The Era of Bookstores…Anyone Got a Crystal Ball?

“Is the era of brick and mortar bookstores really beginning to fade?”

I happened to see someone post this on Twitter, and it got me to thinking about this same question – especially after my post about the business of publishing. I would be remiss if I didn’t add bookstores into the mix, since they are a vital cog in the publishing wheel.

Or are they?

The Good

Admittedly, there isn’t a publisher alive who hasn’t had their frustrations with bookstores.  I’m in the process of scheduling events for authors all over the country, so I talk to A LOT of CRM (community relations managers). Most of them are so fabulous that I want to adopt them and bring them home for Twinkies and margaritas.

Many of the author events are off-site (not in the bookstore), meaning that I need a bookstore to come in and handle the ordering, transportation, set up, selling, packing up, and transporting back to the bookstore. This is a huge undertaking that requires at least two bookstore workers to handle the event. And throughout this process, I’ve been met with many smiles and a “sure, we can do that” attitude.

Offsite events are a great way to corral a huge chunk of an author’s audience in one confined place, and bookstores make those events possible.

And as much as I love offsite events, most of our sales still come from bookstores, so I want to do everything I can to make them happy and keep them in business.

The Bad

Book events are risky for bookstores because they have no idea how many people may show up. That means ordering the book (pay for shipping), doing an inventory for the books, advertising the upcoming signing (announcing in the paper and making posters), and setting them up, may be a huge bust if only five people show up to the signing.

The original idea of the book signing was to get people into the store. The idea is to buy the book, then wander around the store and buy five or six more books, which is what makes bookstore managers smile and think happy happy joy joy thoughts.

However, with so many more people writing and using the various publishing options, bookstores run a higher risk of doing all the labor for zero returns. The books may have been poorly written, or there was no pre-signing publicity on the author’s part – so the only folks who would bump into the signing were those who wandered into the bookstore that day.

This didn’t go unnoticed with the bookstore managers, so a lot of them place parameters on signings:

  • Charge a fee:  We’ve seen some of the indie bookstores charge a $100 co-op fee that goes toward advertising. Now, I’m not totally convinced that money actually goes toward advertising, so I always ask what my author will get for that fee. Regardless, I always pay it for my author. The one thing this normally accomplishes is that it weeds out the self-pubbed/vanity press/POD-pubbed authors.
  • Provide a list:  I’ve also seen a number of cases (again, with indie bookstores) where they ask the author to provide a list of people coming. Sure, you could lie, but when you have a lousy turnout, not only are you unhappy, but so is the bookstore. “Who cares,” you think, but you NEVER want to piss off a bookstore because they are the ones who make book recommendations to their customers. If they like you, they’ll push your book.

I remember when I was doing the promo thing for Tackle Box, I contacted all the local writing groups in the area and gave them a rundown about the book and what I’d be talking about at the signing event. I always had a great turnout because the subject matter scratched the itches of my intended audience.

And since many bought the book, this made the store managers happy, and I was always invited to come back. And this is how you can avoid a bad situation. When planning a bookstore signing, it’s a good idea to put yourself in the bookstore’s Vickie Secrets in order to appreciate all they do to host your event.

Oh, and always bring them cookies as a thank you. We aren’t the only ones who love chocolate.

The Ugly

On the flip side, I’ve had experiences that made me wonder if stores were working valiantly to speed up their demise.

It’s a well-known fact among publishers that bookstores hate saying “no” to an author’s request for an event (in-store or off-site) and, instead, feel they have to give a reason that is in conflict with the truth. It’s much easier to shift blame to the publisher as to why they can’t host the author’s book event.

Case in point; we recently had a situation where an author’s personal publicist called a bookstore to inquire about a special stocking. All went well until the CRM pulled up the title. All of a sudden, the title became “problematic.” She told the publicist the book was listed as “nonreturnable,” and had “excessive expedited shipping fees.”

The publicist was shocked, and who do you think she blamed? You got it; us. Her thinking was, why would a bookstore lie about such a thing? After all, they have no dog in this fight, so it must be the publisher’s fault, right? Not always. Sure, there are cases when that’s actually true; but in a case where a trade publisher has full distribution by a blue chip distributor, the real answer to the question of why is, they don’t want to say no.

This is especially irritating because deflecting the heat off of the bookstore forces the publisher to undo the damage by explaining that, yes all books are returnable, no there aren’t expedited shipping fees unless you’re talking about a situation where the books were needed yesterday. In a word, it’s BS.

As a result, I will drink tainted Russian vodka before I ever call that store again. That CRM has proven herself to be a liar, and who wants to do business with a liar?

I called another bookstore, and boOm, they brought in extra books. No problems at all. It’s harder to fleece a publisher because they know the terms of their own distribution and will cry foul if a store manager or CRM tries that same tact.

Another recent experience came when I was trying to get hold of the CRM. She was out, so I asked for her name. The bookstore worker gave me the CRM’s first name. I asked for her last name. “Um, we don’t do this due to privacy reasons.”

What? Privacy? Is she kidding? I explained who I was. She relaxed and said, “Um…I don’t know her last name.” I could hear her asking around if anyone knew the CRM’s last name. No one knew. “Um, no one knows her last name. Sorry.”

When I told the story to our bookstore representative at our distributor’s office, she was aghast and said that was the most unprofessional thing she’d heard all month. Needless to say, I’ll never call on that bookstore again, either.

The Consensus?

It isn’t fair to lump all the weenie experiences into one ball of yarn and indict every bookstore. There are far more great ones than crappy ones, and they work very hard to help publishers stock their books. I’ve called any number of stores to pitch a new title to them, and they always order the book.

From my perspective, I would cry croc tears if bookstores went the way of the dinosaur because they provide such a fabulous service. It’s no lie that Amazon is convenient and has lower prices, but they also have zero customer service. You can’t talk to someone who just read YOU LET SOME GIRL BEAT YOU? or HEART WARRIORS and listen to them gush over the book, while practically jamming the book into your arms.

Bookstores do that. Seen it many times. Absent a crystal ball, it’s impossible to say how things will shake out. I do know that Business 101 plays a major role in any business’ viability, and I pray bookstores find a way to be the antivenin to Amazon because many of us still love the personal touch and the many special services only a bookstore can provide. Even when it means the occasional bump against The Bad and The Ugly.

3 Responses to The Era of Bookstores…Anyone Got a Crystal Ball?

  1. Kim Kircher says:

    I love bookstores. No, actually I love bookstore employees. I get goosebumps walking into a building lined with books, knowing the person behind the counter loves reading as much as I do. Every time I walk into a bookstore I come out with 10 books. At least I’m doing my part to keep my local stores alive.

  2. Dan Holloway says:

    First, talking of great publisher-bookstore relations did you see this from last week – one of our best UK small presses Bluemoose working fabulously with one of our most famous independent bookshops http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/the-northerner/2012/jun/04/ben-myers-pig-iron-hebden-bridge

    I’ve had the privilege of working with some great bookstores (and that as a self-published writer – that’s never been a problem) whose events teams are wonderful and do great work with publicity and placement in-store after events. But I also know many people who’ve had not so good experiences, where bookstores do absolutely no publicity – and it’s not been a question of independent versus chain, I don’t think it ever is, it’s more about the local team. I absolutely agree authors need to do a huge amount of work to bring people to the store (I’ve found it a lot easier since the spoken word show I run has grown – it’s been over a year since we played to anything but a sell-out crowd and we are lucky to have good relations with local poetry communities so we can be fairly sure of bringing a ne crowd in) but surely when an author’s doing a book tour things are different – at times like that they are surely reliant on stores to provide the local crowd?

  3. Kim, you’re so right. It’s the employees that make for a fabulous experience because they know their books.

    Dan, I’m so happy to hear your experiences have been positive. It’s different here in the US, and it’s much harder for the DIY author to get any cooperation from a bookstore. The large stores sometimes have two different CRMs – one for the DIY/POD author, and another for trade publishers. It’s an important distinction that most authors don’t know exist.

    You’re doing things the right way by proving you can bring an audience. And you’re also right about how some stores don’t promote their upcoming events. Problem is, you don’t really know until you’re up against it. That’s why I always make the assumption the store provides zero promotion and take steps to ensure the event is successful. Additionally, it makes the store love the author and happy to invite them back.

    And yes, it’s tougher to do a lot of promotion when doing a tour. It takes a ton of coordination and organization.

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