In this six-part series, we asked bookstores across the United States to answer some of your burning questions.
- How can authors get their book on your shelves?
- Do you accept self-published authors? In what situations would you consider this?
- What’s your processing for vetting books?
- How can local authors develop a relationship with you?
- Do you host author/book signing events/readings?
- Is there anything you would recommend to authors/publishers about how to best position their books in the market?
Part 6 below gives you an inside glimpse into the recommendations of 52 bookstores across the country on how authors/publishers can better position their books in the market.
Part 6: Is there anything you would recommend to authors/publishers about how to best position their books in the market?
Louisiana: Cavalier House Books
I think the biggest thing is to realize that from our perspective as booksellers we like to find the right book for every customer, not just any book. Every book that’s published (even the mega blockbusters) only inhabit the tiniest of niches within the market. You have to absolutely know your market and your target audience. Books that bill themselves as “appealing to anybody ” rarely do. It’s the books that take ownership of the fact that they appeal to “recent college grads that like Moroccan food” or “dentists that love Nascar” or “moms that enjoy whitewater rafting” that are successful. It’s great to try to have a wide appeal, but without really having that audience in mind it’s nearly impossible to render your art into a product with very much success.
Do you actually know your market and where your readers should be coming for? Do you know who your book should appeal to and are you targeting that demographic in your marketing efforts? Published books should be professionally edited and have few mistakes. (Oh did I mention that before? Must be really important then, huh? And yes, I have been approached by poorly edited and shoddy looking books that I would never carry in my store).
Authors should be proud of the book — the work itself. However, they shouldn’t be delusional about their book. Authors should understand that it is necessary to promote and market the book. No book sells itself. If you are a true introvert and not good at public speaking, team up with a friend who can read passages of the book at events and agree to be interviewed or answer questions from people who attend your event. Sign books for your local bookstore.
Don’t heavily promote that your book is available at Costco, Barnes and Noble or Amazon AND also at your local bookstore. Instead promote that your book is available at your favorite local bookstores and that’s the best place to buy/order the book and support your local independent bookstores. Yes, it’s also at Amazon and other places too. You and your book are no different than a box of laundry detergent to a place like Costco or Amazon. However, your book might be recognized as unique and one in a million by the owner or manager of an independent bookstore. We might personally recommend and even insist some of their customers buy and read your book. That’s what you hope will happen and that’s what bookstore owners and people hope will happen.
We WANT to discover great books that our customers will love. Please don’t assume however that anyone SHOULD realize your book is great. Make your book great and be humble about it. Bookstore owners and managers are very busy and they have a large stack of books they are already behind on reading. Have perspective, empathy, and understanding.
Additional notes in this time of Covid. Some bookstores don’t have a ZOOM account and may not be technical savvy at all. So… you could have a Zoom account and a very good phone that can work with ZOOM. You could propose a ZOOM event… started in the bookstore with maybe 5 or 6 people present and socially distanced with masks and many people via Zoom. You the author would set it up. The bookstore owner or a friend of yours would hold the Zoom phone while you talk and promote your book. And then you sign some books to leave at the bookstore and tell everyone that the best place to buy your book is at THIS bookstore. They took a chance and are helping me sell some books. If you are anyone near this store… please buy a copy or two of my book which is now signed.
Alabama: Ernest & Hadley Booksellers
Being proficient in social media is a must! Our most successful local authors are always communicating with and supporting other local authors and are active in local writing groups. One thing I would not do is just send a book to the store without making an introduction first either by phone or email. Also, reviewing our policy on accepting new books into the store is on our website. Be familiar with the website before making the call or email.
Missouri: Subterranean Books
If you are self-published, being a frequent customer of a local bookstore will work wonders in promoting your book in your home market. We already care about you as a customer and appreciate your loyalty and that you have chosen us as your bookseller; when your book is published that consideration and care will transition to helping you with your book.
If you just show up on our doorstep having lived in the area and never stepped foot in our shop anytime in the last 20 years, you will not get the same handling. So my advice is, support your local bookstores and they will support you. When your book is published, alert your friends and family that the book is available for purchase at your local bookshop as your *first* line of marketing.
There is a direct relationship between an author’s marketing and sales off our shelves. Booksellers see thousands of books every year (and are approached by dozens of self-published folks) and we get very excited when one of our customers gets published.
California: Books Inc.
My personal advice for positioning a book into the market is to take some time to think about all the reasons you think your book would do well in OUR stores. It’s similar to writing a book pitch to a publisher or literary agent, just a bit less formal.
This is where shopping in our stores will benefit you. If you write Science Fiction, come look at our Science Fiction section. Is it extensive? That’s probably a good sign that it’s a popular genre at that particular store. Is there a new display featuring historical fiction books every time you come in, then it’s probably a big seller! Does this store host a middle grade adventure book club? Maybe you could ask them to read your middle-grade adventure book in their club! Do your research and approach the stores that you KNOW will be a good fit for your book.
Nevada: The Writer’s Block Book Shop
I believe that self-publishing is perfectly viable, particularly if an author intends to sell a book directly to the consumer. Online shopping and e-books have been a huge boon to self-published authors.
But I would caution self-published authors that while it is sensible, and perhaps brave, to self-publish their book, it does by definition mean that they are forfeiting some of the benefits of traditional publishing. This includes brick-and-mortar bookstore distribution, which is built on efficiencies, protocols, and relationships that are often incompatible with self-distribution.
I would encourage self-published authors to approach local bookstores with kindness and humility, as readers and lovers of books first and foremost. As for traditionally published authors, and even self-published authors using distribution services like Ingram: I think a personal email goes a long way, as does a light touch.
The author queries I find most persuasive are short, personal (they are not copy-pasted), and direct; they demonstrate an awareness of our store’s sensibility, and they *always* include info on where I can order the book. Sometimes, authors will send us well-intended and extravagant things, or even copies of their book, but a thoughtful email is often way more effective at getting our attention, and less expensive.
California: Skylight Books
I would say it is best to know your market. Do the research. If you want to get a literary agent, then see what books are similar to your work and find out that author’s agent. If you are an author of literary fiction you don’t need to send an event proposal to a store that specializes in military history (unless your novel is a literary war novel – then I eat my words). Publishers need to do the research and footwork too. I have a few friends that have small publishing companies and they have put a lot of miles on their cars visiting bookstores, making contacts, and finding their markets. Someday I would like to start my own small press – but I am not sure I have the energy for all that work!
Utah: The Book Bungalow
I assume you’re referring to self-published authors here. My top two recommendations would be: (1) to attend some good writing conferences like Storymakers (in Prove every April or May) or the ANWA Conference (in Mesa, AZ every September) to better learn their craft and network with other authors, as well as agents; and (2) keep writing and try to find a good small publisher, if not one of the big ones. Unless you’re one of the lucky few to hit it big on Amazon or already have an amazing platform of followers, you’ll find it very difficult to raise your indie book’s profile in this market, particularly since COVID-19 seems to have set Amazon back on its bookselling heels for a bit.
Colorado: Old Firehouse Books
It’s a sort of amorphous idea, but know your book’s audience. And trust booksellers to know if your book will do well in their store! It can be hard to get some attention for your book because there are just sooo many books out there vying for the spotlight. But when you find someone who loves your book, they will surely spread the word about it. Word of mouth is still the best way to sell books. And if you are a self-pub author, rely on your friends and family to help generate buzz. Targeted marketing based on personal or professional relationships can be a big help.
Utah: The Printed Garden
Get to know the booksellers in your area. Get to know the librarians. Everyone has a process for placement, and it’s just a matter of finding out what that process is, and following it through. Then, and this is the important part, get and stay engaged in those places. The people who are carrying your book, whether for sale or for check-out, are your partners. Support them. Shop at those bookstores, patronize the library that’s carrying your book. Your success or lack of success will depend entirely upon your level of engagement. Promote the places where your book can be found, and let people know they can get it there – look for other community events that offer you an opportunity to talk about or sell your book.
Colorado: Barbed Wire Books
With large publishing houses changing the way they do things, I am sincerely hoping that other options will become more prevalent. As I said, I won’t support Amazon, but there are many other places that’ll do the same thing. Research the options, see who offers the best services for the cost. Take advantage of all services- especially editing. Authors simply CANNOT edit their own work.
With Baker & Taylor not selling to indies any more, Ingram is the main distributor. I’m hoping that they, too, will step up and improve their processes as well.
Massachusetts: Eight Cousins Books
Know the market. Don’t try to reach everyone. Make genuine connections with local organizations, groups, book clubs, that are likely to be interested in the topic. Generate demand for your book. If multiple people ask us for a title, we are much more likely to buy it. Bookstores have extreme limitations in marketing and don’t often market individual books. Independent authors who can show that they understand marketing rather than depending on the bookstore to do the marketing for them are rare and very much appreciated.
North Carolina: Malaprop’s Bookstore-Café
Books are a pretty tricky business, and I’m not sure there’s a secret formula to any of it. One of the things I’ve learned in bookselling is just how many books are being published every week. It’s very competitive, so promoting yourself is important. Social media is useful if you have the talent or energy for it, but it’s not necessary. Cajole your friends into buying your book. Set up events, but be understanding if you don’t get a huge crowd, and remember you might have a future fan in that small group of readers. Use events or book shopping excursions as a chance to make friends with booksellers. Make sure the book looks professional, both physically and inside as far as layout and editing goes. An eye catching cover is important when there are a ton of great designers out there. And take in critiques from readers, friends and booksellers. These are all small things, but they’re a good place to start.
Massachusetts: The Bookloft
One thing I would definitely recommend to authors who are approaching an independent bookstore (in other words, not Barnes and Noble or an Amazon affiliate) is to not include in your opening inquiry letter a link to the book on Amazon. It is an immediate turnoff for any book buyer at a small independent store. If you as an author have had bookmarks printed that say “available at amazon” at least include a line that says “or at a local bookstore near you.” Authors should be aware of how much animosity many in the bookstore business hold towards “the Big A.” They should also be aware that promotion of their book will fall mostly on their own shoulders, but if we have an author event scheduled with them we will do promotion on our social media pages.
Ohio: Wheatberry Books
You are your own best marketing. Reach out to booksellers through email and in person. Send advance copies whenever you can. If possible, offer signed bookplates for booksellers to place in the front of books (cheap and easy way to give a book that extra push). If you build a relationship with a bookstore, they will continue to promote any further works from you. ALWAYS list indie bookstores above online retailers when advertising. Or don’t list online retailers at all. Many indie bookstores offer free shipping.
Mississippi: Lorelei Books
I’m surprised by self-published authors who don’t strive to mirror the appearance and price point of books issued by leading publishers. Font, leading and cover design can quickly make a book appear of high quality or amateurish. Additionally, authors are often given a price point by independent publishers much higher than competitive prices. It’s very hard for a book by an unknown author to sell for $22.99 when a popular author’s new release is $16 or $17.
Texas: The Twig Book Shop
Postcards or letters in the mail are rarely noticed, but in an email when the author emphasizes the link their book might have to our demographic, specifically regional in any genre, or when the author has a fan base they can send our way, that gets noticed. If there is a hardcopy press release of some kind, it should not be longer than one page.
Books really must get edited. Sometimes even the cover or information on the back can have errors! Children’s books must be free of errors; children are learning to read and understand the conventions of writing. We joke, but are somewhat serious when we say that one really can tell a book by its cover, so it should be attractive and as professional as possible.
If they have a website or social media accounts, they should post that their book is available at the local store and even have it available through Indiebound.
New York: 192 Books
The best way to position your book on the market is to know where your market is. Find comparable titles to your book and then find which stores sell that kind of book – and which stores love selling that kind of book. (And be honest with your comparisons – don’t just pick the bestselling author from that category). The best way to get a book in the shop is to really know the shop – to have a personalized pitch for why exactly it fits there. Generalized pitches and copy that tries to cover every base will only leave buyers frustrated and less likely to get your book – especially if they can tell that the pitch was sent to a ton of disparate places.
Missouri: Skylark Bookshop
This feels like an impossible question to answer in the abstract as so much depends on the kind of book it is and what resources are available. But developing good relationships with booksellers is key, and as far as that goes: be personable, be flexible, and don’t only talk about your book. And please don’t EVER make reference to Amazon when you’re pitching your book to an independent bookseller. I know many people who press delete the moment they see that. Know your audience.
Oregon: Chapters Books & Coffee
Get an editor! And a professional cover artist! And professional layout! I get endless, quite horrible, books put in front of me that would never sell on a shelf. The look is just all wrong. And that’s before I actually read any of it! I’ve been a bookseller for 15 years and my advice over and over again is to get help. Editors are not your enemy. They want the book to succeed. 🙂 I feel like my answers come out harsh; this is not my intent. But it is HARD to sell a popular author’s book, much less an unknown. It has to compete with the other books out there.
New Hampshire: Gibson’s Bookstore
Again, make sure your marketing is tailored to all channels. When we think an author is focused on Amazon and just dumping a few copies with us as an afterthought, they are essentially writing off our market. Author websites need to list all ways for readers to get their books, including Indiebound and Bookshop. Self-published authors should work out a deal with their local independent bookstore to sell signed copies nationwide.
Pennsylvannia: Bindlestiff Books
The key thing is to think in very specific terms about who your audience is. Who wants to read this book, if only they knew about it, and why. Then think about where those people can be found. Is there a newsletter or small paper that serves that audience, that might be persuaded to review the book or interview you? An event where your strongest potential audience gathers (not now, of course, but the pandemic hopefully will pass)? Depending on the subject, might it make sense to excerpt it as an article or short video (referring back to the book for more, of course) and try to place this with someone who reaches the audience you’re looking for? If you have strong content and a good connection to the outlet, they should be willing to run the piece for free or, possibly, even pay a bit for it.
New York: Postmark Books
A lot of it is at the creative level, making sure your book looks as good as or better than the other books you’ll be next to in stores. But after that, it’s advance publicity, marketing, and then some laid-back no-pressure communication of those things to stores. Look at your intended audience and make sure everything about your book is hitting the same notes as other successful books for that market — reviews in the same outlets, similar approach to design — a lot of this work has already been done by others and you just need to do what they’ve done!
New Hampshire: A Freethinker’s Corner
To successfully market your book, use social media and have a website. For authors, work with a reputable publisher to make sure it’s edited, cohesive, professionally designed cover art that is eye-catching and relevant to the story. There are many small press publishers out there. If you want a book that sells, spend the money (although watch out for “vanity” publishers).
Pennsylvania: City Books
I think book marketing has a lot to do with relationship building — between the readers and the book, and the readers and the writer. Writers should get the book in front of people where they are most often — in front of a screen. I think it’s important for writers to have active social media accounts and to engage readers not just about the book itself, but about the process of writing the book, the process of promoting the book, and the process of living in general. Jami Attenberg is a phenomenal example of this. She talks about writing and other writers and living in New Orleans and her dog, Sid. People connect to her as a person as much as they do to her as a writer and to her books.
New York: Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop
Live readings can be a great experience as a way of getting voices out there. I think it’s misguided though to think of a ‘market’ per se, as opposed to many individual relationships directly with readers that optimally run both ways as an exchange. The most important thing is to be present and engaged in community, generous with your own attention, sharing and promoting other writers’ work, listening and being part of a conversation.
Oregon: Jan’s Paperbacks
Obviously, there’s readers for every niche and most used bookstores do have a focus. Our #1 readership is Suspense/Mystery, #2 is romance. So obviously, those two genres sell the best here. But people shopping at a bookstore and very inclined to try out Local Authors. Making sure it’s priced at an affordable range and making sure the cover speaks to what is in the book are great first steps.
Additional notes for aspiring authors. The absolute best way to sell your book is to have events. People are much more willing to give someone a try that they’ve met. On top of that, creating relationships with your readers/audience is your best marketing tool. If someone likes YOU, whether they like your book or not, they will sell it to everyone they know. They will show up to your events and bring friends.
New York: Rough Draft Bar & Books
Professionalism goes a long way: Make sure your emails and publicity materials are proofread, addressed to the right people, and make a solid case for why your books would be a good fit. Getting press in local (or national, if possible!) publications is always a plus, both for booksellers and for the general public. And always remember to support independent bookselling when you’re promoting your own book — i.e. linking and sending people to bookshop.org (which supports local bookstores) rather than just to Amazon. (In fact, most independent booksellers don’t want to hear anything about Amazon — not even how your book is a “bestseller” there.)
Ohio: The Book Loft
For publishers, early reviews are the most important thing you can focus on. Your publicist is your front line for making sure the book gets enough media attention to go the distance, so focus on that. Reaching out directly to booksellers with print or digital galleys can also be extremely helpful, especially if you form a relationship with particularly loud folks.
Instead of doing a big national solicitation, I would recommend to really focus on their local communities and do the research on what other bookstores/markets will serve their best interest. Also, if they are sending an email to an indie bookstore, never include an Amazon link to their book. It may seem like an afterthought, but that little bit really indicates to us whether somebody is a true supporter of the values independent bookstores represent.
Georgia: Hills & Hamlets Bookshop
If your book is self-published make sure it is available for distribution through Ingram within the range of industry standard wholesale discounts. Invest in cover design. Build relationships with indie booksellers by actively supporting their work, and not just when you are trying to get them to carry your book.
Texas: Blue Willow Bookshop
I have been doing this for 24 years. It is a crowded market. I recommend that if you are going to go with self-publishing or independent publishing, you do not short cut any details. From package design to thorough copy editing and layout. This becomes even more important if you are trying to enter the picture book world.
Illinois: 57th Street Books
Engage with the industry, even if it is the independent publishing industry. Be a professional. Respect those who do this work for a living and have developed expertise, even if you resent the gate-keeping. There are many reasons to tear down the existing role of gatekeeping – excellence and professionalism are not among them.
South Carolina: Fiction Addiction
Don’t expect every independent bookstore to carry your book. We are all different and look for different things, have different clientele. Figure out who the ideal reader is and go after that customer/store in creative ways. Understand that distribution channel/returnability matters a lot when stores are thinking about taking a chance on a new author.
Maine: The Owl & Turtle Bookshop
I’m not an expert in this at all. I can say that while I have no idea about how the cover selection happens, do have a cover you love. The feel, the look, the whole thing. Beautiful and unique books sell, people do judge them that way, cliche as that fact is. Otherwise, if you have a good story and you write it well, people will read it.
Indiana: Indy Reads Books
Social media seems to be king, especially right now, as well as virtual events. Reach out to bookstores on Instagram or Facebook and see if they are doing virtual events and if they would want to host one with you.
Michigan: Canterbury Book Store
It can be a thankless, unrewarding process trying to get people to read or carry the book you worked so hard on. But nobody in this industry knows anything, least of all me. Authors, publishers, bookstore owners: it’s anybody’s guess whether people will want to read the book you’ve written, but nobody really knows.
Vermont: Bear Pond Books
How one positions their book in the market really depends on the topic of the book. The larger viewing audience, the more sales. If it is a children’s book, then one would approach that market. Perhaps doing readings at schools or libraries. A gardening book could also be sold at other vendors that deal with gardening supplies for example.
Nebraska: Chapters Books & Gifts
Again, writing a good book is the most important step. Publishing it in an appealing package is also important. Doing your research to understand your market and mine, and how they overlap, is key.
Please don’t tell me that your book is a bestseller on Amazon or ask me to review it on Amazon, buy it from Amazon, or read reviews on Amazon. That shows me that you don’t understand the business of bookselling and haven’t done your homework.
Oregon: Oregon Books & Games
Yes, several things. 1. Is it priced right for its genre? 2. Can we can obtain it easily (hand delivered or available through Ingram) and a discount that will return a profit (minimum of 40%). 3. It should be 100% returnable 4. It is helpful if it is not published by Amazon. 5. That it has been edited. 6. The title reflects the content of the book.
North Dakota: Main Street Books
Do a whole lot of blowing your own horn–social media and local newspaper. Don’t send books for me to read — If you send something give a bullet point about what the book is about and a sample paragraph or two of the best writing. A brief bio is also nice. I won’t read your book. I have piles of books I want to read all over my office and house and yours will just sit on a shelf.
Minnesota: Beagle and Wolf Books & Bindery
First, make sure you have a quality product. Hire an editor and proofreader. Use a printer who will provide a book you can be proud of. Expect to do a great deal of marketing.
Tennessee: Reading Rock Books
It is a very saturated market. New books are released every Tuesday, and it is impossible for any bookseller to keep up with all of the titles that are being released each week. The best thing an author/publisher can do is connect with readers.
New Mexico: Bookworks
Amazon doesn’t need your help selling books. Set up Indiebound or Bookshop buttons for buying your book from independent bookstores or link to your local bookstore to refer people to buying books from indie stores.
New Jersey: Little City Books
Make a beautiful package. Write an introduction that is not generic. Make sure you are approaching stores with likely customers for your book. Be brief and smart in communications.
Connecticut: Barrett Bookstore
Write what you love and be a passionate advocate for your work. Know the markets where your book will best sell – narrowing in on this helps a lot.
Vermont: Bennington Bookshop
Some no noes from our perspective: We are a small store, with few staff. Don’t expect us to have time to talk to you if you just drop in. Call ahead to make an appointment. Telling us that the book is available on Amazon is not a positive.
North Dakota: Ferguson Books & Media
Send a couple samples! We typically won’t just “BUY” or order stock we haven’t heard of or our customers aren’t asking about.
Vermont: Norwich Bookstore
Work with the author’s local stores. Reach out by email first. Be sure to link to the store or Indiebound or Bookshop.
Connecticut: Breakwater Books
Be nice, don’t be a pest to the bookstore owners. We are really liberal with taking books on consignment.
Try to get published by an established house that will help promote your books to bookstores.
Minnesota: Fair Trade Books
Work diligently with a publishing rep and agent to develop your book for the readership you seek.
Natalie Gasper is an internationally performed poet whose work has appeared in The Write Launch, The Hickory Stump, Sheila-Na-Gig, Noon by Arachne Press, and ellipsis…literature & art, amongst others. She works as an interviewer for The Nasiona and is a developmental editor for Envie, a Magazine for the Literary Curious.