The entire panel was dressed in black or charcoal, except for the owner of Queen Anne Book Company – she wore eggplant. All of these booksellers gathered to explain to us writers how to work well with independent bookstores. I both wanted to know these people and be friends with them.
It would turn out that their panel was the most practical of all I attended at AWP because it gave me advice – or maybe I should say it contextualized information I already knew. Independent bookstores have my heart.
Okay, all bookstores have some part of my heart, but the work of independent bookstores is both personally and politically very important to both the reader and writer in me.
As they talked about the importance of building a partnership with a local independent bookstore, as they discussed how asking to have work sold in that bookstore is much like sending a work to a journal – know the store before you ask, I felt my blood quicken just a little.
Excitement and shame equal measures. Excitement because I realized much of this I had done – the connections, the ask, the event that I’ve marketed through my social media outlets. Shame because I had come to rely on the massive, the conglomerate, the easy.
So when I left the panel, I made some changes quickly, changes to my website, but also changes to my attitude and practices, too.
I published through Amazon, yes, and I don’t regret that choice. The system was (mostly efficient) and easy, and it provides me a great deal of autonomy. But the sales, those I want to take broader because its independent bookstores and local shops, book clubs in living rooms and friends at library gatherings who have really embraced The Slaves Have Names. Amazon doesn’t care about my book or about me; they care about money.
Money is not why I wrote this book.
I’ve learned a lot about working with local, independent businesses and groups in the past few months. Here are my top 5 insights:
1. Give your buyers local and independent shopping options. On the panel at AWP, the booksellers made one point several times – be sure to link to more than major corporations on your website. This was a mistake I had made, and one I rectified as soon as I left that panel. I added a link to IndieBound, and I also listed the places where The Slaves Have Names is available, including the local shops that carry it. Now people can order the book – through my website – at a variety of retailers.
2. Market your local events and feature the shop. Next week, I’m honored to be giving a reading at the New Dominion Bookshop in Charlottesville, VA. I’ve loved this little shop for years, and I love that they carry books that are particularly appealing to the history-loving crowd of Sally Hemings’ and Thomas Jefferson’s hometown. So I’m doing my best to get the word out about my event but also about the shop itself. Sales of my book make them money, too – a win-win.
3. Offer your books on consignment. The booksellers at AWP were very eloquent and adamant about the importance of authors accepting and honoring when a bookstore wants books only on consignment. It’s a question of cash flow. The store cannot necessarily afford to sink a lot of cash into a book that might not sell. So this way, they aren’t out a lot of cash, and the writer still gets her book seen and sold. I really like this arrangement – it’s how I’m selling with UVa and New Dominion.
4. Think beyond the bookstore. My most popular events and sales venues haven’t had anything to do with bookstores. As I said in this piece on Jane Friedman’s blog, more copies of my book have sold in a local restaurant, pharmacy, and hair salon than in any bookstore. Plus all my events, thus far, have been for local groups including the Historical Society and the African American Historical and Genealogical Society. In fact, with the exception of the wonderful event at New Dominion, I don’t have any upcoming events at bookstores either. (At least not yet. ;))
5. Don’t discount the value of your friends. On Saturday, while I perused the book fair at AWP, the local sheriff called me to ask if I would be willing to be a vendor at the upcoming NAACP banquet in May. The restaurant, pharmacy, and hair salon that have my books are all owned by friends or acquaintances. When I offered The Slaves Have Names as a free download a few weeks back, it was my friends on Facebook that shared it so often that it was downloaded almost 2,700 times. Our friends want us to succeed; we just need to give them the opportunity to help us.
What have you done to support your local bookstores and businesses with your book, and how have they helped you?