporate model to do business — meaning to publish their book without working with a big house and all those gatekeepers — well, that’s a little bit contradictory, isn’t it? There are valid reasons to avoid the “traditional” publishing channels, and all of the rejections and delays that the process can entail. Truly, self-published authors are independent in the most basic way — and I thank customers daily for choosing to support my independent business rather than the big box bookstore or the online Behemoth of Evil — I can hardly snub writers who choose to set up their own shops, too.

Let’s face it, the big publishers are challenging to work with, too, sometimes. And the medium-sized ones are not always a picnic, come to think of it… and we all know what distributors can deliver (or not) in headaches and heartache. So here we are, one big shopping cart full of slightly bruised produce, just wondering what to make for dinner. (Yes, that’s my wine in the front basket. All of it.) So there’s just a few more “hints” I will share from my bookselling colleagues interested in successful working relationships with authors who produce, direct, and promote their own books:

  1. Calling a bookstore and asking if a book is in stock is not, in itself, a marketing technique. Enlisting 5–10 friends and family members to do the same is just tacky. If the bookstore staffer offers to order the title, and you decline, we assume that the need is urgent, and we sadly couldn’t meet our customer’s needs that day. When a second customer calls asking for the same book, but also declines a special order, we might make a note on a Post-It, and check the local school reading lists. When the third, fourth, and fifth inquiries come in over the phone…. all declining a special order, but clearly wanting to prey on all our insecurities and make us order the book for stock, well, we just get frustrated. It’s not a “novel idea,” despite what the guerrilla marketing website said. It’s just a series of nuisance calls, like the credit card processing company who “has someone in your area and can explain how your store qualifies for wholesale rates.” Yeah, whatever. 
  2. Calling a bookstore that has agreed to stock your book, whether on consignment or not, to check on DAILY sales is not helpful. It does not keep the title “top of mind,” nor does it entice frontline booksellers to move the book to the NEW RELEASES table or the STAFF PICKS display. It’s more like the mom who calls their kid every single morning during their freshman year of college, just to see what they ate for breakfast. (Here’s the hard truth: it was a Pop Tart, and it was consumed in the last row of the Biology lecture hall, because she was a half hour late to class. How, exactly, do you spell “wapatuli,” Mom?) Both responsibility and handselling are adult choices, and they need to occur without hovering.
  3. Food is good. If you are invited to do a signing, bringing chocolate or scones or COFFEE (!!!) for the staff is a lovely gesture. Please don’t bake things, however, for your audience. We are a business. We can’t serve the peanut butter Rice Krispy treats that you made in your kitchen, even AFTER you picked that stray cat hair off the Saran Wrap cover. (I know, the shedding is awful at this time of year, isn’t it?) We may not want sticky-fingered patrons in the middle of the store perusing all the new hardcovers, and we could live without the middle-of-the-night phone call from some poor customer demanding an ingredient list of the cookies as her child is at MedCheck being treated for hives. Let us provide the refreshments.
  4. Tag us in your social media. NO, please don’t include our store name in that picture of the box from Amazon on the front doorstep containing your books. And also skip our hashtag in that Instagram of your Amazon sales ranking — really, it’s fine.
  5. Buy your books from us. Or buy your books from our indie bookselling colleagues. See it here, buy it here, keep us here. You, if anyone, should understand that. Be the customer that you want us to provide. If our channel is to flourish, we need committed authors, publishers, and readers… and of whom are willing to help us pay the bills. (Oh, and here’s your consignment check. You’re very welcome.)
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About Cynthia Compton

Cynthia is the mom of 4 kids, a rescuer of English Bulldogs, and the owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Indiana. The 2600 sq. ft. childrens store was founded in 2003, and hosts daily story times and events, birthday parties, book clubs and a large summer reading program. She just completed her term on the board of the American Specialty Toy Retailers Assn, is a past president of the Great Lakes Bookseller Association, and her store was honored with the Pannell Award in 2013.

One thought on “Dear Bookstore Owner, P.S.

  1. MARGARET WINSLOW

    As the author of three award-winning memoirs, two self-published and the latest with a traditional publisher, I know how hard it is to sell books. Even regular publishers don’t have much of a budget for new authors, so a lot of the work is on us.
    From the article and its followup, I both laughed and cringed at some of the experiences of bookstore owners who have been confronted by starry-eyed authors. I now understand why one owner laughed in my face and another ranted at me about “all of you self-published authors who come in here every week.” Well, I get it, though I did shed a tear here and there.
    The problem persists that self-published authors and those who publish with small-ish publishers must have written a poor quality book. Otherwise they would have gotten a 6-figure deal with one of the Big Five, right?
    We all know that it is far too easy to get undigested, unedited ramblings into print. That means that the 1-2% ( or is it 1/2%?) of books that are worthy of recognition rarely get a chance.
    Thank you to those wonderful indie bookstores that at least take a look at the book and support readers.
    About the one store owner (2nd biggest indie bookstore in the San Francisco Bay area) who laughed in my face: there is a happy ending. She claimed that she NEVER stocked self-published books. I made a bet and in five minutes found 12 titles (it is a very large store). These did not bear the logo of Author House or Amazon affiliates, which are dead giveaways. They are presses and imprints created by the author. When I showed these to her, she mumbled something and I left. BTW, I was polite, smiling, and upbeat the whole time. Eight months later, the events person contacted me for a book signing! I was booked the same week as two international best sellers. And the local NPR station noticed and booked me for an interview.

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