Typically, a (midlist, traditionally-published) book tour can only last so long–about three months, on the average–and that same book has about the same length of time to linger around brick-and-mortar bookstores like Barnes & Noble before being shuffled off to (midlist, traditionally-published) book heaven. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, and those rare blockbuster successes like Harry Potter and John Grisham’s latest book will never know these trials. But what about self-published books and self-publishing authors? It’s hard enough to get your book on any shelf, period, so how do you figure out which shelves matter the most, given the limited times that various retailers will be interested in stocking it?
I would offer up the following list of places to consider NOT selling your book:
- Big box stores. I read somewhere recently that around seventy percent of American adults haven’t stepped inside a bookstore for the last ten years. Blame the skyrocketing usefulness of digital services if you like, but the point is … most people aren’t going to find your book if it’s only for sale in a bookstore, particularly a big box store like … well, Barnes & Noble and now Amazon’s physical bookstores (Amazon’s algorithms are always sure to privilege Kindle Direct-published titles, anyway). The greatest problem of all with big box stores is, however, simply this: they won’t go to bat for you. There are too many other competing concerns, and they’re not likely to take the time to care about your individual success in the midst of all that. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t try at all to stock your book at B&N and elsewhere, but be prepared to have your books returned to you after some months if you don’t actively promote your book in each location yourself. We’ve mentioned it elsewhere on the blog, but stores may not even be willing to stock your book if you don’t give them a free return option.
- Independent bookstores. This one might get me into trouble with some other self-publishing authors, but my point is that independent bookstores are for the most part incredibly crowded places, with thousands of competing titles jammed into a small space. I would posit that the indie bookstore is a fantastic place to hold a reading, but a difficult place to sell books if you yourself are not present at a book launch party or a reading in order to promote it. Indies don’t have the budget to do that for you, and as with all other sales locations you should expect to bear the brunt of the marketing.
- Restaurants and wine bars. There can be ways to make a restaurant or wine bar or coffee shop or other “edible” establishment a happy home for your book, but usually only as a live event space–for readings and launch parties and such. Problematically, however, these locations tend to charge for such events, often a hefty sum, and the cost can outweigh the advantages–especially if there is a library or civic space nearby where you can hold your reading for free. If you’re going to sell at a restaurant, be ready to have to compete with lots of other activity and noise OR to be sectioned away from the main public area and therefore unable to draw newcomers in. It’s hard to feed serendipity when there’s a wall between you and the front door!
- Online. Not all algorithms are created equal, right? Amazon has come under fire in the last few months for deliberately downplaying indie and self-published works that were produced by other publishers than their own Kindle Direct service, and Barnes & Noble’s Nook store has never seen the same level of traffic as their amorphous competitor. You should not expect for your book to sell, magically, online without extensive marketing on your part and careful attention to where you sell. As in a lot of other facets of self-publishing, you want to sell through people who will go to bat for you. The folks over at Outskirts Press seem like a great example of such a company, and their online bookstore is easy to find and navigate.
- Under your bed. There are plenty of ways to NOT sell your book, but hiding them under the bed and expecting them to sell without you having to put in some serious elbow grease is perhaps the worst of all. The other entries on this list of “NOTs” is still a better place to start than here, in the realm of neglect. Promote, promote, promote!
… but of course, every challenge has its flip side. I would offer up this second list, in increasing order of value, as a compendium of places to DEFINITELY sell your book:
- Local indies. Look, I know what I said about independent bookstores on list #1. But local indies are another story. A nearby town has three of them, and they constantly compete to get visiting and local authors to stop by and sign books, host readings, and generally be a presence in their stores. It’s a mutually beneficial partnership, and many of the problems of the general indie bookstore disappear when you’re able to stop by multiple times a month and make yourself a part of the life of your local indies. They’re often willing, even, to pass word along about your other local events–readings at libraries and such. The three local indies I mentioned above all network with the big city library to take some of the pressure off in hosting parts of the annual state book festival. When things are local, they become fertile ground for long-lasting relationships.
- Local libraries. For many of the same reasons as with local indies, local libraries are fantastic places to sell your book. Not just at book launch parties and readings, although those too are fantastic, but possibly even at the front desk or via the community bulletin board. The point is, again, to keep yourself an active presence at the library, to stop by both at planned and unplanned moments to engage with the library patrons and staff. To cultivate relationships. One little local library I visit regularly had a special relationship with a local historian who published books about the town, and always had one or two copies of his book on hand to sell for him. When he passed away, those books suddenly became very hot property in the community, and the library hosted a farewell memorial with his family. I won’t say this particular arrangement is a common occurrence, but it’s a possibility.
- Local businesses. There are all kinds which might be willing to partner with you, either by putting up posters or keeping a couple of copies by the register–hair salons, museums, art galleries, specialty stores, you name it! Wherever people browse slowly, that’s an opportunity. And it’s all the better if you have a personal connection with the staff at these businesses, so that they’re interested in picking up the books themselves and having a read. The more people who know what’s inside the covers of your book and who stand behind counters in authority positions, the better, I say! The author who had that special relationship with his library? His books really move at the local city museum, too. There ought to be at least one place which just fits so perfectly for you, right?
- Elevators. You will have heard of the “elevator pitch” if you’ve hung around authors or businessfolk at all, and I can’t overemphasize the importance of having one of your own. There are countless opportunities to deliver a thirty-second spiel as you’re going about your daily life, your weekly routine, and your monthly once-offs! It’s all in the mindset, and flipping that switch which turns you from a regular everyday commuter to a self-promoting self-publishing author. It’s often a conscious decision, and it’s not always easy–we all want to just zombie around and relax, every now and then. Social interactions can be awkward enough as it is! But every day is full of opportunities, and if you’re sensitive to them and the mood of the person stuck in that hypothetical elevator with you, you might just have a potential future fan on your hands.
- Online. Yeah, yeah, I know this made my list of “NOTs” earlier. But it’s more about how you go about it and where you do that going-aboutness. And as always, think in terms of relationships. Where can you cultivate relationships so that you’ll be creating a team of people willing to promote your book with you? Very likely, social media will play an important role–but only if you’re willing to spend the time to cultivate real and actual, authentic interactions with your followers. So long as you’re dependent upon people you trust and care about–your fans–and not some faceless algorithm, you have a very good chance of growing your reach and selling some books along the way.
You are not alone. ♣︎