Monday, April 24, 2006

On Selling Books to Bookstores

Sounds a little like selling ice to Eskimos, doesn’t it?

I’m using this blog to talk about the process of writing, placing and marketing my new book Candy from Strangers, but I’m in the middle of a “mini-cycle” with the reprint for my first book The Immortal Game, so I thought I’d use my efforts with Game to talk about one critical step in getting a book into the hands of readers: having bookstores stock it.

Bookstores buy books from one of three sources: the publisher, a distributor or a wholesaler, so part of the challenge of getting a bookstore to carry your book is insuring that the book is available from at least one of those sources on terms that are attractive to them.

I’m going to talk more about the wonderful world of distributors and wholesalers later, so for the purposes of this post, let’s assume that bookstores can readily order your book through a preferred supplier on terms that they like. The next step is to get them to do it.

To help me sell the Game reprint to bookstores, the first thing I did was to develop a flyer targeted to bookstore buyers. This pretty much looks like a flyer you might develop for end consumers, except it includes information bookstores need to order the book through their preferred supplier. Here’s the PDF file for mine. Note in particular the information in the gray box that gives the ISBN and lists Ingram, Baker and Taylor and Big Earth Publishing (the umbrella company for my publisher, Bleak House Books) as suppliers for the book.

The flyer reproduces reasonably well on my color laser printer, so I opted to print them at home rather than taking them to a copy center like Kinko’s.

Now the question was, what to do with them? I decided to target two classes of independent bookstores: local stores and national mystery stores. I choose only independent stores (as opposed to chain stores like Borders or Barnes & Noble), because chain stores do almost all of their buying centrally and I found it’s very difficult to get the buyers at chain stores to pay attention to an individual author.

I culled my list of local stores from the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association and hit the pavement, trying to visit each of them personally. Typically, I asked for the person who purchases mystery books, gave them a copy of the flyer and pointed out some of the highlights of the book, focusing on the local setting and the selection by the San Francisco Chronicle.

I had several pleasant surprises. The San Francisco Mystery Bookstore already had the book in stock and had sold three, and M is for Mystery and Cody’s Books also had it. The person I spoke to at City Lights seemed ready to buy it and went so far as to enter the book information into their ordering system, and I had a cordial reception at many other stores. I also got a few “give me the damn flyer and get out of my hair” type experiences and timed my visit to some stores poorly and had to settle for simply slipping the flyer under the door.

In the case of the national mystery bookstores, I used Katie Derie’s Deadly Directory Online to develop a list of stores and mailed the flyer to the owner or store manager. I usually checked the web site for each bookstore before mailing the flyer off, and once again, had a few pleasant surprises. For instance, The Mysterious Bookshop had mentioned the book in their latest newsletter.

The downside of snail mail, of course, is you can’t make a personal connection with the book buyer. To avoid that problem in the past, I have sometimes followed up a flyer mailing with a phone call, but this time around I (cravenly) decided to save the cold calling for when I’m flogging Candy from Strangers.

I’ll report later on the results (if any) of all these efforts!

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