It happens all the time. An author comes into my bookstore and says, “would you carry my book here?” If they’re carrying a copy of the book, I ask to see it. If they’re not, I wonder what they were thinking. Who asks a store to sell their book without having one along to show the store owner? But I digress. When the author hands me the book, I take a quick look at it and then ask the author for the elevator speech. Authors, take note: If you don’t have an elevator speech for your book, come up with one. It’s a quick synopsis, typically 30 seconds or so, that sums up what your book is and why we should sell it. Here’s what I look for in an elevator speech and my first glance at the book:
- Is it relevant? Your typical indie bookstores is a lot smaller than a Powell’s, Tattered Cover, or Barnes & Noble. We can’t carry every book that comes out. Not even close. But if your book has a local focus or matches with our store’s specialty, we’re certainly going to consider it. Check out our store and work that relevance into the elevator speech. If you tell me, “Your store is known for its nature section, and my book about wolverines will be the perfect fit,” you probably just tripled your chances of a yes.
- Is the price realistic? The average trade paperback novel sells for $13 to $16 these days. If yours is $19.95, we can probably work something out. If it’s $30, we’re not going to be able to sell it. Some genres go for more than others. Science fiction and fantasy fans are used to paying $7 to $10 for a mass-market paperback. Twenty bucks is a hard sell to them. A well-researched 500-page nonfiction book may not sell as many copies, but people will pay $25 without blinking.
- Can you help us sell your book? If you offer to talk about our store on your blog or Facebook, that will help. If you offer a book signing, that helps, too. Signs, bookmarks, and other marketing materials are good, but with one caveat: If you give me a stack of bookmarks that say “available at Amazon,” I’ll toss them straight in the trash. I don’t advertise for competitors.
Assuming your book passed the first test, I’ll flip through the book itself and check on some details. Here’s what I’m looking for:
- Does it have a professional-looking cover? Cover designers aren’t that expensive. A good cover that doesn’t look like stock photography with text in Comic Sans will pay for itself a hundred times over.
- How’s the writing? I’ll flip through and read a few paragraphs from random pages. I’m not really critiquing your literary skills here. If I don’t see spelling errors, egregious grammatical flaws, bizarre punctuation, or horribly awkward dialog, I’m probably happy with it. If I see ten exclamation points on one page, on the other hand, that’s a no.
- Who’s the publisher? There are certain names that set off red flags because they’re horrible for bookstores to deal with. The Amazon imprints (especially CreateSpace) are a pain for us. They really don’t want to deal with indie stores because the whole imprint is set up just to sell on Amazon’s website. I won’t even call PublishAmerica anymore, because they’re so difficult to work with.
Finally, it’s time to check the terms. I’ll take the book over to the cash register and scan it into one of our wholesaler databases (Ingram or Baker & Taylor). There had better be an EAN barcode, or the book’s a no-go. There are certain things in the retail book business that are a given. One of those is that bookstores buy books at a 40% discount or better. Another is that books are returnable. If we try your books as an experiment and they don’t sell, we want to be able to send them back to the distributor. Here is something we don’t ever want to see (this is a screen capture from the Ingram iPage database: I circled the two issues with this listing. Here’s why they are important:
As I said, 40% is the standard discount, and it’s often better than that. Virtually every book by a major publishing company is available to bookstores at 40%. If we have a choice between stocking a $10 book that we can make $4 on, and your $10 book that we can make $2.50 on, which one do you think we’ll dedicate our shelf space to? There’s also the issue of sales. Some bookstores never do them, but others do regular promotions: all mysteries 20% off this weekend, for example. If we bought your book at a 25% discount, we’re going to end up losing money selling it during a sale. Is 40% an excessive profit? According to the latest data from the American Booksellers Association, a typical small American bookstore is operating right on the edge of profitability. Most actually lose a couple of percent per year. Believe me, we need that 40%.
Clothing stores can’t return unsold clothes. Grocery stores can’t return unsold food. Why do bookstores expect to be able to return unsold books? Well, that issue is quite a hornet’s nest! Return policies began during the Depression in the U.S.
Businesses were going bankrupt all across the country, and bookstore owners became very conservative in their buying. They bought the stuff they knew would sell, but they didn’t take chances on new titles. Publishers can’t survive if they’re only selling their backlist. They need to have a constant stream of new titles; new authors; new enthusiasm. So they offered booksellers a deal: keep buying new books, and if they don’t sell, send them back. It’s not free, of course. The booksellers are responsible for shipping costs to send the books back, and the return credit isn’t always the full amount they paid for the book. Ingram, for example, gives booksellers a 40% discount, but only credits 50% of the list price of the book on a return. Buy a $30 hardback for $18, and get $15 back to return it. Add in a buck for shipping, and the store loses $4 on the return.
But the system worked. Bookstores bought new books, publisher sales continued, and the book business survived. There are those who think this system should have gone away long ago — just see what Angela Hoy has to say about it. And I see her point; my store is switching to non-returnable with several publishers that offer us significantly better discounts. If we trust our instincts on ordering, that extra 5% discount pays off. But this plays hand-in-hand with discounts. If you’re offering me a 45% or 50% discount, I will take your book on a non-returnable basis. But when Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Partners/West, and all of my other distributors offer me 40% returnable and you offer me 25% non-returnable, I really don’t want to take a chance on your book. I’ll find something good from the millions of titles in their catalogs.
To sum up, I will buy self-published books and stock them in my store. If you have a professionally-edited book that’s well written and sold under the same terms as the rest of the books I buy, please come talk to me. But if this is your first book and you didn’t hire a proofreader, or you’re short-discounting a non-returnable title, or your cover looks like it came from a template, I’m probably not going to stock it.
If you listen to the scary emails being sent by massive online businesses like eBay, I should be panicking right now. They say that the “Marketplace Fairness Act of 2013” will hurt small businesses like mine. In actuality, I agree with the Washington Post editorial that says this bill is an excellent move, and I’m happy to explain why.
First, what is it? The Marketplace Fairness Act, in simple terms, says that all businesses that make $1 million or more per year in interstate sales must collect sales taxes on those sales, and that states have to simplify their sales tax rules and procedures to make that easier for the businesses collecting the taxes.
I think this is a good idea because it puts everyone on an even footing. If you’re living in a state with an 8% sales tax, why should some out-of-state business get an 8% price advantage over the local businesses? With this bill, everyone would have to live by the same rules.
It also eliminates the loopholes that some of the huge companies are using. Currently, a business that has a physical presence in your state must collect sales tax there. So big chains incorporate their online business separately from the brick & mortar business — or set one up as a subsidiary of the other — and the rule doesn’t apply to them. With the Marketplace Fairness Act, the business’ physical presence (or lack thereof) in your state is irrelevant. With the exception of the individuals and small businesses that eBay and Etsy were created to support, everyone collects the taxes.
Columnists like Jeff Jacoby rail against the Act, but they either misunderstand or intentionally misrepresent what’s going on. In the linked editorial, Jacoby claims that small businesses will have an onerous burden placed upon them in sales tax collection, but he’s ignoring factors like:
- “Real” small businesses (those that do less than $1 million per year in interstate commerce) are exempted.
- Even the bigger “small” businesses (those doing less than $10 million per year interstate) are unlikely to have developed their own software for this. The major shopping cart players, including eBay, PayPal, Google, and their ilk, take care of sales tax for their customers.
- One of the requirements in the mandatory simplification of tax collection by the states is that each state have a single uniform tax base and a single point of contact within the state for sales tax collection. There aren’t going to be 9600 different jurisdictions to keep track of, as Jacoby claims, but 50.
Technically, you could say I don’t have a dog in this fight. My bookstore is in Montana, a state that doesn’t have sales tax. I still support the bill, however, because it bothers me to see the government effectively giving massive tax breaks to giant businesses like Amazon. I’m not just blindly following the position of the American Booksellers Association and all of the others who support sales tax fairness, though. I feel it’s the right thing to do.
When I travel, I like to stop in small local retail businesses wherever I go. It provides a local flavor that the chains don’t. When I go into a Barnes & Noble in Denver, it looks just like the ones in Orlando or San Francisco or Dallas. The independent bookstores, however, are dramatically different in all of those places, and I don’t like seeing them being killed off because the Federal government gives online booksellers a subsidy to compete with the established local businesses.
Do I have a problem with competition? Heavens, no. If a local store has a level playing field and can’t survive, that’s the way things work. But when their competition is offered an unfair advantage, I do have a problem with it. The Marketplace Fairness Act eliminates that unfair advantage.
I was perusing BookRiot yesterday and came across a post entitled “12 Alternatives to Goodreads.” This is a hot topic since the announcement that Amazon is acquiring Goodreads, and I found it interesting that Amazon has a stake in the first two alternatives listed (they own Shelfari outright and have a minority interest in LibraryThing). That, however, isn’t what this post is about.
One of the alternatives that BookRiot listed is a site called BookLamp. Most book sites that give recommendations are based on either bestsellers by genre, “people who read this also read that,” or social recommendations (“your friends liked this”). BookLamp takes a different approach that’s based on the Book Genome Project. Instead of looking at publisher marketing information, genre classifications, or social data, it analyzes the “DNA” of the books to look for similarities.
Why does this make a difference? Because every other recommendation site I’ve seen is heavily influenced by publisher marketing budgets and well-known authors. As an example, let’s say two authors write very similar books at the same time. Steve is a very well-known author with two bestsellers under his belt, and his books are published by Penguin — one of the big players. Bob is an unknown whose first book is being published by a tiny regional publisher.
Even if the books are equally well-written and have the same target audience, more of that audience will discover Steve’s new book. Some will already be fans of his, watching eagerly for his next release. Others will see the banner ads, well-made trailer video, and social media promotion. Most will remain completely unaware of Bob’s book. When you go looking for something new, you may see dozens of recommendations for Steve’s book, but none for Bob’s. Not because Bob’s isn’t as good; because nobody knows about it.
The BookLamp system completely ignores all of that. It analyzes everything from setting to pacing, not for the whole book but on a chapter-by-chapter (or even page-by-page) basis. Here’s it’s analysis of a favorite book of mine, Fools Crow by James Welch:
When I ask BookLamp for recommendations based on liking this book, it doesn’t try to shoehorn the book into a genre, look for other Native American writers, or take recommendations for friends. It looks for books that are set in the wilderness and involve horses, pets, parenthood, and visions. All of this data comes from computer analysis.
The analysis uses words and phrases to determine setting and topic focus. As an example, a book containing a lot of words like taxi, graffiti, elevator, and crowd is likely to be an urban setting. General characteristics like pacing and density come from formulas that have been around a long time, but have been refined by the Book Genome Project.
What this means is that BookLamp is likely to spit out recommendations that one wouldn’t get from GoodReads or Amazon — it’s the literary equivalent of the popular music site Pandora.
Their database is still rather limited. I tested it using some of my favorite fiction. They had Blind Your Ponies by Stanley Gordon West and Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman. They did not have Dancing at the Rascal Fair by Ivan Doig or Dodger by Terry Pratchett.
I don’t know that this will replace personal recommendations from friends, but it’s certainly a wonderful way to augment those recommendations and find some interesting new books that you are likely to enjoy.