Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Guest Post: Divine Secrets of Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores

Ahoy Wednesday readers! In this week's Guest Post, bookstore employee undercover book marketing mole Lindsey Carmichael reveals how brick-and-mortars really work. Want people to buy your book from a bookstore? Tip: be nice to Lindsey, and for #^$#'s sake stop moving your book from where it's supposed to be shelved. Lindsay blogs here and here. INTERN will be back tomorrow.


Every writer needs a day job. Supportive spouses, after all, can only take you so far. After it became clear my back up plan (PhD/research scientist) was killing my creativity, there was only one choice left - what better place for a writer to work than a bookstore? There are flexible hours, which free up time for writing. There's on the scene, up to the minute market research. And let's not forget the staff discount.

One of the biggest advantages, however, is the insight into how bookstores* actually function, and how customers actually choose their next great read**. Here's what I've learned about what can make a book, including yours, jump off the shelves.


1) COVER ART. It's a sad fact that the very people who tell you not to judge a book by its cover are secretly doing just that. My specialty is the kid's/teen department, and the younger the reader, the truer it is. I can't tell you how many times I've started to recommend a book, only to have a child glance at the cover and say "no" before I can even describe the story. A book's cover is like a blind date's handshake - if it's limp and moist (ie, bland, boring, overly familiar), it inspires no confidence. If it's joint-crushing (ie, garish, vaguely offensive, or just plain ugly), it's not taken seriously. On the other hand, if it's firm and decisive (ie, well-designed, beautiful, intriguing), a reader will give serious thought to bringing it home.

2) JACKET COPY. Have you ever been intrigued by a book's cover, picked it up, flipped it over, and found nothing but blurbs, or worse, a single-paragraph excerpt from the book? What if the only information inside a hardcover's dust jacket was the author's bio? Assuming you didn't already have good reason to trust the author, how likely would YOU be to actually buy the book? To give you an extreme example. In our teen section, we have a paperback edition of Francesca Block's Weetzie Bat. It's an Indigo Recommends title, meaning it's stocked in large quantities, faced, and has a star sticker to draw attention. The cover, however, contains not a single word: no synopsis, no blurbs, no extract, nothing but rather unremarkable art. This book does not sell, because customers don't have the faintest idea what it's about. Likewise, we don't hand sell it, because none of us have read it, because we don't have the faintest idea what it's about. But, you might argue, can't booksellers get more info about the book online, at the author's website or library catalogue? Absolutely, but we don't. And neither do customers.

3) TITLE. Give us funny, give us clever, give us mysterious. Give us something that catches our attention and makes us want to know more about your masterpiece. Above all, give us something that accurately represents the book. Play fair with your readers, and be kind to booksellers. We read books at home, on vacation, and on our lunch breaks. Some of us also follow industry publications and blogs in an effort to keep up. Despite our best efforts, there's no possible way we can be familiar with every book in the store. Which means we're often giving customers advice based on our experience of titles and cover designs. Help us be right.

4) BLURBS. Blurbs are a double-edged sword. If they're compelling and offered by a writer (usually) or newspaper (sometimes) the reader trusts, they will sell your book. On the other hand... I bought the first book in a new fantasy series the other day. I read halfway through and gave up because, after 200 pages, I was bored to tears. This book was enthusiastically blurbed by two other fantasy authors. Not only will I never buy another book by this author, I'll never buy a book by the authors of the blurbs, because clearly our definitions of "good" don't jibe. The same, by the way, goes for movie deals. News of a movie deal can be all the impetus a customer (especially a child) needs to take a chance on a book. That being said, I had to stop telling people that Disney had bought Aprilynne Pike's Wings for Miley Cyrus, because 50% would buy it instantly and the other 50% put it back even faster.

5) PLACEMENT. With a few exceptions, display space in chain bookstores is a function of co-ops. Meaning publishers pay to have their books appear on tables, end caps, wheelies, in piles at the cash register.... In other words, unless your publisher has the a) money b) clout c) faith in your book as a front list title, it will probably not be featured any place but the home section. Likewise, if your publisher can't convince our buyers to purchase enough copies for a facing, your book will be spined, meaning your lovely cover will not be visible to casual browsers. Do not despair. There are ways around this, and I'm about to tell you all the:


6) GET THE WORD OUT. Take blog tours. Do store signings or school appearances. To the extent possible, arrange for newspaper reviews, especially in your hometown. In the real world and online, be places readers hang out. Customers remember books they've heard about, even if they don't remember the details. They clip newspaper reviews and bring them into the store (helpful customers do - unhelpful ones say "it was in the paper six weeks ago, what do you mean you don't know what it's called?").

Statistically speaking, you and your book will not appear on Oprah or The Today Show. The good news is, like writing, book promotion is mostly about persistence. As my alter ego the scientist would say, viral marketing is a geometric function - it takes a while to get going, but when it does, it's unstoppable.

7) ENSURE YOUR BOOK IS CARRIED BY THE CHAINS. Of course, you'll want to get your book into as many independants as you can, but there's no denying that the chains have them outnumbered. Yes, it is true that some small publishers aren't stocked by chains, and therefore a lot of great books get overlooked. Initially. If your book picks up steam, that will change. Furthermore, there are a TON of books that chains don't stock in stores, but will offer for customers to order online or through their favorite location. If your book is available through our online system, individual locations can also special order it, to offer in store. And if we like the book enough to recommend it, we will.

8) IF YOU'VE SCHEDULED PUBLICITY, LET BOOKSTORES KNOW. And let us know early enough that we can get your book in stock BEFORE you hit the airwaves. The last thing you want is for customers to mob the store in search of your gem, only to discover it's out of stock. Only a fraction of them will actually bother to order it. And those that don't will have forgotten all about it by the time it comes back into stock.

9) VISIT BOOKSTORES. Locally of course, but also when you travel. If possible, call ahead to set up an appointment with the manager for your book's category. Find out whether your book is already in stock - if it's not, bring information, or better yet, a copy. Be polite and friendly. Be charming, not creepy. Be professionally dressed, and if you have an appointment, for goodness' sake be on time. If your book is good, and you have the social skills of a even well-trained golden retriever, we'll do what we can to help you. If you're an obnoxious, pretentious, arrogant jerk, it will not matter if your book has the literary value of Dickens and the sales potential of Patterson: we'll wait until you leave and mock you in the staff room.

When I was a graduate student, I had to mobilize hundreds of hunters, trappers, wildlife officers, and biologists to collect the over 4000 DNA samples I needed for my research. I quickly learned that the only way to get people to help you is to make them WANT to help you. Which brings me to perhaps the single most important thing you can do to help sales of your book: MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE BOOKSELLERS.

Booksellers can be one of two things to you - your most powerful advocate, or your worst enemy. Unlike managers, who are often busy managing, booksellers are interacting directly with the book-buying public, every day. We're the ones making recommendations and influencing customers' decisions. Give us a reason to recommend YOUR book. When you drop by, say hello. Ask us what we're reading. Find a bookseller who likes the kind of books you write, and if you can, donate a review copy (we are drug addicts working in a heroin factory - the staff discount can only take us so far). Here are just some of the ways I've supported books I loved in the last few months:

- Adding staff picks stickers
- Spining books I didn't like so I could face ones I did
- Hand selling
- Special ordering out of stock books, for the purpose of hand selling
- Telling my coworkers how awesome a book is, and what kinds of customers it would appeal to
- Writing reviews for our company magazine, which is read by every Indigo bookseller in Canada
- Adding appropriate titles to understocked displays (we NEVER have all of the books required by co-op in stock, but if I love yours and it fits, I'll add it to the display)

I have also, on more than one occasion, told customers not to buy a book I hated. Or a decent book by an author who was a total ass. However, if we've met and you were a lovely human being, I won't sabotage you, even if I secretly believe your book isn't worth the toilet paper it's printed on.

10) BECOME A BOOKSELLER YOURSELF. Trust me. If you're even remotely likeable, your coworkers will support you. Mine are planning release parties for books I haven't submitted yet. Plus, booksellers get to meet people from the chain's head office, who make big buying decisions. Not to mention publishers' sales staff, and really, what writer doesn't want those kinds of connections?


11) GUERILLA MERCHANDISING. All due deference to the lovely Intern's former post, just don't. Don't move your book from one part of the store to the other. If we can't find it, we can't sell it. Don't add your book to displays. When we see it, we have to remove it (see above re: co-ops). Don't turn your book face out if there's only one or two copies, because our merchandizing standards will require us to come along right behind you and switch it back. In short, all of these things MAKE MORE WORK FOR US, WHICH BY THE WAY THE CUSTOMERS ARE ALREADY EXCEPTIONALLY GOOD AT, AND WE HATES IT PRECIOUS, WE HATES IT SSS SSS. Ahem. Sorry. I may have been channeling The Rejectionist there. But the point stands. Spend your time on numbers 6-10, and try not to make us resent you, 'kay?

Now get back to work and finish your book. And when it's published, come find me. I'll be in the kid's section.


* I work at Chapters, which is part of the Indigo Books and Music group, Canada's chain bookseller. But please, can we skip the diatribe about the evils of chains? I can't speak for American chains, or even other branches of Indigo, but my location is staffed with folks that are passionate about books and truly dedicated to customer service. Including PhDs willing to work for less than $10 an hour, just for the joy of being around books. Besides, our local independent ordered copies of the UK edition of Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest from a British bookseller and resold them in North America. This may not actually be illegal, but it's just a tad unethical. And while we're on the subject, if you really want to point fingers, I think we can all agree to aim them towards places like Costco and Wal Mart.

** I'm referring here primarily to fiction and kid lit, as purchased by bookstore browsers. Nonfiction shoppers are a different species entirely, and more often than not already know exactly what title they're looking for when they walk in the door.


  1. You forgot #0: be a famous author. That seems to be the overriding criterion these days.

    Back in the days when I bought fiction on paper instead of as e-books, I definitely relied on #1 and #2. I used the cover art as a quick shorthand for what kind of story it was, and then the jacket copy to find out some details about the story. I wouldn't even open the book if those didn't interest me.

    Now if only the author had some control over either of those...

    Anyway, I've switched to reading e-books for fiction. Cover art and 'jacket' copy are even more important with e-books, and there's a lot of opportunity for a catchy title since almost nobody's doing them.

    But even with e-books, being a famous author is what counts most.

  2. I love this post. Really helpful plus...I've collected DNA samples in the field, too! So, yay!

    Sales is the same no matter what and if you know anything about it you should treat your sales team well. They can kill your product if they hate you and really help you if they like you.

  3. This is an AWESOME post. Thank you, Ms. Carmichael!

  4. Having worked in or for (yes, there is a difference) bookstores and book companies, I wholeheartedly agree.

    I especially went out of my way to face out books that I loved. And I ran the Kid's section of one of the stores I worked for.

    Thanks for the post!

  5. Such a helpful post. Thank you thank you! Bookmarking this now for when I need it (fingers crossed)

    @ Doug Pardee "You forgot #0: be a famous author." LMAO.

  6. I thought this was such a helpful post. Thanks for the guest blog! Great insight here.


  7. Thank you Lindsey.

    I think I'll have a lot of fun with 6 - 10 when the time comes :) I love travel, talking and books. Can't wait :)

  8. Am I unhip for buying books at Costco?

  9. Love the post - perhaps the most lovable thing about it was the geometric function metaphor. :)

  10. Kevin-- please don't buy your books where laundry detergent is sold.

    Costco (although they're not quite as evil as Walmart) will NEVER support new authors. They are vultures, only picking at the carcass of what the real booksellers (like the guest blogger) have already made successful. And they just drive down the price that people are willing to pay for a book.

    Please, pretty please, buy books at bookstores.

    (stepping off soapbox now).

  11. Doug - being famous already is definitely a plus, although impractical for most of us! However, if your name (or pen name) places your books next to someone famous, that also helps. I have no actual data, but I'm positive Dale Brown's sales spiked like mad after Dan Brown hit it big.

  12. I almost never write book reviews, and have only once made it into the NYT Review.
    That one time, it was because I was browsing casually in a bookstore in Oxford, England, and something caught my eye.
    It had a sharp cover (stark black and white photo of two hands bound together) and a snappy title ("White Cargo"). It had a good write-up.
    Most importantly, it was turned so the cover was clearly visible, and it was right at eye level.
    If it wasn't for any of these small details -- like just its spine was showing, or it was on the bottom shelf, or the cover was boring -- I never would have picked it up.
    As it was a non-fiction book by not-so-famous authors -- and it wasn't even out in the U.S. yet -- it may never have been reviewed.
    It's sad that these things seem to hinge on superficial details, but it seems like that's the reality of the industry.

  13. Love this post! So amazingly helpful. I may print it out and post it on my wall. Also, I just googled jobs at Borders. Who knows?

  14. Thank for this post. Very informative - especially #11.

  15. What a fun and informative post--thanks Lindsey! I have a novel (A Scattered Life) coming out in August and the Top Ten Ways will be a great reference when it comes time to do promotional work.

  16. Thank you! Great info!
    BTW, I loved this part:

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  18. Lindsey, Thanks for a very helpful post--especially the comment about guerilla merchandising, which runs counter to some of the "advice" being offered out here but which also makes a lot of sense.

  19. Thanks for the information. I will keep it in mind as I start looking at the cover my publisher it designing.

  20. Hi Lindsey,

    Thanks for summarizing these excellent strategies. I especially love the part about your supportive coworkers planning your book launch-to-be! That's wonderful.

    I am wondering whether booksellers in large stores generally stick to one section or cover the entire store.


    Joan Marie Galat

    Author of:
    Day Trips From Edmonton
    and the Dot to Dot in the Sky series

  21. Hey Joan! The answer to your question is "it depends." At my store, booksellers are usually scheduled in the department they do the most reading in, as we're then best equipped to answer customer questions. This is especially true in the Kids section, as fewer adults tend to read kid and teen lit.

    However, literature generalists may be scheduled in different sections on different days, and of course we help out in all departments as needed.

  22. Great post Lindsey! Thanks for cracking the da vinci code of figuring out how book stores work.

    Lindsey did a review of my debut novel for middle grade readers Dead Frog on the Porch which you can check out on her blog below.

    Cheers, Jan