Friday, 7 February 2014

Make Friends With Your Independent Bookshop

by Catriona Troth

The 4th January this year was a landmark day for me.  It was the day I was able to tweet that my two books were IN STOCK at my local independent bookshop.

It wasn’t something that happened overnight.  My connection with the bookshop began almost exactly two years ago, long before I published either of my books. At the time, the news was full of reports of independent bookshops closing down all over the country.  Chorleywood Bookshop, run by Sheryl Shurville and Morag Watson, had not long since won the southeast regional award for Independent Bookseller of the Year, and I wanted to find out how they managed to make their shop a success.

Sheryl Shurville and Morag Watson
The answer, I found, was an incredible amount of hard work and dedication, coupled with a whole range of imaginative ways of connecting with readers.  I wrote about it for the February 2012 edition of Words with Jam, and Sheryl and Morag were delighted with the coverage.

One thing stuck in my mind, though. When I asked them about stocking self-published books, they exchanged a look. “We do take books from self-published authors, on sale and return,” I was told.  “And some are very good.  But some are awful, just dreadful.  You could never promote them.  The look of some of the books… We try to be encouraging, but it’s hard.”

So when the first three Triskele books were published a few months later, I was relieved to find them take one look at J D Smith’s beautiful covers and immaculately formatted interiors and agree to take a few copies.  We had done no local promotion though, and a few weeks later, the books were returned, with only one sold. An early lesson learnt.

Come November, and I again used my connection with Words with Jam to get a press pass for the annual Chorleywood Literary Festival and write about the events. And that planted the seeds of an idea in my mind.
My first novel came out in June 2012 and was launch at Foyles, along with three other Triskele titles.  By then we knew that our set of books would be published in November and the question that kept buzzing in my mind was – could we launch them at the Chorleywood Lit Fest?

By then, I knew the format of the festival – spread out over a couple of weeks, with events on evenings and weekends.  And I knew that as well as attracted big names, they had held free events promoting new, upcoming writers.

So armed with that knowledge, I went to them with a pitch we had worked out between us – something that would combine a launch of our new titles with an interactive event aimed at those interested in self-publishing and author collectives. As it was to be a free event, and hence no ticket revenue, we offered to make a small contribution to the cost of running the events. And we would also manage the sale of our own books, so the bookshop wouldn’t have to order them or worry about any overstocks.

To my delight, Sheryl and Morag jumped at the idea and supported us every inch of the way. They went out of their way to be helpful, included us in their online and print publicity and managed the bookings for us.  In return, we followed them on Twitter, connected where we could with other authors attending, and made sure we promoted the other Lit Fest events.

Triskele titles selling well
As you can read elsewhere, our launch day was a resounding success.  We sold lots of books, made lots of friends, and generally had a brilliant time.  Importantly, the books had now been promoted locally.  So when people started asking me where they could buy the book, I made a point of directing them to the bookshop. It meant I made a little less per copy than I would selling them directly, but I knew that having Sheryl and Morag behind me promoting the book was by far the best way of reaching people I didn’t know personally.

The book sold well between the launch and Christmas. I had done what I needed, in terms of providing information to the ISBN agency, Nielsen, to ensure that the book was available through Gardners, which is the major supplier of books to independent bookshops in the UK.  But it wasn’t kept in stock by them. So by the time the shop had ordered it from Gardners and Gardners had ordered it from from my POD suppliers, Lightning Source, delivery could take a week or ten days – much slower than they were used to.

So after Christmas, they decided they were happy to hold a stock of both of my books, ordered directly from me. Hence my happy little tweet on the 4th January.

So what is the lesson from all this? If you are an independent author, you need to build relationship with your local bookshop and library.  Don’t expect to be able to walk in as a complete stranger and ask them to stock your book.  Be a customer first.  If they organise events, attend them.  Follow them on Twitter and like them on Facebook. You may not write for a magazine like Words with Jam, but you probably have a blog, or you can pitch something to your local paper.

Get to know them and let them get to know you.  And when you do approach them, be professional and business-like.

Believe me, it will pay off.

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