THE BLOG
10/17/2014 04:06 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Is This Why Indie Bookstores Are Dying Out? A Personal View

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I'm by no means a household name nor a New York Times or USA Today bestselling author (yet -- ha!). I've done well with my third book, Broken Pieces -- nine awards, #1 on the Amazon paid poetry list (where it has remained in the top five for almost two years), a publishing contract with hybrid publisher Booktrope, and most importantly, becoming a vocal advocate for the childhood sexual abuse community, creating #SexAbuseChat (Tuesdays 6 p.m. PST on Twitter with my co-host, survivor/therapist Bobbi Parish) and The #NoMoreShame Project Anthology, to give all survivors a voice (our first volume releases this Thanksgiving!).

So when I approached a local bookstore and politely asked if they'd be interested in carrying a print copy of my book, I did so with the hopes that my work (professionally edited, designed -- award-winning cover, proofed, et al), would reach the local community and be of some interest, given that many of the experiences I write about in the book took place locally as well -- all of which I explained in my personalized note to the manager, along with some swag, my media kit, and my business card with email.

Here is the reply:

'At the moment, our local author shelves are full. If we have time, we might read your cute little book.'

Ignoring that they referred to a nonfiction book about childhood sexual abuse as 'cute and little' entirely, let's look at the bigger picture: walls still loom large for indie authors in our local communities. In fact, as the CMO of Booktrope, Katherine Fye Sears has said:

"Why do any of you (indie or hybrid authors) want your books in a bookstore that will maybe sell 5-10 copies (if they actually try and/or give you a display, otherwise 2)? I can tell you as a publisher, it is not worth the effort unless you have a relationship with the store already and therefore are doing it because of mutual admiration. If you truly have the time and resources and it means a lot to you, there is no reason not to pursue placement. But a single bookstore is unlikely to impact the overall sales. Sad, but true."

Do we even NEED brick and mortar bookstores anymore? Especially if they treat us this way?

Let's deconstruct.

WORD OF MOUTH MARKETING

It's no big secret that the best way to sell books is via word of mouth. You read a book, love it, become a fan of the author, buy more of their work, tell your family and friends, who then love the author and buy all their books, and so it begins. And so it ends. Until it begins again with another author you love.

Except it doesn't end there, does it? Not with technology. I love love love this article, Community Driven Marketing: The Power of the Raving Fan (Source: Scribd, by Jeremy Epstein), which delves deeply into just how marketing and technology work synchronistically. He best sums it up here:

We live in a time where ANYONE (anyone!) can build a trusted network of THOUSANDS and communicate at a scale that was previously unknown and heretofore impossible. And do it at zero marginal cost.

This. This alone is why technology, why Twitter, and Facebook, and blogging, and Instagram, and all the rest of it, trump a Mom and Pop bookstore in my town. In your town. Because one person can tell thousands about my book (which let's face it, can be good or bad depending on what they think of it!), and I can then sell a whole lot more than that one copy the local indie bookstore just turned down.

WHAT'S THE PROCESS?

Not everyone online is a targeted reader for me. Not everyone wants to read nonfiction, or about serious topics. So I have to target whom I follow. (I use a tool called ManageFlitter to help with this.) I have to find my 'raving fans.' So do you. So do all authors! If you read Epstein's article, he lays out a simple three-step process to finding your raving fans:

  1. You find people who are so passionate about your product or service that they will tell all of their friends and network about it for free.
  2. You cultivate an authentic, two-way relationship with them.
  3. You give them opportunities to tell your story on your behalf.

He talks much more about identifying, cultivating, and activating those relationships -- I strongly encourage you to read this white paper and bookmark it -- there's much to be learned here about Community Driven Marketing (CDM) -- the process for identifying, cultivating, and activating Raving Fans who willingly and freely share your story with their trusted, highly-scalable, and permission-based social networks. The concept applies to any kind of business. For authors, we can adapt this model to work within our marketing plans (street teams, beta readers, promotions, and more).

ONLINE VS REAL LIFE

What I love so much about social media is that it's about building relationships, which is how I use it, and this is what I teach my clients. When someone comes to me and says that they're not selling very many books on Twitter, or via their Facebook ads, I'm not at all surprised. Why? Because most authors think that spamming 'Buy my book!' links is how to best utilize social media and that's the first thing we fix. Social media is an ineffective selling medium, yet an incredibly effective relationship marketing medium.

And this community, this relationship building -- this is what is missing from the author/indie bookstore relationship model. There's very little back and forth, no investment in the author as a person, as a creative talent -- it's only a bottom line, 'how much money will you bring in, not much, nobody knows you, we're not interested' attitude, which ironically, is what is shutting down so many small bookstores, sadly.

This disconnect, this gap, isn't unique to indie bookstores. I've approached my local paper and been turned away. Same with the local town library and a writer's gala celebrating local talent. This is also about the fourth local bookstore I've contacted.

When I shared my experiences on my Facebook wall, more than 150 writers responded with similar stories. Ultimately, it comes down to convenience: while print books are seeing a resurgence in sales after three or four years of eBook domination (three in ten adults read an e-book last year; half own a tablet or e-reader, according to the latest Pew research), Amazon is well, Amazon! Even if you abhor Amazon, odds are you've purchased something online in the last year from somewhere, so at least you get my point.

People continue to purchase their books online (print or eBooks, and now, more than ever, audio) because it's easy and convenient, after they've heard about them from raving fans on Twitter and Facebook. Amazon (and other online retailers) makes A LOT of money by selling A LOT of our books, so they put A LOT of effort into helping us market. There's just no way for indie bookstores to keep up with that type of marketing on such a scale.

BOTTOM LINE

One of my personal guiding principles is to not take anything personally -- so I'm not upset that the local bookstore didn't work out. In fact, I'm thankful for their response, because now I have a great topic to write about and to discuss and share with you all! Everything teaches us and everything helps us grow.

And I'm sharing this with my various online 'raving fans' (in the hundreds of thousands if you look at my entire social media platform), while purposely not sharing the name of the bookstore, because I don't believe in calling out a small business publicly by name. I wish them all the success -- they have employees to pay and families to feed. It's all good.

As for me, my efforts will continue to be focused on building relationships with readers, book bloggers, and book reviewers, blogging, finishing my next book Broken Places for Booktrope (wrapping that up this month), and continuing to grow my network of raving fans.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

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