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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.

Book signing notes from a bookseller to authors

Mark Liebenow

Author Mark Liebenow talks about his book, Mountains of Light: Seasons of Reflection in Yosemite at my store a few weeks ago.

I’ve written a fair amount about book signings here on this blog, starting with my 14 book signing tips for authors, proceeding through 10 book signing tips for booksellers, and covering subjects like credit cards, ethics, funny questions, and my own stupid book signing mistakes. Today, though, after hosting a series of signings earlier in the month, I’d like to write an open letter to other authors from the perspective of a bookseller.

Sales sometimes stink

First of all, I wish I could predict how many people will be at your signing or talk, but I can’t. I’ve had some amazing authors in the store that only drew one or two people, and some unknown self-published authors that drew big crowds. Sometimes, the weather affects attendance. Sometimes, the promotion just didn’t get that viral “click” where everyone is telling everyone else about it. Sometimes, another business sets up an event at the same time. Some friends of one local author called everyone they knew when her first book came out and showed up with a big cake to celebrate. We sold 50 books at that event, for a self-published first-time author.

Low sales doesn’t mean your book sucks. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. And it doesn’t necessarily mean the store didn’t promote the event. Sometimes, you just don’t catch a break.

Promotion on social media

I want to thank those of you who do your own promotion. It always makes me happy to see your blog or newsletter prominently featuring your visit to my bookstore. That helps both of us. A request, though: If I go to the trouble to set up a Facebook event for your signing and invite you to it, please click “Yes, I’m attending” and share the event on your own Facebook page.

Social media is additive. If my store has a few hundred fans/followers and you have a few hundred more, linking to each other’s updates doubles the exposure for both of us. I may have three times as many fans on Facebook as I do followers on Twitter, but it could be the other way around for you. Even if you are going to unfriend, unfollow, and disconnect after the event, let’s work together as much as we can before the event.

Also, keep in mind that in many cases you are more likely to get a prominent article in the paper than the bookstore is. Editors get tired of interviewing the same booksellers over and over, but when they get a call (or email or press release) from an author saying, “I am going to be in your town doing a signing at XYZ Books and I’m available for interviews,” that’s something different.

Be flexible on talks

Sometimes, an event is all about the talk. When a store books me into an amphitheater, I know I need to be prepared for a formal talk with a slide presentation. When signing in a store, however, realize that sometimes the talk simply won’t happen. If you get a “crowd” of three people, don’t just give up and declare there won’t be a talk. Instead, walk away from the slides and sit down with your fans. They’ll remember that one-on-one (or one-on-several) time with you and it will mean a lot more to them than the slide presentation would have meant anyway.

Craig Johnson

Craig Johnson: He’s a nice guy!

Yes, fans want good books. But you’d be amazed how often I hear, things like “Does Craig Johnson have any new books? He’s such a nice guy!” It matters.

I’ll swap you six books for a cigar and a stuffed bear

Finally, thank you for understanding why I don’t barter. If you spot some books or tea in my store that you like, it makes lots of sense for both of us to just swap some of your stuff for some of my stuff. But that throws off my accounting and recordkeeping. I really do need to write you a check for your books and then run your purchase through my point-of-sale system.

In fact, I’ve mentioned this in other posts, but it bears repeating: If you need to be paid that day for any books that you’ve brought to the signing, tell the store personnel up front. Otherwise you may end up at the end of the event looking for money when the only person who can sign a check has already left for the day.

Book signings are a collaborative effort between booksellers and authors. I’ve often said that indie bookstores have a symbiotic relationship with new and local authors. As an author, I know it’s the indie stores that got my books going; Barnes & Noble and Costco had no interest in an unknown. As the owner of an indie bookstore, I know that if the authors don’t support us, nobody will.


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