Tuesday, February 21, 2006

For Sale: How To Get Your Book On Store Shelves

Last week, I mentioned during a visit to Bernita's blog that I'd just heard a bookstore owner speak about the challenges authors are facing to get their books on store shelves. It was suggested I write up a post about this.

Canada's large bookstore chain, Chapters/Indigo, has finally turned a profit. The reason?

Fewer books for sale and more gift merchandise.

We've all seen it walking into bookstores. The area at the front of the store is filled with cd's, games, stuffed animals, photo boxes - a bizarre assortment of things that really don't have much to do with books.

And almost every outlet here has a coffee shop on the premises.

During a reacent trip to one Indigo branch we were astonished to find that not only had they taken out a hefty chunk of floor space and turned it into Starbucks, despite being located in a mall, but they'd also removed 50% of their magazines.

The rules for independents
The bookstore owner spoke about a number of variables. As a small independent bookstore, they are more particular with what they carry in stock. A local author won't necessarily get on their store shelves if they don't think the book is a good fit for their clientele.

One of the key suggestions was, when choosing a publisher, to find out what kind of distribution they have. Ingrams in the US has a phenomenal reputation, and essentially all the bookstores deal with them. In Canada, Trafford is one of the distribution networks - before you sign, make sure you ask if it matters to you.

Why? If the book comes from the US, it may be more expensive to carry and therefore bookstores are less likely to risk it. This is something I saw happen with an author I knew a few years ago, and they were extremely frustrated by the unwillingness of the Canadian bookstores to carry their book.

Here are the cruel truths for Canadian writers:
A best-selling novel in Canada is one that sells 3000 copies.

10 years ago, the average Canadian-authored & published novel sold 1400 copies. Today, the average is 800.

What is contributing to this? From Jan. 13/2006's Quill and Quire:
"The loss of many independents has been a loss of the best form of marketing, the one literary (i.e.fiction) books rely on the most - word of mouth, handselling, endorsement by bookstore owners and staff."

I know I've experienced standing in Chapters, biting my tongue as someone who clearly hasn't read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe tries to say it's sorta like Tolkein, but different.

Get to know your independent bookstore owners
Why? They have the personal passion to discuss books. They know their books. They're selective about what they carry because they know their customers.

They have to.

Around here, it is the independents that host book launches and author readings. They're very supportive of the local writing community, which means they're important people to talk to.

So draft up some questions for them, or if you aren't ready to query yet and haven't really gotten a handle on the marketing and selling side of the equation, then my recommendation is to just get to know them. Tell them you're working on a manuscript but leave it there. Just take whatever nuggets they can give you and store that advice away.

This store's customers:

90% female
40-75 in age, on average
Not into strong forensic detail
Place/Setting/Character is tantamount

Typical reading averages:
1. People aged 20-30 are reading fewer and fewer books.
2. However, people 40 and up are reading more.
3. Fewer books are getting onto store shelves, so people are reading more and more of the same books.

What can we take from this?
I always wondered why some series writers started with characters around 40 in age. Perhaps its because the majority of readers can relate to that? I'm just speculating.

People aged 20-30 are too busy with university, establishing careers, starting families... It's really important you understand your target audience as a writer. There may be subtle and not-so-subtle thing that you do differently in your writing.

This doesn't mean you're catering to the audience at the expense of your art, but I know that if I want my book in this particular bookstore, it needs to go soft on the forensics. Suspicious Circumstances could be a good fit. My other manuscript wouldn't be such a great fit, as it currently stands.

Now, I've taken some of the meat out of this in writing it, because what I learned about covers could make up for an entirely separate post, so I'll save that for next time. As it is, I've ended up with 2 posts again today, but I'm making up in advance for the fact that I'm going to be away for a few days next week.

More on that later!

Have a good one. And don't forget: Leave me a comment with a suggestion for future tip discussion topics. I'll try to cover what's of interest as best I can, and can do some research as well if I think further ahead than Monday night!


Anonymous said...

Not to be US-centric, but are there impediments to Canadian authors querying and publishing in the U.S.?

Sandra Ruttan said...

I can tell you my own experience.

I sent essentially the same refined query letter to agents and publishers in the US, Canada, Ireland and the UK.

I got nibbles in Canada, Ireland and the UK. Not one US agent or publisher (save the one I signed with) was interested.

Now, in a quiet word with the bookstore owner, he told me that even if they didn't have Canadian distribution, he'd take the deal. His reason was that I could and would do much better sales-wise in the US and that the Canadian market was too small to be competitive.

I've been told repeatedly if you want to sell south of the border you have to pick a US setting. And I did that with Suspicious Circumstances - apparently I've got some wobbles with it, though, some Canadianisms. I set the other series in Canada.

Maybe Cornelia will pop on and mention what she thought, as an American, of reading the Canadian setting.

But this is not just true in Canada-US terms. When I was at Harrogate last year, the bookclubs and booksellers said that it is the US and UK books that the readers like, they aren't crazy about translated books by Europeans, and the Canadians are about the one exception there. Otherwise, the majority of what hits their lists are by Americans and Brits.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Sandra.
This sort of information from someone who has actually "gone and looked" is invaluable.

Trace said...

Wow. Excellent post.

Erik Ivan James said...

Excellent post. In the below age 25 market, however, they being those that might buy our books in the future, I have to wonder how many of them can read and write these days----at least in the U.S.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I think it's just that people are too busy - school, career, family.

And I should add to the above that while I may have had no US nibbles save the one I took in the end, it may also be that I queried the wrong places. The US is a huge market, and some agents don't make it easy by not having websites, not listing their clients...and not every author names their agent in their credits.

So sometimes you can feel like you're completely in the dark on who to approach.

And then you get the scammers...

JamesO said...

When you consider how big Canada is (It's bigger than Australia, and that's a continent!) and it's tiny population (circa 32 million, or around half that of the UK), it's hardly surprising that the book industry struggles. The only way, sadly, for Canadians to make it big is to export, and the biggest market, with a population almost ten times the size, is the US.

Arrogant Worms songs notwithstanding, Australia is another good case in point. It's another huge country with a tiny, but english-speaking population. The local industry can't achieve the economies of scale selling just to Australians, and it's open to imports from countries with much bigger home-grown audiences. This tends to mean that local authors can only exploit niche areas, and those who want to write mainstream have to tailor their work to the biggest markets - the US and the UK.

Sadly our American cousins are noted for their insularity, and this extends to their reading habits. So to succeed you have to be either exceptional, or to adopt a US mentality.

Unless, of course, you write fantasy. Then anything goes;}#

M. G. Tarquini said...

I know I read because TV is so damned awful. Been the case all my life. It's especially the case now. So, the demographic of over 40's reading more may be because they look at the new fall lineup and realize it looks a helluva lot like the old fall lineup and they think - you know, I wonder if there's anything to read...

Also, I think us old fogies are more used to reading. We did more of it as kids because there wasn't an internet or iPods or cable television. Even for the ones who went outside and played, there was always a rainy spell that forced us to the books.

Gabriele C. said...

Germany is so behind, again. They actually still sell books in bookstores. Haven't seen a single stuffed teddy there yet, or any HP action figures.

Rick said...

I imagine the Canadian problem varies by genre? It is something I'd never have thought of, partly because I'm US, but also partly because my field is SF/F. If you're making up the setting anyway, I imagine that where you are really from doesn't make much difference. But I can see how it would be different if you're writing, say, mysteries, or pretty much anything with a contemporary setting.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I'm speculating here Rick, but I think you're right. I think once you cross into non-fiction, sci-fi/fantasy, you have a lot more leeway.

Sadly, this means a lot of the Canadian mystery writers are going overseas or to the US for their settings. Jon Evans has a globe-trotting protag. Peter Robinson retains his UK setting with Inspector Banks. Lyn Hamilton has another globe-trotting protag.

It bothers me that there's becoming a backlash against this mentality. I've heard authors say they've stopped reading the Americans and only read Canadians now. And this is absolutely the wrong result of all of this. It should be reading GOOD fiction, GOOD writing, regardless of where the book is set.