By Russel D McLean
(a response to “How to be an independent bookseller’s dream)
A few months ago, this article cropped up on the web, pulling ire from certain quarters for its allegedly patronising attitude to authors. On some levels, much of what it has to say is good - - basically, if you’re doing a signing at a bookstore, don’t be a dick about it. On other levels, some of it is more than a little patronising (the stuff about not reading too long is in part right, but it all depends on the author).
But the line that gets me is the one about booksellers being “very powerful people” on the night of the event because, while that should be true, some of them do not in any way use this “power” for good. In fact some of them abuse this power and still retain a horrific attitude towards the authors who, after all, are the reasons people come to the store in the first place.
Let me start by saying that I've been horrifically lucky in that ninety nine percent of my signings have been in bookstores with passionate staff, organised events programs and a real passion for the industry. And let me also that having had experience in the retail end myself, I know exactly what I do for visiting authors, and that I have seen things from the other side, both good and bad. But this is a reaction to a whole series of poorly organised events I've been to lately by stores who really should know better (and I've been as a member of the public, none of them knew I was an author).
I’ve witnessed some appallingly handled events recently by stores with allegedly good reputations. At these events, turnout has been poor and the booksellers have moaned about “internet competition” and “dwindling buyers” without even considering that part of the reason could be they are utterly failing to get proactive and, to use the vernacular of the theatre, get those bums in seats.
Let’s start with the basics:
You have a website. Put your events on it. Like, in advance. Like, in time. Sell the event to the masses. Tweet about it. The week before. The day before. On the day. It doesn’t take effort.
You have a window. You have (occasionally) showcards from the publishers. It might help to put those in your window and not hide them round the side of a desk where no one can see them. Because if your public can see there’s an event, they might just come. And even if the publishers fail to do that, hell, maybe you could create some posters of your own. You have a computer, yes? You can create a little document with words on that you can stick in the window?
You might also want to print off flyers in advance, find a tame journalist on your local paper, maybe even work with other appropriate local businesses to cross promote in some fashion. Just because you have an event does not mean people will come. They have to know you are doing the event first. And they won’t know that by osmosis or even just by being regular customers. Hell, get a word or two in the local papers and you might just bring new customers to the store. Okay, this might be above and beyond but in this climate, every little effort helps.
Which brings me to the other point. Tell your regular customers that an author is coming. Tell your not so regular customers. If someone’s buying a similar book, stick one of those flyers in their bags or talk to them about it. No one’s going to know if you don’t talk to them. Hell, your shop is about books. The point of coming to a store and not shopping online is to join in the literary conversation, to feel like you’re having that goddamn human contact. Being a bookseller is very different to other kinds of retail. You’ve got to be a little bit of a showperson. You’ve got to connect with your customers (and at the same time, of course, you have to know when to leave them alone).
If you do events regularly try and keep the formats and times similar so that people can plan around them.
Remember, you’re offering something the internet can’t - - actual contact with an author. A direct and unique kind of access. If you don’t shout about it, no one’s going to know and no one’s going to come to your store. Yes the author, too, should be shouting about it, but its your store. You are ultimately responsible for the business. So you’d better get off your arse and do something.
And when the author does come to speak, you might want to give them a little intro before they begin, maybe give those custombers who came in just for that author a reason to come back.
It’s insane and it sounds like teaching granny to suck eggs, but over and over I see certain bookstores failing to do any of the above. An author I went to see recently was mortified when the store in question had no sign at all of their presence and when the staff simply shrugged their shoulders upon the author’s arrival. And this was a shop that had booked the author over a month in advance and asked them to come overseas to do the gig. On their own dime.
If you have done your absolute best and still no one has turned up, it helps to apologise to the author. They came all the way to your store when they could have gone to that Big Box across the road or just not bothered at all and signed copies at the publisher’s warehouse to go straight out to some internet company who don’t do the human contact thing at all. Little things help.
Like saying, “Well, if you could still sign some copies, we’ll do our best to handsell them. People like signed copies and it’ll help us get a trickle effect so that while you didn’t sell any tonight, we’ll sell them for you in the coming days.” Or even, if the author’s fine with it, getting them to do their thing for the staff, who should still be interested being that they work in a bookstore and our industry should be run by outright passion (combined with business sense). I did this in LA when absolutely no one came to the store where I was signing, even by accident, and it was a great dry run for more successful subsequent events.
And I can already hear certain people asking “why should we apologise to authors?” The answer’s simple: they are your trump card. Amazon isn’t able to offer direct contact. You are. And authors talk, so if word gets around that you aren’t too interested in being at least civil, then pretty soon that trump card’s back in the deck and your hand’s worth nothing*
I’ve seen this from both sides. Having spent many years in retail and many years as an author, I know the pitfalls that can befall either side. But I have recently noticed certain bookstores not pulling their weight. Relying on the mere fact that they are open to draw crowds for book events or expecting the author to click their fingers and pull in sales. It doesn’t work like that. It can’t work like that.
In conclusion, booksellers - as the original article states quite clearly - are powerful people to authors, but equally authors are powerful people to booksellers. Without authors there are no books. Without books, booksellers have nothing to sell. We need each other. Neither one of us is more or less “necessary”. So yeah, authors should be nice to booksellers, but equally booksellers need to do their jobs and be nice to authors.
Because otherwise, from either side, what the hell is the point?
*Can I admit at this point I don’t play cards, so apologies for the poor metaphor.