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Navigating the World of Independent Booksellers

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by Alexa Schlosser, Managing Editor, IBPA Independent magazine —

Alexa Schlosser

From managing relationships to unexpected challenges, 11 IBPA members weigh in on their experiences working with independent booksellers.

Meet the Panelists

Nan Doya, Executive Editor, Casper Press

Tracee Dunblazier, Author, Founder, GoTracee Publishing LLC

Gloria T. August, CEO, English Garden Talk Press, St. Bridged Vineyard Press, 4 Sons Films

Roy A. Teel Jr., Author, Narroway Publishing LLC/Imprint: Narroway Press

Victoria St. George, Author, The Rainbow Book and Barnyard Bandits

Dana Ridenour, Author, Behind The Mask, danaridenour.net

Laura Stanfill, Publisher, Forest Avenue Press

Rob Broder, Children’s Picture Book Publisher, Ripple Grove Press

Peter J. Malia, Principal, The Connecticut Press

Michele Sfakianos, RN, BSN, Owner, Open Pages Publishing LLC

Courtney Spain Aragon, Founder and CEO, Little Fire Press

What has been your experience working with independent booksellers? Do you find it worthwhile to work with them?

Rob Broder (RB): I find children’s picture bookstores, like Green Bean Books in Portland, are open to working with us more so than a regular bookstore with a small children’s section.

Courtney Spain Aragon (CSA): Some booksellers are very open to supporting a small publisher with a small print run. However, they really dislike the extra paperwork and any risk associated to unsold inventory.

Michele Sfakianos (MS): I’ve worked with several independent booksellers and feel that the success depends on two things: 1) their location and 2) the amount of advertising you both do.

Dana Ridenour

Dana Ridenour (DR): I would love to work with independent booksellers, but unfortunately the independent bookstore in my town will only work with big-name authors. There isn’t even a section for local authors in the bookstore. I approached the manager and provided them with my book, press release, and numerous newspaper articles about the book. The manager took my package but didn’t have the decency to respond back to me. I’ve had people tell me that they have asked for my book in the store and the manager will not even offer to order it. I’m extremely disappointed in my independent bookstore because, before this experience, I shopped there all the time. I hate to say it, but I’ve had a better experience with Barnes & Noble. The B&N manager hosted a book signing for me, and we were both extremely happy with the results of the event.

Victoria St. George (VS): I have worked with some amazing independent booksellers. I find they are more appreciative of independently published books. I’ve had very positive events and turnouts. It’s nice because they are willing to work with you to enhance your book and talents.

Gloria T. August (GA): Yes, especially rural towns with bookstores. They’re willing to take a chance. the problem is you have to buy your book. They won’t order your book unless you are a big shot.

Nan Doyal (ND): It is definitely worthwhile. Independent bookstores have access to a market that does not shop online, does not use social media, and that likes to browse the shelves and listen to the advice of bookstore owners before making a buying decision. Working with indies also gives you direct feedback from the market—what people are interested in, how they buy, etc. If you are lucky, you might even get to meet and talk to your readers in an indie bookstore.

Peter J. Malia (PM): As a specialty publisher, The Connecticut Press has experience selling through Barnes & Noble as well as some independent sellers. In both instances, the road to inclusion has not been easy, but it is worthwhile.

Roy Teel

Roy A. Teel Jr. (RT): My experience has been one of some stress. As both the publisher and author of my titles, forging relationships with independent bookstores has been a challenge. The greatest challenge is the returnable status of titles. If I am the supplier to the store and I supply the inventory, it is a simple process. I put the books in their stores on consignment with an agreement for weekly sales reports and usually a 90- to 180-day return policy and a 50 percent discount off the retail price to the store. That has been how things have been done in the past; however, more and more stores want me to make my titles returnable through my POD printing company, Lightning Source. This causes serious issues as not only can an independent bookstore stock up on a title, but so could the big stores, like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, at no risk. With over 20 titles in print, 15 in a single series with another 15 titles to release in that same series over the next five years, to take my titles as they currently are on LSI from nonreturnable to returnable could put me and my business at considerable risk should there be a large influx of returns. Since I have no control over who buys my titles directly from Ingram LSI or uses services like Baker and Taylor, I can’t control returns; and with the average returns being 30 percent, LSI has warned me that making my titles returnable is a highly risky move and could bankrupt me as an independent publisher and author. Ingram LSI strongly urges against this practice for authors of more than one or two books.

Tracee Dunblazier (TD): I love to work with independent book sellers—when they let me. Unfortunately, I’ve found, in general, they’re less interested in doing author events than the big chains. On average, I’ve sold 20-30 books per two-hour event. I’ve enjoyed a lot of success with the independents of which I’ve worked.

Laura Stanfill

Laura Stanfill (LS): We love working with independent booksellers! Forest Avenue was founded in 2012 as a grassroots, community-building movement to publish Oregon writers and to bring people together for conversations inside independent bookstores, strengthening our regional literary ecosystem. Booksellers have been part of our mission from the start—and they’ve been incredibly supportive of our authors. When we earned national distribution through Legato Publishers Group in late 2014, that increased our bookseller reach on a national scale. Many of our authors tour nationally, and all of them do many readings, panels, book clubs, workshops, and other literary events, even long after their books come out.

As a self-published author or independent publisher, how do you engage with independent booksellers? Are there specific tactics that have worked for you?

Lisa Noudehou (LN): Just as it is important for the author to find the publisher whose niche matches the book, it is also important for the publisher to find the bookseller whose niche matches the book. It’s all about making a match! Barranca Press’s children’s books that feature Swahili, for example, are a very good match for the niche occupied by booksellers in Harlem. But don’t make assumptions about what books will sell where; ask. It turns out that children’s books that feature Spanish also do very well in Harlem. Sister’s Uptown Bookstore, Grandma’s Place, and Word-Up Community Bookstore each carry both our Tanzania Juma stories featuring Swahili (by Lisa Maria Burgess with illustrations by Abdul M. Gugu) and the new ¡See You Later, Amigo! featuring Spanglish (by Peter Laufer with collages by Susan L. Roth).

Rob Broder

RB: We try and mail out catalogs and promo cards for our titles to reach the children’s buyer specifically, hoping they are interested in working with a small independent press.

CSA: Local bookstores matched with a local author is really the perfect mix. It is very special for their store customers that the author is in their community. Any time we can pair the local author with the local bookstore and have a reading—that seems to be a win-win for everyone.

MS: I’ve approached many independents via e-mail and regular mail, and in-person for local stores, and have had successful relationships by being upfront with the pricing discussion and how many books to keep in stock. Listen to their expectations and provide yours; you need to both mutually agree on the terms.

VS: I just call the store and ask for the events coordinator. They are normally very open to local authors and illustrators. I always tell them about my books and the art crafts that go with my books that I bring, and I do offer to take back the books that didn’t sell after the event. That kind of takes the pressure off of them because it’s really a win-win. Remember to be confident; it will come through in your conservation.

GA: Mine are all cold calls. It means that you often will need to come back because the decision maker may not be available.

ND: I approach them as a business partner. My goal is to sell books, but it is also to help them be successful. I discuss the book with them, and give them a reader copy and sell sheet with details. I ask how they’d like to work together, how I can help promote my book to their readers through my own social media channels, newsletters, and through word of mouth.

PM: What works best is a personal visit to the bookshop after calling to make an appointment. Respect their time, and they will respect you. How to make it work?

  • Extend full trade discounts and a full return policy.
  • Promote your titles—even if that only consists of local press releases and newspaper stories about the author, subject, and that your title is being carried in the local bookstore (the owner will appreciate the mention).
  • Offer to hold a book signing(s) and/or author presentation and help to promote the event(s) in the press and on social media.
  • Make it easy to do business as a seller. Provide professional billing and return information, and keep in regular touch with the bookseller. That helps to build a relationship for the future.
  • Remember that booksellers and you have a lot in common. They want people in their shops, and you want to sell books. To do that, you need to serve as a PR agent and marketer not only for your book(s) but for your booksellers, too.

RT: I start off with a phone call followed up by an e-mail and a media kit about my titles. I then work to set up meetings in stores, and talk to management and staff to go over the finer points of my titles—in this case my 30-novel series. Once we engage, I give them my marketing strategy, then work with them on desired shelf space and placement in the store. Remember that shelf space is at a premium in independent bookstores; the smaller the store, the more difficult it can be to get the eye traffic to a title. Also, with a 30-novel series with the first 11 novels released, and a novel releasing every 90 days in all formats, this creates its own problems. Each book takes up precious shelf space, so I work on creating standalone displays for the titles, allowing more freedom for front entrance placement, and to both attract readers and conserve space for the store. You have to be creative and accommodate the store—it is only selling your titles on consignment. It’s your job as the author/publisher to make a display that works to enhance sales and be space-friendly for the store.

Tracee Dunblazier

TD: I approach everyone I meet with the intent to create a relationship over time. Independent booksellers have less space and are more cautious about where they spend their dollars. I respect that. They can’t say no forever.

LS: We engage with them by visiting their stores and saying hello—not only building relationships in our communities, but also when we’re traveling. Being an active member of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association and using the association’s promotional tools like the Holiday Catalog and bookseller blasts. Organizing many bookstore events and promoting them with invites and press coverage as well as posting photos afterward. Buying books! All our authors and fans are encouraged to buy local. Sending out galleys with personalized letters. Using to-buy links on our social media that promote IndieBound’s network of indie booksellers and/or individual indie bookstores. Following bookstores on social media and sharing their content. Establishing individual relationships with booksellers who have similar taste in content. Using the #getindie hashtag on Litsy. Saying thank you every time a bookseller promotes one of our books and we find out about it. Sometimes we send special handmade presents, or handwritten letters, and other times it’s a shout out on social media, but we always share our appreciation. It’s really about relationships for us, not just selling our products. We often visit our indie bookstores to attend other authors’ events and buy their books. As a result of being a presence and promoting indie bookstores, we have seen an increase in our titles’ visibility, including face-out placements at certain stores, hand-selling, and shelf talkers.

What is your biggest challenge when working with independent booksellers?

LN: Independent booksellers often ask to take books on consignment. Sometimes they do pay for books sold, but we have found that immense energy is expended to recoup the funds due. While our record delay in payment was three years, we have also (sadly) been faced with nonpayment by booksellers who close shop. Given this challenging experience, Barranca Press no longer places books on consignment.

RB: Letting them know who we are. Educating the buyer on the types of books/stories we make.

CSA: They just do not want to deal with any ISBN that is not represented in their database. If the book is not part of the B/T or Ingram system inventory, then it means extra paperwork for the bookseller—something that takes too much time and possibly too much risk (e.g., returns, damaged books, unsold inventory). They need the same guarantee that the big distributors/publishers provide.

Michele Sfakianos

MS: The biggest challenge is always sales. You are in competition with other self-published authors. And, again, the location and advertising are both big players.

VS: I think advertising. Just when you think you are done advertising an event, think again! Keep plugging it! Some of the independent sellers want you to do all of the advertising, and it gets costly. Social media is good, but it’s not enough. You need flyers, newspapers, radio, etc. You can have the most amazing book in the universe, but if you don’t properly advertise, it’s as good as toilet paper!

GA: Getting indies to buy my books instead of my purchasing and their selling of my books. Calculate everything because the price that gives you even the smallest profit may be too much. So far, the profit with independent bookstores is small, but at least they are willing to take your books. I will often “donate” a book to the independent book stores to establish a future relationship.

Nan Doyal

ND: The biggest challenge when you are small is distribution. While some bookstores will work on consignment with authors or small presses, it is more challenging for them. It is ideal if you can have an account with Baker & Taylor since it is easiest for the stores to go through wholesalers rather than dealing with hundreds of authors or small presses. To become a B&T vendor it helps to have purchase orders from bookstores and a robust marketing plan. But part of the marketing plan is to sell to bookstores that don’t have a way to buy your books because you don’t have an account with B&T yet. It’s a bit of a vicious cycle at first, and you have to figure that part out. But I believe if you have the best interest of your business partners at heart, you will find a way. If they are successful, you will be successful.

PM: Booksellers love books, but they also need to pay the rent. If your title has no marketing plan, sell sheet, or decent discount pricing that you can offer a bookseller as your “elevator speech,” don’t bother wasting either of your time. If you are not good at this kind of thing, get someone who is and who believes in you and your book.

RT: There are new demands this year to take my titles from nonreturnable on LSI to returnable. While many independent book stores will work with me directly for inventory, there have been cases where there was a delay in getting them titles when they ran out and they wanted to go to their book buyers to get the title but those buyers refused to purchase as my titles are listed as nonreturnable. So even though a store might have an agreement with me, a book buyer takes the risk, and they are not willing to do that on a nonreturnable title. It also could open me up to huge risk should Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other stores start stocking the books. Since these are print-on–demand (POD) titles and have the built on discount of 50 percent off retail, I must pay the POD fee upon placement of an order. For example: On a hard cover novel, the print cost is $12 to LSI per book—my cut of that after discount is $3 per book. So, for a case of 30 books, my out-of-pocket print cost is $450 that I pay LSI; the royalty for the titles is $90 and is held for 90 days in the event of returns. If I get even 30 percent of those titles back in the 90 days, my royalty is wiped out, and I will be billed by LSI for the difference, or $45. As I previously stated, Ingram LSI has strongly urged me not to take this risk. Does it stifle sales? Yes. I am assessing the risk-to-benefit ratio of trying it temporarily for 2017—but with an extensive backlist and my series, there is substantial financial risk that all publishers and authors need to take into account.

TD: In larger cities, there are literally thousands of independent authors that inevitably bombard the few independently run bookstores for sales opportunities and events. No doubt those folks get weary.

LS: Relationships are built one at a time, and they take time to maintain. I’m going to keep being a good book-buying customer—visiting new stores when I travel, and connecting with booksellers I don’t yet know through social media, conferences, and galley offerings—but I also wish I had more time! Our authors do a great job talking about Forest Avenue’s other authors when they travel, and we’ll continue teaching future authors how to do that, and why it’s important to build community and make bookseller connections.

What has been your biggest success working with an independent bookseller? When do these types of partnerships work well?

LN: Our biggest success was when Barranca Press partnered with a local author and an independent bookshop for a book launch. The shop’s space and mailing list combined with the author’s community and platform made it possible to have an enjoyable and successful event.

RB: When the book buyer is interested in supporting an independent press. When they want to offer their customers a book that is beautifully illustrated and well-told, but not from a large press.

CSA: The only road into the independent bookseller is providing excellent customer service and addressing any issues that come up immediately.

MS: These types of partnerships work well when you continually visit the bookseller (if possible) to check to make sure your titles are displayed well and copies are readily available. A good bookseller will notify you to replenish stock when books are low. It is also best to schedule book signings when possible to keep your books visible.

Victoria St. George

VS: I think the freedom with the presentations and the close interaction with the public that I love the most. It’s nice when you can do a reading and have a question session see the kids get excited as you are turning the page. I’m vested in every second of my reading; it’s personal. People remember personal. The best part is none of these independent booksellers are corporate, so they call me on my cellphone and ask me to bring more books. It’s a more personal way of finding your public. My favorite independent bookseller is Inquiring Minds in new Paltz, New York. They go above and beyond for me always.

GA: The second independent book store I went to in Longmont, Colorado, invited me back for a book signing. She paired me with an established author who had a big publishing firm backing her. Unfortunately, it was a flood night—few came out, and we spent the evening moving buckets around the store to catch the rain—but I loved it. I also found out that if I wrote something Colorado-themed, she would give me top attention. So guess what I am planning to do?

ND: It is best to approach a bookstore with the goal of making your partnership a success for them as much as for you. I prefer to visit in person if I can, or ask people I know to approach their favorite bookstore on my behalf. I always offer to promote the book through my own channels, drive traffic into their stores through my network or through people I know, offer to do promotions or events, and ask how I can make their job easier. Deliver books on time, and take returns. Include a link to their store on your book’s website. If they are working with you on consignment, they are helping you gain access to customers you otherwise might not get—don’t try to nickel-and-dime them into better terms for you that are nonstandard. Most importantly, you have to assure the indie bookstore that you are low risk, easy to work with, and will bring them upside. If you have a good book and you know your market, that really shouldn’t be hard to do. Most of all, enjoy the process—working with indies brings the human element back into the mix. It is much more energizing than responding to online orders from readers you never see.

Peter J. Malia

PM: Our biggest success involved an award-winning illustrated history of American carousel art that we wrote and produced in partnership with a carousel museum. Given exclusive access to the collection, we provided copies of the coffee-table-quality book to the museum and its members at a deep discount; built a sustained and coordinated web and media campaign that attracted national attention (including a great review from Publishers Weekly); and leveraged the museum’s unique collection to sell out the press run. Doing so came as no surprise. A main mission of ours is to work with museums and nonprofits that are unable to afford the time or funds on their own to promote their collections through publications and publicity that we fully develop and underwrite in partnership with these institutions. The result is more than just a museum-quality publication highlighting a facet of a museum’s collection; it is the beginning of an ongoing relationship to promote history, art, and fundraising opportunities that would normally be out of reach for most museums. This may be a long-winded way of saying you need a business plan that you believe in, and you need to stick with it. Not every title or relationship will be a winner, but it is your responsibility to bring something worthwhile to the table.

RT: I have had minimum success. Store turnover of new titles is just so fast, and most independent bookstores need to roll inventory at least every 45 days, if not sooner. They also deal in used books and trade-ins, so I’m competing with older titles that the store buys, and then tries to resell, or takes on trade for more books to the trader, which means that my titles move further and further back unless they are garnering high sales for the store. Fortunately for me, my titles are hot sellers—thus the request for returnable titles so stores can purchase though their own buyers, but there are still returns it happens.

TD: I just had a magnificent experience at the Mystic Merchant in Solvang, California! We had fun and sold 25 books in a few hours, all with a small table display and a lot of enthusiasm.

LS: Our relationship with Powell’s has been instrumental in growing our regional and national roots. The store’s support of our earliest titles helped us establish enough of a track record to earn distribution with Legato Publishers Group, which significantly increased our reach and visibility. We have had many successful book launches at the downtown Powell’s, reaching audiences of 100-300 each time. Our latest release, City of Weird: 30 Otherworldly Portland Tales, has been a Powell’s bestseller since it launched Oct. 11, thanks in part to the bookstore choosing it as a Pick of the Month and a Pick of the Season. Since we urge readers to buy our books at independent bookstores, Powell’s is an obvious one to promote and link to, because the staff does so much for our titles, and they do take online orders.

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