Michelle Maycock worked in independent bookstores in Virginia and North Carolina as a buyer and manager, and as an independent publishers’ rep in the 1990s selling to bookstores in the Southeast. She now teaches in the Professional Writing program at Virginia Tech. Maycock offers valuable advice to authors:
As a former trade bookseller and book sales representative with twenty years experience, I would like to add the booksellers’ perspective on how to promote your book.
Help but do not push your local booksellers to sell your book. Let’s face it; nice paper books are a technology that some people are going to like for a long time. If you can capture that market too, even locally, it will get you ‘out there.’ If you prefer to read or publish digitally, keep in mind that there is still a market out there for nice cozy paper between boards . . . And digital authors can learn a few lessons from the business formerly known as the book trade. Goodwill (as Dr. Garte mentioned in many places in his blog article) and gently supplying concise, useful information about yourself and your book are your best (I was going to say “weapons,” but let’s tone down the adversarial and go with) strategies. Think of everyone online as potential customers, and bookstores and booksellers as your business partners, and they will be more likely to go to work for you.
Persistence pays off eventually. There is that famous proverb quoted by Oprah that ‘luck is when opportunity meets preparation.’ Frank McCourt remarked that he knew he was exceptionally lucky when Angela’s Ashes became a hit. It was a moment he had been preparing for all of his life, from trying out his stories on his students and writing all of his life. Successful authors are exceptionally hardworking and exceptionally personable.
ALWAYS be pleasant, and do not be pushy. Bookstore people have a lot of work to do, and unless or sometimes even if they own the store, they are not hugely compensated. They are bombarded with requests to put self-published books on consignment, many of which are of questionable quality. Keep in mind that they work retail, which requires infinite patience, a strong back, feet of iron, a keen intellect and a very good memory. All of which means, they will remember if you act out.
Don’t assume that because someone works in marketing or in a bookstore that they are not well read. I have a friend who is a retired Shakespeare professor emeritus who happens to work part-time a big chain bookstore. The bookosphere is peopled by lots of people with extensive literary knowledge. Don’t be afraid of them! They love books and words just as much as you do. It is ultimately a very rewarding business, whether or not you make money at it. Being a successful author is a full-time job, and promoting yourself, whether online or in person, is a second full-time job. Authoring is a public enterprise-if you are writing for the public, take the time to make your book the best it can be-get it edited by someone else with expertise, and then get a second opinion, even before you go to a publisher. Quality sells. There is too much competition out there in all channels-and other people are willing to help.
Even if you are a bestselling author, any bad or condescending behavior on your part will not sell your book. This also goes with book signings. Don’t pull a tantrum if no one shows up for your signing. That could be your own fault. But even the best-planned events sometimes don’t draw enough people. It may have just been bad timing. Live and learn. If you are lucky enough to get a signing event, invite everyone you know. Be ready to help the bookseller have a reasonable quantity of your book. Graciousness under pressure will endear you to the bookseller as well as the general public. When you appear in a public forum, keep your opinions low key and test the water carefully before offering up any criticisms. Remember, you want booksellers and other people in general to remember how nice, intelligent and interesting you are so that they will recommend you to other people. Any ill will or petty gossip in their direction can sabotage your whole effort.
One bestselling author said he would sign his name on the back of people’s hands if that would make them happy. Say or ask something personal about each person who brings a book to you to be signed. Stay a little longer if the line is long, and make an effort to talk to anyone who is interested in your book, even if they are pretending! Be friendly and comment pleasantly to as many people as you can who show interest in your work on sites like Facebook. A nationally known author once friended me because I said something nice about his or her book on the FB fan page, and now I have bought the earlier books and tell all of my friends and students that they ought to read this author.
As far as the booksellers are concerned, they cannot always give one author more attention than any other, and everyone wants their attention. Being a pest will not do you much good either. You want word of mouth buzz . . . make it always positive and you will go far!
Being a nuisance is not a good way to promote yourself.
Information is key. Talk up your book to booksellers, but be brief (they have thousands of other books to worry about). Don’t pester them to buy more of your book if a few copies sell. Gentle reminders, maybe a nice email or note, but don’t demand. They have to make minimum orders. And if they have had two copies of your book for six weeks, they are unlikely to get more. And maybe they are not in charge of the budgeting.
It is your job to get out there on the web and in public and sell your ideas and the book that goes with them — then maybe then your book will start appearing in larger numbers on shelves and will get ordered online and reordered too! Keep in mind that you have to be very persistent. John Grisham’s first novel was published by a small publisher, but he kept working to promote himself and sending his next book out to bigger publishers. Having a second book ready before you launch is not a bad idea. But all of this takes a lot of determination, energy and patience, but it can pay off.