How Authors Can Build Relationships with Independent Bookstores

The interior of a bookstore with large plate glass windows facing onto a city street.
Photo by Ksenia Chernaya

This article first appeared in my paid newsletter, The Hot Sheet. It touches on issues of literary citizenship, which is the focus of my upcoming class on March 1.

If you want your book to be carried by independent bookstores, the most important thing to remember is that every store is different; you need to carefully research each store before you make an approach.

That was the key takeaway from an Authors Guild panel hosted in fall 2022 on how to build a relationship with bookstores. The panel included two Georgia-based booksellers and one children’s author who has done incredibly well with bookstore events and promotion. (Note: Advice offered here also applies to your local Barnes & Noble store, where the staff makes buying and stocking decisions.)

Authors who want to focus on bookstore sales should begin by building a relationship with their local or regional bookseller far in advance. Author Mayra Cuevas started her relationship-building six years before she even had a book contract. She attended store events and book launches and participated in book clubs. She also formed a group of local kid lit authors who would gather multiple times per year and hold meetings in area bookstores. “That really helped me solidify a lot of relationships with booksellers early on,” she said. “By the time [my first book] came out … we already knew each other for years.”

Justin Colussy-Estes, store manager for Little Shop of Stories (one of the largest independent children’s bookstores in the country), agreed with the wisdom of this strategy. “Establishing an author community and connecting to that was very powerful,” he said. “There is an ecosystem of authors and bookstores. So being a part of that I think is important.”

Kim McNamara, owner of Read It Again, a new and used family bookstore, said that if authors spend money in their local store, then they will be more likely to sell your book. That said, it’s important to understand the store, its customer base, and what types of books the store carries. Despite the fact his store focuses on children’s literature, Colussy-Estes is often approached by authors of adult work, but it’s unusual for his store to stock adult books, even from local authors.

What if you don’t have years to develop a relationship—what if your book is coming out very soon? Colussy-Estes said you can support your local store by entering into a pre-order campaign partnership. This means approaching a local store, telling them when your book is releasing, and asking if you can direct people to their store exclusively for pre-orders in your publicity materials. “The store doesn’t have to do anything except order the amount people want,” he said. You can also offer the people who pre-order from your preferred store an incentive: You can go in and sign the books before they ship or before customers pick up their copies. And you can give the store a bit of swag to include with the book. Just make sure the store knows your ideas or plans for any extras so they can plan accordingly or suggest what would work best.

Getting your book into stores located far from where you live may not work out unless you can make a strong case. McNamara advocated for sticking with your own state or local community. “You get well known in your area with your people, and your name will grow organically. This is a very organic process.” But if you decide to try anyway, Colussy-Estes said you must be intentional about who you approach and your reason for approaching them. For example, perhaps you used to live in that area, you have family in that area, or you’re pitching a niche book to a store that specializes in that niche. Or maybe your book is set in that region or you have evidence your book sells really well in a specific geographic area. Tell the store directly why the book will be in demand by or of interest to its local customers.

A good way to meet a lot of booksellers in your area is to attend a regional bookseller conference. (Here is a list of regional bookselling associations.) Such conferences tend to offer “author speed dating,” where booksellers sit at a table and authors move from table to table, pitching their book. Colussy-Estes said it’s also helpful to leave advance review copies or free copies in the “galley room” at such events. The bookstores don’t sell such copies, but they do use them as customer appreciation gifts and put them in the hands of readers after they’ve had a chance to review and share with bookstore staff.

The best way to approach a bookstore about carrying your book? Unfortunately, there is no one approach that works for all. It depends on the store, so it’s absolutely critical for authors to do their research on the store and figure out their preferences and processes. McNamara prefers authors mail in a copy of their book rather than walk into the store. She doesn’t want an email pitch because she doesn’t always pay attention to emails or respond to emails. “It’s like telemarketers calling. It’s the same thing,” she said.

On the other end of the spectrum, Colussy-Estes doesn’t want copies of books sent in to him; he would prefer to be emailed. But he was frank: It’s rare that he stocks books based on authors reaching out. Only if he sees demand for the book will he stock it. “Unfortunately, that does put it on the author to sell the book,” he admitted. “Shelf space is at a premium. Everything has to pay for the shelf space,” he said. One of the reasons he decided to stock one of Cuevas’s books is that she told him directly that it was clean YA and works for younger YA readers. There isn’t a lot for younger YA readers on the market, so the book fills a niche for his store. That’s valuable information a bookseller wants to know and can use to sell the book.

If you want to have a bookstore event, realize that very few copies will sell, even when everyone puts in their best effort. “It’s hard to get people to come out for events,” Cuevas said. “Do not expect to sell unless you are a huge author with a huge following.” Even authors who can get a big turnout are likely to sell only a modest number of copies. Colussy-Estes said they had a huge turnout for an up-and-coming Australian YA author who is prominent on BookTok but doesn’t typically come to the US. She had a very long line for signing, yet the number sold was only 30 copies. “That’s because a lot of people brought copies from the outside,” he said.

McNamara said she’s open to events as long as she thinks the book can sell. But she rarely orders more than 10 copies unless the author is a well-known entity and has a huge following. She emphasized that the burden is on the author to sell their own book. “Press your family into going, press your friends. If it’s a good turnout, we sell your book. There’s no magic if the bookstore promotes it. It does not guarantee attendance. We really need the authors to do their own legwork. Get out there and tell people you’re doing an event. If there’s a local newspaper, put an ad in it. Share to all your Facebook groups.”

Cuevas said the author has to offer very clear communication with stores about who is doing what and how many people you expect to attend (and how you arrived at that number) so the store can prepare accordingly. To promote her bookstore events, Cuevas creates posters and takes them to local businesses that are kid-lit friendly and that get a lot of foot traffic—places where people who read books normally hang out, like coffee shops. “Hopefully you have a community of writers and authors in your area who want to support your book, and they’ll come out for your event,” she said.

The booksellers also offered these tips for self-publishing authors:

  • Having your book available through Ingram with a 42 percent discount is essential. (When using IngramSpark, this means setting a 55 percent discount, since Ingram takes a cut of the action.)
  • Most stores require books to be returnable, although some stores might be willing to work on consignment or sell copies to the author after a store event. Note that while Amazon KDP offers an option for expanded distribution that makes print books available via Ingram, its discount is half of what bookstores typically require, and the books aren’t returnable.
  • For store placement, Colussy-Estes said it’s important for indie authors to know what the market looks like for their genre and category. “If you’re thinking of a book for the four- to eight-year-old market, know what those books look like,” he said—indicating that many self-published books look nothing like other published work sitting on the shelf.
  • Don’t forget to include links to Bookshop or your local bookstore on your author website.
  • Never, ever pitch your book to a store by calling it an Amazon bestseller or sending them an Amazon link.

One of the themes of this panel—aside from every store works differently—is that authors should be professional and friendly in their interactions, not pushy. Cuevas said that when she travels for work or pleasure, she often stops in the local bookstores just to say hi and tell them who she is. She’ll also share postcards with her book covers and trade reviews. If the store carries her books, she’ll offer to sign stock. “It’s just a friendly hi,” she said. “I’m not berating them because they don’t have my book on the shelf. It’s an opportunity to connect on a personal level.” She said this approach also works well with libraries.

Here’s the tough love: Bookstore placement is probably not your book’s avenue to success. Both booksellers indicated throughout the panel that merely having your book on the store shelf doesn’t take the place of author marketing and promotion. McNamara said, “You have to put in the work. As booksellers, we realize you have to put in the work. There’s nobody else who’s going to promote you. It’s all on you. And it’s difficult. It’s hard.”

Also, Colussy-Estes said, “If your dream is to have your book on a bookshelf in a bookstore, you’re failing your book because you don’t want your book on a shelf. You want your book in a reader’s hand. Think about where that reader is and what’s the best way for them to find your book or be led to your book.” He admits that if a big chain takes your book, then yes—you will sell a lot of books. But more often than not, it’s the legwork done by the author to find their readers and handsell that helps a book gain momentum. He pointed to examples of Kwame Alexander handselling one of his books at farmers markets when bookstores wouldn’t take it and Christopher Paolini’s parents selling his self-published books out of the trunk of their car.

If you’re interested in building relationships in the literary community, take a look at my upcoming class on March 1.

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