How, Ultimately, to Get a Book on My Shelves

Josie Leavitt - December 4, 2009

Here’s a true story of one very tenacious self-published author and what not to do to get your book on my shelves.

– First thing of all: do not try to get your book in any store in December. It’s just too busy a time for me and most other booksellers. 

– Do not call more than once. Leave a message, trust the system and know that the right people, i.e. the buyers, will get the message.

– Do not have three different members of your family call suggesting I carry the book. This just takes up staff time saying the same thing: Please, either send an email with details of the book, or better yet, send a copy for the owners to look at. But do not take up my staff time with the same message multiple times a week.

– Do not pretend to be a customer looking for the book when you are in fact, the author. We have Caller ID and we check it before we answer the phone.

– Do not offer to send an invoice me for five copies, sight unseen, during the sixth phone call of the week.

Here are some things the author could have done differently:

– Do be patient. December is a very, very busy time. Try to get your book to us after the holidays.

– If you’re that confident of your book and are frustrated with an inability to reach a buyer, offer to send one copy as a consignment. This way you can get one in the store without endlessly calling staff.

– I know your book is very important to you, but please understand that this is the busiest time of the year for me. This is when I make my money for the year and I barely have time to restock the bestsellers, deal with special orders and unpack boxes; I do not have time to tell you again that I cannot make a decision about a self-published book I have no information about.

– Find out the store’s email and send me a nice email about why I should carry your book.

– Understand that if I don’t respond right away, I’m probably just busy. Send a follow-up email in a month and then let it be. Not every book is going to work at my store.

– Consignment works for me. This way I take no risk and your book comes to my store.

Did I take the book? Well, yes I did, because the author came in and she let me take two on consignment. I had her sign the books. I put autographed stickers on the books and put them on the Vermont shelf, spine out. To which she said, "Is that how you’re going to display them?" I was dumbstruck at her boldness. After I calmly explained that we had other books to feature, bestsellers, newsletter books, and holiday books, she backed off. I also suggested that she send some of her friends in to buy the books because, honestly, I’d like nothing more than selling these books.

I’ll keep you posted about the book’s sales as well as how it winds up displayed. It would not surprise me if this book "somehow" wound up face out.

21 thoughts on “How, Ultimately, to Get a Book on My Shelves

  1. arizonaskye

    Obviously… my ‘satire’ take on this was missed… elizabeth… sorry! I do realize the angst associated with this entire dilemma; and the amount of energy and time spent in dealing with it all. I apologize for not making it clear — that I do recognize all that you said – but was trying to twist it around to have a laugh over it all… because – sometimes – humor is all we have to get us through the day.

  2. shelftalker elizabeth

    I think authors who step into a bookseller’s shoes for a few moments would feel less offended by some of our decisions. Arizona, a single face-out shelf would accommodate just four to ten books. Also, to marginalize self-published books by putting them on a separate shelf–unified by nothing but the fact of being self-published–does not speak to customers’ needs or browsing habits, and would pretty much guarantee they not get sold. I understand the sensitivity self-published authors feel because of the resistance they encounter, but I think what you may not understand is just how many very bad self-published books we see. There are wonderful gems out there, absolutely, but because most self-published books have no experienced editors or publishers vetting and helping to shape the book, the chances for poorly written books — filled with typos and, honestly, terrible, unprofessional illustrations — is disproportionately high. We see two or three hundred books like this a year. That’s almost one each day. That’s why booksellers are so leery of the self-published book. We also know our markets, and have a strong sense of what sells and doesn’t sell to our customers. For instance, I could stock Danielle Steel till the cows come home and only move two a year; another bookseller might sell ten a day. We have great relationships with professional, courteous self-published authors who have taken time to understand the independent bookselling business, and who know that we are also responsible for keeping track of the 40,000 other titles we carry. We certainly couldn’t afford a flat-screen TV even if loops of JK Rowling were playing; if someone were to donate one, we’d happily play book trailers including their title. 🙂

  3. arizonaskye

    Wouldn’t it be simpler to devote a single shelf – face out – space for these ‘pathetic’ self-publishers… the policy being – when it’s full, it’s full… and, by the way, could someone define ‘pushy’? Uhhh, is just asking for display being ‘too’ pushy? RE: self-published books: the internet has changed everything (it is the 21st century) and bookstores should keep up. How about a flat screen with a loop displaying ‘new’ self-published books and a link to the author’s website as a service to all book lovers and the community. When a customer wants to purchase one of them, the bookstore owner will benefit. Well… I could go on, but don’t want to appear ‘pushy’.

  4. gooseangel

    I have had a lot of support from our local and regional bookstores. I have also had some excellent press in the regional papers, although each writer for the 2 recent articles both omitted some of the local stores (which were in my press release and I mentioned in an interview) where the book could be purchased. One paper even got the date wrong for a book signing although it was clearly typed correctly in the release. The author you speak of may have been just as dismayed at the error!

  5. shelftalker elizabeth

    Oh, Spellbound. So sorry! I feel the same way when I go to an author’s website to get some info for an event flyer — and they only link to Amazon instead of IndieBound or their local store. I don’t understand why there’s such a lack of understanding about this!

  6. Spellbound

    In November I hosted a local author, who expressed much appreciation for the time and effort I had put into promoting her appearance. In December’s issue of a local magazine her book was profiled and the only place mentioned that you could buy it: Amazon! grrrrrr

  7. shelftalker elizabeth

    Also, if you are trying to sell your book to a local bookstore, be a customer. If you don’t support them, why should they support you? We have wonderful local authors who shop with us and recommend us to their friends–both of which have the benefit of endearing them to us personally, making us more invested in the success of their work, and serving as a reminder to check stock on their books. Win-win!

  8. Cynthia

    Please, please, please, drop off or mail us a copy! I have a “slush pile” by my cash register that staff will peruse, and good customers are encouraged to look at. 2 positive post-it notes, and I’ll call you back. Otherwise, you are lost in the 100-150 pieces of mail each week, the 100 – 200 emails each day, and the multiple requests for donations for fundraising, all of which must be handled before I can actually make any money!

  9. gooseangel

    As a recent self-published children’s author/illustrator with a major distributor I heed your words. It has been interesting to say the least promoting my book. Some accept it gladly with open arms, and for those who haven’t ordered it I wondered just how much I should push. Others in the booksellers industry have said to keep trying, but I certainly wouldn’t want to completely shut the door on the possibilities. I almost get the feeling from some of the posts that “self-publishing” is a dirty word. I never considered going to a publisher, but hired editors and consultants to guide me through the process. I wanted the creative freedom to tell the story and have already won an award with the book. Thank you for your insights.

  10. Sandy

    I’d like to second Josie’s dismay at being questioned over my shelving decisions. We have decided to carry your book (whether it’s on consignment or a straight purchase) and it’s now part of our stock, to be shelved where and how we choose. Please don’t demand premium display space, because if you’re going to be obnoxious, I’m much, much less likely to ever give your book face-out status.

  11. le Bink

    I spent 35 years in the music biz as a performer/booker and witnessed a fair of nefarious behavior when it came to musicians and self-promotion. It was a minority of players, but enough to be a drag. For a precious few it pays off (their stories get told), for the vast majority it simply backfires and they lose work they might have gotten while earning a damaged reputation in the process. People being people, the book biz is of course similar so it’s really valuable to everyone that the lie is being put to the idea that “clever” (i.e. creepy) marketing and promo tactics work. Create a good product, work to put it out there, do what you say you’re going to do, trust that the shop keepers know their business, avoid the crooks, and be the nicest person in the room. It pays off.

  12. Brightshadow

    Now: Where can I find a nice helpless elderly couple capable of looking very appealing and not too obnoxiously desperate? They would need their own transportation. I suppose I could try Craigslist….

  13. Byron Borger

    We were once selling books at a conference with several views of a topic (evolution) being discussed. The wife of one of the presenters came to our book display and turned downside all the books by her husbands “debate partners”, so customers would only see his books, propped up over the others. (His was the “liberal” view, by the way.) We just watched her doing it and were so floored we didn’t know what to say. Yep, dealing with pushy authors is sometimes a trip, even if they aren’t inexperienced self-published ones. Thanks for this great post and helpful comments. Byron Hearts & Minds

  14. Susanne Gervay

    Wow – you’re a kindheart. However I must say, I discovered that my kids went into book stores and put all my books face out. I didn’t know until recently and even though I thought it was funny and I know they love me, it was a BAD thing to do. Selling books is a funny business. Susanne

  15. Sylvia B

    Another suggestion for writers acting as their own publishers is to invest a little time doing advance research on the bookstores they’re planning to approach. When someone calls or comes in and expects me to automatically be interested in stocking their new cookbook, elephant memoir, spiritual repair manual or what-have-you, it’s all I can do to be polite while I explain that the books wouldn’t fit in our selection. If they begin to argue, I stop them and tell them to go to our website and learn something about the store before calling back. It really surprises me, in this day and age when every bookstore has a web site, how many writers – and even some small publishers – don’t even take that one step to see where they’re trying to place their books.

  16. Rob Storey

    That was an excellent description of what not to do. What is the best way to catch the attention of booksellers not on my publishers radar? I have a non-fiction work coming out in Feb. Ideas?

  17. suekush

    As an author with a book coming out next year (NOT self-published) I thank you for the tips. I’m planning to approach independent booksellers who the publisher’s sales force may have missed or failed to impress. But I’ll be sure to stay within the lines.

  18. Suzannah

    Elderly or not, I think I would have told that self-publisher to leave my store and don’t come back. She ate up too much of your time and had nothing to offer you in return, one of those energy vampires. Oy!

  19. Burned

    Our store used to take books on consignment but we had one self-published author who would hide their books somewhere in the store (wrong section, behind other books) and then demand payment for the “sold” copies. We also had a customer who turned out to be the author special order books (non-returnable) and then never pick them up so we were stuck with them. I never understood this behavior, besides being very bad karma it sours the relationship you’re supposed to be building with your local bookseller.

  20. shelftalker elizabeth

    Josie, you were actually kind in your description of the hard sell we got for this book. They were relentless and their phone calls took up a lot of staff time, with booksellers explaining that the buyers were out (which we were) and would actually need to see the book before buying it. They also tried to pressure us by saying they had already told people (and put in their press release!) that we would be carrying the book. Normally, this kind of behavior would mean a NO even if the book were the next David Copperfield, but when they came to the store to finally show us the book (badly made, overpriced), they were an elderly couple and Josie’s tender heart took over. Two on consignment.


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