February 18, 2017

Seven secrets for supporting bookshops

The question I get asked most often by authors is: 'How do I go into a bookshop I don't know and persuade them to support me and my book?'

You'd love it if they stock your book, love for them to recommend it to people. You'd love it even more if they organised an event . . . and if they recommended you to schools and to libraries . . . 

How (the author asks) do I get all of that started? 

I am not surprised when authors go on to tell me how nervous they get wandering into a bookshop geared up to do their pitch. Turning yourself into a salesperson, doorstepping someone you've never met before and asking for their help and support - how do you do all of that?

But they are always surprised when I tell them simply: 'Don't!'

Don't do it - or, at least, don't do it this way.

I wish I had the magic formula for a pitch so that you really could walk into any bookshop and say the right words that will instantly unlock a longing to stock your book. 

What I do suggest is try understanding how to look at it from the bookshops' point of view. What does a bookshop really need from an author?

1. Bookshops talk directly to readers - be part of the conversation

One of the great things about bookshops is that they are open to the public to sell books. Authors love books, right? So your starting point is right there for a warm and fruitful relationship -  in the diversity of where you actually shop for your books. 
Bookshops help create a reading community -
Hugless Douglas meets young fans

What this means is that the very simple place to start in developing any sort of relationship with bookshops is to become a bookshop customer. 

(Bookshops can always cope with more customers.)

There are many places to buy books. Bookshops are under intense commercial pressure to survive.

Supporting diversity in book-buying is good, particularly for authors because physical bookshops are still the number one place where people discover a new author.

Make sure you do not wait until you have a book published to start a relationship with any local bookshops you are lucky enough to have in your area. 

Please, please, please don't make your first visit to your local bookshop the one where you are asking for their support because you have a book out. Bookshops need you right now - and then they'll be there when you need them.

2. Respect each other’s business - er, ok, so what do bookshops actually do?

Every bookshop really only has one focus - survival. Booksellers have to be almost superhuman in how they operate their businesses in a ultra-competitive world.

Bookshops survive by being a cultural hub. They recommend to readers, definitely, but who else is coming into bookshops? Bookshops are a hub for schools and librarians, for recommending authors for school author visits - the reach of a bookshop has a reach a long way beyond that small shop you see just off the high street. 

And that stock of books is also not the whole story. Most shops don't keep a huge stock, but this does not mean to say they don't know about your book. They might be often recommending it to people they think will like it and can usually order things in for next day. You don't have to feel they are not supporting you and your books if your every title is not displayed on the shelf.

Booksellers are knowledgeable and expert at matching the right book with the right reader. A huge amount of book business is done through this recommending and next-day delivery – bookshops excel at this sort of service in order to keep readers happy because lots of people want different books and it's pretty impossible to stock everything

Bookshops are pretty brilliant, actually, at chatting to people and matching the right book with readers. They attract exactly the sort of people who like to be part of the conversation about books, those people attracted by the values of community, expertise, and curation that bookshops are brilliant at. Really, authors and bookshops do want the same thing, but for some reason that doesn't always come across.

3. Bookshops will work really hard to sell your books. Help them to help you.

Not everyone has a really local bookshop. But if you want to develop a long-term relationship I do urge you to find out which is your nearest one that you would like to support. Adopt a bookshop.

Have you got one within an hour of your home? Can you go and hang out there once in a while? We have customers who visit from very far away, maybe quarterly, because they have adopted us because they like our book selection and advice. We have visitors who come once a year from abroad to stock up. 

Never lose the chance to make friends and develop relationships. It can be a springboard to all sorts of other things.
Making it fun, and making friends - author Paula Harrison goes back to school

But surely I can just walk into a bookshop and tell them about my book? Surely that is exciting news for them and they will want to support me? Particularly if I am local? An author with a new book out is great news, right?

Of course you can. Authors do it all the time. But, again, try to see it from the bookshop's point of view . . . that atmosphere, the haven of peaceful book-browsing calm, that knowledgeable staff member, that selection of stock, that busy events programme - none of that happens without a lot of work going on behind the scenes.

4. Don't get between a bookseller and her customers

That staff member you have waited patiently for to be free, does not seem as keen as you thought to hear your long and amazing publishing journey. She does not appear to be leaping at your availability for a book signing.

But bookshops need authors for survival don't they? 

I run a very small bookshop and in any given week I will get an author calling in personally most days and all want to tell me of their amazing publishing journey. Of course we love authors and we are interested. But our customers and our business will always come first . . . and if you cause a queue at the till telling of your amazing publishing journey . . . 

So, it is quiet . .  I can tell of my amazing publishing journey now? I am dying to tell as many people as possible.

If the shop seems quiet I will be taking this quiet moment to rush along to do one of these things - curating and reviewing the choice of books I sell to keep my regular customers coming back (huge task - mammoth), organising events to help cement me into the local community so my services are valued (colossal task), or doing the mountains of paperwork that come with running any small business. It may not look like I am doing anything important, but I will be.

So timing is important, eg don't try to tell me about your new book in the middle of the December rush. And at any time, do ask if it's convenient.

And if you can tell me quite succinctly something enticing and different about your book that I think my customers will like then I will be even more keen. I am mostly interested in hearing about your book if I can immediately see the sort of readers who will buy it. You see, we do want the same thing.

Best of all, why not a quick and friendly hello and have material to leave? This is much appreciated. 

Have you got a flyer ready that you can simply leave with the bookshop? Much better than a business card. Can you leave something that details your name, books and contact info, copies of reviews, and any recommendations you might have had from events? That would be brilliant.

5. Don't forget to tell your adopted bookshop you have a book coming out!

It is really exciting when one of your customers sneaks up to you and tells you they are having a book published. Bookshops are brilliant well-wishers for authors. There are an awful lot of books published every year and bookshops can only ever support a tiny fraction. But they will be tireless champions of those they do.

Bookshops aren’t just part of a reading community, bookshops also talk to each other a lot. If you focus on one great relationship, word will spread!  Word of mouth recommendation has incredible value.

6. Do everything you can to promote your event and you will make very good friends with your bookshop

What do bookshops really need from authors? How can I understand and get it right? What are the best things I can do to make a bookshop keen to support me?

What about events? 

Events, yes events. Bookshops do events don't they? They need events? They must need authors to do events? Having author events brings people into bookshops and that’s how bookshops make their money, right?

Strangely, no. 

Bookshops have to fight for people’s time and attention like everyone else. Events, generally, are extraordinarily hard work for bookshops.

Building a literate community - a Barrington Stoke parents
evening hosted in conjunction with a local secondary school

Give me a book signing with Jacqueline Wilson and yes! It is not going to be difficult to get people to flock down and buy a book. These events clearly make the shop money. But most events??

The sheer hard work, inventiveness, skill, creativity, hours, sweat and expertise it can take to get any sort of audience and persuade them to buy books in an increasingly stressed-out world means bookshops choose events carefully.

Most bookshops know what makes them treasured and are mostly motivated by the wish to be a cultural hub – to get their reading community chattering and excited about books. They love getting readers interested in new authors, and shops will carefully choose authors whose writings are of particular interest to the shop’s community. Bookshops adore hand-selling authors that they admire and 'fit' with the shop.
Cas Lester talks space junk and intergalactic waste collection!
And bookshops tend to know pretty well what will work for them. For school events, in-store events, signings. Not all events will work for all shops. Not all authors will work. 

If you are offered any sort of event by a bookshop, don’t think 'great, job done' and assume the bookshop has some sort of magic formula to win an audience for you. Getting anyone to come to anything is hard work, getting schools ready for you takes hours - for shops and the school. 

Do ask if there is anything you can do to help – bring your friends, promote it, put up posters, enthuse on social media, contact the press. It all helps the bio-diversity of as many different books being made available to as many different readers in as many ways as possible if we all support each other in this way.

Check your website! Is it up to date? If I have twenty author letters to write to introduce authors to schools, can I easily find a really good biography, something snappy about your books, anything about you that will make the children keen to welcome you? Have you got a really handy list of your award nominations (this would be sooo helpful), or even your book titles? Check now!

7. Bookshop sales contribute to the bestseller lists - use them - get your friends to use them!

Is there anything else I can do to support a bookshop in supporting me as an author?

If you are doing an event, is a bookshop involved? Who is providing any books on sale? Can you invite a bookshop to provide stock for an event? Talk to them of the best way of doing this and see if they would like to be involved, and if so, how? 

Most bookshops contribute to Nielsen bookscan data. Books that go through a bookshop will show up, your sales will be visible if you involve a bookshop and your publisher will be happy. And other shops will see how well your book is doing.
Getting up close and personal with debut author Laura Barnett
Find every way you can to support that bio-diversity in bookselling because it helps everyone - and that definitely includes authors.

  • Talk to the staff about the books they are recommending (hopefully buy one!) 
  • Tell them about a book you have loved recently, be part of the buzz
  • Go to one of their events
  • Help out at one of their events
  • Spread the word about their events
  • Buy books from bookshops
  • Tweet about their great advice
  • Rave about bookshops to others – help them to find them new customers. Be a customer that is vocal in your support.
The bookshop world is a fairly small place and quite a precarious part of an already fragile eco-system. We should all do what we can to support each other in different part of this diverse eco-system to make sure each part of it survives and is healthy.

Please, please, please don't make your first visit to your local bookshop the one where you are asking for their support because you have a book out.  Support your local bookshop now!