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The Wrong Way to Promote Your Book

I originally wrote this article for Writer’s Weekly back in 2003. It can be seen in its original form on their website. I’ve placed it here on my blog because of something that happened last month that got me thinking about it. See that story at the end of the article.

Websites for writers and publications like are filled with information about scams perpetuated upon writers. We see everything from “contests” that bilk money from aspiring writers to markets that never pay the promised compensation. One subject that’s rarely discussed is scams perpetuated by writers.

Often, a new writer will come up with innovative “out-of-the-box” ideas for promoting a book without realizing that (a) they may actually hurt sales and (b) it’s been done many times before. “Scam” is probably too harsh a word for many of these ideas, but some of them are downright unethical and illegal. That’s what we’ll focus on in this article.

The book buyers at the big chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders have seen it all. It’s hard to pull anything on them that hasn’t already been tried. You may assume that owners of small, independent bookstores exist in a vacuum, but that isn’t the case, either. Over 1,200 independents are members of the American Booksellers Association, and members communicate through newsletters and online members-only message boards.

Do we really do this? Yep. There are regional book shows around the country, and owners of bookstores do sit around and share tales of scam artists and unethical book signing conduct. If you own or manage a bookstore, I’d recommend joining your regional association. My home state of Montana is claimed by two regional associations: Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association (MPIBA) and Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association (PNBA).

Some authors have placed false orders for their own books through bookstores, hoping to pump up sales. Since most POD (Print On Demand) books are non-returnable, they figure the store will be stuck holding the bag and that they can pocket the royalties on the “sales.” This is actually inaccurate. Bookstores that are the victims of this scam WILL return the books and they WILL receive credit from the distributor or publisher. If they don’t, the bookstore will alert their fellow bookstore owners and everyone else in the industry to not do business with that distributor, publisher, and author. If your book is involved in this type of scam, you can kiss your future as an author goodbye, because nobody will do business with you. There are blacklists of authors in the industry and they are shared.

Authors may also face legal consequences for scams like this, and it isn’t difficult to prove who perpetuated a scam. Despite the huge number of books published every year, the publishing industry is a small world. Bookstore owners, book buyers, and librarians communicate with each other, and are eager to press charges if it will drive unscrupulous people from the business.

I spoke to one POD publisher who found out that one of their authors had tried this stunt. They instantly canceled the author’s contract and alerted the distributor and the bookstores of the attempted fraud. Rather than building up thousands of dollars in royalties, the author ended up with nothing; no contract, no book and, of course, no royalties. Not only that, but there are now hundreds of bookstores that will never order one of that author’s books, even if they do get it republished (which they probably will not).

I don’t want to imply here that all, most, or even many POD authors behave unethically. The overwhelming majority are honest people trying to sell their books the right way. It’s a shame that scam artists make so many bookstore owners and managers nervous about POD.

Needless to say, this scam can’t be pulled off at all with returnable books. Even if the author’s timing is perfect, and a royalty check is issued before the books are returned, the returns will show up on the next royalty statement, and the author will have a serious problem and some explaining to do to the publisher and bookstores.

There are plenty of variants on this scheme, like the “I’ve been getting lots of people from your town looking for a place to buy this book” lie and the ever-common yet never-believed “I used to live near your store and I have a ton of friends and family that want to buy copies from you.” The common factor in all of them is trying to trick a bookstore into ordering a stack of non-returnable books that they may not be able to sell. And, like I said, they’ve heard it all. I got one such call and told the author if he’d send me the list of people who called him, I’d be happy to get them the books right away. As it turned out, he didn’t even know where my store was located.

One author contacted a bunch of small bookstores and organized book signing events. The stores ordered stacks of books, and the author canceled the events. Now, many stores tell authors to bring along their own books, and they don’t order anything up-front unless it’s arranged through a publishing house they know. The author who pulled of this scheme will never have another book signing.

Another trick is misrepresenting the content of a book. A store thinks they’re ordering a big fat book of local bicycle trails, and they get a 60-page book of trails (and only one of which is within 100 miles of that town). A scam like this might work once, but if it does, your name is mud.

Another dishonest “program” that’s making the rounds is authors trying to get everyone to buy their book from within a 24-hour period in an attempt to get on the best seller list. Trying to twist the outcome of the Amazon best seller list in this way is unethical and does not represent a fair and legitimate tally of daily sales for your book (meaning calling your book an best seller when you tricked the system is being dishonest to your future readers and to the press when using this statement on your press releases). is one publisher that won’t allow its authors to scam the system in this manner, and other reputable publishers are following suit. The scam is now so well-known in the industry that an author that claims to have an Best Seller is now considered by many to be dishonest unless it can be backed up by data spread over a period of weeks or months.

It’s unfortunate that some authors feel the need to lie to and steal from others in this way. It hurts all of us, and makes bookstores much more wary about stocking POD books at all. When marketing your book, remember that the tried and true methods are the most successful ways to market your books and achieve an excellent reputation: pound the pavement, pay your dues, send out press releases, arrange book signings, take out ads, and arrange radio interviews. I have sold thousands of copies of my self-published books by attending trade shows, putting on seminars, and marketing through my website.

Treat others the way you want to be treated, and market your book to others as you would want other books marketed to you.

So what happened last month that got me thinking about this article? A small publishing house that my bookstore buys directly from gave me a call to tell me about a new book they had out. It’s not the kind of book I normally sell, but it is local-oriented, so I had them throw a single copy in with my next order. When the book arrived, I took a look and decided not to carry it in the store.

A few days later, someone called and asked if we carried the book. I said I had one, and the caller asked me to set it aside to pick up later that day. I set the book on the desk, and nobody showed up to get it. The following week, another call asking if we had it, and another “customer” who never showed up to get the book. This happened four times in three weeks — always people I didn’t know who never came in.

Was it the author (plus friends and family) calling me, hoping to get me to place a larger order? I’ll probably never know. But I most certainly won’t be ordering books for inventory based on phone inquiries like that, and I view that publisher with a bit of suspicion now.

Oh, boy! My book is a textbook! That’s good news, right?

Closed Captioning HandbookWhen I wrote about this in 2011, I talked about rights reversion and what that means in an age of ebooks. Today, I’m having more of an issue with the whole way textbooks work. With two kids in college, I’m seeing my share of textbooks selling for hundreds of dollars, but the price increase on my own book was still a shock a few years back when it was picked up as a college text.

My editor was adamant when I was writing the book in 2003: keep it under 400 pages or the price of paper will make the book just too expensive. Their target price was $49.95. The final page count was 404 (snicker), and it did indeed release (in paperback) at that price. I still don’t buy the paper cost argument. My bookstore sells plenty of paperback books with far more than 400 pages for far less than $50.00, but the world of low-volume, highly specialized books is different. I get that.

Prices go up over time, so I wasn’t surprised to see the price go up to $54.95 a couple of years later. But when three colleges adopted The Closed Captioning Handbook as a textbook, I didn’t expect the immediate jump to $71.95. Now, it’s up to $74.95, and it has the dreaded word “NET” in the Ingram distribution database.

Net? What’s net?

In the retail book trade, there are a lot of publishers to deal with, and keeping track of everything would be an insurmountable task for small bookstores. That’s why we have big distributors like Ingram Books and Baker & Taylor. Stores like mine buy the majority of our books from a couple of sources because it’s easy and it consolidates shipping and billing.

Discounts are pretty standard in the book trade. For the most part, retailers get the same discount on every book at the big distributors. Sometimes, though, books are “short-discounted.” Publishers may not offer the standard discount to the distributor, or may have very high minimum purchase quantities. It’s common for print-on-demand books to be offered at only half the normal discount to stores, which is why many bookstores refuse to stock them.

But every now and then, that discount field in the database displays as “NET.” That means that the bookseller pays full list price for the book. If you go into a bookstore and order a copy of The Closed Captioning Handbook, that $74.95 isn’t what you pay, it’s what they pay. This isn’t going to be true for bookstores (especially campus bookstores) that order directly from the publisher, but few stores deal directly with technical and specialty publishers like Focal Press. Also, there are many textbook publishers that simply don’t want to deal with what’s called a “general bookstore.” They only offer trade terms to college bookstores.

Obviously, this is a big turnoff to readers. Stores can’t stay in business without a profit, but nobody wants to pay higher than retail. So what’s an author to do? We can beg readers to buy directly from us. We can find out what stores or websites stock our books at a reasonable price (as much as I hate sending people to Amazon, they do have my book available at a discount right now) and send people to them. We can beg our publishers to offer standard discounting to distributors.

And we can ask our readers: if you’re quoted a really high price on one of our books, please don’t give up on us. Take a few moments to check another source or two. We don’t have the luxury of setting our own prices or terms. Thank you!

Selling Your Print On Demand Book To Bookstores

Print-on-demand (POD) is the latest alternative to self-publishing or vanity presses. Traditional publishing requires a significant investment to produce the first print run, which must be paid either by the author or a publishing house. With POD, books can be produced in very small quantities, as they are needed. Thus, less up-front money is required to launch a new book.

POD press

A POD printing press

Per-book royalties for authors are higher with POD than with traditional publishing. The tradeoff, however, is that authors must do a great deal of the marketing work. POD books are usually offered for sale on the publisher’s Web site, and the publisher will sometimes take care of listing the book with other online venues, such as Everything else is the author’s responsibility.

If you want your POD book to be sold in traditional “brick and mortar” bookstores, you first need to understand a little bit about how bookstores operate. Like any retailer, they make their money by purchasing products at a discount, and then reselling them at a higher price. With books, the standard discount is around 40%. This can be leveraged higher by purchasing in quantity or by dealing directly with a publisher rather than going through distribution, but it rarely goes higher than about 48%. On the low side, some university presses offer discounts down to 20%, but those are rarely stocked in stores.

To encourage bookstores to experiment with new titles, publishers and distributors allow bookstores to return books that don’t sell. The stores still have to pay shipping both ways, but at least the stores know that they won’t be stuck with un-sellable products. Ingram, one of the largest book distributors, limits returns to 10% of what a store buys, and only refunds 50% of the purchase price, rather than the 60% the store typically paid — the equivalent of a 10% restocking fee.

Bookstores find new books in a variety of ways. The buyers watch the news, read publications like Advance Magazine, take recommendations from trusted distributors and publishing reps, attend book shows, and read promotional materials.

As the author of a POD book, you have three hurdles to overcome in selling to bookstores: discounts on POD books are generally less than 40% (sometimes as low as half that), POD books are usually non-returnable (which discourages experimentation), and the publisher isn’t promoting your book to the bookstores. Here are some ways that you can overcome these hurdles and get your book into the stores:

  1. Make sure your book has a good cover. This means an attractive design and quality paper that won’t curl up after a month. Books that are face-out on the shelves sell significantly better than books that are spine-out. Bookstores generally won’t turn ugly covers face-out or put them in the window, so spend the extra time or money to do a good-looking cover.
  2. Follow standard publishing rules. Make sure the book has an ISBN and that there’s an EAN barcode on the back cover. Use the back cover as a sales pitch. When people in a store pick up a book, they flip it over and look at the back to see what it’s about. Some bookstores will mark the book up above the cover price if the discount is short. If your POD publisher will be offering bookstores less than 40% discounts, consider leaving the price off of the cover and including a “90000” barcode, which lets the stores set their own prices.
  3. Get some press. Send out press releases to local newspapers, radio stations, and regional or special-interest magazines. Call the radio stations and try to get on their news shows or talk shows. If you can arouse people’s interest, they’ll go ask for the book at the bookstores. Bookstore owners listen to their customers. If you can get the customers to ask for your book, the stores will start carrying them.
  4. Donate a copy to your local library, and offer to do a reading.
  5. If appropriate, take your book into local schools and talk to the school librarians about it.
  6. Visit your local bookstores. Take copies of the book with you, and offer to leave a copy for them to read if they’d like. Explain why the book will do well in their store, and offer to do a book signing. If you can’t get your book on their shelves any other way, offer to leave a handful of copies on consignment, so they don’t have to pay you unless the books sell.
  7. If a store agrees to a book signing, do your part to promote it. Call everyone you know in the area that might be interested. Share in the cost of a newspaper ad. Put up flyers around town. Call the radio stations. If you are providing the books, bring plenty, and offer to sign store stock after the book signing is over.
  8. Send out a promotional mailing. A postcard will do if you’re on a tight budget. A brochure lets you provide more information. There are plenty of places to find mailing lists of bookstores, including the American Booksellers Association ( Focus on the independent stores, as they tend to experiment more than the chains. Make sure the promo piece has a picture of the cover, and explain why this book is worth trying out. If you were successful with local bookstores, ask them for quotes that you can put in your promo piece.

When dealing with bookstore owners and book buyers, stay positive. Be persistent, but never pushy. If you can take “no” gracefully, the door is still open to go back in later. If you get angry or argue with the store owner or buyer, you will never get back in.

POD books represent a very small percentage of the stock on a typical bookstore’s shelves. If you have a good book that sells well for them, though, they will stock it.

(This was originally an article I wrote for “Writer’s Weekly” in 2003)

Common book cover design errors

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:

everything is illuminated

Where do I put the “Signed Copy” sticker?

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.

Sex sells!

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.

Myths & Legends of Tea barcode

Let’s just let form follow function, okay?

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)

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