Bookseller Panel Provides Tips to Authors on Working With Indies

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On Friday, May 13, at BookExpo America 2016 in Chicago, four bookseller panelists spoke to authors about how to create positive relationships in the session “Education for Authors: How to Work Successfully with Independent Bookstores.” The panel was presented by the Authors Guild and the American Booksellers Association and moderated by bestselling author Richard Russo.

During the session, the bookseller panelists shared a number of salient issues with the authors, from publicity to dealing with pre-event nerves. On the panel were Sarah Bagby, owner of Watermark Books & Café in Wichita, Kansas; John Evans, co-owner of DIESEL: A Bookstore in Oakland, Santa Monica, and Larkspur, California; Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books, with locations throughout South Florida; and Margie Scott Tucker, co-owner of Books Inc., with 11 locations in the San Francisco area.

Russo, who was presented with ABA’s Indie Champion Award at BEA, drew on his own experience when he was an emerging author to encourage authors to foster relationships with independent bookstores, which, he noted, have survived despite challenges over the past 10 years, including the rise of e-books and online retailers.

“Because there is no easy way for an emerging writer to cozy up to a retailer that sells not only books but also diapers and flat-screen TVs, they would do well to consider the possible benefits of establishing partnerships with smaller, independent bookstores,” said Russo, whose most recent novel is Everybody’s Fool (Knopf). “My first two novels were sold by these folks 25 years ago, and I can testify that if you do things right, you will come away from that relationship with friends who are also powerful allies.”

The booksellers shared best practices they have formulated over years of organizing successful events both with self- or independently-published authors and authors with traditional publishers. Kaplan kicked off the discussion by delineating some of the realities authors should understand about independent bookstores, noting that when it comes to an author’s initial approach, being nice is always the best strategy.

“Most of the bookstores you are going to want to appear at are doing a lot of events. Those booksellers are doing everything in their power to promote the event and the authors who are at the store, and they are usually doing it with a very, very thin staff, so they are really dancing as fast as they can,” said Kaplan. “You have to understand the reality of what is happening when you approach a bookstore.”

“All of us are open to understanding and getting to know new authors because our job is to help be the conduit from our audience, our customers, to help them discover new authors,” Kaplan added. “Get to know the bookstore so it doesn’t seem like you are just sending out a mass e-mail; really get to know something personal about the bookstore and make the case for why we should get behind you.”

According to Tucker, when authors approach a bookstore to make that initial connection, whether the goal is arranging an event or just getting their book on the shelves, the importance of knowing about the store in advance “cannot be understated.”

“We all have websites, so it is very easy to see the type of bookstores we are, the type of events that we do. If you are going into the bookstore, look around at what else is there,” Tucker said. “It is going to give you a little bit of a clue of what we do best and I think that is really important. You can find out that information on us so easily and it can help you decide, is this a store for me or is this not a store for me? Not every store is for every book.”

Before pitching a store with a book or event, Kaplan said it only takes a little extra work for authors to more easily entice booksellers, by identifying what markets in the area would be receptive to the book, coming up with ideas to help the bookstore promote the book, and thinking about ways that they, too, can promote the book.

“We want to know that you’re on our side just as much as we’re on your side,” Kaplan said. Evans added that some booksellers will even help an author identify like-minded bookstores in other cities that they can contact for events.

Bagby noted that authors approaching bookstores should also make sure their book is linked to IndieBound on their social media pages and on any of their promotional materials, which allows readers to buy the book at independent bookstores all over the country.

“It’s the first thing we look at when somebody comes in and leaves a book or sends an e-mail: to see where they link,” said Bagby. “Most independent bookstores have online sales tools; we can provide inexpensive shipping for independently published authors. IndieCommerce bookstores can enter your book into the database to be available at every independent store online, so you can forward people to our sites to fulfill [orders] for your family and friends who do not live near you.

“We can work with you in all sorts of ways that other [retailers] can work with you as well, and we love when we can get those online sales,” she said.

According to Evans, recent studies have shown that 70 percent of book discovery comes from in-store visits, so “linking to your local bookstore through IndieBound is sort of a no-brainer as far as getting your books discovered in the marketplace,” he said.

For authors scheduling an event, all four booksellers said that six weeks is the very least amount of time they need in order to schedule an event in advance, in part because most bookstores already have a systemized schedule in place for publicity. The Authors Guild and ABA also provided the authors in the audience with a list of Dos and Don’ts to follow when it comes to getting through the actual event. The number one tip on that sheet: do not show up under the influence. Surprisingly, Russo said, this is something that happens often enough that it’s worth mentioning.

Bagby shared a few other tips for authors who do in-store events. Make a determination prior to the event as to whether you want to read from the book or talk about it, she said, and if you want to do a talk, don’t give the entire book away. Authors should also introduce themselves to the frontline bookselling staff; it helps to make a connection by talking about books you love and establishing a common thread along those lines. Bagby also cautioned authors not to schedule a lot of private events, which can compete with what the bookstore can do to help them.

Evans said an author’s performance at an event comes down to respect: respecting oneself as an author, respecting the book, respecting the bookstore and the booksellers who are running the event, and respecting the audience.

“Respect yourself as an author so that when you are presenting your book in the store, you are standing solid in all of the work that you have done,” said Evans. “Respect the bookstore and the booksellers that have done unseen amounts of work in making it happen, respect that they are doing that advocacy for you and your book, and then also respect the audience, who is giving up their time to attend this event.”

Russo concluded the session by urging authors to “try not to think of the event as ‘the event,’ in a sense.” It’s not worth being disappointed if only 10 to 15 people show up, he said, because “the fact that you were there is going to play out over time.”

“Your booksellers, the owner, the entire staff is either going to like you or not like you,” Russo said. “They are going to be talking about you for a long time, and they are going to be happy when your next book comes out, and so you have to think of this in a much more global context than what happens during the hour that you are physically in the store. What happens after you are gone is so much more important than what happens during that short time that you are there.”