Anyway, on with the interview. I've interviewed a number of authors, and it's always fun to hear about different people's processes, how their books came about, and so on. But I wanted to try something a little different, and for a lot of my readers, I thought it might be helpful to get a peek into the mind of someone who actually sells our books. Let me know if this is a feature you'd like to see more of!
I met Jessica at Ad Astra last year. We chatted a bit then, and hung out again this year. She was kind enough to agree to an interview about her work at the World's Biggest Bookstore in Toronto. So without further ado, here's Jessica.
1. Introduce yourself, if you would? Who are you, where do you work, and what do you do?
My name is Jessica 'Strider', and I work in the fiction section of the World's Biggest Bookstore in Toronto. For the past two years I've been in charge of the science fiction/fantasy section. I do themed endcaps and an online, well it used to be a newsletter but now it's a blog with book reviews, author interviews and reading lists.
2. So let's get down to business. What can I as a struggling author do to make sure you stock my books, sell them to all of your customers, and make me stinking, filthy rich so I can quit my day job and live on a yacht with my genetically engineered peacock-dragon?
Unfortunately from what I've seen, if you're writing to afford genetic pets, you're better off becoming a geneticist yourself and marketing the pets instead. The reason multimillion dollar deals get so much press is because they're so rare. I.e., if you're writing for the money you're better off doing something else.
The easy answer for those who would like to make some money is to write a good book. The problem is to get someone at the store to read (or at least hear about) your book and get excited about it. As with everything in publishing, this is partly a matter luck, skill and bookseller/buyer/customer interest.
First off, there are two types of booksellers. Those who work at the store to pay bills until they can find a better job and those who don't care about the lousy pay because they love working with books. Try to find the second type. These are the people who get very excited when they offer suggestions and have ACTUALLY READ THE BOOKS THEMSELVES.
Once you find said bookseller, talk them up. Find out what they've read and listen to suggestions. Then, subtly, suggest your own book. And speak enthusiastically about it. Having met you they'll be more likely to read your book. And once they've read it, they can sell it. This doesn't have to be done in person. One of my co-workers was contacted by an author on facebook who saw she likes mysteries. Even if the bookseller doesn't read your book, the next time someone asks for something similar to what you write, they'll remember how polite you were and what you said about your book and will often recommend it.
Also, the more books you have out the more space you take up on the shelf, the more often the bookseller will shelve your titles and the more people will know you. That means you have to keep writing. And keep writing good books. Don't expect one well written novel to sell mediocre sequels. When people give up on you they usually don't come back, even if your later work is much better than your earlier stuff.
There's a saying that it takes 10 years (or something like that) to be an overnight success. Da Vinci Code was Dan Brown's 4th book. Harry Potter didn't become a sensation until it was marketed to kids (it was originally packaged for and shelved in the adult section).
3. What are some of the Very Bad Ideas you've seen or heard of when it comes to authors and bookstores?
I'll tell good and bad together because just knowing what you shouldn't do doesn't always help you learn what you should do.
a) Be Polite
Do not: piss off your bookseller. You can do this by being arrogant (don't you know who I am?), pushy (you have to display my book), by embarrassing the bookseller (why do you only have one copy of my book in stock? - this is especially bad, as the bookseller usually has no control over order quantity. If the seller is embarrassed, they'll take it out on you by ignoring your book completely after you leave or they'll complain about you to all their co-workers).
Do: talk to the bookseller and any customers about your books. Praise their store, the size of their SF/F section, tell them you shop there, autograph books. Face your books if possible. Booksellers don't mind and it will help your sales.
Do not: rearrange displays so your book is on one. There are three types of displays: co-ops (where publishers have paid to display specific things - if we change these we get into a lot of trouble), store generated themes or head office planograms (where someone has spent hours coming up with a topic and books that suit the topic - if you mess with this someone is going to be very angry), and overstock displays (where books with large quantities are piled - again, you'll mess up the display and that will irritate the bookseller who had to do the display).
Do: sign books and ask if they can be displayed somewhere (I imagine most stores have a place where signed books are prominently displayed), tell the bookseller if your book is new, or on a topic that fits a display you noticed (sometimes they have to grasp at straws to fill displays so if you can help with this they'll thank you and remember you kindly) and let them decide where it should go. Also, if there's only one copy in stock they're often not allowed to display it, but they might be able to order more in…
c) Author Signings
Do not: sit at the signing table expecting hoards of customers to mob you. Also, don't invite costumed people to stand around you if you're coming in normal clothes (customers will talk to the people in costume and ignore you, which is pretty depressing to witness). If the signing goes badly (ie, if you're not mobbed by fans) don't take it out on the booksellers - they're more embarrassed about how this turned out than you are. That's why they're tiptoeing by your table, hoping you won't notice them.
Do: talk to customers. Hand out something so they'll remember you after they leave the store: a bookmark, candy, business card. Talk to the booksellers about your books, the store, the writing life (many booksellers who love their jobs are writers in waiting and will appreciate any tips you give them - and remember you and your book after you leave). Come in costume yourself if it works for your book. People will ask you why you're dressed up and that opens discussion on your book.
4. I've talked about self-publishing from time to time on the blog, and there's a lot of contradictory information out there. How does a self-published author get onto your shelves?
There are two ways of getting into the store (and here I'm talking specifically about the Chapters/Indigo chain in Canada - I don't know how other stores and chains manage this). The first, getting in the catalogue so the books order through our computer system, requires a distributor, which generally means a publisher so…
The second is consignment. It's entirely at the discretion of the manager at each store and involves a fair bit of work so it's not that easy. Most managers will simply say no. If a publisher won't look at your book, why should they?
Still interested? Basically you need to prove that your book will sell. This works best for promotional speakers who have non-fiction books, but can work for fiction if you do a signing in store and invite all your friends. The manager might take a chance on it if you write on a topic or in a genre that has consistently high sales, in which case adding a new title is welcome. You're put on a limited contract that is renewable if sales are good. Contracts deal with issues like discount, returnability, etc.
5. Best thing about working at the World's Biggest Bookstore?
Seeing new books as they come in. It's also nice to be invited to publisher previews to see what's going to be coming out in the next few months.
6. You're also a writer. What insights have you gained into the publishing business that will help your authorial self?
Basically that being published is a matter of luck, time and skill. You've got to be professional, be able to take criticism and keep trying despite the difficulties. Also, networking is important. It's not who you know, it's who knows you.
7. What really sells a book, anyway?
Finally, an easy question! Despite everything people say about not judging a book by it's cover, that's still the first criterion used when deciding whether or not to buy a book. A bad cover will kill your novel. Which is unfortunate, as authors have little to no say over this. After that comes the price. If it's too expensive (or in hard cover) most people will wait until the paperback comes out. If they find the paperback too expensive… Finally, word of mouth. Whether this is though things like book clubs, bestseller lists or simply friends giving suggestions, the more people who know who you are and rave about your book, the more books you'll sell.