BRICK AND MORTAR MAGIC: THE TOP TEN WAYS A BOOK BECOMES A BESTSELLER
Every writer needs a day job. Supportive spouses, after all, can only take you so far. After it became clear my back up plan (PhD/research scientist) was killing my creativity, there was only one choice left - what better place for a writer to work than a bookstore? There are flexible hours, which free up time for writing. There's on the scene, up to the minute market research. And let's not forget the staff discount.
One of the biggest advantages, however, is the insight into how bookstores* actually function, and how customers actually choose their next great read**. Here's what I've learned about what can make a book, including yours, jump off the shelves.
THINGS WHICH YOU, AS THE AUTHOR, HAVE LITTLE OR NO CONTROL OVER
1) COVER ART. It's a sad fact that the very people who tell you not to judge a book by its cover are secretly doing just that. My specialty is the kid's/teen department, and the younger the reader, the truer it is. I can't tell you how many times I've started to recommend a book, only to have a child glance at the cover and say "no" before I can even describe the story. A book's cover is like a blind date's handshake - if it's limp and moist (ie, bland, boring, overly familiar), it inspires no confidence. If it's joint-crushing (ie, garish, vaguely offensive, or just plain ugly), it's not taken seriously. On the other hand, if it's firm and decisive (ie, well-designed, beautiful, intriguing), a reader will give serious thought to bringing it home.
2) JACKET COPY. Have you ever been intrigued by a book's cover, picked it up, flipped it over, and found nothing but blurbs, or worse, a single-paragraph excerpt from the book? What if the only information inside a hardcover's dust jacket was the author's bio? Assuming you didn't already have good reason to trust the author, how likely would YOU be to actually buy the book? To give you an extreme example. In our teen section, we have a paperback edition of Francesca Block's Weetzie Bat. It's an Indigo Recommends title, meaning it's stocked in large quantities, faced, and has a star sticker to draw attention. The cover, however, contains not a single word: no synopsis, no blurbs, no extract, nothing but rather unremarkable art. This book does not sell, because customers don't have the faintest idea what it's about. Likewise, we don't hand sell it, because none of us have read it, because we don't have the faintest idea what it's about. But, you might argue, can't booksellers get more info about the book online, at the author's website or library catalogue? Absolutely, but we don't. And neither do customers.
3) TITLE. Give us funny, give us clever, give us mysterious. Give us something that catches our attention and makes us want to know more about your masterpiece. Above all, give us something that accurately represents the book. Play fair with your readers, and be kind to booksellers. We read books at home, on vacation, and on our lunch breaks. Some of us also follow industry publications and blogs in an effort to keep up. Despite our best efforts, there's no possible way we can be familiar with every book in the store. Which means we're often giving customers advice based on our experience of titles and cover designs. Help us be right.
4) BLURBS. Blurbs are a double-edged sword. If they're compelling and offered by a writer (usually) or newspaper (sometimes) the reader trusts, they will sell your book. On the other hand... I bought the first book in a new fantasy series the other day. I read halfway through and gave up because, after 200 pages, I was bored to tears. This book was enthusiastically blurbed by two other fantasy authors. Not only will I never buy another book by this author, I'll never buy a book by the authors of the blurbs, because clearly our definitions of "good" don't jibe. The same, by the way, goes for movie deals. News of a movie deal can be all the impetus a customer (especially a child) needs to take a chance on a book. That being said, I had to stop telling people that Disney had bought Aprilynne Pike's Wings for Miley Cyrus, because 50% would buy it instantly and the other 50% put it back even faster.
5) PLACEMENT. With a few exceptions, display space in chain bookstores is a function of co-ops. Meaning publishers pay to have their books appear on tables, end caps, wheelies, in piles at the cash register.... In other words, unless your publisher has the a) money b) clout c) faith in your book as a front list title, it will probably not be featured any place but the home section. Likewise, if your publisher can't convince our buyers to purchase enough copies for a facing, your book will be spined, meaning your lovely cover will not be visible to casual browsers. Do not despair. There are ways around this, and I'm about to tell you all the:
WAYS IN WHICH YOU, AS THE AUTHOR, CAN HELP ROCK YOUR OWN SALES
6) GET THE WORD OUT. Take blog tours. Do store signings or school appearances. To the extent possible, arrange for newspaper reviews, especially in your hometown. In the real world and online, be places readers hang out. Customers remember books they've heard about, even if they don't remember the details. They clip newspaper reviews and bring them into the store (helpful customers do - unhelpful ones say "it was in the paper six weeks ago, what do you mean you don't know what it's called?").
Statistically speaking, you and your book will not appear on Oprah or The Today Show. The good news is, like writing, book promotion is mostly about persistence. As my alter ego the scientist would say, viral marketing is a geometric function - it takes a while to get going, but when it does, it's unstoppable.
7) ENSURE YOUR BOOK IS CARRIED BY THE CHAINS. Of course, you'll want to get your book into as many independants as you can, but there's no denying that the chains have them outnumbered. Yes, it is true that some small publishers aren't stocked by chains, and therefore a lot of great books get overlooked. Initially. If your book picks up steam, that will change. Furthermore, there are a TON of books that chains don't stock in stores, but will offer for customers to order online or through their favorite location. If your book is available through our online system, individual locations can also special order it, to offer in store. And if we like the book enough to recommend it, we will.
8) IF YOU'VE SCHEDULED PUBLICITY, LET BOOKSTORES KNOW. And let us know early enough that we can get your book in stock BEFORE you hit the airwaves. The last thing you want is for customers to mob the store in search of your gem, only to discover it's out of stock. Only a fraction of them will actually bother to order it. And those that don't will have forgotten all about it by the time it comes back into stock.
9) VISIT BOOKSTORES. Locally of course, but also when you travel. If possible, call ahead to set up an appointment with the manager for your book's category. Find out whether your book is already in stock - if it's not, bring information, or better yet, a copy. Be polite and friendly. Be charming, not creepy. Be professionally dressed, and if you have an appointment, for goodness' sake be on time. If your book is good, and you have the social skills of a even well-trained golden retriever, we'll do what we can to help you. If you're an obnoxious, pretentious, arrogant jerk, it will not matter if your book has the literary value of Dickens and the sales potential of Patterson: we'll wait until you leave and mock you in the staff room.
When I was a graduate student, I had to mobilize hundreds of hunters, trappers, wildlife officers, and biologists to collect the over 4000 DNA samples I needed for my research. I quickly learned that the only way to get people to help you is to make them WANT to help you. Which brings me to perhaps the single most important thing you can do to help sales of your book: MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE BOOKSELLERS.
Booksellers can be one of two things to you - your most powerful advocate, or your worst enemy. Unlike managers, who are often busy managing, booksellers are interacting directly with the book-buying public, every day. We're the ones making recommendations and influencing customers' decisions. Give us a reason to recommend YOUR book. When you drop by, say hello. Ask us what we're reading. Find a bookseller who likes the kind of books you write, and if you can, donate a review copy (we are drug addicts working in a heroin factory - the staff discount can only take us so far). Here are just some of the ways I've supported books I loved in the last few months:
- Adding staff picks stickers
- Spining books I didn't like so I could face ones I did
- Hand selling
- Special ordering out of stock books, for the purpose of hand selling
- Telling my coworkers how awesome a book is, and what kinds of customers it would appeal to
- Writing reviews for our company magazine, which is read by every Indigo bookseller in Canada
- Adding appropriate titles to understocked displays (we NEVER have all of the books required by co-op in stock, but if I love yours and it fits, I'll add it to the display)
I have also, on more than one occasion, told customers not to buy a book I hated. Or a decent book by an author who was a total ass. However, if we've met and you were a lovely human being, I won't sabotage you, even if I secretly believe your book isn't worth the toilet paper it's printed on.
10) BECOME A BOOKSELLER YOURSELF. Trust me. If you're even remotely likeable, your coworkers will support you. Mine are planning release parties for books I haven't submitted yet. Plus, booksellers get to meet people from the chain's head office, who make big buying decisions. Not to mention publishers' sales staff, and really, what writer doesn't want those kinds of connections?
AS A SPECIAL BONUS, THE THING YOU, AS THE AUTHOR, SHOULD NEVER DO
11) GUERILLA MERCHANDISING. All due deference to the lovely Intern's former post, just don't. Don't move your book from one part of the store to the other. If we can't find it, we can't sell it. Don't add your book to displays. When we see it, we have to remove it (see above re: co-ops). Don't turn your book face out if there's only one or two copies, because our merchandizing standards will require us to come along right behind you and switch it back. In short, all of these things MAKE MORE WORK FOR US, WHICH BY THE WAY THE CUSTOMERS ARE ALREADY EXCEPTIONALLY GOOD AT, AND WE HATES IT PRECIOUS, WE HATES IT SSS SSS. Ahem. Sorry. I may have been channeling The Rejectionist there. But the point stands. Spend your time on numbers 6-10, and try not to make us resent you, 'kay?
Now get back to work and finish your book. And when it's published, come find me. I'll be in the kid's section.
* I work at Chapters, which is part of the Indigo Books and Music group, Canada's chain bookseller. But please, can we skip the diatribe about the evils of chains? I can't speak for American chains, or even other branches of Indigo, but my location is staffed with folks that are passionate about books and truly dedicated to customer service. Including PhDs willing to work for less than $10 an hour, just for the joy of being around books. Besides, our local independent ordered copies of the UK edition of Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest from a British bookseller and resold them in North America. This may not actually be illegal, but it's just a tad unethical. And while we're on the subject, if you really want to point fingers, I think we can all agree to aim them towards places like Costco and Wal Mart.
** I'm referring here primarily to fiction and kid lit, as purchased by bookstore browsers. Nonfiction shoppers are a different species entirely, and more often than not already know exactly what title they're looking for when they walk in the door.