With Knight of Flame coming out on October 15th, I turned the crank on my great wheel of marketing to the notch labeled—Local Independent Book Stores (LIBS). While a tremendous amount of work can be done online, there is no substitute for, or a peripheral device yet invented that replaces, a firm handshake, and that personal touch.
Building relationships is still important, still relevant, and a great way to garner support at your local independent book seller. It's not a one visit, wham, bam, buy my book, kind of deal. It can be, if your end goal is to see your book on their shelves; but, if you actually want the store personnel to keep you in mind and recommend your books to their customers, it takes a little more time and attention. I learned a lot during my first visit, and would like to share it with you.
The LIBS I targeted is touted as one of the biggest new and used book stores in Florida. They host quite a few author events, as evidenced by the huge array of signed book cover posters along the walls. These guys have been around a long, long time, founded in 1933 to be exact. I haven't been in a store like that in years. The arid smell—of old paper, dust, adventure, and wisdom—filled the place. I loved it.
Now, I've been in tons of bookstores before, but as a reader. This was my first sojourn with more on my mind than picking up the latest release from Brooks, Farland, Anderson, Owen, or several of my other favorites. So, my expectations were low. I wanted to go in, look around, introduce myself, ask how they made stocking decisions, buy a book (I didn't want to take up their time without giving something in return), and call it a successful recon mission with a plan to come back in a few weeks.
It didn't quite work out that way.
I struck up a conversation with one of the guys behind the desk. It only lasted a few minutes, but I got the chance to introduce myself, handed him my business card, and mentioned that I had a book coming out soon. He gave me the owner's card in return and suggested I give him a call. Done. Nothing major, but I was nice, made the initial contact, and gained the information I needed. Mission accomplished.
Free to peruse the shelves, I found the Fantasy section. Being an avid Fantasy guy, most of the other shelves, and there were shelves everywhere, appear grayed out to me anyway. While perusing the new releases, the gentleman I had spoken to, Roger (name changed to protect the innocent), walked over and picked up the conversation where we left off. We talked about some of the different authors, and then changed topics to cover art.
Roger appeared to be roughly my age, give or take, and he'd worked in the store since he was three, THREE, said he started in the comic book room. Based on his confident demeanor, and the comfortable, familiar way he talked about the authors that had held signings over the years, I got the impression he'd seen just about every book that had come out in the last thirty years worth seeing.
We discussed some of the old Frank Frazetta and Boris Valejo covers from the '80s, among other things. Then, in the midst of Roger bemoaning the trend of some Sci-Fi covers being too abstract, I offered to show him my cover art. I mean, what could it hurt? We were in the midst of the cover conversation and he seemed to know a lot about the topic. He said, "Uh, sure." Not overly enthused, but willing to take a peek. (He mentioned earlier that the owner of the store gets at least twenty calls a day from authors asking for him to stock their books. I bet he sees all kinds of covers, all the time. By his demeanor I assume that most aren't all that spectacular.)
So, I pulled my cover up on my cell phone. Did I mention that I love technology?
Roger's eyes widened. His stance changed. He stared at the cover. "That's a really good cover." His voice sounded deeper, different than it was before the reveal. "You know, every book is judged by its cover. I don't care what anyone says. And yours is really good."
His demeanor changed. I felt he took me more seriously. That great conversation we were having before just took on a new level of subtext.
Still on the topic of cover art, he pulled me to another section in the store, explaining how one particular cover sold well. It was a serious military series with a rifle on the cover. Nothing else. It left no question as to what the story was about. He related that the publisher was concerned that the cover was too serious, and rebuffed some readers who were looking for an element of romance. But there was decidedly no romance in the series. At all. None. Still, they changed that cover, depicting an abstract human torso dressed in a nebulous uniform. It gave no clues as to what the story was about, and the artwork sucked (his words). Sales for that entire series tanked. Roger said that he practically had to force people to check it out. Once they did, though, the story sold the rest of the series.
Since our relationship had evolved, and we were talking about a series of cover, I boldly took another step forward. I explained the plan for the changing covers in my four-book series. There are three consistent POV characters throughout my series to ground the reader. In each book, there is an additional POV character, typically one of the other members of the Knights Elementalis. I explained that each cover would showcase the face of that new POV character in the same style as my Knight of Flame cover. The next book features the Knight of Air.
Again, he paused for a moment, taking in the new information. Eyes wide, assessing, mulling over the possibilities, he said, "That sounds really cool. That could work well. Very distinctive."
I got the same impression as before, could even see it on his face.
We talked about a few other things, moseying about the store. He kept track of the work going on around him, making sure the guys behind the counter could handle the steady flow of customers. When we got to the subject of local writers using recognizable settings in their work, I couldn't resist. I mean, he lobbed a big juicy pitch over the center of the plate, I had to swing for the fence.
"Hmm," I said. "Knight of Flame takes place here in the Tampa/St. Pete area. There's an epic battle atop the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, and major events take place on the top floor of the Regions Bank building in downtown Tampa. I've got a strong mix of real and fantasy settings in the story."
He waited for me to continue.
"While the first book in the series is primarily local, the next book expands to the west coast, Canada, and Europe as the influence of the Gray Lord is felt on a more global scale. It escalates further from there until things wrap up in book four. My plan was to build a large story that would draw in readers all over the world."
He smiled and nodded as I spoke. "Sounds really good." That's when he told me the process to win over LIBS. I'll paraphrase.
1. When you go into an independent book store, don't talk about the big retailers like Amazon, and Barnes and Noble. It really doesn't matter to them how much you've sold through the other guys. Focus on the store at hand.
2. Be nice. Roger called out a number of the authors on the wall, all exceedingly nice people. He mentioned a few others, no posters marking their presence, giving examples of how not to behave.
That's it. The key is to be nice. Got it. Roger that, er…uhm, Roger.
Business picked up in the store, so he excused himself. Not to belabor the issues, or to push my luck, I paid for my selections and left, exhilarated.
I've had a few days to mull this phenomenal adventure over, and I think there are more steps for a successful visit than Roger let on. I lucked out to some degree. I always try to be nice on general principal, and I have no past history with the big book dogs, so there was no way for me to cross the line there. Here's the process I came up with:
1. Be Professional
a. Plan the trip – Don't go in on a whim. Set the date and treat it like a business meeting.
b. Look decent – Look the part. Be the protagonist in your own author success story.
c. Leave a business card - A good looking, professional business card will enhance their perception of you, and leave a souvenir of your visit.
2. Be Nice
c. Watch language – treat the encounter like it's a professional business meeting.
d. Get to the point – don't waste their time.
3. Be Prepared – if you follow the first two points, especially number two, be prepared to take it to the next level. Create the opportunity to sell yourself and your work.
a. Cover art – my awesome cover art was done by Brad Fraunfelter.
b. Back cover copy
c. Story pitch – you're not selling to an agent or editor, but you are trying to interest someone in your work.
d. Anything else you might be able to use to tell your story
4. If you have the means, buy a book – the LIBS guys and gals need to eat too, and your to-be-read pile can never be too large.
That's it. Simple, right? Now, go out and win over your LIBS.