When I ask for suggestions on how to sell more books, inevitably, someone will suggest that I visit local bookstores (chain and independent ones) to see if they’ll carry my books.

It isn’t as if I haven’t tried this. Both local science fiction bookstores (Uncle Hugo’s and Dreamhaven) already have purchased my books (for which I am grateful). I have also tried the Barnes and Noble Small Press Department…their response was, in essence: don’t call us, we’ll call you. Generally my experience with bookstores is similar to that of sf author and small press publisher Steve Miller, who reported driving from his home in Maine down the eastern seaboard to Florida, stopping at every sf bookstore he could find along the way. None of them purchased his books.  Most bookstores won’t purchase books from authors (or small presses). They just don’t. They prefer to purchase books from suppliers, and suppliers prefer not to handle books that don’t bring in at least a couple of thousand dollars in immediate sales.

I have also attended the midwest bookseller’s convention—twice—to promote my books, with no success (oh, they’ll take free copies, but they don’t order any). I have used a service which lists your books in their catalog, then forwards review copies of books to interested booksellers who request them. Although I have sent books to these booksellers, I’ve never received any orders from the ones I sent copies to. I’ve also sent a large number of copies to a national distributor for their “sales reps,” presumably so those sales reps can show my books to bookstore owners and get them interested in purchasing. I haven’t seen any results of that, either.

However, at the Bloomington Book Fair earlier this year, a man (let’s call him Joe Author), told me that he had success selling his self-published book locally. He specifically indicated the University of Minnesota bookstore, Garrison Keillor’s Common Good Books bookstore, and the Science Museum bookstore. So I thought I’d give them a try.

Joe was most enthusiastic about the University of Minnesota bookstore. According to him, the book buyer there was eager to purchase books from alumni, and wrote a check on the spot for Joe’s books. I brought them both Thunderbirds books and Boldly Writing. I went to the bookstore (which had moved since I was last at the campus bookstore), and asked for the manager, who indicated there were 2 buyers. One came to talk to me. I introduced myself as an alumna and went on from there.

I talked about Boldly Writing first. I told the buyer (twice) that I received comments and e-mails regularly from professors in the field of popular culture saying that this was a valued reference, that it had been cited in academic papers, and that I had been told by Ph.D.s that they had used Boldly Writing in their dissertations. Despite this, she indicated she wasn’t interested.
I then brought out the Thunderbirds books, asking if they carried science fiction. She said they did, but that they “only carry the big science fiction authors.” In parting, she said that my books weren’t the kind that their bookstore carries.

Before leaving the subject of the U of MN bookstore, I do want to say that the newsletter of the Department of Physics and Astronomy (from which I graduated), has always been eager to print news of my books in their department/alumni newsletter. (The general U of MN alumni magazine, however, has not.) Obviously, the Department of Physics and Astronomy isn’t running the U of MN bookstore.
From there, I went to the Red Balloon Bookstore in St. Paul. This wasn’t a bookstore that Joe Author recommended, but it is a bookstore that members of the MN SCBWI recommended, and I had called ahead. The manager there was very nice and took 2 copies of each Thunderbirds novel “on consignment” and asked me to check back in 3 months to see whether they sold.

After that, I went to the Common Good Books store, which was not far away. This bookstore is a basement store, and I found it well-lit and comfortable. I approached an employee at the front desk and asked her if they purchase from Minnesota authors, and if they purchase science fiction. She was very nice and replied that they do, but they only carry books that one of the staff has read and would recommend. I asked if I could leave copies of my books for her to read. She said that was fine, and I did.

Last, I went to the Science Museum and asked to talk to the bookstore manager. He was courteous and explained their purchasing policy, saying it was their experience that only books that relate to the current exhibit sell. For instance, he said, when they had the “body works” display, the only books sold were those relating to the human body, and to their frustration, none of their other books sold. He said that for that reason, they did carry science fiction when they had the Star Wars exhibit, but wouldn’t carry sf again until or unless they had another sf related exhibit, and added that they may in the future and I could contact them again.

Such is my experience with trying to sell directly to bookstores. Joe Author may have had a different experience—of bookstore managers writing him a check on the spot—but most authors who try to sell direct don’t have that kind of success.

POSTSCRIPT: Common Good Books never got back to me about my books. The Red Balloon Bookstore returned the books to me after several months–they did not sell any of them.

Posted by Joan Marie Verba at 6/30/2009 3:54 PM