Friday, January 27, 2012

The Writing Show: Shelf Life

“God, grant me the Senility to forget the people I never liked anyway, the good fortune to run into the ones I do, and the eyesight to tell the difference” - I have no idea who said this first

So last night was The Writing Show, hosted by the James River Writers.  For the technical details, look here:

Short version: The Writing Show is a monthly (ish) seminar run by the JRW.  It costs a little bit: $10 for pre-registration, $12 at the door.  This month's show was on the topic of Shelf Life, or how to connect with the people who are going to sell your book to the public, and it was worth every penny and then some. 

I know, I know--after the JRW Conference last October, people are probably sick of my returning from JRW events screaming "OMG YOU MUST ATTEND  THESE TOO!"  But it's true.  Every time I've been around JRW I've come away both smarter about the craft of writing and happier to have been around a group of positive people. 

Anyway, I can't possibly cover the whole two hours worth of talk captured on four pages of notes here, but I'll hit some highlights.  I'll start with what is probably the core quote of the evening, said by Kristin Keith:  the Author is "just another cog in the wooing chain" involved in bookselling.  It's all about trust-based relationships, from author to publisher, from publisher to book distributor, from book distributor to book seller, from book seller to customer, and from publicists to everybody along the way.  The fact that the structure is a bit muddier now than it used to be doesn't change the nature of the game.

Kelly Justice, owner of Fountain Bookstore, featured a dry wit combined with an incredible depth of knowledge that kept the information extremely interesting, so most of my quotes and comments come from her wisdom.   For example: don't approach an independent bookstore owner talking about how well your book is doing on Amazon or on  They.  Don't.  Care.  Or, to be closer to how she described it, they do care, but it's a caring in one of those negative ways.  Lookit, don't use their chief competitor who's trying to drive them out of business in the case for why they should form a relationship with you.  Just don't.  Please, for the Love of God.  If you're sending a link, send it from or, not or  I mean, this is for serious here.  If you do send your ASIN to an Indie bookstore and I hear about it, I'll laugh at you. 

(side note: if you don't get it, go back to my post on Those Silly Booksellers back in December to see just how irritated some bookstores are becoming with Amazon and their own customers)

One surprise I had involved a bookstore's expectations regarding events.  Events (like book signings) cost bookstores money, of course.  Big 6 publishers, though, have marketing campaigns that are more or less well-funded, and they can push some of the funds toward the bookstores to compensate for the events.  That said, Justice also enjoys working with local authors who can't push corporate marketing dollars her way.  It just can't be a losing proposition.  To that end, I was surprised when she said an author only needs to sell ten copies to make the event "worth it" for the store.  Somehow I'd always thought--100?  200?  1,000?  I mean, certainly, we as authors want to sell that many, but I've also read that it's kind of normal for people to quite reliably not show up for book signings.  But there it was--if a first time author in the local market sells 10-20 copies, she considers the event a success.  Whew, right?

But--be nice. If you're a jerk, the bookstore owner doesn't have to take your books out of their back-room box.  Ever.  Except, perhaps, to tape them back up and return them. 

Everybody makes typos; be gentle if you catch one.

Oh, and they recommended following Rainy Day Books on Twitter if you want to learn even more about what not to do when you work with an Independent bookstore.

So, enough about what not to do.  What should you do when you want your books placed in an indie store?
  • Be nice. 
  • Make an appointment; don't just drop by.  Drop-bys are for amateurs, buddies, and book buyers, not book sellers.
  • Fountain Bookstore receives 7-10 requests per day from Indie authors to carry their books.  At any given time she said she has 70 books in the back waiting to be considered for the shelves.  If you want to stand out from the crowd--well, you've got to stand out from the crowd. 
  • Make sure your books are returnable.  If they're not, you're asking the store to take too big a risk.
  • Expect to offer the standard 40% discount.
  • If you're wanting sparkly positioning, be prepared to offer something for it.  Publishers pay "coop" fee to get their books on endcaps and special tables.  You need to make it worth the bookstore's spot, too.
  • Your books are returnable in 90 days, which means you have between 30 days and 6 months, depending on how local and how nice you are, to make a dent in the sales category. Otherwise you get your shinies back.
To do an event:
  • Be nice.
  • Take something interesting and fun.  Bagels and muffins are good, but not enough.  One author brought a harp and played Celtic music while the readers didn't file in.  It made a difference.  Other authors even cater dinner.  (Schoerke said authors and disposable income in the same breath, which prompted some chortles among the crowd)
  • Go there in a good, happy mood.  I decided I'm always going to take Heide to these things, because she can talk without being grumpy, while I can't always do that. 
  • The deal is, the bookstore owner and her employees sell more books than you might realize just on the strength of their recommendations and comments to customers.  It was also a bookstore employee who reportedly was largely responsible for Tinkers being in the right place at the right time to win the Pulitzer.  You want them remembering you and your book.  If they don't, then you've wasted everybody's time. 
If your publicist gets you a seat at a book-buyers' dinner, go.  I'd never heard of such things but it wasn't surprising; they exist in other industries.  Just as in other industries, one very basic equation applies: booze + buyers = sales.  Go there, be nice, and sell.

Get to know the language, too.  The panelists were great about explaining terms like "coop" and "comp titles" (or titles that your book is kinda like) but there are more.  Subscribe to the trade pubs, follow Indie booksellers on Twitter, friend them on Facebook, etc. You can't really be nice to them unless you speak the same language, after all.

Oh, a strangely-related, unrelated comment: the print-on-demand (POD) services charge $38 to provide a proof print.  If you can't afford the $38, you can't afford POD.  Get it and have several people look at it, because of how embarrassing it is to get books into a bookstore with the title misspelled on the dang cover.

How do we, as authors, get titles reviewed by traditional newsletters/newspapers/media, someone asked.  We don't, really, and Schoerke explained that any publicist who promises to get an author's work reviewed by a specific source should be considered questionable.  The reviewing sites work at their pace based on their queues to review the books they choose to review, and bugging them will only get the book in question pushed toward the bottom.  The best thing to do, then, is to send out Advance Readers Copies (ARCs) months before release and hope they decide to do it.  It's entirely possible through hard work and gushing niceness to get reviews in, say, a certain number of sites, but to say that you're going to get a review in a specific place just doesn't jive with reality. 

The panel did offer a different view from what I've seen regarding paid reviews.  I've heard a lot of negative commentary based on the perception that an author is basically just paying for a positive review that he or she doesn't deserve, but that's not exactly what goes on.  The review sites and pubs are, of course, interested in successfully meeting their own expenses, which is typically done through advertising income brought to the table by the Big 6 corporate advertising teams.  They're going to review the folks who are helping them keep the lights on, of course.  That means that an Indie author paying for a review is really just leveling the playing field as far as likelihood of receiving a timely review.

Last tidbit: of course writing is a quiet profession, and that many authors are introverts.  That said, "Whatever it was that got you to sit down and write your story" is the same thing it takes to go sell that story to book sellers.  "It may not be the same skillset, but it's the same mindset," said Kelly Justice  That's--beautiful, innit? 

And on that note--I'll see all y'all at the next JRW event, I hope.

Oh, and one other note: I've been hard on bookstores in the past.  I hope you all recognize that I was only talking about the stupid ones. 


PS--if you're in the Richmond area, please give Fountain Books some love: and   


  1. I would very much like to reblog this post at as well as link to your JRW post about the October conference. I hope you'll email me about it! Thanks!