Bookstores have always been an oasis. I seek them out whether in a strange town or a strange mood. The only things that can stop me walking through the door of an enticing bookstore is having to catch a plane or a rip-roaring tantrum from someone in my family—quite often me. A recollection of any family trip is sure to include “and what a great bookstore” trumped only by a fantastic meal, or a spectacular view mostly because those take arguably less time to properly peruse. A bookstore represents much of what I want from life—intellectual stimulation, a connection to fellow humans, and if I’m lucky some serenity.
Imagine my surprise when I walked through the doors of Elliott Bay Books in Seattle one day last summer (it’s on my bike commute from work to home) when I didn’t feel my usual exhilaration. I felt anxiety. Instead of my normal happy stroll through the fiction section, I tiptoed to the children’s corner. My gut felt like it did at thirteen bicycling back and forth past Julie Reed’s house, the beautiful new girl of sixth grade.
A bookstore, my sanctuary, was causing me stress. Why?
The answer was terrifyingly simple. Elliott Bay had agreed to carry my self-published book.
When I decided to self-publish, I sought out all the information I could find, weighed the costs, published, and then went in search of an online audience. But the results were obvious—my book, The Pig War, a regionally flavored children’s book—was going to sell best in our valuable collection of northwestern independent bookstores. I hit the pavement.
The term “self-published” still carries baggage. Everyone is trying to figure out what it means. Though I did find my way into stores, I made mistakes. I was eager, nervous, and a complete rookie to publishing. I showed up without proper paperwork, called or e-mailed too often, gave books to stores that would never carry my type of book. Anxiety is unhealthy and manifests itself in a myriad of unattractive ways.
In hopes of helping those who want to brave this humbling process, I have asked bookstore owners, booksellers, and other esteemed professionals around the Northwest what it’s like to receive, sift through, and carry self-published authors’ books. Here are some tips based on their answers. (I’ve been told some traditionally published authors could stand to review some of these, as well):
- Be Professional. Check the store’s website for submission guidelines FIRST, or send a well-written, grammatically correct, respectful e-mail requesting to drop or mail them a copy. As one bookseller with a long to-do list told me, “If you don’t take the time to craft a polite, well-written request, I won’t take the time to respond.”
- Be polite. Independent bookstores are like people—each has a unique perspective. They have their own policies and feelings about self-publishing (and publishers). They spend hours they don’t have dealing with titles that come across their desks.
- Be flexible. Larger stores tend to like to sell on consignment. Smaller shops don’t like the additional paperwork consignment will require, but it’s less financially risky for them. It all depends on the particular store. Sometimes their policy will be on their website (helpful). Other times it will exist only in their heads (not so helpful). Regardless, you won’t know what it is unless you ask. But not when there is a line of people at their counter. Which brings us to the most common frustration I heard from bookstores.
- Be proud of your work. But just because you completed this feat, carving out minutes between every nook and cranny of your days, doesn’t mean the rest of the world is going to feel as proud. Bookstores carry books, yes. And your favorite bookstore is a good place to frequent and support. But when you put on your author hat, walk into a store, and slap your phenomenal work on their desk in the middle of their workday, don’t expect them to drop a disco ball from the ceiling and whip up a dance party. Be proud, but be considerate.
- Be a salesperson. Because as terrifying as this reality is, you are now in sales. I would suggest becoming the least annoying salesperson you could imagine. Don’t interrupt, lurk, or pester.
- Be prepared. Make your book look like a book; it needs to have a spine with the title, an ISBN number, and an attractive cover. Have a professional invoice ready for when/if they do ask for a few copies (a few, not fifty– Elliott Bay asked me for six). Understand the 60/40 split typical in bookstores—you get sixty percent, they get forty percent. Also know, if they are going to order your book through a distributor, they don’t tend to like POD (print on demand) books—they take a long time to ship, and are often non-returnable—aka if they don’t sell they can’t return them for a refund. Most stores buy my books directly from me. We all make a little more money—a little.
- In my experience, most stores appreciate a phone call to see if they need more inventory of your book. They don’t tend to mind the quick check in, and it’s a good way to remind them of you and your work. Make it a nice opportunity for a quick chat. Don’t call every day or every week. I try to call every month or two.
- Be a publicist. This one is challenging. If you are going to stock a book in a store and expect it to sell you must do some publicity. Blog posts, Facebook posts to your friends, press releases for a reading, anything. You’re welcome to expect booksellers to trumpet your book to each customer who walks through the door. You’ll be disappointed. (Note: lurking in the corners of their store whispering to customers about your book is not publicity. There’s a reason it makes your skin crawl. It’s creepy. Not that I would know.)
- Don’t be stingy; GIVE them the review copy. They don’t have time to search for your address to send anything back. Too. Much. To. Do. (sensing a theme?)
- Booksellers and owners are readers. They enjoy talking about books. They are rarely in it for the money. Bookstore employees and owners want to represent books of high quality, and those relevant to their store. They want to bring good books to interested readers. If you are courteous, respectful, and your book applies to their customers you’re probably going to have success. Remain true to that and you’ll have a great time seeing your work put out into the world. Everyone’s in this together.
In summary, be kind. Realize your place in the bookstore, how you fit in. We often get so caught up in our own struggles we forget to keep perspective. Instead of focusing on what we’re trying to accomplish, take a moment to consider that others are trying to do their thing, as well. Once I realized I could cultivate the relationships I had found rather than bemoan the sales and connections I didn’t make, I calmed down and my walk into the store has once again been what it should be—a satisfying privilege.
Mark Holtzen grew up in the Pacific Northwest. He teaches, reads, bike commutes, and writes in and around Seattle. His children’s book, The Pig War, was selected for Kirkus’ Best of Indie 2012 and is available at many indie bookstores in the NW. Check here for a list.