My work in the world of stories began nearly 20 years ago, when I took a job as an indie bookseller. My time as a bookseller gave me access to hundreds of authors, from local chefs and college professors to bestselling novelists and political figures.
Listening to writers describe their processes, their craft, their inspirations, and their frustrations was my favorite part of the job. Learning books’ backstories helped me enable readers to discover their own personal connections to them. But it wasn’t until I sold my shop and added author to my résumé that I came to understand how the publishing business has intentionally separated booksellers from authors. And in my view, it’s time to start courting again. Writers of all kinds—from the self-published to the overlooked midlisters to the indie bookseller icons—must find practical ways to partner with bookstores effectively and directly. And booksellers must do their part, too.
Booksellers and authors have shared interests and goals. Each can be nimble and look to nurture authentic connections. Both are threatened by corporate interests. There is no question that a stronger relationship between authors and indie bookstores will sell more books.
Robert Martin, executive director of the Independent Booksellers Consortium and founder of the Independent Bookseller (a website that compiles information and resources for indie booksellers), estimates that more than 50% of all books sold anywhere have benefitted from indie booksellers’ promotional efforts. That influence was seen at the in-person regional trade shows held this fall in Portland, Ore., and Denver. With the largest publishers notably absent, authors, small presses, and booksellers swarmed the show floors with a renewed spirit of discovery for books, and for each other. Kalen Landow, sales director at Microcosm Publishing, noticed that her press received an increased share of attention from booksellers compared to years past.
The success of Danny Caine’s How to Resist Amazon and Why serves as a model for strong author-bookseller connections. Caine, owner of Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kans., and Microcosm publisher Joe Biel offered a pragmatic virtual session in March for Midwest Independent Booksellers Association members that coached them on strategies for educating consumers about the benefits of shopping locally. The concrete approach was also supported with a display contest rich with prizes, including a free case of Caine’s book and a virtual event with the author.
Caine and Biel’s approach should ease booksellers’ concerns about working with self-published authors and small presses. Cristina Rodriguez, a former bookseller and the current head of marketing and sales at A Public Space, suggests that if authors find ways to help booksellers promote their titles, booksellers are likely to be more open to selling them. In my experience, authors who prepare and present their books with professionalism tend to be well received by booksellers.
This means all authors must have a working understanding of the supply chain, feel comfortable discussing marketing incentives, confirm the ease of ordering, and link appropriately to bricks-and-mortar stores online.
Whether they’re household names or not, all writers live somewhere, and offering signed copies through nearby indie bookstores is one way authors can show their commitment to promoting books. Bestselling writers such as Austin Kleon and Emma Kress notably offer signed copies through BookPeople in Austin, Tex., and Northshire in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., respectively.
Booksellers must also get serious in their relationships with authors who are not from big houses. Since it is easy to ignore books without sales representation and big budgets, store buyers must be more strategic with their choices, intentionally dedicating time to searching for local talent, cultivating writer relationships with new authors, and highlighting small press galleys to their staff. They must also buy books from self-published authors, partnership publishers, and independent presses.
It’s the direct relationship with authors that turned Nantucket Bookworks and Mitchell’s Book Corner into major success stories instead of Covid casualties, says owner Wendy Hudson. By leveraging strong partnerships with Nathaniel Philbrick, Steve Axelrod, and especially Elin Hilderbrand, Hudson had significant sales increases both via the physical stores and online.
All of what I am suggesting will take some time and effort, but one thing is clear: as the largest publishers get larger, personal relationships between authors and booksellers will matter more. And isn’t that a commitment that benefits us all?
Nicole Magistro is the author of Read Island, a consultant with the Bookstore Training Group of Paz & Associates, and the former owner of the Bookworm of Edwards bookstore near Vail, Colo.