Friday, September 6, 2013

Marketing Your Debut Novel: Bookstores

Trying to sell one's first book can be a daunting experience. And a discouraging one. We work so hard to prepare that first title, and despite our deep-down knowledge of reality, we still expect it to fly off the shelves. But what if it doesn't?

This post is the beginning of a series of blog posts that will offer a step-by-step plan for post-launch marketing. Before I "launch" into it, I'd like to distinguish between marketing and promotion. For my purposes here, I'm defining "promoting" (in simplistic terms) as "getting the word out." I'm defining "marketing" as "selling the book." Previous posts on this site have discussed many ways you can "promote" your book and yourself as an author in the years, months, and weeks leading up to publication of your first title, as well as post-launch. For ideas from the Murder Lab community, please see this post and this one.

Here, I focus on post-launch marketing to bookstores. Future posts will detail other avenues for selling your book.

First, Write a Marketing Plan

If you're a reader of this blog (or any other writers' blog,) you already understand the importance of marketing your own book. So I won't reiterate the importance of this here, but rather, I'll share some insight for what has and hasn't worked for me.

Here's what doesn't work: Having abstract marketing ideas. Abstract ideas only lead to procrastination, because the execution of abstract ideas is not a straightforward task. For example, if you think to yourself, "I'll hit up some local bookstores," but you don't know exactly what bookstores, how you'll "hit them up" or what you'll say, then you'll never do it.

The benefit of a written marketing plan is both organizational and psychological. As long as the list is in front of you with items still not checked off, it's easier to keep a positive attitude - even if your book isn't flying off the shelves like you wanted it to - because you still have things you need to do in order to sell it.

So, first, write down a step-by-step, concrete, crystal clear list of action items that can be checked off as you go. Ideally, you should write this plan long before your book comes out, so that you have time to prepare all of the required materials, your 30-second elevator pitch, your hook, and all of the other details that you'll need in order to execute it. Here's the snippet of mine that relates to bookstores:
  1. Research local bookstores online to identify indie stores in your area. Here's an indie bookstore finder that you can use to get started.
  2. Generate a list of the stores who might be interested in carrying your novel. Here's a list of indie bookstores in the Southern California area, with notes about each one and contact info. (If you live in Southern California, I've already done steps 1 and 2 of this plan for you.)
  3. Call the bookstores and ask whether or not they carry:
    1. New books
    2. Mysteries/thrillers
    3. Local authors
    4. Self-published
  4. If no, cross off list.
  5. If yes, ask to speak to the person who sets up events and/or the book-buyer.
    1. Offer 30 second elevator pitch about book
    2. Offer to deliver introductory/press kit
      1. Copy of novel
      2. Book flyers
      3. Business cards
      5. Printed reviews
    3. Emphasize 100% returnable
    4. Emphasize that Baker&Taylor and Ingram are in place
    5. Try to set up a signing or other event
The above example is just one aspect of the overall marketing plan (marketing to and within bookstores,) but you get the idea. A word about steps 3-5: actual discussions with bookstores can be done either on the phone, via e-mail, or in person. Personally, I made the mistake of wasting a bit of time and gas driving around to bookstores that never would have supported my book (whoops!) As an example, bookstores that carry mostly used books are a tough sell. Their clientele don't enter the bookstore expecting to pay full price for any book, so the odds of an unheard-of debut novel selling there are slim. Most used bookstores won't even try.

After that day, I figured out that step #3 should always be done over the phone.

For step #5, I now use my judgement when calling about step #3. If I get the feeling that I'm talking to a bookstore owner and/or buyer, and that person seems to be receptive and have time to speak to me, I'll continue the discussion on the phone. If they seem in a hurry to hang up, or if they're not the right contact person, then I'll try to set an appointment to discuss things further. 

Execute Your Marketing Plan - Step by Step, Day by Day

My overall marketing plan for The Vesuvius Isotope is ten pages long. On top of that, I have multiple additional lists of things I need in order to execute the plan (such as the mother bookstore list I started out with, which in itself was 15 pages long.) Hence, the benefit of having this stuff in place *before* your book comes out.

To execute the plan, set aside a chunk of time each day for exclusive focus on marketing. Have a day-runner with one or more bullet points from your marketing plan assigned to each day. Then do the work and cross off the bullet points each day. It's as simple as that. If you can't call every bookstore in L.A. in a day, just block off the chunk that you *will* call each day and then get cracking. Next to each, annotate whether or not they answered the phone, what they said, and what your follow-up steps will be.

Initial marketing to San Diego bookstores took me about a week, between generating the list, calling the stores, and dropping off introductory packages. Had I not wasted a day (see above) it would have been shorter. And had I already had the list (as you do, So Cal people!) it would have been even shorter.

Ultimately, I was led to four San Diego bookstores emerging as the clear best bets for my novel.
  1. Mysterious Galaxy
  2. Warwick's
  3. Unicorn Books (Ramona)
  4. Upstart Crow
The first three bookstores were quickly receptive to The Vesuvius Isotope. Each of them first asked me to leave a book for the powers-that-be to look over. Within a few weeks, each of them got back to me and set up a signing event (details for upcoming events here.) The launch party, which was held at Mysterious Galaxy, was a fantastic success. The Vesuvius Isotope is on sale at Mysterious Galaxy now. 

Because my calendar is already full for the next couple of months, I haven't followed up with Upstart Crow...but I'll keep my readers informed as to whether or not they are receptive.

Look Forward

For the first couple of months after The Vesuvius Isotope launched, I found that marketing took up the majority of each day. After that, I found that my schedule was filling up with marketing/promotional events. Because I don't want to "overbook" myself on any given month (and thus dilute the attention given to each event,) I made the decision to decrease the focus on marketing for the next month or so. Instead, I'm promoting in steady-state mode (twitter, Goodreads, etc.) and have moved on to the fun stuff: I'm now working on my second and third books.

The next post in this series will address DOs and DON'Ts for the signing event itself. Readers... what have you done to succeed in the bookstores?


  1. Something I've found very useful for just this activity is to create a one-page "sell sheet" that packages all the pertinent information. It includes a cover image, the back-cover copy, review excerpts, trade information (ISBN, major outlets, price, distibution), a short author bio and contact information. It's great for emailing to a bookstore or library, and it gives them everything they need to look up or order your book. Mine is here.

    I won't claim ownership for this idea -- I stole if from Rachel Abbott.

  2. Lance and Rachel Abbott, brilliant idea. Thanks for sharing!