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Shelf Secrets

Shelf Secrets

You have self-published your book and you are holding a copy for the first time. Memories of hard work, writing, rewriting and editing, begin to fade; as do the back aches, the heart aches and the tiredness from toiling during anti-social hours. The umpteen emails, the puzzling about punctuation, the debates about the font type and size, and decisions about the cover, are all over. They were finally settled, and you are thrilled with the finished product.

As you handle your book you may notice that your confidence is growing. After all, this is a professionally produced, grown-up book, looking better than many of those which come from mainstream publishers. Just wait till Cousin Gloria sees it! Now it is a book, instead of words on a screen or a copy covered with a proof-reader’s symbols. And what about those illustrations? They are quite charming! Modesty be damned, this is a beautiful book. Excited? Certainly. Ecstatic? Almost.

Almost… because, perhaps you are wondering why, when you generously thrust a review copy into the hands of the book-seller, she doesn’t show your enthusiasm and you notice her eyes glazing over when you’re only half way through describing your book. Why, when a young assistant assures you that they hold book signings at his shop and he is sure the person in charge would love to arrange something, that person never returns your calls. When you are on holiday, you spot this charming little bookshop, busy with tourists buying books and cards. You decide to do them a favour by offering to leave a review copy and suggest, without discussion or even looking around the shop, that your masterpiece will sell well there. Why, when you are talking to the bookshop assistant, is he distracted by the queue building up behind you? He doesn’t appear to be listening. Isn’t that rather rude? How come that shop owner was angry when you left an unsolicited copy of your book on his table? When it comes to your own reading, does it matter that you don’t go into bookshops, but see what Tesco has? Nevertheless, you still expect your local bookshop to stock your book?

Finally you don’t understand why your well-crafted emails with their interesting attachments and your letters with their illuminating enclosures that you sent to hundreds of different places, including bookshops, never get replies.

Stop thinking like an author… start thinking like a salesperson

Allow me to let you into some secrets, some Shelf Secrets. Although as writers we may observe the world in a unique and wonderful way, we can sometimes be blinded by our enthusiasm for our books, our ignorance of the booksellers’ world and the book-lovers who staff most of it.

Here are some facts. There are thousands of books published each year in the UK. Monthly, booksellers are sent several catalogues, like mini telephone directories, from which to choose new titles to stock. They receive hundreds of emails, press releases and advance information sheets, together with unsolicited review copies through the post and thrust into their hands. Just imagine how much work goes on behind the shelves. Staff in good bookshops are hard working and most are avid readers. Frequently their professional reading is undertaken in their own time. But, no matter what the literary tastes of the decision-maker in the shop might be, the main aim of the business is to sell books. But don’t despair. If a bookseller believes she can sell your book, she may accept a review copy and later agree to take copies on a sale or return, or firm order basis. But she hasn’t got all day to listen to the story of your story and the traumas of writing. A few one-liners about the book’s areas of interest, supported by a brief written description, a testimonial or two and your contact details on a card, are all that’s needed. Using her years of experience of the book trade and knowledge of her shop, she will calculate the risk you are asking her to take. Take time to listen to the way she and her staff deal with customers, because that is the way they would like to be treated. Consider her point of view and stop thinking like an author… start thinking like a salesperson. In most bookshops there is a primary table on which small piles of the potential bestsellers sit. In many chain bookshops these places will have been bought by the publisher. The books on this table will change regularly in order to sustain the interest of regular customers. If you are a yet to be discovered author, don’t expect your books to be there. In some chains the position of the books may be dictated by head office. In independent bookshops the owner will choose books for this prime position.

Look out for other tables holding special offers and those displaying books of a particular genre, such as mystery, crime and self-help. Most of your sales are likely to be from these tables. There may also be a section for local authors and local interests. Are you a local author and would your book fit here?

On the shelves there will be a few out-facing covers – the rest will be displaying their spines. It has been known for authors to rearrange the position of their books or to sign copies without consulting the manager.

These days, bookshops may be involved in a range of activities such as events, signings or hosting reading groups; a lot of their business may come from customer orders. Find out about the business before you make your pitch. This might prevent you and the bookseller wasting precious time. It will be to your advantage if the staff experience you as a polite professional visitor, or know you as a regular customer; even better if they have read your book or know what it is about.

Enthusiastic authors, I count myself as one, who are passionate about their books may appear rude in their eagerness to promote. We have one chance to make a good impression, so understanding the point of sale will improve your chances. Rehearse what you will say to the shop’s decision-maker and be aware of customers in the shop, and the demands of running a business. For example, do you know the difference between front-, mid- and back-lists and long tails… and where your book would be best placed? Do you know about returns and how to negotiate a deal?

How do I know these secrets? I went on a day’s course: Shelf Secrets, run by Mark Thornton of Mostly Books in Abingdon-on-Thames. Designed for authors, it changed my perspective of book sellers and their shops.

Eager to test my learning, I went into Waterstones in Islington; not my local bookshop, but I didn’t want to wait until I returned to my home town of Lowestoft. I studied their primary and other tables and I observed customers’ book-selecting strategies. Many scanned the primary table and picked up books that caught their attention; a glance at the front cover, then a read of the blurb on the back, and finally a look at the price. Price is important. Readers may be happy to pay over the odds for a cup of coffee and a piece of cake, but we have been conditioned to pay the minimum for our books and we want a bargain, especially in paperbacks.

I listened to the bookshop’s staff dealing with a range of customer enquiries and calming a group of children who’d arrived to exchange their World Book Day vouchers. I enquired about a book. ‘Something to do with a Swiss chalet and Parkinson’s disease,’ I said.

The assistant knew it was The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt, and I subsequently bought it. We shared a conversation about reading groups and the various books he had ‘savoured’. Finally, I mentioned that I’d written a book about a reading club. He listened with interest, then found my title on his screen and said he would look out for it. I avoided a long description. A few one-liners was all that was needed to give an impression and I handed him one of my bookmarks containing brief details. Not only did I have a delightful and informative conversation about reading, but it could be that he will read my book and recommend it to his customers.

On the course we were encouraged to be confident about our book, prepare our material, rehearse our patter and be respectful in our dealings with booksellers. Throughout the day each participant had a chance to talk about their book. How could I not take this golden opportunity to put my learning to the test? I asked if someone from Mostly Books would like to read my book with a view to stocking it. I was delighted when he agreed. The course guidance had worked!

Creating a story which becomes a book is an amazing experience. I am thrilled to have achieved this. But I am discovering that transferring a story from the mind of the author to the mind of the reader involves many very professional people, of whom the author is just one. The more I learn about how others are involved in transmitting my story, the more I am enjoying this amazing experience – and the more confident I feel in how to approach booksellers.

About The Author

Various staff work on the Self-Publishing Magazine, contributing articles and features.

Video Update!

From the editor…

As of the end of May, my time as the editor of the Self-Publishing Magazine is coming to an end. Thank you all for getting in touch over the last year. I’ve loved hearing from so many of you and it’s been fantastic to be able to share such high quality submissions from indie authors and other industry professionals.

I’m very excited to announce my replacement, Jasmin Elliott. She has a sound background in book marketing (having worked with both local and national media, marketing Matador books for over three years). As well as this, she has already contributed articles for the site and devised some of our editorial concepts, including our first ever ‘Author Life’ feature, which proved very popular.


Jasmin has so many exciting ideas lined up for the site in the coming months; we wish her all the very best with this. Keep checking in to see all of the changes, and join us on social media to wish her luck!

Wishing you luck with your self-publishing projects.


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