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Author Power: A Different Kind of Distribution

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Jeane Slone

Author Power: A Different Kind of Distribution

August 2012

by D. Patrick Miller

 

Take a stroll down the sidewalk of the Sonoma Marketplace, and right next to the Whole Foods grocery you’ll see a distressing sign of the times. It’s the empty storefront of Bookends, an independent bookstore that served the Northern California farm-and-winery town of Sonoma for 32 years before closing in the fall of 2011, citing death by Kindle and other heartless forces of modern commerce.

Just on the other side of Whole Foods, you’ll find another, more encouraging sign. Inside the Barking Dog coffeehouse, there are three shelves of neatly arranged books, all signed by local authors, each with a simple typeset description attached that includes what town the author lives in. There’s no clue to the origin of this minibookstore until you notice a letter-sized sign saying Buy local authors’ autographed books here!—and a small-type note saying that authors who want to join the show on the shelves should email one Jeane Slone.

Slone is the self-published author of two historical novels—She Flew Bombers During WWII and She Built Ships During World War II—the first title a winner of a Next Generation Indie Book Award this year. She’s also an activist with the 250-member Redwood Writers Club. Slone manages a coffeehouse and gift shop bookselling network comprising about a dozen retail outlets in Sonoma County, selling books for about 90 authors besides herself. But she admits that the original inspiration for her guerrilla-style marketing effort was less than altruistic.

Autographed books by local authors, complete with book descriptions, on tap along with coffee in Northern California

“I didn’t really want to sell other people’s books, just my own,” she says, laughing, as we talk inside another coffeehouse, the Bean Affair in Healdsburg, 45 minutes west of Sonoma, where it all began just over a year ago. “But I knew other writers through our Redwood group, so I took a few books besides mine when I came here to talk to the manager about marketing inside the store.”

“She said she had an empty display table that we could use,” Slone continues, “and that’s how all this got started. I was actually surprised how excited I became when I sold other people’s books!” Slone cites the Bean Affair as the most successful of all the retail outlets, selling 25 to 35 copies of the various titles monthly. The authors get 60 percent of their cover price; Slone retains 25 percent;, and the store keeps 15 percent.

For her percentage, Slone, who retired from a previous business two years ago, finds that she has quite enough to do—from creating the placards that describe each book to sticking a simple inventory slip inside each front cover. When a book is sold, the store puts the slip into a stack, and accounts are reconciled on a monthly basis.

The Bean Affair, which does not market much of the high-priced coffee paraphernalia one usually finds inside a Starbucks or Peets, makes about $100 a month for the rent of its large circular table. Located about 10 feet in front of the cashier, the book display provides a meaningful distraction for customers waiting in line for their coffee.

The books at all the shops are rotated, with new books appearing every month. Some authors have requested that their books remain at a particular shop so they can send local friends there to buy it.

 

Making Books Sell Better

Slone reports that she has learned many things she didn’t expect when she began her independent marketing experiment—enough to turn her into an impromptu publishing consultant. When she saw that a large-format full-color urban gardening book issued by a medium-sized independent publisher was selling very slowly at the imprinted price of $17, she suggested to the author that they sticker it at $25. Sales soon improved.

Another book, offering self-help advice, wasn’t selling at all with the title The Hairball Diaries (and it had nothing to do with cats). “The worst part of this job is having to tell writers that I’m returning their books because I just can’t sell any copies,” Slone muses. “I told this author that the book’s title was hopeless, and she and her publisher needed to come up with something more effective.” Retitled The Courage to Speak Up, the book began to move off the shelves.

While many of the authors Slone works with are self-published, not all of them are—and a few even have major houses behind them. Almost without exception, though, all the authors seem to be disgruntled with conventional marketing opportunities for their books. So they are usually “hyper,” as Slone puts it, about getting in on her distribution network. She’s already feeling the pressure to expand her idea into neighboring Napa County, and now has a paid assistant who may take on that challenge.

Slone is always on the lookout for other kinds of retail outlets, from used-clothing stores to hospital gift shops, and has found herself involved in other unexpected marketing initiatives—including book reviews that run in a local community newspaper, and two Dining with Local Authors events that are regularly scheduled at two different Sonoma County restaurants.

She has found most of her marketing opportunities in retail outlets that are off the beaten track of high-traffic commercial areas. Although the major book vendor in the region, an independent chain of bookstores known as Copperfield’s, does feature local-authors shelves, Slone says that at least one local Copperfield’s has sent local authors to her for additional exposure.

 

Local Pluses and Possibilities

She wouldn’t be excited by the prospect of selling shoes or even books in a conventional store, Slone tells me, but she’s found a lot of personal reward in becoming a small-time marketer for other authors “because I know these people.”

That’s a large part of what makes her unexpected displays of books in coffeehouses so interesting. One gets a fascinating glimpse into the local culture of writers, without the competition of thousands of other books or the clamorous marketing of bestsellers.

To be sure, such a down-home bookselling network is no panacea for everything that ails the industry. And it likely has a built-in growth limit, beyond which it could not expand without becoming unmanageable or impersonal.

Still, it’s an intriguing idea for regional writers’ clubs and publishers’ associations to look into—using their built-in resource of local authors to seek out and maintain new retail outlets “outside the box” of conventional bookstores. If you need a hand in figuring out how to get a local network going, Jeane Slone is full of ideas: info@jeaneslone.com.

 

D. Patrick Miller started his own press, Fearless Books, in 1997 after becoming disgruntled with the business practices of three major New York houses that had published his work. He is a member of the Authors Guild and has served five years as president of the Northern California chapter of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). He is also the founder and editor of Fearless Reviews, focusing on the work of the independent press, at fearlessbooks.com/Reviews.html.


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