Putting your book into the hands of people who put them into the hands of readers.
About this time every year I start to field phone calls from authors interested in attending the SIBA Trade Show -- the big book industry show run by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance. This is the book show where booksellers and publishers get together to talk to each other about the new books are coming out, or the books that just came out, or the books that were released last season that deserve another look.
I’ve worked in the book industry for twenty-five years now, and this is the part of it I’m most familiar with: The part that happens after the manuscript is finished. After an agent is found. After an editor has demanded an entire rewrite. After the publisher has designed, typeset, and printed up copies.
The book is finally in hand. Now someone has to get people to read it. Which means, someone has to convince people to buy it.
That’s where my part of the industry steps in. It is also where many authors find themselves, after all that hard work producing the best possible book they could, right back at square one--alone and unsupported, uncertain about what to do next, at a loss about how to get their books out of the shipping boxes and into the hands of the people they are hoping will read them.
It really comes down to two issues: Distribution and promotion. And it is an open secret in the book industry that distribution is the biggest hurdle facing “independent” or self-published authors and small presses today. A listing on Amazon will only get you in front of Internet readers, but if you want to get in front of your own community, you need to be on the shelves of bookstores and libraries. There was a figure bandied about several years ago that although independent bookstores accounted for only 9% of the market, that figure jumped to 30% when it came to certain kinds of books--most notably, midlist and debut fiction.
So you there with your brand new novel need alternate avenues of distribution that will create a place for your book on the local bookstore’s shelves. That could mean anything from creating your own publishing company listing with all the major wholesalers in the country, to driving around the state with your car trunk full of books and knocking on bookstore doors.
1. Make sure your book is easy to find. A listing in Books in Print is automatic if you have an ISBN on your book, and the information will eventually trickle down through all the other databases booksellers (online and real world) use. But you need to ensure the listing includes accurate publisher and supplier information. If you buy someone else’s ISBN you have no control over this. If you buy your own, you do. You can also jump the queue by listing your book with Indiebound.org, the database that most of the larger independent bookstores use on their websites--including Malaprop’s, Quail Ridge, Park Road, City Lights, and Flyleaf Books.
2. Make sure your book is easy to order. That means industry standard terms, which as an author in the industry, you should know going in. To a bookstore, it means a minimum of a 40% discount off the retail price, and the option to return unsold stock for a full refund. It often means an account with a wholesaler like Ingram or Baker and Taylor. Or a distribution deal with another publisher or distributor the bookstore is already familiar with--here in North Carolina the publisher John F. Blair negotiates distribution deals for books it thinks fall into its market. If the bookstore has to order directly from you or your publisher, then it means generous billing terms and extended sales periods.
If you decide to go the Print-on-Demand route, be sure to arrange for distribution through normal channels. Many independent bookstores, for example, will not order directly from Createspace because it is an Amazon.com company--their biggest and most aggressive competitor. You can arrange through Createspace to have your book available via Ingram or Baker & Taylor, but only at short-discount prices, meaning bookstores can’t afford to order them for stock.
But both Ingram and Baker & Taylor have their own POD production services, Lightning Source (Ingram) and TextStream (B&T). Uploading your book to one of these services allows you to circumvent the short discount problem you might find from other using other channels. Ingram is by far the dominant wholesaler in the country, so the phrase “it’s available from Ingram” will open many doors for you.
3.Make sure your book is easy to get. That means copies are available to ship immediately, without having to wait 2-3 weeks to be printed first. For stores in your immediate area, it means being a phone call away and willing to bring more copies over the next day if the store has run out. If that does happen, well remember it’s a great problem to have.
Once you have your distribution channels set, then you are looking at long periods of endless and apparently shameless self promotion. It’s an entirely different skill set from that of writing a book, and one that does not come naturally to many people. You have to be extroverted, not introverted. Outgoing, not retiring. Curious and nosy and forward, rather than shy and modest. All and all, many writers find the whole process more stressful than looking for an agent.
4. Make sure you are easy to deal with. The truth is, you are not the first author who has called the bookstore that week about stocking your book or doing an event. You may not be the first author that day. Some of the more active independent bookstores report getting calls from authors several times a day--as many as a dozen or so every week. Your main competition for bookstore attention isn’t coming from all the books published by Random House. It’s coming from all the people, just like you, who have books they want the store to stock. So patience and perseverance are definite virtues.
Luckily, In the era of the Internet there are ways to get on a bookstore’s radar before you cold-call them to set up a possible reading. You can like their facebook pages and follow their twitter posts, respond to their recommendations and make recommendations of your own. You can attend their events and even buy a few books from them. In short, become part of their community. Booksellers are like all of us--they will go the extra distance for the people they know. Bookstores have been described as “book clubs that are open to everyone.” So join a club. Join several clubs.
It’s also worth noting that when you make a friend of your local indie, the news travels. Just as authors talk to each other on writer’s forums, booksellers talk to each other on bookseller forums. So a recommendation from So-and-So, the owner of Such-and-Such Books, will carry weight with other stores. The author Michael Morris, whose most recent book Man in a Blue Moon was a bestseller, published his first novel, A Place Called Wiregrass, with a small press and sent around copies to bookstores with a note from the owner of Park Road books, who had read the early galley and loved it. That note convinced many stores to try the book, because it is understood that a bookseller puts their reputation on the line when they make a recommendation, so they don’t do it unless they mean it.
5. Be prepared.
Authors are rarely Boy Scouts. The biggest hurdle most authors face--after finding a good distribution channel--is doing marketing and promotion. That new debut novel by the Random House author the bookstore decided to stock instead of yours had this going for it: there was a sales rep who took the time to tell the bookstore what was being done to promote the book. There were design people putting together websites, facebook pages and Youtube book trailers. There were publicity people arranging reviews in Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and the School Library Journal. And there was somebody--probably an intern--sending announcements and review copies out to newspaper reviewers, high-profile bloggers, important book websites, and any group personally connected with the writer. That’s why authors have to fill out lengthy and detailed questionnaires that would make the NSA jealous at the start of their marketing campaign. If you are an alumni of a certain school, a member of a civic club, a little league coach for a local team--the marketing people want to know that so they can make sure all those groups know you have a book out.
“Independent” authors have to do all that on their own. But taking the time to do so is vital. If you can come to a bookstore with a good marketing plan in hand, one tailored to the store and the region, then you are no longer an author asking for a favor. You are a potential partner, invested in the success of your book in the community.
It also helps to make things as easy as possible for the people whose attention you are trying to capture. The book reviewers and bloggers and store book buyers. Have a press kit available on your website for download--something that includes low- and high-resolution images of both your book and yourself, links to all your social networking sites, as well as 50-word marketing copy about the book, a collection of reviews and blurbs if you have any, reading group guides and/or a Q&A that stores and media outlets can run in their book pages and their newsletters. A good press kit gives you control over how your are presented in the media and by venues where you have upcoming events, so it is worth taking the extra time to craft a complete and professional one.
All of this might get your book into the store and onto a shelf. Then the real work begins. You’ve got about four to six months to generate sales before a store decides to give the space up to another book that will do better.
6. Be proactive. Funnel sales through booksellers instead of processing them on your own website store. You make less money per book, but gain much more attention from people who are in the business of recommending books. And keep the lines of communication open--let your store contacts know when you have been reviewed or when there is interesting news that pertains to the subject of your book. Even if it is a novel. The odds are, your research sparked an interest in a particular place or subject, so stay on top of it and send information along to your readers and newsletter subscribers, especially if it involves causes that you are passionate about.
Resources for authors on the DIY promotional route:
- Become a member of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance. There is a free membership offer for individual authors (sibaweb.com/for-authors) and membership allows you to request mailing lists of their membership whenever you like. Currently the list has over fifty bookstores just in the state of North Carolina. You can also be listed in SIBA directory of touring authors-- a list that is promoted to bookstores as well as to libraries, schools, and other civic organizations.
- Join the SIBA discussion group on Yahoo. Self-promotion isn’t allowed, but you can “listen in” on the issues that concern indie booksellers and get a sense of their perspective on the challenges everyone in the industry faces. (Yahoo group “sibamembers”)
- If you have a book, get it listed in the Indiebound.org database (http://www.indiebound.org/addabook). That will mean your book can be found in every indie bookstore in the United States that uses the Indiebound database--most of the bigger bookstores do.
- Attend the NC Writer’s Fall Conference. There is always a track for the “business” side of writing, including sessions on marketing, publicity, and navigating the new technology of the publishing and e-publishing world.
- Get some review copies into the hands of readers and booksellers. There are a number of ways to do this, but you want to choose a method that allows you to capture the contact information of the people who request a book from you. Both the American Booksellers Association and SIBA offer programs to put review copies in the hand of booksellers. They aren’t free of charge, but you do receive a list of bookstores that have expressed an interest in your book -- something you can use to follow up with later. Goodreads and LibraryThing also offer review copy programs, although each has more specific requirements about what is allowed. The good thing about those programs is that reviewers are required to review the books they receive, so you know that every book you send out is likely to be read AND reviewed on a popular book website. You can also list your book on Netgalley -- a site that distributes e-book versions of review copies and specifically targets what they call “professional readers” -- that is, bonafide, vetted book reviewers. There is a fee to list, but you can target your galley to specific reviewers who are interested specifically in your genre.
The publishing industry has been in a state of rapid flux over the last ten years as it attempts to adjust to new technology, new publishing scenarios, and new markets. Where it used to take a year, It is now possible to “publish” a book in a month. But what hasn’t changed significantly is how books make their way from reader to reader. It is still a “one book at a time” process--somebody, somewhere, hands a book to their best friend or their mother or their colleague at work and says “You’ve got to read this!”
It is the most powerful phrase in the book industry. And everything a bookseller does, everything you do as an author, is designed to make someone say to someone else “you’ve got to read this!” about your book.