The Major Mistakes Indie Authors Make when Selling Their Books to Bookstores

Your book just came out. Maybe you self-published it, or maybe a publishing house picked it up. Either way, congratulations are in order. It’s a big deal.

But the work’s not done yet.

Not even close.

It’s time to promote what you’ve made. This means sending emails, shipping off review copies, and maybe even booking a reading tour. No matter what, it means slinging copies of your book to bookstores. This is a daunting task, one that can be easy to mess up.

I’m an indie author, and I manage an independent bookstore, so I’ve been on either end of this exchange many, many times. I’ll list some of the major faux pas writers make when they approach me as a bookseller, and I’ll talk about some of the lessons I’ve learned the hard way.

Here are seven common mistake writers make when trying to get stores to put copies of their book on the shelf:

1. They don’t have copies of their book with them when they come in.

I get it. I can order your book through Ingram, but I just placed an Ingram Order and probably won’t do another for a couple of weeks, at which point I’ll be hyper-focused on buying books that will actually sell. This is, after all, an independent bookstore trying to survive late-stage capitalism. On the other hand, your book does sound interesting, and I could just give you cash for a couple copies right now. Oh, but you don’t have copies? That’s okay. I’ll look it up sometime soon. Thanks for coming in.

2. They don’t tell the bookstore how to get more copies.

The dream of the basically unknown indie author:

Your book comes out, finally. You send it to a few blogs for review, talk a couple local independent bookstores into carrying it. You’re proud of what you’ve written, and you hope your work will resonate with a few readers who take a chance on it.

But then your book totally blows up.

The word is out.

Folks line up around the block to get a copy. Oprah’s people are on the phone. Film rights start getting negotiated. When you’re not answering interview questions, you browse real estate listings online. It’s so hard to decide where exactly you want to have your mansion. Maybe one in Palo Alto and one in Costa Rica? Yeah. That’s a great idea.

Except, how can this ever happen if you don’t tell your friendly neighborhood bookseller how to get additional copies once they sell out? It’s never a bad idea to leave a postcard with all the necessary info. Or, better yet, ask for their card and follow up with a polite, brief email.

But whatever you do, don’t push it too far and make this next mistake.

3. They check in, like, way too often.

I get that you’re excited about your self-pubbed, White Teeth-meets-Caligula procedural mystery novelette, but you really don’t need to come into the shop twice a week to see if both copies I bought from you are still on the shelf. I really do have other things to do, and I swear to God I will let you know the second one of them moves.

4. They are needy and micromanaging.

The great majority of the time, this trait is inextricably linked to the last one. As a bookseller, it’s one of the most annoying things in the world.

There’s one local author who comes into the shop where I work all the time. His book, a collection of Buddhist jokes, is actually pretty good. It isn’t a bad seller, either. I think that the author is probably a pretty nice, fun guy, but in the context in which I interact with him, he’s a total pain in the neck.

He has asked me probably a dozen times or more how I’m planning on displaying his book. He also shows up with a long list of suggestions on how to best sell it.

“Maybe you could put it on the checkout counter?”

“If it really has to go in the local authors’ section, it should probably be shelved face out.”

“Could you put it in the front window, so people see it from the street?”

Sure, his book is making a small amount of money for the shop, but I just don’t have the energy to deal with him anymore.

5. They don’t research the bookstore at all.

Now here’s a mistake of which I have been personally guilty.

I was in Albany, New York as part of a reading tour I was doing last year. I had a couple hours to kill before the show, so I drank a ton of coffee and popped into the closest bookstore that showed up on Google Maps.

The people who worked there were nice, but they place mostly sold Moleskine notebooks, hardcover bestsellers, and cozy mysteries. They were not interested in my small press literary release about a depressed punk rocker who takes psychedelic drugs.

I didn’t have anywhere else to be, so I wasn’t wasting my time, but I was definitely wasting theirs.

6. Charge, like, way too much.

As a bookseller, I can usually pay the author about 50% of the retail cost of the book. That varies, of course. Some bookstores have more generous policies, but I wouldn’t count on getting paid too much more.

I know that there are problems here. Maybe the author doesn’t get that much off the retail price when they buy copies from the publishers. That stinks, but in this case it’s probably best to have your publisher to reach out to bookstores. If you’re self-published, it’s a different story. If it costs $3.50 to print copies of your book, then you should be trying to sell them wholesale to bookstores for $7 apiece, which means that they’ll turn them around at a retail price of $14.

If only you knew how many people wanted me to pay $10 a piece for their zines. I’m sorry, but no one is going to pay $20 to read your black-and-white comic about composting, dumpster diving, and self-care.

7. They are far too humble.

“Here’s my new book,” they say, sliding a copy across my desk. “It’s alright, I guess. Maybe, like, if you think you might be into it, you could carry a copy or two. If you want. No pressure.”


How is a bookseller supposed to sell your book if you can’t?

Don’t be cocky, but don’t be overly humble either. Be proud. You have a book out. The world deserves to see it.

You’ve written the book. Now go forth and find your readers!

Publisher, bookseller, & writer. Author of CACTUS & THE WAY CITIES FEEL TO US NOW. Order my new novel, WALLOP:

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