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Beyond the Reading: How to Work With Local Bookstores

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PUBLISHED JAN/FEB 2020

by Margot Carmichael Lester, Owner, The Word Factory —


Margot Lester

It’s easy to forget the pivotal role independent bookstores have in cutting through the noise and getting titles noticed.

Article Synopsis:

  • Independent bookstores play a pivotal role in cutting through the noise and getting authors and titles noticed.<
  • Whatever your genre or geography, you can capitalize on opportunities with independent stores. Building an audience with special events is one way.

Collaborating with local bookstores is a valuable way to raise your publishing house and/or author profile, move merchandise, and maintain a loyal following. Yet many publishers and authors focus solely on author readings, talks, and signings and miss out on additional opportunities to drive awareness and loyalty beyond the book tour.

Be a Better Writer by Steve Peha and Margot Carmichael Lester

In the age of Amazon, it’s easy to forget the pivotal role independent bookstores have in cutting through the noise and getting authors and titles noticed. When we were promoting our first book, Be a Better Writer, the owners of Jerrol’s in Ellensburg, Washington; Inklings’ Books and Coffee Shoppe in Blue Springs, Missouri; and McIntyre’s Books in Pittsboro, North Carolina, were instrumental in building an audience and selling books.

Because of the nature of our first book, book talks didn’t feel like a good fit. A reference book for young writers, it always felt more appropriate for a writing session than a reading. So my co-author, Steve Peha, and I leaned into our teaching and coaching experience and partnered with bookstores to put on writing events using a strategy from the book in lieu of traditional readings. Not only did we attract our target audience, we had older folks attending, too. We were able to introduce the book to the young people it was designed for and the adults who would be buying it for them—or for themselves. In the process of doing these events, we discovered that more seasoned writers also loved our book. That’s not something we could have gleaned from sales data.

That got me thinking about other ways to partner with local bookstores to develop alternative programming that went beyond release-related readings. My old friends Keebe Fitch and Peter Mock at McIntyre’s liked the idea, and we collaborated with Steve to develop a set of unique opportunities to engage local readers, writers, and customers. The collaboration has helped us raise our profiles as authors and publishers in the area, and we’ve sold a bunch of books in the process.

“Working with Keebe, Pete, and the other great folks at McIntyre’s has been a dream come true for me,” Peha says. “As an author, editor, educator, and former English major, I get to do all the things I love in one of my favorite places in the world: a beautiful, comfortable, and thoughtfully stocked independent bookstore that supports its community with an array of offerings, events, and programs like the ones we get to participate in.”


Building an Audience With Special Events

Whatever your genre or geography, you can capitalize on opportunities with independent stores. In our partnership with McIntyre’s, we focus on writing workshops.

“Good reading and good writing go hand in hand, and these events create a great way for us to provide another service for our readers who may perhaps want to write,” Fitch says. “Steve and Margot are not only personable writing instructors, they are also tremendous readers who recommend books as well. They create traffic in the store during a slower time of the day.”

Monthly Writers’ Office Hours: “Ask Me Anything”s (also known as AMAs) are a popular online opportunity to interact with authors, thought leaders, and other experts. But I prefer a more personal approach, so we developed Writers’ Office Hours at McIntyre’s. For three hours once a month, Steve and I (or occasionally a guest host) hang out in the bookstore and chat with local folks on a drop-in basis. We’ve had poets, memoirists, children’s writers, and business writers stop in for motivation, tips, feedback, and more. We’ve even helped a few kids with writing assignments for school. The upside for us is a higher profile and audience development for upcoming titles. For the bookstore, it’s a value add.

Author publisher Steve Peha teaches college application essay techniques to 9th grade students.

Audience-Focused Writing Workshops: Because our book’s about writing and aimed at a teen audience, a session focused on the stressful process of college essay writing was a natural fit.

We decided to charge for the event to indicate value—preliminary research had shown that free workshops might not deliver the customized help the project required. We worked with McIntyre’s to set a win-win price. Finding a subtopic that dovetails with a title’s subject matter enables you to pitch events that get readers involved and build author reputation as a trusted source.

Genre-Focused Writing Workshops: We knew from our work with nonprofits and libraries that genre-specific workshops are very popular. Turns out booksellers find value in these sessions as well. “These workshops allow us to fill a niche in our community with a creditable answer,” Fitch says. Steve’s “5 Facts of Fiction,” based on a strategy from the book and applicable to fiction and memoir, guides people through the process of planning a personal narrative. We offer it in a free 90-minute session and fee-based in-depth half-day session, both hosted in the bookstore. Another approach is to focus on issues important to your authors. I’m very interested in advocacy and offer free workshops in persuasive and opinion writing, including issue-related topics and candidate endorsements. This approach works best with authors who have a clear approach to writing and insight into the genre, and are comfortable talking about and teaching it.

Weeklong Summer Teen Writing Workshop: The store’s commitment to supporting authors and writers expanded last summer via a partnership with another award-winning local author, John Claude Bemis, to host a writing camp for kids ages 12-18. Each day, participants turned ideas into stories, developed a variety of writing skills, and had a chance to write, share, and discuss their stories. The camp was a unique entry into the local summer camp market and fostered a community of young writers and
readers that now support John and McIntyre’s. This is a great idea for individual authors, or if you have several in close proximity who could each take a day or genre.

If teaching isn’t a good fit for an author, Mock says prepublication tours “are a great way for a publisher who’s excited about an author, especially a debut author, to get that book in front of booksellers.”

Recently, a publisher took Mock, a co-worker, and a dozen other booksellers to dinner. “The author talked about her book, and I was impressed,” he says. “I went home and immediately started reading, stayed up until 2 a.m. and couldn’t wait to dig back in when I got off work.”


Serving the Community

“Publishers and booksellers serve the community when we broaden the types of events and programs we offer,” Peha says. “What makes our collaboration work is that McIntyre’s isn’t ‘just another bookstore,’ it’s a community of people who value books and authors—and all the things that go with that.

“Each time independent publishers and bookstores come up with new ways to serve our communities,” Peha says, “we reinforce our vital roles in society.”


Margot Carmichael Lester is a multiple award-winning journalist and author, writing coach, and owner of The Word Factory content marketing agency. Her most recent book, Be a Better Writer, was co-authored with Steve Peha.

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