Thursday, August 25, 2011

Chain vs. Indie?

Cricket McRae

signing hand 

With the release of Wined and Died last month I’ve been doing the usual promotional activities: guest posting on blogs around the Internet, sending postcards to custom lists – in this case wineries and meaderies – and showing up in bookstores to give talks, read, chat with folks and sign books.

I’m a bit of a signing addict, from the other side of the podium. I once moved to a house near one of my favorite bookstores, Third Place Books, just so I could attend more author talks. During the two years I lived there I went almost weekly to hear writers speak, including Dave Barry, Hilary Clinton, Carl Hiassen, Lewis Black, Ralph Nader and our own Keith Raffel.

I do miss living by that bookstore.

But last week I had my fifth opportunity to perform my dog-and-pony show for my Home Crafting Mysteries at Third Place, and it’s always a thrill. I’ve also appeared at a number of other independent bookstores lately, all welcoming, all with loyal customers and staff who hand sell books.

Before I left for Seattle though, I had a rather discomfiting signing at a local Barnes & Noble store. I sold one book. One. ONE. And it wasn’t even my latest.

I’m not one of those fabulously arresting personalities that draw people like moths. I can’t bring myself to wander the store and track people down in the mystery aisles, thrusting my shiny new bookmarks at them and suggesting they buy my book. But if you put me by the front door of a store, I will spend hours engaging people in a low-key way, feeding them cookies or cheese or homemade bread and butter, showing them how to spin on a drop spindle, and finding out about their lives. I always meet interesting people, often good research contacts, librarians and book club members, and at the end of the day I am usually quite satisfied with my book sales.

Barnes & Noble. One book.

I gotta say, I don’t think it was me. As the afternoon wore interminably on and my feet started to ache (never sit down!) I took notes about what I observed and here’s what I saw:

People used the bookstore to meet people and to get coffee. No books involved.

Nine Nooks went out the door. No books in hand for these folks, but good news for ebooks. Yes, I got two of them to download my first mystery, Lye in Wait, which is free for the Nook until the end of August.

At least fifteen percent of the people who came in the door were either on the phone or madly texting. No way was I going to catch their eye.

Several customers bought school supplies. Who buys school supplies at Barnes & Noble? Well, they did.

A lot of people bought gifts for children – books, games, etc. But no books for themselves. Good for the kids in their lives, though.

Of the customers who bought actual books written for adults, most were non-fiction. I saw three people walk out with three or four genre paperbacks, but otherwise they purchased travel books, how-to manuals, cookbooks, and a few had lists that made me suspect they were buying textbooks.

Oh, and The Help, of course. I’ll have to get around to reading that one of these days.

My publicist says most people who shop at the big chains are going to Borders since everything is cheap cheap cheap for their going out of business sales. Maybe. And maybe there are people who only shop at the chain stores and never venture into the independents. I dunno.

At a couple of my talks in the Seattle area I hijacked the question-and-answer period at the end of my yakking for a few of my own questions. I asked how people felt about e-readers, how many owned one, what kind, and whether they’d buy ebooks from an independent bookstore even if it were a little more trouble. I asked how they felt about self-publishing both as writers and readers (because, of course, there were a bunch of writers in the audiences). And I asked how their reading habits had changed over the last ten years.

Mostly they said that people who like to go see authors in person also prefer to read on paper. Few, if any, owned e-readers or wanted to. It was a small sampling, though, so I’m not sure their answers indicate a trend..

Have you noticed a change in the attendees at author appearances, either as an author or as a fellow audience member? Any differences between chain stores and independent bookstores?


Lois Winston said...

Cricket, my first book came out in 2006. Even back then I was told by "industry people in the know" that most authors sell an average of 2 books at a signing. There are few things more depressing for an author than to spend 2 hrs. at a bookstore and watch as people deliberately avoid making eye contact with you for fear of being pulled into the Author Tracker Beam, which they believe will force them to buy your book.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I have found my biggest audiences and sales are at the indies when I do a talk. But I do okay at B&N also. I just have to work harder. I'm finding more and more folks in the audiences own e-readers, even if they buy a print book at the signing. And more often now, I'm asked to sign the cover of a Nook or Kindle.

At one library event where sales were handled by the local B&N, the enterprising sales clerk not only brought copies of my books to sell, but also her laptop and a Nook to display. She not only sold print books, she sold Nook copies right then and there to the folks who wanted them but didn't bring their Nook to the talk. And she came with a supply of Nook brochures for the uninitiated.

I hope soon there is a way for the indies to capture some of those e-book sales, because that's the way it's leaning.

Robin Allen said...

My first book came out in May and I've done a few signings at mostly indies and one chain (BN). I can't speak to one vs the other because maybe three or four people I didn't know where there. The rest were people I did. You need to be a big name somebody for lots of people to come out, so I've stopped doing signings until my name is bigger.

Beth Groundwater said...

I signed at a few Barnes & Nobles this spring with the release of Deadly Currents, and the first thing I noticed was the change in layout with the Nook sales booth now front and center in front of the doors versus the bestsellers or new releases table.

And for a simple table signing, which I usually request (there's nothing worse than having a bunch of chairs set up for a reading and they're all empty), that signing table is usually off to the side of the Nook counter.

I took advantage of that by asking the Nook sales associate to put the sample of Deadly Currents up on the demo screens and by leaving some of my bookmarks on their counter. And, if someone bought a Nook, I tried to make sure they left with one of my bookmarks, as a reminder to make it one of their first downloads.

Otherwise, my signing strategy at B&N's is to only schedule them in locations where local friends/family members can scrounge up some attendees for me. For instance, my sister in Charlottesville, VA brought in about ten of her co-workers and friends, and my niece and her mother and step-sister came. The store manager was impressed by the sales and had me sign the remaining copies. My sister recently told me that she noticed the store ordered more copies after all the autographed ones sold, so now word-of-mouth is working for me.

Darrell James said...

Cricket- I've had good and bad experiences with both indie stores and chains. I think, maybe, it just depends on the event timing, how well it's promaoted, which phase the moon is in... I don't know really. I guess I think I take my chances each and every time.

Deborah Sharp said...

What a great post, Cricket (though I'm sorry all those astute observations you made at B & N came because things were so S-L-O-W.)
I really don't know what to make of chain bookstore signings these days ... not even the headline-grabbing politico Michele Bachman (!) could draw a crowd this week at the B&N in heavily Republican Naples, Fla. Five people showed (more media than book-buyers, for sure)
I've had similar luck (or no luck) in places where I don't know anyone, and much better signings where I do. Even so, the numbers of people who turn out have fallen off dramatically from my first book, in 2008. A friend who runs an indie here in Florida tell me people actually tell her, ''I'd like to buy a book, but I've already downloaded it on my Kindle'' (or Nook, or whatever) I feel your pain, baby!
But should we stop doing them? If so, I need to cancel a lot of them I just set up for this fall! It's still the best way to connect, face-to-face.

Cricket McRae said...

Ah, yes -- the dreaded Author Tracker Beam. It is a forceful thing, isn't it, Lois? ;)

It's great that you're being asked to sign Kindles and Nooks, Sue Ann! And selling Nook copies at a library event is a terrific idea.

Robin, when I do an actual reading/talk many of people who attend are people I know, but in the past I've had a great time meeting new people at all-afternoon signings. I wouldn't say "lots" of people came to see me, though, as I'm not a big name in that sense!

Yep, the Nook counter was close, but not as close as I would have liked, Beth. I love your idea of putting your book on the Nook display. Clever woman.

Well, Darrell, Mercury WAS in retrograde, so maybe that was the issue. ;>

Deb, I've considered backing off the signings, but since I focus on indies as much as possible I felt it was really worth it when I went to the Seattle area because I connected with the book sellers -- who then hand sell my books. However, I might indeed reconsider doing chain signings.

Dean K Miller said...

An interesting bit of observation. I'd think the chain events might do better than what's been told here.

There's such a different feel between the chains and the indies. I'll do B&N if I have to, but it's like walking into a Sam's club. Lots of stuff that I probably won't look at, and won't talk to anyone that works there either.

Though my local indie doesn't always know me by name when I walk in the door, when I get to the counter with books in hand, they have an idea I've been there before and treat me as a friend.

Keith Raffel said...

Cricket, for me the biggest downside of doing an ebook original is the lack of signing opportunities. I love meeting readers. OTOH, the local independent where I'd sold over 100 copies of my paper-and-ink book in one appearance wasn't interested in having me come in this Xmas. And though I did sign at a Borders, it wasn't quite as overwhelming as it had been the previous Xmas season. I guess signing/touring is just fading in importance.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Very interesting post, Cricket. And yes, you are too a fabulously arresting personality. It's just that at B&N, coffee takes priority over books and authors. :)

Elizabeth C. Main said...

Fascinating and daunting set of comments, particularly since I'm just setting out on promotional rounds for my new mystery. Simply reading about the big authors you saw at Third Place Books makes me quake in my boots about my scheduled October appearance there, but I love indies and worked at one here in Bend for 11 years. Still, it's been 6 years since the first in my series came out, so I guess I'll soon find out just how different the climate is now. I've never done a signing at a B&N (and don't have one scheduled now either), but the indies I've been invited to have always been most welcoming. Liz M.

Cricket McRae said...

Dean, I do think most chain events do all right -- I've always been pleased with mine in the past. Still, I love my indies best.

Keith, I do think signing/touring is fading in importance, but it's going slowly. We can always do online "signings" or meet 'n' greet chats, but it's not the same as meeting people in person.

You're sweet, Pat. And I certainly did see a lot of high-calorie coffee drinks going out the door!

Liz, Third Place has some high-profile authors visit, but they also have newly published folks just starting out. The people who work there are terrific. Congratulations on your new release, and good luck on your tour!