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Eight Things Booksellers Would Like Self Published Authors to Know

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Eight Things Booksellers Would Like Self Published Authors to Know

I was a bookseller for eleven years before injury forced me to find a different career. In that time, I met a LOT of self-published authors and noticed a few areas where my experience as a bookseller could help make their book signing more successful (and make my life easier). Here are some things self published authors might like to know:


1. Making sure your title is available for bookstores to order is an important first step.

Bookstores don’t have access to all titles and, for corporate stores like Barnes and Noble, we can’t sell your title unless it’s in our system and available from one of our distributors. Independent bookstores are much more likely to be able to accept copies you bring from home, but each one is different, so it’s important to do some preliminary research. The more available your book, the easier it will be to make sales.

Recommendation: before setting up a book signing, do research on how to get your title accepted into the bookstores you are considering.

2. Make sure your title is returnable (specifically for national bookstore chains).

With literally millions of titles in publication, it makes sense that real estate in a bookstore is a high commodity. With so many titles vying for space, most bookstores are reluctant to order anything that can’t be returned, especially in the quantities required for a signing event.

Recommendation: if your book has already been accepted into the distribution system, ask how to make your title returnable. I’m told it’s a fairly simple process, but be aware it isn’t a free service.

3. Bookstores typically don’t have a budget to promote your signing event.

The hard truth of the matter is, bookstores are approached by countless self published authors who rarely make enough sales at an event to justify promotional expenditures. Even promotion for New York Times best-selling authors are supported by publishers, the authors themselves (yes, even highly successful authors promote their own events), and social media. There are exceptions to this, but be prepared to handle your own advertising.

Recommendation: if you want people to show up, there are several things you can do – print flyers (or even better, bookmarks) for booksellers to bag-stuff ; ask if you can set up a display a few weeks early with the event info; boost ads on social media; or take out an ad in the paper. The opportunities are there, and go beyond what I’ve listed, you just have to be willing to put in the effort.

4. Take an active role in your signing event.

Most events are schedules for high-traffic days, which makes sense because authors want to engage as many people as possible. From a sales standpoint, booksellers prefer this also. From a logistical standpoint, these days can be so busy that booksellers have a difficult time disengaging themselves from customer service long enough to give your event the attention it needs. Booksellers have the best intentions to set you up for success, but don’t always have the human resources to make it happen. Therefore, the more involved you can be in preparing for and setting up your event, the better.

Recommendation: Promoting your book ahead of time is a great place to start (see #3). Arrive early and help organize your station. Anything you can bring to draw attention to your book is also helpful. I’ve seen authors show up with balloons, stuffed animals, posters, candy trays, and all other sorts of things to attract attention, and the extra effort usually pays off.

whoa25. Your self published book is probably not going to be competitively priced.

In the self publishing industry, there is a noticeable correlation between quality and price. Unfortunately, self publishing facilities don’t have the resources to print at a high enough volume to make the cost per unit competitive. You can sacrifice quality (to a degree) for a lower price, but overall cover appeal plays a role in your book’s marketability. Traditionally published trade paperbacks usually run from $9.99 to $14.99, whereas I’ve seen self published TPs anywhere from $15.00 to $30.00. It’s important to be aware of this disadvantage when asking people to take a chance on your title.

Recommendation: there’s just no getting around the price/volume equation of publishing economics, which is why so many self published authors opt for digital publishing (or poor quality copies). The only thing you can do is consider your market strategy very carefully before going to print.

6. Booksellers don’t want to be hassled about your book.

Meaning: save your soliciting for the customers. We know way more about what’s available to read than the average person and have already decided before we meet you whether or not we want to read your book. Talking about it with us is okay. Pestering us to read it is not. You want to leave booksellers with a general knowledge of your book’s premise, but you also want to leave us with a positive experience. Your goal shouldn’t be to sell to us, but to garner a good relationship.

Recommendation: if you really want booksellers to read your book, provide a free copy a few months ahead of your signing. This gives employees a chance to check out the title with zero pressure and ample time to read it beforehand. This method usually gets the best response, in my experience.

7. Content quality matters.

This, I have found, is the biggest difference between traditional and self published titles. The editing process of big publishing houses is more than just fixing grammar errors and running spellcheck. They invest tons of time and money getting a manuscript ready for market, which is why they’re so picky. They’re only willing to financially back projects they believe will make them the most money. It all comes back to the quality of the content. If you want any chance of standing out in an industry that publishes a million titles every year, recognize that producing quality content is the best way to generate positive word-of-mouth and gain an audience.

Recommendation: “Read a lot and write a lot” (Stephen King). Study your market thoroughly. Attend seminars and workshops. Join a writing group. Acknowledge that your work is not perfect (no one’s ever is) but hard work can make a difference.

8. You are not entitled to an audience.

This seems to be the hardest truth for any author to learn (myself included). Just because you wrote something does not mean others are obligated to want to read it. Literally anyone can self publish a book, but the mere act of doing so doesn’t guarantee you readers. It takes a lot of market awareness and research to produce something with mass appeal. Even if you’ve done your homework, attended seminars, and revised until the red ink ran dry, it still doesn’t entitle you to an audience.

Recommendation: venture into the world of self publishing with a humble approach, a quality product, and rely on positive word-of-mouth and hard work to generate an audience. A sense of entitlement will only hurt your end-goal.


As always, there are exceptions to every rule, but these are the eight things I found true more often than not. At the end of the day, your success rate as a self published author is in your own hands. If this article helped you in any way, my work here is complete. 

by Niki Hawkes

The Woes of Self-Publishing Part II

snoopy_typewriterSince The Woes of Self-Publishing Part I went up a couple of weeks ago, I’ve fielded a few questions regarding some of my comments. I thought I would put together a Part II in case anyone else had the same inquiries:

Q: In the initial post, you said one of the main problems with self-publishing is the limited distribution. Does this pertain to the ebook market as well?

A: My response was with regards to physical copies only, but I assume ebook publishing would indeed allow you to get your work to more people. You do limit yourself to those who have access to e-readers though, which is something to consider based on the demographic of your target audience. As you said, the 70% payoff can be a great incentive, but you still have to work for every sale (some people like having this much direct control, so it just might ba a viable option for them). If you gain enough hype this way, you can actually get bookstore deals once you hit a certain number of sales (much like Amanda Hocking and P.D. James).

Q: It seems you have a rather negative outlook about the quality of self-published books. I find this disturbing as they seem to me to be much higher quality than your average mass market book. Where does this strong opinion come from?

A: It is possible that the ones I’ve dealt just happen to be from lower-end publishers, but I have seen hundreds of these books over the last ten years of my career and my conclusion is drawn from that. The quality is not always horrible, but to me they almost always look less professional. I will admit that I have occasionally seen some standard-looking printings over the years, but the author usually ends up charging $10 to $15 more than the market price to compensate for the higher-quality printing price. As self-published books are already slightly over-priced (mostly because the small publisher doesn’t have the resources or scale to compete with the big companies), this severely cuts back on your sales opportunities, especially if you’re not there to hand-sell them.

As for the formatting, self-published books most often come in a trade paper format, which are always higher quality than mass markets – this is true for traditionally published books as well. My initial comparison was between trade papers only, as mass markets are in a category of their own. I wish I could line up a bunch of the self-published books we’ve got next to the traditionally published ones to show you what I’m seeing. We at the bookstore have a private joke running at how blatantly they stand out. In any case, just because I’ve had some negative experiences with them doesn’t mean it’s not a viable option. These are just more things to consider when making your decision.

Q: I’m concerned that if I go the traditional route for publishing that my books will just get pulped if sales start to drop – how often does this usually happen?

A: The only books that regularly get returned for “pulping” are the mass markets, as its literally cheaper to destroy them than to ship them back. The publishers usually just print new ones if the demand ever increases. It doesn’t happen as often as you’d think… Nowadays, most new mass markets get featured at the beginning of each section or on nice displays located at the front of the store. The have at least three months of prime real estate to generate sales. If they are popular, they get what’s called “modeled” status, and we integrate them onto the shelves because we anticipate future sales. If they haven’t appealed to the market (or if we have too many copies – which happens to even bestselling authors), that’s when they get “pulped” and we don’t see them again until the tastes of the market change (hardcovers and trade papers just get redistributed to warehouses so they can go to other stores. If you get a deal that involves a hardcover or trade paper publishing before you get to the mass market stage, you’re chances of success increase that much more because you essentially double your exposure time).

Something to consider about “pulped” mass markets: we as employees get to take home a few, so even if it didn’t generate sales on the floor, you could be earning supporters even at the end stages of the process. Think of it as an ARC without the cost or hassle. I can’t tell you how many authors I now support and hand-sell because I had free access to the original titles (btw, if I like it, I always order it in and buy it). It’s a great way to make booksellers your champions!

The Woes of Self-Publishing…

I don’t usually share anything other than book-related posts, but this morning I was reading one of my favorite writing blogs by Christian Mihai and responded to his survey about self publishing. Realizing I have some strong opinions on the subject, I decided to share my response with you. Don’t worry, I’ll get back to my regularly scheduled reviewing tomorrow. :)

111I don’t know if you’ll find this helpful or not, but I’ve been in the book selling business for over ten years now and I’ve got some insight on the marketing element of self-publishing. While there are excellent arguments for going the self-publishing route, I thought I would share the reasons why I wouldn’t choose that path.

The biggest problem with self-publishing is the limited distribution, advertising, and availability of your titles. When you go the traditional route, other people become invested in your success and take certain measures to integrate your works into stores across the country and online retailers. They sort of become your champions and sales result, whereas a self-published writer has to build up their own audience and practically hand-sell every copy. It’s possible to be successful that way, but it is definitely the tougher route. Your audience is limited to the people you can contact and, even with an online following, the publishers almost always have a much broader range. Availability and distribution add to this problem:

Most of the time when a self-published author wants to do a signing at our store it’s a two week long ordeal to contact our home offices and have them get in touch with the publisher (assuming they have paid to put their books in our system. If they haven’t, there’s nothing we can do for them). If we had to work that hard to get ahold of the book (and there’s never an exception to this with regard to these types of books, in my experience) then certainly other stores aren’t going to arbitrarily carry them unless you give them all personal visits. After all the work it takes to get the books, when they come in I am always underwhelmed at the quality and cost of the printing. I can usually spot a self-published book a mile away, and they are frankly a pain to deal when once the author is gone. If the author doesn’t pay for their books to be returnable within our systems, we wont even order them because 9 times out of 10 we’re stuck with them forever and only sell a couple if the author comes back regularly. I once worked for a manager who thought all of this was too much of a hassle, and refused to even talk to the self-published, much less order their books.

Other considerations: sometimes in self-publishing, the writing suffers. When publishers reject you, it often means you need to go back and keep developing your story to make the book more marketable (or even start working on other projects). You might even have a good story, but your writing needs improvement before its ready to be sold. A good deal of self-published authors don’t go through this important developmental phase. They settle for “good enough”, whereas fighting for an agent encourages continual improvement. I remember reading that J.K. Rowling got rejected over a hundred times before someone took a chance on her, and that only forced her to make changes and mold her story into the phenomenon it is now. I personally want to push myself to the point where agents recognize the value of my work and are willing to put their names on the line to support me, even if it takes a lot of rejection and perseverance.

Hope that was helpful!