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On knowing the business - part one: Bookstores

It's so easy to not bother getting to know the ins and outs of the business end of writing. Probably, like most writers, you want to write, not run a business. The easy answer to that is to get a traditional publishing deal and let someone else run the business side for you. Or, even better, get an agent and let them do the hard yards.

I think that's a mistake. My other job (ie the one that feed and clothes me) is as a management consultant. I tell anyone, anywhere, in every business in the land, that it's important to know their operating environment. I get care assistants to do PESTLE analysis (I won't bore you with the details), just as much as I get CEOs to. Why?

You are at risk if you don't know the environment you operate in. You're also weak when it comes to taking opportunities, or knowing what to ask of whom, when. I might not especially like researching funding and networks and what-not - but if I don't do it, I'll lose out to those with that knowledge. So, I grit my teeth and do it (and just received a very nice bursary for a week at a summer school from the lovely people at the John Hewitt society.)

I've come to know the book business from a number of sides. I've had a number of roles/opportunities. Over the next few weeks, I'm going to talk about what I've learned about the business from each. (Trust me, one blog would barely touch it.)

This week, then - five things I've learned about bookstores. For ten years (quite some time ago, however) I was a manager in a bookchain. My husband has been a senior bookseller for something like 25 years, in both independents and chains, and continues to be (with a fine, and growing, range of sf titles, would you believe it?) Here's what that end of the business has taught me:

1. Getting stocked in any store is hard. Getting into chains is nearly impossible for indie or small published authors (I say nearly - some managers rock at getting diverse titles onto their shelves.)

To get stocked in a chain you need approval from central buying. Often, a local manager can help with this - talk to them. Be polite and nice and you'll be surprised how many are very open to support you. (I spoke to six local shops and got a yes from five and a pretty terse knockback from one. That's not bad.)

To get stocked in more than just the shop down the road from you means you need your title to be centrally bought into the chain's distribution hub. It won't happen if you're an indie. Sorry. That's where the big boys hold the cards.

2. Events. Bookstores like running events. They're pretty pragmatic that sometimes they get low numbers attending (I have, in the past, asked the staff to pop a coat on and ask for a signed copy because the author feels so bad when it happens.) Small events don't take a lot to run - a table and a sign, and some stock. It gives a bit of a buzz, brings some footfall in and, crucially, supports local authors (because bookstores need authors and because most people working in bookstores are passionate about books.) Sometimes a little bit of press coverage comes from it - but, at the very least, the author should do a bit of tweeting and what not about it, and give some profile back for it.

Bigger events are more problematic. They do take up staff time. There is more egg on the author's face if it doesn't work. But they're fantastic promo wins. The launch for my first book was a party, with stormtroopers and what not. The turn out was good, about 15 books were sold and everyone was happy.

Don't be afraid to ask the shop if you can do an event. (But watch your margin - one chain I know of takes a whopping 50% cut on special events - that doesn't leave a lot over for you or your publisher.) As ever, the worst they're going to say is no.

3. Sign your stock! If you notice it on the shelf, or if new copies have been brought in, sign them. The shop will pop a little sticker on the front and the odd person will pick it up because having a signed book is nice. And because if that little unknown author goes and does a JKRowling, it will be worth a small fortune. (Oh, I so hope those who believed in me one day sell Abendau and Inish and have a holiday on it.)

Check with the store first, of course - you don't want to be picked up for defacing books - and let them know when you've finished so that little sticker can go on.

4. Staff members in bookstores don't get big pay. A lot of them tend to be book enthusiasts. Talk to them about your book. Tell them who might like it and why. These guys talk to people wanting to buy books every day. The range in big bookstores is often quite generic - readers often like a nice recommend.

Also, if you have run an event and had the staff look after you for a few hours, drop in a card, at least, or a tub of sweets. It's not expensive (high-tail it to Home Bargains and stock up), but it's a nice thing to do. And, you know, book store staff are like your servers at a cafe. You want them supporting you - so support them back.

5. Know what you get from a shop stocking your book. Huge sales? Most likely not, not from one store. But photos of the book in the wild that you can share on SM (and people do like to go ooooh at those, I find.) Another drop in the pond of promotion. Some additional word of mouth.

Oh, and the big one. Nothing, but nothing, but nothing, makes you feel more like a writer than seeing your book on the shelf. Face out, beside Andy Weir is something a bit special. It's a buzz that Kindle can't touch. And we all need motivation to keep going, in this game. For me, bookstores give some of that.

My books in the wild can be found at:

Easons (various branches, but for the full range Donegall Place in Belfast are the place to hightail it to)
Blackwells at the Student's Union in Queens
Waterstones, Belfast
Carrickfergus tourist information shop (Inish Carraig only).

A huge thanks to all for the support.

More about me and the books, some free shorts, links to reviews etc can be found at:


Anya Kimlin said…
I so want my books in small bookstores that don't separate horror and fantasy - guess who Anya Kimlin gets to go next to lol (I know... I shouldn't use it as a goal). I'm starting to make sure I visit the small events so the bookstore owners and librarians get to know me. Sadly, I've lost my potential to get in at the local library.
Leighton Dean said…
Hey Jo,

Love point three. I did not know you could do this, and appreciate not only the knowledge but the safety warning too. Nothing worse than being tackled to the floor by an overzealous employee.