One advantage of managing an independent bookstore, you meet many writers. Some established like Sara Paretsky, some real old timers like Dick Francis, some mid-list like Rhys Bowen, some best sellers, like James Patterson, and some brand spanking new faces on the scene. It was the new writers that at the time most occupied our attention. Back in the 1990s the Hypermodern craze was going strong and any new author whose print run was low and was half decent, commanded center stage. Even before their book was released, one of us in the store would have read an advanced reading copy and if they loved it, we all started selling it like mad. The more we sold it, the more in demand it became and thus sometimes we could increase the amount of copies sold by the hundreds.
The power of the indie mystery bookstore was significant, but naturally, not all encompassing. More copies were sold in the chain stores if they were stocked to begin with, and that was a big if. It depended on how much the publisher believed in the writer and if they promoted said writer with advance copies and book signing tours. Reviews were also a huge factor, and a good NY Times review from Marilyn Stasio could help an author quite a bit. And there were all the newsletters, including mine, that babbled on and on about increasing value of signed firsts of new authors (although my newsletter only had one page with that subject). One newsletter was incredibly influential and could dictate what author would sell many copies just from listing who they thought it would be. Called Bookline, the hypermodern crowd lived and breathed by the opinion of one guy with a typewriter or computer who could print out a couple of pages.
To give the editor credit, he did work very hard in figuring out trends and print runs long before the book was discussed by us, and did a good job of picking winners. But it’s a self fulfilling prophecy. If you tell booksellers and collectors that Dennis Lehane is an author to look for and his first book will be very collectible, then the booksellers sell that book to death and the collectors run out to grab a first edition before there are no more.
And if down the road that Lehane doesn’t become valuable? It will have been so long ago, no one would be apt to complain.
So, with these tools in place, and a bookseller’s own enthusiasm about a particular author and title, the result could help a newer author gain attention, and a second printing. Would this attention last? With Lehane it certainly did–but after all, he is a brilliant writer, and it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out he was someone to look out for. Whether or not A Drink Before The War is now collectible? Probably not. The publisher of this author went to bat for him, and I’m sure his print run was quite large. But it didn’t matter. We were blown away by this man’s talent in the beginning and sold as many books of his as was possible, because we believed in the quality of his writing and the longevity of his career. So when someone would come in looking for something new, original, etc etc, we would excitedly offer up Lehane, or Michael Connelly, or Richard Barre or Neil Albert.
The last two are great writers, but for whatever reason, the publisher shut down, was bought, the writer didn’t follow up his initial success, he lost his agent, or his contract, whatever the reason could be, they didn’t manage the careers their contemporaries did. We sold them hard too–tiny run, first books, great writing. The public loved them, we were able to increase sales quite substantially, but the independent bookstore cannot alone make an author popular. There is a mystical formula that must go into effect, and heavens knows what that is, if we did know, everyone would be a best seller!
What about a PO author? (Paperback Original ) We could and did sell them like mad, but not because the author was new or there was a small print run. No, we sold paperbacks because they were cheaper. That being the case, the hypermodern area was uninterested in POs, and only collected those titles nominated for an Edgar and maybe a few other awards. However, two PO authors were beloved by independent mystery booksellers and were sold accordingly. Now they are published in hardcover, and best sellers. Laura Lippman and Lisa Scottoline were nominated and won Edgar Awards for their second POs, The reading public caught on quickly, hopefully through the work of some indies too.
There are a few authors I backed vehemently, and increased their sales at least within the store sales, and one through the newsletter Bookline. At some point I’ll relate the work behind each one.
As independent booksellers, do you ever find an author you like so very much that you hand sell or catalog sell them as much as possible? And if so, have you increased their sales enough to make an impact?
I know at least one author who believes independents are responsible for his initial success and he never forgets this fact. Michael Connelly makes a point of going to all the mystery independents he can when on tour, saying as he visits, that if it weren’t for the hand-selling and catalog reviews, he wouldn’t have had the early success he did. Naturally, his incredible talent probably did most of the work!