It’s easy to believe that all the players involved in the independent publishing industry—authors, publishers, and booksellers—work together seamlessly in the name of getting great books out into the world. But like any indie industry, be it music, art, or publishing, it takes a large investment of time and money, upholding standards, and managing expectations.
On one hand, many indie booksellers have a misguided belief that indie publishers and authors are not as concerned with quality as the Big 4, and on the other, indie publishers often don’t put in the work to curate relationships with indie booksellers, either because of their sales distribution (assuming the sales force does it) or because they do not feel they can, should, or need to. We talked with several booksellers who get hundreds of submissions a month on what to do far prior to approaching a bookseller, as well as best practices while working together—and the answers might surprise you.
It's important to note that this applies explicitly to books that align with book industry quality standards, such as being professionally edited and with a designed cover suitable to the genre, easily shelved in the bookstore, can be marked as discounted and returnable, and follows IBPA’s Industry Standards Checklist for Professionally Published Books. Often, this does not include self-published authors unless they’ve put in the investment and research. Authors should also review Reducing Bookseller Bias, Best Practices for Authors Who Want Their Book in Bookstores, and How to Sell Your Book to Bookstores.
What Booksellers Wish You Knew
Here are a few things that make a bookseller confident in carrying an indie title—and it’s not just about shelf space.
1. Publishers need to budget with bookstores.
Understand what it costs a bookstore to support an author with an event: advertising, staffing, displays, stocking the books, etc. With limited staffs and calendars, even large indie bookstores must be discerning in reviewing every stocked book or event. Consider paying a co-op fee to hold an event; often, you can work with a bookstore to host several of your authors at once.
“We’re known for our support of new authors, and I want to continue to be that,” says Elaine Petrocelli, founder/president of Book Passage, which currently hosts 700+ authors events a year. “But will I choose the author with a real program that gets the word out, a publisher who supports with funds, or the author who doesn’t?”
2. Be mindful of how the bookstore can obtain books.
A few indie publishers have industry-reliable distribution services, like IPS or IPG, where bookstores can easily order inventory from a warehouse. If you don’t, consider a source like Ingram Spark, so titles can remain print-on-demand. Educate yourself on methods such as consignment or incentive programs.
“No matter what, make sure the bookstore receives a 40% minimum discount. Anything less and it is a hard pass,” says Rebecca George, seller/owner at Chicago’s Volumes Bookcafe.
3. Does the book fit the bookstore’s customer base, and does the subject matter or representation align with their mission?
If it’s a book about a small area in coastal Oregon, a Texas bookstore is not the right place. Every indie bookstore has a personality and a selling demographic.
“Quality is first; although notoriety is important. Secondarily is the message and the subject matter. What is this about and does it align with our store community and mission?” says Jane Estes, founder/general manager at Lark and Owl in Georgetown, Texas. “We’re actively seeking representation in books, retail, staff—every step we make we want to always move that forward.”
“We don’t take every book from the Big 4 because they don't all fit,” George says. “Some of the ones we ignore are national bestsellers, and they never touch our shelves. Every store is very different. Check out a bookstore's staff picks. If the section they have on a book’s topic is nonexistent or rather small—again, maybe not a good fit.”
4. Design, presentation, and subject matter matters.
The book must be professionally edited, designed, and formatted, with consideration put into the quality of the paper, fonts, margins, formatting, and binding. Every book should have ISBNs, bar codes, clear pricing, and categories on the back cover. When pitching a book, give background on the publishing imprint, any accolades, and how the publisher decides what is published.
“My concern really isn’t shelf space. It’s always been quality. If I had time to read all the books in the world, I could read the submitted books myself and decide from there. It is a preconceived notion that indie quality isn’t as good as the Big 4. This comes from reading so many really bad self-published books, and I think that they can sometimes fall in the same slush pile as indie published books,” says Val Stadick from Mainstreet Books in Minot, North Dakota. “For indie publishers, maybe defining for me or teaching me the process you go through for publishing and finding the books you publish. Is it similar to the Big 4? How many manuscripts do you look at, and how many are published? I know nothing about your process.”
Best Practices for Publisher-Bookseller Relationships
1. Avoid dropping the “A” word.
Amazon is a necessary evil in book publishing. But indie bookstores will not want to carry a book if the leading pitch has to do with Amazon. Offer a handful of links where the book can be purchased before listing Amazon: Indiebound, Bookshop, the distributor, the publisher’s direct page, the author’s website. Encourage indie authors to support their own indie publisher and bookstores.
“We’ve had authors host an event with us, and we lose money on it, because that very same author wrote friends to buy the books on Amazon because they want their Amazon numbers up,” Petrocelli says. “Know this: Booksellers look at an author’s website, and if they put Amazon first, then that is a big deterrent. If they are putting Amazon first, that shows they aren’t putting support for the indie book industry first.”
2. Event attendance should equal sales.
If an author books an event at a bookstore, that’s where the book purchases should occur. Make a note to attendees that to support the local bookstore, they’re expected to purchase their copy there, which is supporting you and the scene of indie authors/publishing.
“Authors bring 100 friends and family to an event, but if they don’t buy the book—they already have it from the author or Amazon—then that means nothing to us,” says Christina Marroquin, Lark and Owl’s book buyer. “Set up the book shipment to the store beforehand, and authors should emphasize they expect support to their own industry by the attendees.”
3. Educate your authors.
Booksellers often have negative experiences with indie authors, because they either come off as too aggressive, aren’t educated in how to approach booksellers (which can hurt that publishing imprint immensely), or don’t care to be involved in their own local indie network. Prioritize providing author education on approaching booksellers, offer best practices, share this article with your authors, or, depending on your distribution, advise authors to let you as the publisher do the heavy lifting—at the very least, having a template media kit and a number a bookseller can call to purchase your book.
“We are often harassed, bullied, sent mean tweets, Instagram DMs, Facebook DMs,” George says.
Stadick from Mainstreet agrees: “I don’t think my impression of indie books and authors is much different than non-indie authors. I think any reluctance to carry a book may have more to do with how authors carry themselves and how they sell themselves. If they are pushy, I will push back. If they are kind and professional and humble, I will listen.”
“I’ll give an example of why we have our guard up when someone comes in and says they are an indie author. A gentleman came in and left his book even though we said we have a committee he can submit it to, and he still insisted on leaving it,” Estes says. “Then he sent an email a few weeks later thanking us for carrying our book and asking ‘When do I get my money?’”
“Authors don’t understand that confidence or aggressiveness doesn’t feel good on our end,” Marroquin says. “When someone walks in the door, we can tell immediately they’re going to pitch and our heart drops to say, I’m sorry we can’t carry that—all they need to do is follow the submission instructions for our consideration.”
4. Advise authors to do their research.
Authors should approach a pitch like a job interview and research the bookstore they are approaching. Often, bookstores have an online form to submit materials for consideration, and even a list of the types of books they will accept. Some, like Lark and Owl, are establishing submission committees for the sole purpose of vetting indie books to get them on their shelves. Again, knowing the submission process, having a solid promotional plan laid out, and including a professional looking media kit can make indie books stand out from the crowd.
5. Bookstore/author/publisher collaboration should be an ongoing collaboration.
It’s all about being reciprocal. Booksellers will often give precedence to publishers and authors who are members of one of the store’s writing groups, often host events there, or are involved in classes or discussions. Clearly support the local literary scene.
“Publisher and author websites should talk about the local bookstores and how they appreciate their support, and write a little something about those bookstores, like the ones in their area. Actually go to these stores and encourage people to as well,” Petrocelli says. “Recently an author had an event, organized by an indie publisher, and they sent out about 3,000 letters and told them all she would come to Book Passage and personalize their book for them, and we sold over 1,000 copies.”
6. Personalize and perfect the pitch, ideally with a press kit.
Know who to approach and how, ask how to submit materials, have professional materials like a press release, media/press kit, photos of the book, and more, and then give it time.
“A recent success indie story was about a woman who came up and asked if we carry local authors and said that her boyfriend was indie published. Her narrative pitch was great, it was an interesting concept I hadn’t heard of before, and she was professional. I asked her for information, and she gave me a card and didn’t shove a book at me,” Estes says. “They sent a press kit instead with really great photos of the book, and I passed it to the bookseller who curated that section, and then when she followed up, everything she said turned out to be true. A press kit goes a long way.”
Knowing these ins and outs of working with booksellers will hopefully guide indie publishers and their authors in the right direction of bringing quality work and professionalism to the table, while also managing their expectations that their book isn’t going to be a fit at every bookstore, and with good reason.
Lauren Wise is the associate publisher at She Writes Press and SparkPress, and the editorial director at SheReads. With 15+ years’ experience in the magazine and book publishing industry, Wise is an editor and published author, a member of IBPA’s Advocacy Committee, and an award-winning columnist and journalism mentor to teen girls.