A boxing match. Two opponents, quite different. The heavyweight champion: towering, muscular, looming. And then there’s you. Your heart is big, but your biceps … not so much. You don’t have a personal trainer or mountains of equipment. As the little guy in that ring, you bob and weave. You maneuver. You find a way to survive and, perhaps, through creativity and grit, you just might win.
That’s what it’s like being a small independent publisher in a sea of large publishing houses, with deep pockets, marketing budgets, and staff. As indies, we don’t have the built-in mass distribution to a nation of libraries, or big-box stores. We don’t have a small army of people to help us through our growing to-do list. But like that little boxer, we do have heart, determination, and the ability to bob and weave. And maybe, with some creativity and grit, we just might win.
Creativity and Grit
Like any indie in other industries (think music), we create for the love of the art. We love making connections with like-minded artists and individuals, and we are good at making friends. I don’t have a small army to help me market our beautiful titles at The Little Press, but what I do have is a community. And community is the secret weapon for any indie press.
Our Community and Networking Is Built into our Marketing Strategy
A big part of how The Little Press markets and sells our titles is by connecting. In this way, we reach out to collaborate with as many indie bookstores as we can for each of our titles. After all, indie presses and indie bookstores speak the same language. We are in it for the love of books. We are in it to make a difference in the world.
For each book title set to release, we reach out to bookstores local to our authors and illustrators. First, we focus on finding an indie bookstore partner to host the preorder campaign. Having an indie bookstore local to the author sponsoring our preorder allows us to 1) offer signed copies, which incentivizes preorders; and 2) take advantage of the bookstore’s customers, contacts, marketing, and community. Reciprocally, the bookstore expands its usual reach by taking advantage of our community, our social media followers, our email list, and our author’s local community. It’s a win-win for everyone.
The Logistics of Getting a Preorder Partner
The Little Press starts by reaching out to one local indie bookstore by email to see if they are interested in sponsoring our preorder sale. We explain that this entails advertising and taking orders on their website as well as hosting our author for a release party around the release date of the book. (It should be within two weeks after release.)
An important note here: Be sure that any bookstore you contact has a robust enough website to take online orders and ship nationwide. We once made the mistake of contacting the cutest indie in our author’s hometown who had an antiquated website, which is fine but not ideal for the splash we wanted to make for preorders. Potential customers could not order from their website; instead, they had to call the store for orders (which, in today’s age, is like sending Morse code). Make sure any potential bookstore takes orders on its website.
One Partner Only for Preorders
For your preorder campaign, you want only one bookstore partner. This is unless you have a Canadian author (and you are a U.S.-based press), in which case you will want a U.S. partner and a Canadian partner. The Canadian bookstore will offer signed books, while the U.S. bookstore can offer books with signed bookplates. (Bookplates can easily be done for free on Canva.) You can also sweeten the deal with bookmarks if inclined, but it’s not necessary. (We use Smart Press for our bookmarks.)
We begin reaching out for a preorder partner at least four months prior to release (in many cases six months). Sometimes it takes a few tries to find the right partner, and you want to have your preorder campaign up and running no later than two months before release.
Direct Purchasing – Offering Discounts
There are two ways to handle bookstore sales for your preorder campaign. If you are distributed, you will simply have the bookstore order through your distributor or their typical salespeople/platform. If you are not distributed or you are operating print on demand (POD) and prefer to have the books purchased directly from you to make more of a profit, don’t be afraid to offer reasonable discounts.
“Don’t Bite Your Nose to Spite Your Face”
Don’t offer something that is going to hurt you more than help you. How does this translate into partnering with bookstores?
When I first started, I was afraid of the discount conversation. I desperately wanted bookstores to host our authors, and I was equally desperate for The Little Press to be seen as a legitimate publisher. In all this self-consciousness, I tried my hardest to match discounts that larger publishers would give. As a POD publisher at the time (we are now distributed through Baker & Taylor Publisher Services), matching the Big Five discounts was impossible unless I’d come to terms with making zero money.
Large traditional publishers are able to pass a 50% discount and free shipping. This is because their print costs are much lower due in part to 1) printing overseas and 2) printing large print runs. For example, big publishers’ print costs for picture books is under $2/book. Whereas, if you’re printing POD, your cost could be at least $6/book. That is a huge difference in margins. Have honest conversations with bookstores about the discount you are able to pass, and don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and have an old-fashioned phone call. Connection goes a long way.
Takeaway: Don’t offer bookstores discounts that will yield you pennies after royalties. Remember, even though you do this for the love of the art, you will be obsolete if you can’t make money, and the art you promote will never see the light of day.
If They Say “No, Thank You,” Don’t Panic
It’s OK if a bookstore isn’t interested. Everyone has their own reasons for doing and not doing something. It’s business. Don’t take it personally. Be sure to be gracious, and move on to the next bookstore on your list. You will find someone to partner with you.
They Said “Yes”! Now What?
Once a bookstore agrees to be your preorder partner, send them 1) a .jpeg of your book cover and 2) a one-sheet with information on your title, including a short summary, author bio, ISBN, pricing, trade reviews, and your contact information. The bookstore will place the book on its website for preorder sale. Be sure they note that the preorder includes author-signed copies and any other swag you are providing (bookmarks, etc.).
Once the preorder link is live, you will blast it out on your social media platforms as well as through your email list. (You can create graphics on Canva and create QR codes on various websites for free.) Continue promoting the pre-sale until the release date and ask the bookstore to do the same.
Expand Your Reach + Events
After you have your preorder partner lined up and a release party scheduled with them (get it on the calendar early), then you can email other bookstores local to your author (and illustrator if you are a children’s book publisher) to gauge interest in hosting an event. It’s ideal to have any event within the first two months of release; however, that is not necessary.
I repeat: It’s not necessary to have the events in close proximity to your release.
You are going to want to sell your titles all year long, which means you need momentum all year long. Thus, if a bookstore is happy to host your author but needs to put it off for six months, jump on it. The idea is to get the event on the calendar.
Once a bookstore expresses interest in having your author for an event, put your author in direct contact with that bookstore to work out the logistics (dates, times, etc.). The Little Press doesn’t have the manpower to handle all of the nitty-gritty details, and our authors understand that as part of signing with an indie press, they will have to be a part of the process.
Have Marketing Days to Suggest to Bookstores
Nowadays there is a holiday for everything! National Spaghetti Day, National Pet Day, even National Gorilla Suit Day! (I know this because our title The Gorilla Picked Me! is about a dad in a gorilla suit, so this is a marketing day for us.)
When reaching out to bookstores to gauge interest in hosting your author for an event, be equipped with days that may coincide with your book’s theme. Indie bookstores, like indie presses, are always looking for creative ways to connect to their communities, and helping them find the relevance and excitement of your title for their marketing will only assist in your efforts.
(Get a free silly holiday list you can work with at littlepresspublishing.com/freebies)
At the End of the Day …
Being an indie publisher has its many perks, but it also has its struggles when it comes to marketing, sales, and manpower. Remember, just like that little boxer in the ring, don’t forget to use your strengths, and community is your secret weapon. Build your community by reaching out to indie bookstores, make those connections, and continue to nurture those connections. Support indie bookstores, and they will support you back. After all, isn’t that what being indie is all about?