Getting Your Self-Published Book on the Shelf (i.e. Bookstore Dating 101)

As a bookseller and buyer for three years, I helped select self-published titles for Spellbinder Books, a small independent bookstore. I have to admit that the self-entitled demeanor of some self-published authors began to vex me. Don’t get me wrong—as a published author myself, I applaud the accomplishment. I understand the labor that goes into writing and publishing a book: the hours, research, and motivation required are no small feat. It’s not that I didn’t respect their product—but the way independent authors pushed their work often left something to be desired. The presumptuous approach of some self-published authors was the equivalent of a dude at a bar saying to me, “Hey, I’m a guy and you’re a girl and we’re both at a bar, so naturally, we should go out.” Unfortunately, no bookstore can carry every published title, whether self-published or from a major publisher’s list. Many factors influence the decision-making process—of principal importance is whether the book is likely to sell in the store in question. Booksellers consider the subject, production quality, retail price, reading tastes of customers, as well as the quality of the writing and editing. At Spellbinder, we reviewed thousands of books each year and declined many of them, including those by well-known and award-winning writers. Local interest books tended to sell quite well at Spellbinder, but self-published erotica, un-reviewed books on foreign affairs, and titles with low-quality cover art often gathered dust on the shelves.

In book sales, as in dating, you have to finesse the situation and stack the odds in your favor if you want to make a good match. For those thinking about self-publishing, or who have a self-published title and want to get it on bookstore shelves, here are some tips for Bookstore Dating 101:

Tip 1: Do your research

With social media and Google at our fingertips, it’s safe to assume that no date is blind anymore. To prep for a date, most people engage in some light stalking via Facebook, Google, or online dating networks. That way, the hotness-factor can be assessed and common interests discovered.

The same tactic can be applied to bookstore dating. Before pitching your book, do your research. Read up about the store’s self-published book policy and philosophy. If possible, visit the brick-and-mortar store and take note of the most well-stocked and popular genres. Is there a large local interest section? Would your book resonate with the community? Play up anything that could help your book move: if you have twenty friends and family members who you could count on to come to an organized book event, those are twenty potential customers for the store—music to a bookseller’s ears.

Prepare your pitch with a well-researched, enticing angle for why this particular bookstore should carry your book and invest in you as an author, and you just might score.

Tip 2: Make a good impression

While it doesn’t hurt to show off your debonair side, you don’t need the timeless good looks or charisma of George Clooney to pitch your book (couldn’t hurt though, right ladies?). Just be polite, honest, and smile. Be energetic, but not overzealous.

Just as you don’t want to look like a slob on your first date, the same goes for meeting with a bookstore manager. You don’t have to wear a business suit, but you are trying to make a business deal here, so take a shower and put on a clean shirt.

Be courteous and understand that the store manager (or whoever has decision-making power) may not have time to talk if you swing by unannounced, so try to schedule a brief meeting by calling or emailing the store in advance. When you do come by, bring a copy of your book and a spec sheet with your contact information, a synopsis of your book, and pricing details. If you don’t hear from them immediately, don’t take it personally. Just be politely persistent and follow up in a couple of weeks. Ask an employee the best way to check back in. While some booksellers keep track of their email inbox, others are old-fashioned and prefer a phone call or an in-person check-in.

When you do get the chance to meet with an employee, share your well-researched pitch. Are you a successful blogger with an impressive number of followers? Are you already a well-established author with a loyal reader base? What makes you and your book stand out? Win them over with your organized and well-planned delivery.

Tip 3: Be prepared for rejection, be willing to compromise, and carry on!

If you’re an author, you probably understand that rejection is part of playing the game. While this doesn’t make getting rejected any easier, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Of the millions of people out there who want to write a book, you are one of the few who actually wrote one! And not only that, published one! Booksellers are book lovers too, and most will be flattered that you brought your book to them.

Be open to compromise. You may not find a bookstore willing to buy twenty copies of your book upfront, but they might buy one, or sell some on consignment. Since the retail price of a self-published book is usually higher than the average industry title, it not only makes the upfront cost for the bookstore more prohibitive, but also makes it more difficult to sell. This is why at Spellbinder, we often sold self-published books on consignment. This was a better deal for self-published authors, as they made 70 percent off the selling price when the book sold on consignment, in contrast to 60 percent if the bookstore bought the book upfront.

Whatever happens, don’t get discouraged if you strike out initially. To use a dating idiom: there are plenty more fish in the sea.

Tip 4: Play the long-game, and play the field

So, you looked into the bookstore employee’s eyes, gave your pitch, and you both felt butterflies, saw fireworks, and experienced other fun clichés. A match! But no, this is not the part where you get to kick back and relax, waiting to be fanned and fed grapes. This is where you start your long-game. If you want this relationship to last, you’ll need to keep checking back in (without being clingy of course!). Remember, this relationship is a two-way street. Stop by occasionally to assess your book’s stock and offer to bring in more copies if it looks low. Bring friends in to the store to shop around and support the business. If you know other authors, refer them to the store. Continue to promote your book or author events by bringing in good reviews of your book and flyers for community events. If you establish a good relationship with the store and continue to invest in the relationship, the store will be more eager to carry your next book!

But don’t stop there—play the field. (This is where the dating analogy falters a bit). Rather than stay monogamous, continue to forge new relationships with other bookstores. You know what success feels like now, so stay confident, get your schmooze on, and go get 'em, tiger!