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Pitching Books to Indie Stores and Libraries

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Most publishers want to sell through bookstores and libraries, but often when we’re promoting our titles to them, we focus on the marketing techniques that are most economical or most convenient for us as publishers, rather than on what these customers prefer. Sometimes we also assume that what works with the neighborhood bookseller and librarian, who know us or our topics, will work when we’re pitching our books to large stores and library systems.

To ensure that we know what these prospective customers want, I contacted several large independent booksellers and some of the country’s largest libraries. (For information on submitting your titles to chain stores and large online retailers, see “Beyond Bowker” from the April 2010 issue in the Independent archives at ibpa-online.org.)

Here’s what these important prospects said about contacting them, about what they are likely to buy, and about setting up author appearances.

Be respectful. You can’t walk through the doors and expect to see a buyer or collections development specialist just because you’re in town for a few days on a family vacation. Similarly, you can’t expect everyone to want your book just because you’ve spent 10 years or $10,000 on it and gotten a dozen people to post favorable reviews online. “The demanding tone of the calls we receive can be irksome,” one bookselling executive points out.

Be realistic about the appeal of a given title. Bookstores have miles of shelves, but thousands of publishers are competing to get books on those shelves, and most of the winners are going to be titles from the major New York houses. Similarly, libraries have both limited space and limited budgets; even if you’re a local publisher or author with a novel set in your city, there’s no guarantee the local library will buy even one copy.

Be realistic about author appeal. Bookstores and libraries can’t host every author who wants to speak. In some cases, their spaces are too small to host any authors. The stores that do host events want authors who will do two things: draw crowds, and draw crowds who will buy books in the host store (as opposed to crowds who will come to an author event and then order the author’s book from Amazon.com or borrow it from the library).

Plan ahead. Some bookstores and libraries issue monthly newsletters to publicize events. Although these publications may be prepared just a few days before they’re distributed, speakers are often booked as much as nine months in advance, and big-name authors being sent on tour by major publishers get priority.

Understand terms. Both bookstores and libraries expect discounts. Both may want to buy returnable. And both prefer to buy through distributors and wholesalers.

What’s Best for Booksellers

Neil Strandberg, who is operations manager for Denver’s famous Tattered Cover bookstore and has been with the indie since 1989, was tactful when we talked; but he emphasized, “Most books aren’t going to make it onto our shelves.” Nor are most authors from small presses going to make it into the store’s events schedule.

Today Tattered Cover has six new-book buyers, and they’re busy; sales reps, including publishers themselves, who want to schedule appointments with the buyers may have to wait as much as two months.

They do not consider books that lack ISBNs. They do take account of the cover design, the quality of the copyediting and binding, and the sales terms; all are make-or-break factors in determining whether the store will purchase a particular book.

Because of their workload, buyers often prefer that publishers introduce their new books via email and then follow up by phone. Sending a one- or two-page flyer is ideal because buyers don’t always have access to computers, says Strandberg, “but we lug paper everywhere we go.”

For Tattered Cover, that flyer should include basic bibliographic information, sales terms, an image of at least the cover, reviews, the promotional schedule, and information about any local tie-ins.

Colorado authors do have an edge at the Denver store, compared to authors from small publishing companies elsewhere, Strandberg says, but they—and their publishers—are expected to leverage local contacts to generate interest in the book. For example, the author needs to have a local mailing list.

Although Tattered Cover will order titles directly from publishers, ordering through a wholesaler is far more economical for the store in terms of order placement time and shipping and handling costs.

At Prairie Lights, the Iowa City store that bills itself as Iowa’s “premier” independent, manager Terry Cain seconds the preference for printed material. “It’s easier and less time-consuming to read through printed catalogs than the online variety,” he says, adding another important reason: “We have a limited number of computers that access the Internet and they’re all on the sales floor, so anyone trying to peruse an online catalog is going to be constantly interrupted by customers.”

But if you have an author who’ll be receiving media coverage in Iowa or across the country, email is an acceptable way to alert the store’s buyers.

When You Want an Event

Booksellers have some additional advice for publishers and authors who are trying to schedule events.

Contact the events coordinators, not the buyers or the store marketing managers. (And certainly do not use the “webmaster” contacts that you so often see on store Web sites. Many of them work for external Web maintenance companies and are not store employees.)

Remember that store events almost exclusively feature new books.

Outline the presentation you’re proposing. At Tattered Cover, authors usually talk about their books or the writing process for 30 minutes and then take questions.

Be courteous, and recognize that the store may have many more potential author guests than it has time for. In its three stores, Tattered Cover hosts about 500 events each year, Strandberg points out, and few of the authors (or publishers) are from outside Colorado.

Store Web sites often offer information about proposing an author event. Check these to see if the event coordinators prefer to be phoned (Prairie Lights), emailed (Tattered Cover), or written. Make contact at least two or three months in advance of your desired appearance date, and mention the new book and the author’s experience as a speaker.

“Authors really have to work at a presentation,” Strandberg emphasized. “They have to create excitement about the book so that people will buy it. We don’t want them to tell the entire story.”

Attendance at book events, even in popular stores, varies dramatically, depending on weather, time of day, competing events, media coverage, other publicity, the author, and the author’s topic. At Tattered Cover, attendance can range from 10 to 100, but is usually two or three dozen.

How attendance at an event translates into book sales is a huge question. Strandberg estimates that the display that goes up prior to an author’s arrival and the signed books and shelf talker that are displayed afterward, in combination with the books sold at the event, may, in effect, generate sales to 25 percent of those attending. In other words, if two dozen people show up to hear an author, the store may sell six extra books, some before the event, some right after, and some after that.

Filling Librarians’ Needs

When you approach libraries about buying your book and/or hosting an event centered on it, keep the points that follow firmly in your mind.

Some libraries like getting information via email; some want it in print. Although for years many library systems such as King County (which serves suburbs of Seattle) insisted on material via postal mail, collection development managers such as the Boston Public Library’s Laura Irmscher say that email is much easier to forward to appropriate staff members for review.

At the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, which bought 412,000 books in 2009, Sally Kramer still prefers printed material. “We’re deluged with email,” she explains, adding that she likes simple flyers with basic bibliographic and wholesaler/distributor information.

The Los Angeles County library will take either kind of mail, but it’s important that all material go to the collection development staff, headed by Shelley Ekeroth.

Many libraries (like many booksellers) rely on wholesalers for information.“Baker & Taylor, Ingram, and similar firms have comprehensive Web sites that allow their inventory to be searched by review source, Dewey classification, Library of Congress subject, and release date,” Kramer reminds us. “Between these Web sites and professional review journals, we get all the information we need,” she says.

Unless, that is, a publisher is very specialized. In those cases, Kramer and her staff appreciate printed catalogs.

Some libraries buy almost exclusively through certain distributors and wholesalers, at a discount.“I like hearing about e-books,” Irmscher says, “but right now we purchase only those that are available through our distributor, OverDrive.” The same distributor is a source for e-books in Cincinnati, where collection development manager Kramer buys them on a returnable basis in case a book doesn’t deliver what the publisher said it would.

Many libraries are like Los Angeles County’s, which buys most traditional books through a contract with Baker & Taylor. “We can do direct orders for any titles not offered by Baker & Taylor,” Margaret Donnellan Todd adds.

Print-on-demand titles are not popular with librarians (and, for that matter, are unlikely to be included in indie booksellers’ databases).

“If we find a print-on-demand title from one of our suppliers, we purchase it only if we have enough relevant information about the book,” says Boston’s Irmscher, who notes that the information should include a detailed description of the book or a sample chapter, reviews, a description of the intended audience, and marketing/promotional details.

Kramer’s comments are similar: “We’re unlikely to buy POD unless it’s a unique subject or the author has some local connection. A print-on-demand novel from an author who is not local is not going to have any demand in the community.”

Los Angeles County’s Todd agrees: “We rarely order POD; there has to be a pressing need.”

Classics are the only exception to this policy at Sno-Isle Libraries, which serves two large counties north of Seattle, says Mary Kelly, community relations and marketing director. Otherwise, she notes, “We buy very little print-on-demand material because we don’t have access to content. We apply a series of selection criteria to each title we consider for purchase.” If the librarians can’t see whether a title meets one or more of the criteria, they won’t add it.

Librarians sometimes attend BEA. For many small publishers, sending staff to BookExpo America is a budget-buster. BEA does provide one venue for meeting some library acquisition staff, however, Sally Kramer points out.

Reviews and publicity are important. Most publishers know that a starred review in Library Journal, School Library Journal, or Publishers Weekly will almost guarantee sales to libraries. Collection development staff often review emailed newsletters like Shelf Awareness too, and a mention there can also prompt a purchase.

In addition to Booklist, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Kirkus, and The New York Times, Sno-Isle collection development manager Nancy Messenger and her staff scan such local dailies as the Seattle Times and Everett Herald. “There are other sources we’ll accept (Bookpage, for example), but we don’t actively seek them out,” she adds.

Shelley Ekeroth, collection development coordinator for the County of Los Angeles Public Library, notes, “We use Booklist, Horn Book, and Kirkus Reviews and publications such as Locus, Mystery Scene, and RT Book Reviews devoted to specific fiction genres. We do keep our eyes on reviews in the popular press, too: for example, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, Time, and People.”

Ekeroth cautions that she and her staff “are wary” of paid reviews and reader reviews. Similarly, Kelly of Sno-Isle says: “We are most interested in seeing an objective, professional review, especially for materials from small publishers and/or local authors.”

Linda Carlson (twitter.com/carlsonideas) writes from Seattle, where she has done more than 100 bookstore and library presentations since her first book was published in 1982. 

Nuts and Bolts of Library Events

Author appearances and other book-related events at libraries can be important in getting local publicity for a title through the library’s newsletter, its Web site, and local media.

“Back of the room” sales at library events can defray the expenses of appearing if a publisher can sell direct at full price. Most libraries specify that no library staff can help with book sales in any way. And many libraries require that book sales be handled by a bookseller or that the library receive a percentage of the proceeds. In Boston, for example, most sales are conducted by a Barnes & Noble store there, and sales by a publisher must involve a cash donation to the library.

Some libraries have programming offices that coordinate events; in other cases, you can work directly with a branch or with the Friends of the Library chapter. Either through their programming departments or through Friends chapters, some libraries can provide honoraria for speakers who make presentations that are longer and more substantive than book promotion talks.

In Boston, the events department receives all proposals at the Central Branch, events@bpl.org. They’re reviewed by a committee before an invitation to speak is extended. If a program is intended for a particular branch, that branch can be contacted directly for scheduling.

In Cincinnati, all proposals for presentations go through the programming office.

In L.A. County, authors and publishers can contact public information officer Pamela Broussard (PBroussand@library.lacounty.gov), who will coordinate with community libraries about appearances.

At Sno-Isle Libraries, near Seattle, the person you contact in the central office should be appropriate for a book’s audience. For adult programs, email the adult/teen services department at least six weeks in advance. For children’s books, the appropriate contact is the children’s services manager. About sales of books, Mary Kelly says, “We like to work with a local bookseller if one is available.” If not (as may well happen, since many Sno-Isle branches are in residential suburbs), she says: “Authors are welcome to sell their own books. We’ll provide a table, but we cannot provide staff support.”

Library Market Basics

There are at least 8,000 good reasons to market to public libraries—because that’s about how many library systems there are in the United States.

The American Library Association reports that some are small, one-building libraries; others have dozens of branches. In total, the ALA estimates there are almost 16,000 library buildings.

The 15 largest libraries (arranged here in descending number of holdings) are:

Boston Public Library

Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County

County of Los Angeles Public Library

Detroit Public Library

Queens Borough (NY) Public Library

Free Library of Philadelphia

Los Angeles Public Library

New York Public Library

Brooklyn Public Library

Dallas Public Library

Cleveland Public Library

Houston Public Library

King County (western Washington) Library System

Hawaii State Public Library System

Mid-Continent Public Library (greater Kansas City, MO)

For basic tips on marketing to libraries, see the ALA’s “Frequently Asked Questions from Authors and Publishers,” ala.org/ala/professionalresources/libfactsheets/authorfaq.cfm.



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