For a year now, while preparing my debut novel for publication, I’ve worked part-time at Bookmark It in Orlando, Fla. I’ve sold books at our intimate Friday-night Wine & Signs event and our bustling Locally Grown Words fair, and I’ve gleaned some crucial knowledge while wearing these two hats. Some of what I share here will be familiar to authors; other observations may come as revelatory. Above all, I’d like for both booksellers and authors to learn how to better connect with readers, and through that connection, to increase sales. Our livelihoods depend on it.
1. Selling books is difficult—especially literary titles. Selling short story collections is tough, but not as tough as poetry. For any book, the more a staff member can speak to the work in a heartfelt way, the better the chance that the customer will buy it.
2. People gravitate toward the tables, but books that are displayed face out sell almost as well.
3. Cover designs matter perhaps more than titles, and titles posed as questions are a natural draw. We have titles displayed that feature well-done graphic covers in dark color schemes. Even when these are placed face out, I rarely see customers pick them up. Bright, sharp photographs as covers seem to attract more attention.
4. If a bookstore—or any store—is carrying your book, tweet and share it. Whether you’ve gotten your book into Barnes & Noble or a small indie such as Bookmark It, that’s only the first step. The next is making everyone you know aware of where they can get it. (And refer to #1.)
5. In planning events as an author, do your best to get one or two staff members to read your book beforehand so they can speak as third-party voices during your event. Encourage them to select the book as a staff pick or review it on their blogs. Thank them profusely later.
6. Be aware of other events going on seasonally and regionally before you line up an event at your bookstore. You don’t want to book an author appearance in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, for instance. Attendance at our events dropped in March, when local schools went on spring break.
7. Bookstores work hard to promote their events, so, as an author, be considerate and give a store a 30-day exclusive after appearing there before booking an appearance at another store in the area. Furthermore, too many events will likely dilute your draw. Everyone will appreciate this, including you.
8. Authors should bring extra copies of their books to events whenever possible. Maybe the bookstore owner thought she had more copies in back stock than she did, or the distributor can’t get more in time; the books will take too long to ship. Best-case scenario: your event is packed and the store runs out, but you don’t.
9. Be a good customer when you attend events. It’s rude to talk to an author or bookseller for a significant amount of time, express interest and enthusiasm, and then not buy the book. Bookselling and being “on” all night may appear to be fun—and it is for the most part—but it requires energy. Be aware of how the “chat up and walk away” rubs the person on the other end.
10. Sometimes you and the store can promote your hearts out, and an event simply doesn’t make it. Maybe it’s the time of year: the snowbirds have left town, or there was just a book festival at the local university. Maybe a hellacious thunderstorm strikes. Sell some copies to the staff, then go out for dinner or drinks. You still worked hard, you deserve it.
11. I took a workshop once with Margaret Atwood in which she told us, “There are many, many, many different kinds of readers.” All too true. People buy, and don’t buy, for a whole bunch of reasons you’ll never figure out. Maybe a potential customer’s bank account is overdrawn that day. Or maybe he or she is committed to supporting the local library. The mystery remains.
And yet, most of the time, if you stay relaxed, ask what someone likes to read, and articulate a few salient observations about a book, you stand a darn good chance of selling it—whether you’re pitching someone else’s book or your own. It’s one of the greatest pleasures I’ve come to know, as a person who has been devoted to literature since before I could see over the counter at Waldenbooks. The heart of the bookseller matches the heart of the writer, for both make the magic of human connection their mission, continuing the unbroken chain of conversation across the centuries.
Vanessa Blakeslee is the author of Juventud (Curbside Splendor, Oct.), her debut novel, and a staff member at Bookmark It, Orlando, Fla.