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Taking your self-published book into a bookstore


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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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: Createspace iPage listing I circled the two issues with this listing. Here’s why they are important:

Discount

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%.

Returnability

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.

More ABA bookseller collaboration: Lots of participation and a new book banning board


About six weeks ago, I wrote about an idea that I gave to the American Booksellers Association for a collaborative forum where indie bookstores could share ideas for book displays. The ABA bounced it back into my lap (good job on the delegation there, Sydney Jarrard!) and so I went ahead and ran with it. I made a couple of Pinterest boards and wrote a blog post, and then asked Sydney to do a bit of publicizing.

I started with two boards: Effective Bookstore Displays and Creative Bookstore Windows. I seeded each board with a few pictures from my store and went looking for help. After all, it’s not a collaboration unless there’s more than one participant! I ended the article with the line, “There are a few of my pictures to get the ball rolling. Let’s see how many more we can get on here in the next month. Challenge issued. Challenge accepted?” It certainly was.

Sydney included something in the ABA member newsletter, Bookselling This Week, and booksellers started showing up. Then it was picked up by Shelf Awareness, and just a few days ago the Christian Science Monitor ran an article. Now, each of the boards has almost 300 followers, and pictures are being placed by a half-dozen collaborators. I’m absolutely thrilled with the progress! Now, it seems like time for a bit of an expansion.

Pinterest

I’ve now added a third board to the collection: Book Banning & Censorship. Being both an author and a bookseller, I’m not a fan of censorship. I’ve written about it, spoken about it, made infographics about it, and now started a Pinterest board about it. So far, it only has 87 followers and a dozen pins. Here’s your new challenge: let’s see if we can have 500 followers and 200 pins on the censorship board by Banned Books Week (Sept 21-27, 2014). This one transcends the bookselling world, so I’m going to try to get librarians and authors to jump in and participate.

Become a part of the process!

To join in the process, visit the board(s) you are interested in and follow them. Then leave a comment here on this blog post using the same name you used on Pinterest. I’ll authorize you to pin, and you can start adding pictures from your own store.

I’m not a big fan of rules, but I’d like everyone to please do two things:

  1. Focus on ideas that everyone can use, instead of display products that you’d like them to buy.
  2. Try to put each picture on the most appropriate board only — let’s not get the same picture on all three boards, or get window pics on the display board.

Thank you! You do not have to be a member of the ABA to participate, but why on Earth would you have an indie bookstore and not want to join? They provide an awful lot of benefits for a very reasonable level of annual dues.

It’s a two way street! There are a lot of good ideas out there, and we want to get as many people participating as we possibly can.

Banned book pin by Porter Square Books

Here’s a great banned book pin by Porter Square Books on the shared boards.

Sharing compelling displays: An ABA bookseller collaboration


ABA logoThe American Booksellers Association Winter Institute last month in Seattle was all about sharing and education. Sometimes sharing ideas is enough to create new ideas along the way, and that’s just what happened to me. I attended some wonderful sessions about merchandising and decorating, and when I was telling someone about it later, I wished I had copies of all of the slides I had seen.

Creating Compelling In-Store Displays was a panel featuring Arielle Eckstut and Joann Eckstut, authors of The Secret Language of Color; and Jonah Zimiles of [words] Bookstore in Maplewood, NJ. In this fascinating discussion of color and theme, they showed a variety of displays, store windows, tables, and fixtures, including some amazingly inexpensive and quick ideas that were still professional and eye-catching.

Gifts 101 wasn’t really about merchandizing, but panelists Linda Marie Barrett (Malaprop’s Bookstore & Café), Monica Holmes (Hicklebee’s Children’s Bookstore), and Jan Hall (Partners Village Store) showed a lot of pictures, including tables and racks that meshed books and gift items.

Identify and Cultivate Your Store Brand was all about making the look and feel — the “experience” — of your store together. Like the gifts session, its focus wasn’t merchandizing, but there were some amazing ideas. The panelists represented a diverse collection of bookstores. Nicole Sullivan (BookBar Denver) showed an amazing bar made out of books, Bradley Graham (Politics & Prose) has displays bigger than some of the sections in my store, and James Adams (5ive Creative) talked about case studies where he’d helped bookstores with their branding.

At the cocktail reception the last night of Winter Institute, I ran into Sydney Jarrard from the American Booksellers Association. Always eager to create more work for other people, I suggested to her that the ABA should create a Pinterest board where bookstores could share ideas for displays and window decorating. She enthusiastically agreed, talked to the boss, and dropped it back in my lap last week. I really have to work on saying “no” more often.

The Collaboration

I have now created not one, but two Pinterest group boards, one for in-store displays and one for windows. I started them with a few humble (very humble) pictures from my own store, and this blog post is the beginning of an effort to reach out to booksellers across the country (heck, around the world: I met book people from six countries at Winter Institute) and get everyone else sharing.

To join in the process, visit the board(s) you are interested in and follow them. Then leave a comment here on this blog post using the same name you used on Pinterest. I’ll authorize you to pin, and you can start adding pictures from your own store.

You do not have to be a member of the ABA to participate, but why on Earth would you have an indie bookstore and not want to join? They provide an awful lot of benefits for a very reasonable level of annual dues.

It’s a two way street! There are a lot of good ideas out there, and we want to get as many people participating as we possibly can. Here are the pictures I started things out with:

Effective Bookstore Displays

You can find this board at www.pinterest.com/garyrobson/effective-bookstore-displays/

Store Display-Benjamin

Who could possibly sell cat books better than a cat? I put copies of various cat-related books next to our bookstore cat Benjamin’s bed, so he’d attract attention and people would pick up the books when they stopped to pet him.

Store Display-MapsRed Lodge is right up against the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness near the northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park. We are surrounded by millions of acres (literally) of wilderness areas and outdoor activities. We decided to set up this display to keep the hiking guides, maps, atlases, and outdoor activity books all together. People coming in for a copy of Day Hikes in the Beartooth Mountains just might want to pick up a hiking map to go with it!

Creative Bookstore Windows

You can find this board at www.pinterest.com/garyrobson/creative-bookstore-windows/

Store Window-Computers

When we first started selling computer books, we tried to come up with a good way to show them off. Being quite a packrat, I have saved up computers since I got my first one in the 1970s, and I built a mini-museum in the front window. People stopped to look at the old acoustic coupler modem and Apple ][, and ended up coming in to pick up a Mac or Windows book.

Store Window-Halloween

Last Halloween, we decided to take the store right out onto the sidewalk. As you can see in the picture, the local high school had decorated the windows for the big game, and we put this inflatable black cat in front of the door, moving his head back and forth to watch people go by. You can’t always see into the store well due to glare on the windows, but you could sure see this fellow!

Okay, your turn!

There are a few of my pictures to get the ball rolling. Let’s see how many more we can get on here in the next month. Challenge issued. Challenge accepted?

Symbiosis, Indies First, and Part-Time Indians


Indies FirstI have often said that indie bookstores have a symbiotic relationship with 2nd and 3rd tier authors. I suppose that symbiosis got a little out of hand when I bought a bookstore, but that’s another subject entirely. When Stephen King writes a new book, it doesn’t matter to him whether a little store like mine promotes it. His publisher will throw a fat marketing budget at it, his massive fan base will be all abuzz, and the book will hit the New York Times bestseller list before it even comes out. It’s a different matter for most authors.

When I write a new book, it makes a huge difference if a few independent bookstores pick it up and hand sell it. Small stores can launch an author. And one big author event can pay off that last big bill that pushes an indie store into profitability for the month. Don’t get me wrong; indie bookstores need J.K. Rowling and John Grisham and (sigh) Dan Brown. But authors like them aren’t going to show up in Red Lodge, Montana to do a book signing. Craig Johnson, on the other hand, still remembers the stores that hosted him back when he was relatively unknown, and still does his “outlaw motorcycle tour” each year where he signs at little stores like mine.

Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie models an Indies First book bag in this photo from the American Booksellers Association.

A few months ago, Sherman Alexie (author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, among other books) wrote an open letter to other authors suggesting that Small Business Saturday would be a perfect opportunity for authors to show their support of indie bookstores by becoming an honorary bookseller for a day. He said we could call it “Indies First.” His idea, in the e-parlance of today, went viral. Authors jumped on the idea, and the American Booksellers Association stepped in to help pair up authors with stores.

On Small Business Saturday, which fell on November 30th this year, over 1,000 authors showed up at their favorite bookstore to sell books. Not just their own books. These authors did what the people in the stores do every day: they talked to shoppers and helped them pick books for themselves and for gifts.

Craig Lancaster came to my store that day — and it warmed my heart that an author published by Amazon still loves the brick & mortar stores! Craig introduced himself to everyone that came in the store and told them about Indies First. Normally, when Craig is in my store, I’m telling everybody about his books: Edward Adrift is as good as (dare I say “better than”?) 600 Hours of Edward. I really enjoyed his short story collection, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, and I think you’ll like it, too. That day, however, I got to listen to Craig helping people find good books by other authors. Sure, we sold some of his, but I enjoyed hearing what other authors he recommended.

I think that the Indies First program is a wonderful idea. It does sadden me a bit that we need to do it. A section on a website entitled, “People who looked at this book also bought these books,” isn’t a substitute for talking to someone who’s knowledgeable about books, and that’s what indie stores are all about. Back before I bought a bookstore, I used to seek out the indies because shopping at the big stores was frustrating. I could never find anyone who actually knew their inventory or knew how to answer my questions. Even though I own a store now, I still visit other indie stores when I travel. After twelve years in the business, I continue to learn from people in those other stores, and they often recommend books I wouldn’t have thought of reading — or giving as gifts.

The timing on Indies First was also just right. Most of us manage to muddle along finding good things to read for ourselves. But finding good books as gifts can be more challenging. That’s where the perspective of the authors helps. They can come up with ideas for gift-giving that the store staff might not have thought of. With Christmas approaching, that’s invaluable.

Thank you to Sherman Alexie for coming up with the idea, to the American Booksellers Association for promoting it, and to Craig Lancaster for bringing it to my store. It made a difference to us.

Small Business and the Marketplace Fairness Act


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:

  1. “Real” small businesses (those that do less than $1 million per year in interstate commerce) are exempted.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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