Indie Book Store Confidential

books

Editor’s note: Kris is up in the wilds of Northern Michigan helping her sister Kelly move into a new condo. She is busy painting the kitchen so Kelly is stepping in today. All these stories are true but the customers’ names have been withheld for obvious reasons.

It was a dark and snowy night. I was working the late shift all alone at Horizon Books in Traverse City. The cavernous store was as empty and quiet as Al Capone’s vault. The windows dripped with sweaty heat. Across the street, the red neon sign of the Milk and Honey Ice Cream shop beat blood-red, like a broken heart.

I was leaning on the counter, reading a copy of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I only cracked it open because it was my job to know what’s hot and I always did my job. But I was only twenty pages in and I was already tired of characters named Thomas.

Suddenly, the air turned cold, sashaying over me like a discarded mink stole. I saw a dame standing near the door. Red heels, silk stockings, red skirt and a high-collared leopard fur coat with a matching hat, cocked with sass. She wasn’t young but I could tell she had paid a lot of money to have folks think otherwise.

Her baby blues jumped left and right and her red lips pursed slightly as she approached the counter. I knew what she was going to ask for. I knew because not only is it my job to know what’s hot, I got a knack for knowing exactly what people want.

She was an easy read. Before she ever reached the counter, I discreetly reached into what we at the store called “The Case.” The Case is where we keep the VHS Porn Movie Guide, Cannabis Culture magazines, Naked Art Books, the Karma Sutra, and a handful of other titles low-lifes have a tendency to sticky-finger out the door.

I wrapped my hand around the slick spine of a trade pulp and laid it silently on the counter. The dame blushed and reached her for dough. It cost her sixteen Washingtons, all shades of green, but I had a feeling that she would’ve paid fifty, one dollar for each shade of Grey.
Then she was gone into the white confetti of the Michigan night, just one of a hundred happy Horizon readers, eager to experience literary new worlds.

I was just being introduced to yet another Thomas in Wolf Hall when the door opened again. This time, it wasn’t milk and honey but milk and cookies. Shirley Temple with red hair and Sock Monkey mittens. She could barely see over the counter.

“Do you have Mable Makes a Move by Anne Mazer?”

I love little kids who read. There are so few nowadays. I punched at a keyboard that was so old it looked brushed with fingerprint dust, and scrolled through our 1990s WordStock system for the title. Yeah, the computer’s as old as the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, but hey, it works. And indie bookstores don’t have much cash flow. Nothing came up. Section 904 -– younger young adult — is not my area of expertise. I’m a hard-boiled kind of clerk.

“Is that part of a series?” I asked.

She gave me the How-dumb-are-you? eye roll. “It’s the Sister Magic series. Book Six. Anne Mazer. M-a-z-e-r.”

Feeling a hundred years old, I strolled to the 904 aisle to get the book for Miss Sassy Pants. But I found myself standing there in a maze of pink and purple books, all with glittery spines and little blonde girls and unicorns on the covers.

“There it is,” the girl said as she snatched the book from the shelf. She was back at the counter with the exact change before I could bag her up.

“You’ll enjoy that book,” I say to make conversation as she counted her pennies.

“It’s not for me,” she said. “It’s for my younger sister. I’m reading The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. It’s very old but holds up well. Thank you.”

I sighed in satisfaction as I watched her go, amazed and hopeful for the next generation. Finding the right book for the right reader is the best part of my job. But that’s only part of what goes on in an independent bookstore.

Kelly posing with our book HEART OF ICE and a very nice Horizon Books customer

Kelly posing with our book HEART OF ICE and a very nice Horizon Books customer

We all wear many fedoras here. We shelve new arrivals and ship out the flash-in-the pan hardcovers when they fall off the NYT list. We find impossible-to-find out of print titles for discerning readers. We babysit authors for signings, from the local geezer who wrote a fly-fishing guide to the likes of Steve Hamilton and Mardi Link. We tote books to business luncheons, library fund raisers and school carnivals. And yeah, we make coffee, too. Some of us even know latte art.

You learn a lot working behind the scenes. Some things you might not want to know, like what’s really in a Jimmy Dean sausage. But if you want the dope on how you, as an author, can get the “bulge” (advantage) when working with an indie store, well, maybe this hardboiled old bookseller can give you some hints:

1. Don’t piss off the Author Events Manager.
2. Do not bring in consignment books without being asked.
3. When you first approach the Events Manager, please arrive with sufficient materials in hand so the manager knows what the book is about. A copy of the book might be good.
4. Do not call every Sunday and ask how many books you sold this week.
5. Do not show up late for your event. Maybe, just maybe, people might be waiting.
6. Don’t be a stump. Most events will not require you speak to a group. Your first store events will be done at a table, behind a pile of books. STAND UP. Talk to people, and smile. Have postcards or flyers with a synopsis and let the customer walk away and read your stuff. Pretty good chance they will come back and buy. Flyers can be printed at home!
7. If your book is non-returnable, do not expect your bookstore to carry it on any basis but consignment. You bring it in and get paid only if you sell one.
8. If your book is consignment, do not be surprised if your local store refuses to carry it or do an event. It’s just the way it is. However, even if your book is from Createspace, if it has local interest, many stores are very likely to not only carry it, but actively promote it.
9. If you visit your bookstore as a reader, do not ask a salesperson to look up a book and when you find out the store does not have it but can order it for you, do not tell them you are going to go home and order it from Amazon, where you can get it cheaper. You might find yourself with a boot up your butt as you go out the door.
10. Remember that the folks who work in indie bookstores usually are there because they really love books. And writers. But remember that they are human and just might be having a bad day at the latte machine or just had to deal with a really dicey customer.

Which brings me back to that dark and snowy night. It was near closing and I had already done most my duties: run out the stragglers, reshelved the books people sat and read for eight hours, cleaned the coffee bar, took out the trash, and rolled the pennies for the day shift.

I was this close to a clean getaway when another cold blast of air made me look to the front door.

The kid was standing there wet and bedraggled. As he slurped over toward me, I saw the piercing in his nose and the desperation in his eyes.

“I need a book,” he whispered.

I had already locked up The Case and wasn’t about to open it for another would-be weed farmer.

“We got books,” I said.

“I need it for school,” the kid said. “It’s called One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

The kid looked like he didn’t have the strength to go get it himself, so I hopped over, came back and slid the slender paperback across the counter. He stared at it like it was a dead walleye.

“Is this hard stuff?” he asked.

“Not too bad.” I paused, feeling a moment of pity for this pathetic creature. “You seen the movie?” I asked.

His eyes brightened. “There’s a movie?”

“Yeah, it’s a little dated but it’s good and has a powerful message on the mental health system in America.”

The light left his eyes.

“Hey, you can’t go wrong with Jack Nicholson,” I said.

“Who’s he?”

I shook my head and picked up the wad of crumbled bills the kid had set on the counter. I bagged up his book and sent him back out into the night, locking the door behind him. I watched him until he disappeared into the swirling snow.

Life wore a man out, wore a man thin. Tomorrow would be a better day.

I pulled the string on the light and the neon – BOOKS! OPEN! – sign went silent.

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Are Book Events Worthwhile?

Nancy J. Cohen
 
I’ve been doing speaking engagements for many years now. It’s a way of giving back to the community and meeting new readers. But after this last one, I’m wondering if they are a waste of time in the digital age. I gave up three hours to speak to this group, had my hair done, painted my nails, and chose my wardrobe with care. Fortunately, it was local, so I didn’t have to travel far.

Sixty women attended this book and author luncheon, so you’d think they would all be readers, yes? The tables were beautifully decorated, with homage given to my latest title, Shear Murder. In this story, Marla the hairstylist discovers a dead body under the cake table at her friend’s wedding. Witness the cake motif on the centerpieces.

JCC Centerpiece   JCC Event

It was a lovely event. People were friendly and welcoming. But when I finished my speech, and after the raffle ticket numbers were called—an event as long as my talk—people left. Oh, a few came over and complimented me before asking if my books were available on Kindle.

Now, I wouldn’t mind if they went home and some of them ordered my titles. Most ladies took the brochures that I designed and had printed in two-sided color, but I did not sell a single book. Had they spent their money on raffles and ran out of cash or didn’t want to spend anymore? Was that it? Or do readers expect books on the cheap now and a signed copy means nothing?

I’m all for going out and meeting the public to increase readership, but consider the value of my time. I lost three hours of work and more, if you count the prep time. This is why I started charging a speaker’s fee if I go out of town for a talk. But even locally, is it worth the time and effort? Should I cease ordering my books to sell at these events? Already I have cases full of books stocked in the house. How will I get rid of them, other than donations? And even that means paying postage and a trip to the post office. It’s easier to do a giveaway with a digital copy.

If you are a multi-published author, and not a newbie looking to build a readership, do you still seek out speaking opportunities in the community? Would you go if—as one woman suggested to me—you’re invited to talk at her gardening club across town? Or will you suddenly have deadlines that prevent you from accepting?

I love speaking at libraries, but groups looking for a free speaker? Not so sure anymore. I know it’s not so much about the book sales as it is about meeting new readers, so I guess it’ll depend upon the circumstances. Or I might, in lieu of an honorarium, request a minimum book purchase agreement. Your comments?

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They paved paradise and put up a parking lot!

By Joe Moore

It was announced on Monday that Borders abandoned its attempt to find a buyer and proceeded to declare bankruptcy. They’ll be closing 399 stores and letting 10,700 employees go. The national bookstore chain was the victim to overwhelming debt, losses and changing consumer tastes.

That last one, changing consumer tastes, to me is the real giant killer.

imageChanging consumer tastes translates to print sales tanking while ebook sales skyrocketing. Why? Features and benefits. Ebooks and the devices on which they can be read (including smartphones and tablets) contain more features and benefits than printed books. We’ve discuss that dead horse topic so much on this blog that the smell just won’t go away. But it’s true. Things aren’t just changing, they’ve already changed. The way we buy and read books will never revert to the olden days of just a year or two ago.

I liked Borders. I had a big, beautiful store a couple of miles from my house. I had to drive past a big, beautiful Barnes & Noble to get to Borders. My co-writer and I launched 4 novels from that store. The staff loved us and we loved them. They made us feel great. We sold a lot of books for them. As a matter of fact, we always sold out of their stock and had to give them cartons of books to finish the signing events. Saturday afternoon book launches at our local Borders were always fun.

So what happened to our big, beautiful Borders? They recently tore it down and put up a CVS Drugs. You can buy paperbacks inside if you want. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

Borders, RIP.

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Book tours and signings and such

By Joe Moore

A few weeks ago, my blogmate John Gilstrap, posted Best Advice Redux in which he said, “Standard book signings are to me a waste of time. Ditto book tours.” I left a comment that I agreed and could prove it was true, at least for me. So that’s the subject of today’s blog: are book signings and tours necessary? And in addition, are the marketing efforts of the publisher important if not critical?

First, let me start with a disclaimer. My comments here are my own opinion based on my personal experience. I fully expect that others will feel different, and have equally compelling reasons to believe that the opposite is true. That’s fine. But here’s what I believe:

You can have a bestselling novel and never conduct a book signing or book tour. I know because I’ve done it—more than once.

The first book I had published was THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY (2005), co-written with Lynn Sholes. It was released by Midnight Ink, a small Midwest imprint of a large and venerable house called Llewellyn Worldwide. We had modest domestic sales with TGC, earned back our advance and experienced an excellent sell-through percentage. Midnight Ink went on to publish our next 4 books including our newest, THE PHOENIX APOSTLES. I don’t know the numbers on TPA yet, but the others (THE LAST SECRET, THE HADES PROJECT, and THE 731 LEGACY) also had modest sales, earned out their advances, and had high sell-through.

Lynn and I did many book signings through the course of the first 4 novels (the Cotten Stone series). Some signings drew impressive crowds while others drew a handful of friends and family. Sometimes we would sell 60-70 copies while other times we would sell just a few. Our number of signings fell off over the years in part because we are located at different ends of the state with over 400 miles in between. We still do a few signings a year, mostly at conferences.

Now, let’s shift gears. THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY was bought by a publisher in the Netherlands (same company that publishes Dennis Lehane, Clive Cussler, John Grisham, Stephen King, and others), dutchtranslated into Dutch and released. They bought it solely because they liked the story, not because it was a bestseller with high numbers in the U.S. In fact, TGC had no significant domestic track record. The only factor that affected the sale of the Dutch version was the efforts of the publisher to market it. Lynn and I never held a book signing in the Netherlands. We never did a book tour. In fact, to this day we have never communicated with our Dutch publisher. THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY (Het Graal Complot) spent 9 weeks on their national bestseller list and earned us more money than our domestic sales for the same book. And all we did was write the book.

sholes_moore_kyotovirus_08Our Dutch publisher went on to buy our next 4 thrillers. Our 4th book in the Cotten Stone series, THE 731 LEGACY (Het Kyoto Virus), also hit the bestseller list in the Netherlands and brought in more earnings than the domestic version.

The same thing happened in Poland. With no track record, our Polish publisher (Grisham, Cussler, Cabot, Tolkien) promoted THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY (Spisek Graala) right onto the bestseller list where polishit sat for weeks. No signings or book tour or any communications from us. Nothing.

Over the years, our books have been translated into 24 languages including Chinese, Russian, Greek and Thai, even Serbian. The majority of the foreign publishers have bought all our books. Almost half were hardcover deals. Many were later republished in paperback. Our foreign royalties have far exceeded all our domestic sales many times over. All done with no book signings. No tours. No communications with these publishers. How can you have a bestselling novel with no personal author involvement? I believe it’s starting with a good book combined with aggressive, savvy publishers who know how to market to their audience.

So, are signings useful? Should writers conduct book tours? Are the publisher’s marketing efforts important? I can only speak for myself, but my answers are, probably not much, no, and definitely yes.

What do you guys think. Do you tour? Do book signings work for you? Does your publisher do a decent job of promoting your books?

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THE PHOENIX APOSTLES is “awesome.” – Library Journal. Visit the Sholes & Moore Amazon Bookstore.

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