There’s a four-word phrase that chills my blood. I’m sure that some of you have the same problem; an involuntary psycho-bio reflex that occurs upon hearing certain words or phrases. For me that phrase used to be, “We need to talk.” Usually uttered by a soon-to-be ex-spouse, a soon-to-be former employer, or an auto repairman with a gleam in his eye and multiple kids in college, my belief was always that nothing good ever followed those words. But since becoming the book buyer for the Paper Store, a retailer with over 35 outlets in New England, I’ve developed a serious case of the heebies for a new phrase: “I wrote a book.”
I get three or four pitches a week now. Either a phone call, an e-mail, or sometimes even drive-bys, but always the same: “Hi, my name is..., I live in..., and I wrote a book! I’m sure it would do really well in your stores!” In years past, when I worked for large independents, regional chains, a national airport store company, and even two wholesalers, I always responded to that statement with an enthusiastic, “Great! Who’s your publisher?” and quickly put plans together to contact the publisher’s rep and see what we could do to support it. As a book buyer for many years, there’s nothing more satisfying than finding a title and author low on the list and promoting it. Now the response to the question, “Who’s your publisher?” is almost always, “I’m the publisher”—or the name of a local printer. That’s where it gets dicey.
The Paper Store is a local, family-owned chain of stores and is seriously devoted to being connected to and active in the community. We dedicate a large amount of time and effort to local groups and charities in all of the towns we are in. We want to support local authors as a way to make us more unique. When there were fewer self-published authors, this was easy. But the advent of new technology has made promoting local authors problematic, at best. My conversations with self-published authors usually revolve around quality, price point, economics, and distribution. Most don’t understand why we can’t simply open new accounts with them. Some aren’t very nice; one local author savaged us on social media after growing frustrated that we didn’t jump to carry her title. I was working with her to solve some of the problems with it—a slender $25 trade novel with an awkward cover and a 10% discount. We finally reached a deal and the book is in our stores.
I don’t want to sound negative. There are plenty of self-published titles that have done very well at the Paper Store. Miracle Kid by Zachary Gauvin is a great example. It’s an iUniverse product about his life and overcoming some pretty serious adversity. He paid to publish it, had it placed at Ingram, and has been working very hard promoting it in the area. We’ve sold a couple of hundred. He did it right.
We want more local successes. So in the spirit of success, here are a few guidelines for making a self-published book viable at bookstores:
1. Price it right. In the end, the production costs don’t matter. For bookstores to carry a title, the retail price and the discount have to be correct. The $29 paperback children’s book about the family dog might be charming but it’s not going to sell. The 10% discount won’t have anyone excited either.
2. Find a real distributor. It’s not feasible for a bookstore to open and maintain accounts with every individual who self-publishes his or her own book, and we don’t want to buy them from Amazon. Ingram has been one of the best resources for this, and I tell authors all the time to start with them.
3. Hire an editor. Trust me.
4. Hire a designer for your cover. Trust me.
5. Do NOT contact the buyer more than three times; if your book hasn’t been ordered after three communications, it probably won’t be.
In the new world of e-books, self-publishing, and print-on-demand, the pressure on retailers selling physical books has never been greater. We need diversity and uniqueness to set us apart, but value is king: nothing can replace the publishing professionals who have spent their careers learning how to select, edit, create and market solid products that people want to buy. As this self-publishing trend continues, the entrepreneurs involved need to pay attention and try their best to match the market.
I could add more but right now I need to go. My girlfriend is on the phone, apparently we need to talk...
Mike Joachim is the book buyer at the Paper Store. He’s previously worked for Hudson Group airport stores, Learningsmith, Interstate Distributors, and BJ’s Wholesale Clubs.