The Bookseller POV (or, "Booking It, Part 2")
What sells books and what endears authors to booksellers
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"Nobody has any idea what's going to hit. I think that publishing is basically a corporate form of legalized gambling," Jonathan Karp, president and publisher of Simon & Schuster, said in 2008. At the time, he had just founded Twelve, an imprint under the Big Five umbrella of Hachette, that publishes 12 books a year.
If publishers knew how to turn a book into a bestseller, this formula would ostensibly be applied to every book published in a given year. (William Goldman’s famous quip about Hollywood and the town’s rainmakers comes swiftly to mind too: “No one knows anything.”)
In my ongoing attempts to demystify some of the commerce-related aspects of being an author in an age of both deficit (of attention, money, time) and surfeit (of books and other culture-delivery vehicles), today’s post picks up where “Booking It,” from August 23 left off.
Kate Harding, author and events manager at Bookends & Beginnings, 1620 Orrington Avenue, Evanston IL, (872) 262-1177, deserves her own star in the author and bookseller firmament for sending such generous replies.
Aside from a big marketing campaign paid for by a publisher, what have you observed that really helps to sell a book? Other than hand-selling and word-of-mouth?
Honestly, all of the real answers are variations on handselling and word of mouth, but specifically:
- Shelf talkers! I just consulted colleagues with more bookselling experience than I have, and this was our floor manager, Lotte’s, first answer. Prominently displayed staff reviews can make a big difference to shoppers who are having trouble choosing.
For the same reason, face-out and table positioning definitely drive sales. (So much of bookselling is helping people cut through option paralysis!) Unfortunately, there’s no obvious way to achieve this, besides having your publisher buy it—but many independent bookstores, like ours, don’t take money from publishers for positioning. Obviously, “big” books are most likely to get prominent placement, but we also put books we simply love face out. It’s always a thrill to watch overlooked favorites sell.
- The other big driver these days is BookTok—so if you have any connection at all to TikTok influencers, work them! As with all social media trends, this method will die out whenever young people move on to something different, but in the meantime, it can have astonishing effects.
- In terms of practical things authors can do: Befriend your local booksellers! I know a lot of authors feel shy about introducing themselves in bookstores—I used to, too—but having seen it from the other side now, I will always do it. Yes, if we have your book in stock, we want you to sign it! If we don’t (and it’s traditionally published and still available) we probably want to carry it. If you’re willing to pose for a photo, we want to put you on our Instagram, because having authors in the store makes us look fancy. If you think your book is shelved in the wrong section, let us know—it definitely happens, and it can really hurt a book’s chances.
- Generally speaking: Help us help you! All you have to do is say “Hi, I’m a local author,” and we’ll take it from there. The benefits of introducing yourself to booksellers include, among other things, increasing the likelihood that your book(s) will get shelf-talkers, better placement, and active handselling. It might make us more inclined to order extra copies of your book—or more of your backlist than we ordinarily would—which gains you a bit of extra real estate. If you have a particular area of expertise and don’t mind doing events, we might call on you to be an interlocutor for someone with a newer book—which will also move some of your old ones. It’s small stuff, but it can really add up.
- One thing most authors probably don’t realize is that it doesn’t take all that many sales to get on a bookstore’s radar as someone who sells. I regularly run reports of our 100 top sellers in the last month, and once you get past the obvious juggernauts, the numbers that amount to a book “selling well” are much more modest than I expected! So even if you don’t make the NYT bestseller list, introducing yourself and sending friends to indie bookstores can make you someone those bookstores will always keep in stock.
- The last thing I’ll say—especially to my fellow middle-aged, midlist authors—is that your next book could always be the breakout. Anecdotally, I’ve seen it happen a few times to friends and acquaintances, and it often follows a change in agent and/or publisher. If you love yours, don’t do anything radical! (I have yet to write a breakout book, but I wouldn’t trade my current agent and editor for anything.) If you suspect yours don’t fully believe in you, though, getting fresh eyes on your work might not be a bad idea. Sometimes, a new shot of enthusiasm can change a whole career.
And Kate’s 5-⭐️ reply to “What do you wish more authors knew when they write to the Bookends & Beginnings and ask you to host an event?”
We know you're excited to celebrate with all of your friends and family, and some of them inevitably won't be able to make the first launch event you plan. This does not mean you should plan two more events within a couple of weeks, at bookstores within a five-mile radius of the first! From your perspective, three small events instead of one big one sells the same number of books. But from each bookseller's perspective, you've undermined our audience and potential book sales—possibly even our ability to break even on planning, promoting, and staffing an event. So it's not great for bookseller goodwill! If you want to get a couple bites at the same metropolitan apple, think about hitting one city and one suburban store, or two stores at opposite ends of a large city.
Unless you are a major celebrity, we honestly have no idea how many books you're likely to sell. We can tell you how many people open our newsletter and follow our social media, but we can't tell you how many of them are free on a given night, interested in the topic of your book, and prepared to buy one! So we guess, and sometimes we get it wrong. Very occasionally, we sell out of what we ordered and realize we should have upped the quantity. Much more often, we have several copies left over at the end of the night. In either case, please try not to fret.
First-time authors are often understandably nervous and confused; I have been a first-time author, too, and I truly empathize! But for general questions and reassurance prior to the event, your first email should be to your publicist and/or agent, not your bookstore contact. Part of their job is helping you understand what you can and can't expect from an author tour. (Multiple pre-show visits, dry runs, rehearsals, etc., are not something you can typically expect, for instance!)
If you're a self-published author, please be aware that you are probably at a disadvantage when pitching bookstore events—not because we're judging the quality of your work or your decision to publish independently, but because we are stores that primarily exist to sell books from traditional publishers. In other words, all of our internal systems are geared around certain suppliers, with whom we have longstanding relationships. Going outside those channels usually means extra work and less money. We would all love to be doing this for the sake of art alone, but we are businesses, staffed by employees who are trying to survive in the face of exorbitant rents and absurd student loan debt. For an event to make sense, there has to be a reasonable expectation that we'll make some money. It's truly not personal!
That said, a "good" event is one where you leave feeling like you had fun and connected with readers, whether it was two or two hundred of them. One of the best I've managed had a single attendee, but the author was so game and generous with her time, it turned into a delightful conversation among the three of us. Not every event will bring out dozens of eager book buyers, and that's okay! Just try to enjoy whatever the evening brings.