Many independent booksellers have begun to have a change of heart about self-published books. Until recently, most indies didn’t carry them, viewing these titles as less well designed and well edited than their traditionally published counterparts. In part that’s because the quality of self-published books has improved. In addition, booksellers have found that offering self-published titles from local authors is a good way to distinguish their stores from online discounters and big-box competitors. And soon, if Kobo has a say, indies will begin extending that local approach to e-books, both in-store and online.
In many respects, booksellers’ wider embrace of indie authors reflects changes in the industry overall, as the number of self-published books skyrockets and sales continue to climb. In a panel on self-publishing at the New England Independent Booksellers Association conference earlier this fall, Tom Holbrook, president of RiverRun Bookstore in Nashua, N.H., and Kittery, Maine, said, “Self-publishing is going to be a substantial part of the business going forward. What happens when [authors] don’t want us to sell their books?” He and an increasing number of his indie colleagues are working to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Heather Lyon, who founded Lyon Books in Chico, Calif., a decade ago and recently moved her new and used bookstore to a larger, 3,200 sq. ft. location, has long been an advocate for self-published authors. “I believe that our close relationship with local writers, the majority of whom are self-published, is what has made it possible for us to compete with Barnes & Noble and Amazon,” she said. To show the difference self-publishing makes to her bottom line, Lyon points to two 2013 store bestsellers: Roger and Helen Ekins’s trail guide, The Flumes and Trails of Paradise, and pastor Jim Coons’s A Line in the Sand, about his fight with cancer. Sales for each are more than double those of Wild by Cheryl Strayed, the “nonlocal” bestseller.
Lyon stocks any independently published book whose author lives within a 60-mile radius of the store—about 250 authors, so far. She also holds monthly meetings at the store for the Chico Authors and Publishers Society, which she helped found, to give authors and publishers information on using CreateSpace and working with agents. Each December she holds a trio of Holiday Author Open Houses, which draw close to 100 writers in total. Based on the payments she sends out to self-published authors every two months—in a typical period, she sends 70 checks totaling $3,000 to $4,000—her inclusive strategy is working. She also considers it “a real demonstration that shopping locally keeps money in the community.”
Many bookstores buy books on consignment from authors, typically at a 40% discount, plus a fee for inputting sales information into their inventory system. At RiverRun, Holbrook has moved to a 70/30 split with authors, to keep pace with the model offered by most online booksellers that sell self-published works. “We moved to 70/30, because I know independent bookstores are where self-published authors make the least amount of money,” said Holbrook. His stores do particularly well with extremely local books, and with authors who do a lot of promotion. For those interested in publishing their own works, RiverRun also offers self-publishing services through its Piscataqua Press imprint. Through the end of the year, RiverRun is holding a fiction-writing contest to attract indie authors; the winning novelist will receive a $1,500 publishing contract with Piscataqua.
“We think that being part of the self-publishing world is a win-win for everyone—local authors have always been so supportive of the store,” said Casey Coonerty Protti, owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz, Calif. She created a plan for offering titles from indie authors based on that of Boulder Book Store in Boulder, Colo. For each author who participates, the store initially carries five copies of his or her book on consignment. “We’ve sold hundreds and hundreds of consignment packages,” she said. In July 2012, the store began testing an Espresso Book Machine and launched a publishing services program for indie authors. Protti decided not to keep the book machine and partnered with a local printer instead, which set up a portal for the store. Over the past six months, Protti said that publishing has become a profit center for the store. “People wanted someone local who would sit down with them,” she said. Bookshop Santa Cruz even offers holiday gift packages, so friends and family can give writers the gift of publishing.
In 2006, Susan Novotny, owner of the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza in Albany, N.Y., became one of the first booksellers to start her own publishing program. Initially she partnered with Eric Wilska, owner of the Bookloft in Great Barrington, Mass., to create a separate publishing business called Troy Bookmakers, in Troy, N.Y. It opened next door to Novotny’s other bookstore, Market Block Books, and has moved twice to accommodate growth. “We use the bookstores to market our book-on-demand services, tackling authors before they wander to one of the many online POD alternatives,” explained Novotny, who has worked with over 500 authors to date. Participating authors can hold signings in her stores, which typically sell at least 40 copies each.
Now Novotny is looking to grow her self-publishing venture beyond upstate New York. This summer, more than 60 people attended a workshop she held on self-publishing at Boulder Book Store. “In 2014,” she said, “we will be expanding this program to any independent bookseller who will have us. Self-publishing is here to stay, and this is a great way to encourage your writer customers to investigate the POD market with realistic expectations.” She offers an incentive payment to bookstores for every contract that they originate. She’s also looking to overhaul her Staff Picks Press publishing program, which she began three years ago. Her latest publication under the imprint is Jack Casey’s historical novel Kateri: Lily of the Mohawks.
This fall, Kobo began a push to cross-promote indie authors on its self-publishing platform, Kobo Writing Life, with indie booksellers. The first bookstore conference and party took place in early November at Jan’s Paperbacks in the Portland suburb of Aloha, Ore. The store has long made a point of promoting self-published authors with specially designated bookshelves and a display table.
Indie author Maggie Lynch (aka Maggie Jamieson) led Jan’s three-hour conference for authors and booksellers. That evening, Kobo sponsored a party at Jan’s with 18 local authors; the day of the conference and party was the store’s highest-grossing since Debbie Burke bought Jan’s 17 years ago. “We took in more money during [those] three hours than we do in an [ordinary] eight-hour day. This surprised me, as we were giving away so many books,” Burke said, referring to cards with promo codes for free copies of e-books that Kobo created for authors to hand out.
Lynch sees more booksellers supporting local authors, at least in her area. But there is still a ways to go. “[Booksellers] tend to take on self-published books from authors they know and based on recommendations by other booksellers or reader requests. Most don’t have the time or inclination to search out indie authors and read their books. They are already overwhelmed with the number of books available to them,” Lynch said. Still, more and more booksellers are finding ways to make their stores welcoming places for self-published authors.