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.
As both an author and the owner of a (very) independent bookstore, I have a different perspective on book covers. Despite the old saying, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” people have done exactly that since the first bookshoppe opened its doors centuries ago. Whether browsing the shelves of their neighborhood bookstore or paging through search results online, our customers’ eyes are drawn to book covers, and they make snap judgments based on those covers.
Good covers sell. Bad covers not only don’t attract customers, but can actively annoy the very people you count on to hand-sell your books. Authors who self-publish or go through a print-on-demand (POD) house often think that brick-and-mortar bookstores won’t sell their books. Granted, it takes some work to get in the door, but there are some POD books that sell well in my store. Sometimes, though, a mere look at the cover is enough to make me not want to carry a book: even a book from a large traditional publishing house.
Here are some of the cover design errors that drive me (and other booksellers) nuts:
Not leaving room for stickers
There’s a reason booksellers put stickers on book covers: they help to sell books. If you’re trying to make your book stand out from the thousands of others with which it shares shelf space, it’s tempting to make the title and author’s name gigantic. Fill the entire cover! Leave no space unused! As attractive as this idea may be, remember one of the first lessons of graphic design: white space is your friend. If you’re lucky, booksellers may want to put your book face out on the shelf, with stickers proudly proclaiming “Local Author” or “Autographed Copy.” If you’re really lucky, they may need stickers saying “Award Winner” or “Staff Pick” or even “Bestseller” (but hopefully not “Clearance” or “40% off”). If there’s no clear space on the cover, you miss out on the promotional opportunity, and some other book is placed face-out with stickers on it.
Ignoring the spine
Even though the vast majority of books in any store are destined to rest spine-out on the shelves, the idea may have crossed your mind to leave your spine blank, or at least unlabeled. “Then the booksellers will have to put my book face-out,” you think to yourself. Alas, it is not so. Your book will still probably end up spine-out, and the undecorated spine will not encourage customers to pull the book out and look at it.
Forgetting the genre
There’s a reason that so many fiction books have the words, “a novel,” on the front cover. Booksellers need to know where to shelve things. You may think that it’s blatantly obvious whether your book is a biography or a mystery; history or historical fiction; nature or poetry. You may think there’s no need to label the spine or top-left corner of the back cover with the genre or include a descriptive subtitle. It may not, however, be obvious to me or my employees. We just love having to run to the computer and look up each book before shelving it.
Let’s see, if every romance novel (or massage book, or dating how-to…) on the shelf has a cover picture with a shirtless hunk and a wispily-clad damsel, how can you make yours stand out? Maybe you could cross that line they don’t seem to want to cross. Make the title explicit! Pull that dress all the way down! Show how hunky that guy really is! You certainly can go that route, but you’d better be prepared to do all your sales from your own web site. Most booksellers won’t display books with explicit covers, many POD publishers won’t print them, and even major book websites may refuse them.
Movie tie-in covers
Here’s a little secret for you: booksellers don’t like movie tie-in covers. Wal-Mart customers may be drawn to book covers with movie stars on them, but people who frequent bookstores are usually more interested in the book itself.
Me, me, me!
Let’s just say that if your name and/or picture are the most prominent things on the book’s cover, then people had better know who you are.
Prioritizing art over readability
All that matters on the cover is its artistic appeal, right? So why not go ahead and use a trippy orange font on a red background? Why not hide part of the text behind part of the picture (why buy Photoshop if you’re not going to use it?). Why not use an illegible signature instead of printing the author’s name? A hint for you: if people have no idea what the title of the book is or who wrote it, they won’t really want to pick it up and look at it.
Messing with the barcode
Oh, those ugly black EAN barcodes on white backgrounds! They really do detract from artistic back covers. You might be tempted to make the barcode red, shrink it down really small, or leave off the white background and tuck it inconspicuously over part of the picture. What happens then? The flaky old barcode scanner at the checkout counter won’t read the barcode, and the clerk will have the joy of trying to read and type a 13-digit ISBN while a line of customers waits impatiently. Your back cover will look cool, but booksellers won’t love you for it.
Making series covers random
As a bookseller, I love it when series books have a number on the spine, and the front cover says something like, “Twitching Tails: #4 in the Space Squirrel series.” It saves me having to run to the computer when someone says, “I read the first three books in the Space Squirrel series, which one is next?” It’s also a big help if all of the books in the series have a common look or theme to the covers. And for goodness’ sake, if you have two different series going at once, make it obvious which books go in which series!
Making ‘em all alike
To carry that to an extreme, why not make the covers look almost identical? After all, it’s not you that has to deal with a customer who accidentally bought another copy of book one when they meant to buy book two. There are a lot of ways to keep a “look,” but make each book unique. Use the same font and similar pictures on each book, but change the predominant color. Or use a single color scheme throughout the series, and the same title font or logo, but change out the picture each time. Either way, you can make it clear that the books are different, but still part of the same series.
And, finally, misspelling the title
If your name is Stephen King, then by all means name a book Pet Sematary. Otherwise, your cute and/or clever misspelling is just going to make it difficult for people to find your book. Perhaps it doesn’t matter to you that customers and booksellers alike count on using online searches to find books. But generally speaking, if they don’t find it in the first couple of searches, they’re going to give up.
(This is a modified version of an article I wrote for Writer’s Weekly in 2010)