Thursday, March 18, 2010

Boulder Book Store's innovative plan to promote local authors

Authors are being challenged by big changes in the publishing biz. Fewer worthwhile books are being published by the New York City houses. The biggies would rather pay obscene advances to the likes of non-authors such as Sarah Palin than pay modest advances to a hundred real writers of literary fiction, short stories, creative nonfiction and poetry.

We've all spent time whining about the realities of the marketplace.

O.K., maybe it was only me. But I'm finished whining.

My first book of stories came out in 2006. It was published by Ghost Road Press, a small Denver operation. They publish good books and promote them the best they can. But I did most of the marketing for my book. This includes setting up readings and appearances at bookstores and libraries around the Wyoming and Colorado, settings for most of my stories. I took my wares to two book festivals, a literary festival, the Wyoming State Fair and an assortment of author days at libraries. Sold -- and signed -- a few books. GRP sold books through its web site. Amazon sold a few.

I still hand-sell my book. I keep copies at home and at work -- just in case. A few in the backseat of the car.

Now it's time to get out another book. I have enough polished stories. But I dread the sending out and returning of the manuscript.

So I'm publishing this one myself. Lots of print-on-demand sources that make good-looking books. I'll come up with some cover art and do all the proofing. I have marketing resources in my 10-year-old web site and my blog.

I was cheered to read an article by Megan Garber on the Nieman Journalism Lab web site about an interesting new approach by Boulder Book Store to selling work by local authors.

The store charges its consignment authors according to a tiered fee structure: $25 simply to stock a book (five copies at a time, replenished as needed by the author for no additional fee); $75 to feature a book for at least two weeks in the “Recommended” section; and $125 to, in addition to everything else, mention the book in the store’s e-mail newsletter, feature it on the Local Favorites page of the store’s website for at least 60 days, and enable people to buy it online for the time it’s stocked in the store.

And for $255 — essentially, the platinum package — the store will throw in an in-store reading and book-signing event.

"Most people will come in at one of the higher fee amounts,” Arsen Kashkashian, the store’s head buyer and the architect of the program, told me. “That surprised us.” In fact, when the store first began charging its consignment authors back in 2007 (the fee-structure idea emerged when the store’s employees found themselves inundated with self-published books, and there was a lot of work involved and not much reward”), its staff “thought people would grumble and complain” about the charges. But authors, Kashkashian says, have been generally grateful for the opportunity to sell and promote work that might otherwise be seen and appreciated only by their friends/spouses/moms: “‘I want the marketing, I want the exposure. I worked so hard on this project, and you guys are the only ones who could help me with it.’”

And the books are selling. Not flying off the shelves…but sauntering off, steadily. In the first week in March, Kashkashian told me, the store sold 75 consignment books — which, given the store’s 40-percent cut of those sales, and the authors’ fees, accounted for 3 percent of the store’s total revenues for the week. Part of that number, Kashkashian believes, is attributable to the authors’ efforts at self-promotion, which amplify the store’s own marketing strategy. “Some are blogging, some are on Twitter, some just trying to get out there by word of mouth,” he notes. “They’re working their networks, whether it’s online or offline. They’re kind of learning how to do it.”

The networking takes place offline, as well. The readings and signings are proving particularly popular, says Liesl Freudenstein, a buyer at the store and its consignment coordinator — not only among authors, but among Boulder’s residents more generally. “It’s great community involvement,” she notes. “These are mostly local people, people within 50 or 100 miles, and they bring their family and friends.”

It’s that kind of outside-the-box-store thinking — building and fostering engagement around unique content — that independent booksellers “need to do right now to survive,” Kashkashian says. They need, above all, to find ways “to tie themselves into the community.” Sound familiar? Indeed, bookstores are like news outlets in more ways than the simple fact of their existential endangerment. The world of book publishing is experiencing a restructuring that is similar — and in some ways parallel — to the power shifts taking place in the world of journalism.


In publishing’s increasingly DIY world, though, the Boulder model — one that charges authors for, essentially, microdistribution of their books — makes increasing sense. “In the last few years, a professional-looking project has become much more attainable for people,” Kashkashian notes. “And once authors have a professional-looking book to sell, the selling itself becomes more feasible.”

I'm one of those "local people" mentioned by Freudenstein. My house in Cheyenne is 99.5 miles from the Pearl Street Mall. The sale of a couple of books could finance a $25 basic package at BBS. I copuld find those Front Range stores that offer similar packages and, in no time, I could have it in more stores than stocked my first book, the one from an established press.

But it might be better to ratchet up the stakes and shell out the dough for $125 or $255 package. Boulderites read literary fiction and poetry. And BBS has a cachet not found at other indies. It might be better to place my book at strategic locales in Boulder, Fort Collins, Denver and Laramie rather than to bombard them all.

Just thinking aloud right now. But I love the Boulder Book Store approach. Innovative, yet realistic. And good for the localit movement.

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