A few weeks ago, my ShelfTalker colleague, Cynthia Compton, wrote a pair of posts about the relationship between authors and bookstores, offering some tips for authors on how to avoid some common missteps. Her post clearly tapped into some feelings, as she mentioned in her follow-up that she found herself answering all kinds of commiserating emails from colleagues. Speaking as a fellow book buyer, her post perfectly captured some of the ways bookstore outreach (especially from self-published authors who are often just learning the dynamics of the book business) can go awry. But the truth is that it’s not just self-published authors who can stumble in this arena. What her post actually made me think about was what I’ve learned as a bookseller about navigating author relationships over the last 14 years and some of the times I’ve landed in awkward territory with authors myself, despite my good intentions.
While authors and booksellers are natural partners in so many ways, especially on a local level as each of us enhances the other’s voice in the community, there are still places where our priorities and perspectives unavoidably diverge. And whenever that happens—in business just as in life—awkward conversations or misunderstandings can ensue. Here are a few things I’ve learned that I think help us booksellers do a better job dealing with authors too:
BE KIND: Authors have poured themselves into these very personal book projects, so putting them out into the world for judgment is hard. As booksellers, we of course have to make decisions that best serve our business models, margins, curation goals, and personal taste (we’re indies, after all!). But it’s not easy for an author to learn that a store just didn’t love their book enough to bring it in or that their beloved backlist title has stopped selling—or even that it’s out of print, which is sad news that too often falls to booksellers to break. Direct author-to-buyer conversations (or, let’s be honest, even direct editor-to-buyer conversations) will never not be a little bit fraught.
DON’T GET DRAWN IN TOO DEEP: Occasionally I have had authors (not usually local ones) contact me determined to get answers about why we don’t carry their books in the store. There are absolutely valuable discussions to be had about what we carry and why, but this is not generally a productive conversation for anyone to have in that way. We simply can’t carry every book that’s published, and when it’s a matter of taste it’s best to leave it at that. There’s a reason why publishers put sales forces between their authors and editors and us as bookstore buyers.
BE HONEST: If something isn’t good business for the store, we have to be comfortable saying no, even to people we have good relationships with. We care about our relationships with local people and organizations, so occasionally we’ve said yes to arrangements or events out of loyalty when we knew it wasn’t going to be a good labor or inventory investment on our end. When that happens, we simply can’t put the time or resources into building out the best partnership, and that always shows. At the end of the day, it’s better to say no up front and focus on those times when we can say yes and really do something well.
DON’T GIVE UP: Don’t give up on relationships over misunderstandings on either side. Talk it out and figure out what went wrong. A lot of the time awkward moments have arisen with authors when one or both of us hasn’t fully understood what the other needs from an interaction or a proposal. Hashing it all out can feel difficult, but it ultimately leads to greater understanding and sometimes really cool new ideas.
AND FOR AUTHORS, I SAY, BE PATIENT: Staff time at independent bookstores is finite and always over-committed. We do have to make judgment calls and can’t carry every book that’s published, but we love discovering new voices. Oh, and we do our very best to stay on top of our inboxes. If we miss one, never hesitate to try again!