Recently, Twitter and Facebook pal author Joelle Charbonneau asked me to write something for the International Thriller Writers Debut Authors Blog. She wanted to know: What can debut authors do to help booksellers sell their books?
First, write a book the bookseller wants to read. For me, a lot of it hangs on the first page – actually, it hangs on the first line. Victor Gischler’s GUN MONKEYS, a perennial bestseller at The Mystery Bookstore, is still one of my favorite high body count romps: “I turned the Chrysler onto the Florida Turnpike with Rollo Kramer’s headless body in the trunk, and all the time I’m thinking I should’ve put some plastic down.” The first thing you want to know is where Rollo’s head is, isn’t it? GUN MONKEYS was nominated for the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar for Best First Novel. Since then, Gischler has gone on to write numerous popular crime novels, collaborated on comic books and sold to Hollywood the options to at least one of his novels.
Hilary Davidson, in THE DAMAGE DONE, wrote a more serious, even elegant noir debut: “It was the bright yellow tape that finally convinced me my sister was dead.” We’ve all seen enough crime shows to know just what that yellow tape means. In fourteen words, Davidson paints a vivid scene, one we won’t forget. Davidson has had a lot of experience as a published travel writer, but she’ll be the first to tell you it’s a huge leap from non-fiction to crime fiction.
And there’s one of my more challenging favorites, Angela S. Choi’s first novel, HELLO KITTY MUST DIE: “It all began with my missing hymen.” The next couple paragraphs were just as eye-popping as that first line, and the rest of the chapter kept me turning pages. Was she just being sensationalist – or did she have a purpose to her startling opener? Choi did have a purpose, to write a socio-political novel that just happened to involve a serial killer and a lot of comedy, which resulted in a fine debut effort that I hand sold by the dozens while working at The Mystery Bookstore Los Angeles.
Dozens of copies sold may not sound impressive when compared to blockbuster authors like Lee Child, Michael Connelly or Robert Crais – but those guys will tell you themselves, they didn’t start out selling in the thousands or tens of thousands.
And when you write this debut book, make it your own. Don’t try to write like Jeffery Deaver. You can’t. You shouldn’t. And once it’s written, don’t try to market yourself as such. If I want to read Deaver, I’ll read him. I was more than happy to sell his books to eager fans at The Mystery Bookstore. Authors like Child, Connelly, Gayle Lynds, Sue Grafton and all the other stellar mystery and thriller writers are delightful to read, exciting, challenging – and easy to sell. The books often sell themselves. But, when a book like that of Charlie Newton, an ITW debut author who wrote CALUMET CITY (another of my favorite debuts), comes along, I got excited because here was something new, just looking for the right audience. I felt as if I knew something no one else knew, an undiscovered treasure that I got to present to the public!
Second, of course, you have to get that book or ARC into the book seller’s hands. Don’t be bashful about popping around to your local bookstores and introducing yourself. Don’t hesitate to drop off a copy of the book or the ARC. Do be respectful that the book seller may not have time to chat with you at that moment; but be sure to leave your contact information. Because if your book is worth writing and worth reading, then make it as easy as possible for the book seller to order it and start selling it. Do have an answer ready if a book seller asks you “Tell me why I should carry your book.” And make it a succinct answer. Just like that opening line on the first page, grab my attention, and do it fast.
Third, understand that dozens of books are handed, mailed, dropped off for book sellers every week. And every author/publisher/publicist thinks the book they’re delivering is the best seller to come. No book seller has the time to read every ARC, galley or review copy sent to them. Be reasonable, and understand they’ll look at yours; if it really catches their interest, they may sit down and start reading it right then and there. And don’t assume that just because one book seller at a store doesn’t immediately gravitate to your book, another one might not pick it up. That’s what happened with HELLO KITTY MUST DIE – one of our young sales clerks loved it, and said, “Linda, you have to read this!” So your book may find an advocate that you don’t even know about.
Fourth, follow up – but gingerly. You’ve dropped off the ARC and your contact information at your local store; maybe you were able to meet the manager or buyer, maybe not. Give it a couple weeks or three, then give them a call or send in an email – and have a plan. Are you prepared to do an event? If it’s local, you’d better be able to bring in bodies, dead or alive; because as a debut author, you won’t have the built- in audience that Lee Child has. And if the bookstore is going to go to the trouble of putting on an event for you and your debut book, they’re going to want to sell books. It’s up to you to help them with that. By the way, a publicist once asked me if her author could launch his book twice, first at one local store, then a few days later at The Mystery Bookstore. The short answer is NO. The first event is the launch, and is probably the one your parents, siblings, best friends and neighbors will expend the energy to attend and the one where they will buy the book. After that, it’s just a book signing for a new author who has yet to build a following.
Fifth, do your own publicity. It’s rare that a debut author gets the full thrust of their publisher’s publicity force behind them. Be prepared to send out your own ARCs, book your own events, make your own posters, bookmarks and flyers*, contact your local media. The bookstore will do what they can, but again, they have limited resources to devote to a new author – even if they wholeheartedly believe in your book. *Do NOT send hundreds of promo pieces to unsuspecting bookstores; ask if you may leave some or send some, then send them 25-50. If they run out and want more, they’ll let you know! And if you have the resources, hire a pro. Professional publicists are not inexpensive, but they can make all the difference in helping you promote your book. Many of them already have relationships with the book sellers and with the media, and they can get the word out about you and your brilliant debut book more effectively and efficiently than you can.
Sixth, monitor your expectations. The bookseller has ordered your book, it’s in the store, you’ve had your event or not, but copies are out on display. If you do not like the display or where they’ve been placed, tough luck. We once had an author at The Mystery Bookstore move copies of his books in front of another author’s (he was later banned from the store by one of the owners due to his rudeness); and at a conference, I had several authors exclaim somewhat hysterically that they didn’t see their books (they were displayed on the shelves behind our tables in the conference’s book sellers’ room; we had so many books to display, we had to switch them hourly, according to the panels’ schedule). Book sellers know their stores, know their stock, know their customers. It isn’t random placement; there is strategy involved.
Above all, remember: the book seller can be your ally. You don’t need to wheedle or bribe; and you certainly don’t need to bully or beleaguer. If you’ve written a good book, if you’ve presented it reasonably to the book seller, if you’ve done your part of the promotion, you and the book seller will make a great team in selling your book. And you’ll both look forward to the next one!
Linda S. Brown was the Assistant Manager of The Mystery Bookstore Los Angeles for 6 years, where she leveraged her love of crime fiction into a position in which she developed and coordinated author events, acted as liaison with publishers and public relations firms, and coordinated media campaigns. Since the closing of the bookstore earlier this year, Linda has become Book Lover at Large, in search of self and a job; meanwhile, she is reading and reviewing crime and young adult novels, writing articles for various blogs, and in the process of developing her own book-loving blog, CuriosityBuilds.Com, currently under construction.