One of the great joys of browsing for books in an actual bricks-and-mortar shop is the serendipity of it; the way you can go in looking for one thing and come out with three others that you didn’t even know you wanted. For unknown authors like me, who are publishing their debut novels in a media environment with ever-decreasing books coverage, being stumbled upon like this – thanks to an eye-catching cover or a well-written blurb – is one of the surest routes to readers. Central to this, of course, is the nation’s network of independent bookshops, who are the debut author’s most obvious ally, their fellow underdogs in an ever more pyramidical publishing world.
Over the last 18 months the vital importance of this relationship has been brought to the fore, as independent bookshops up and down the land came heroically to the aid of a whole generation of debut writers who otherwise might have seen their novels disappear into the void.
The most obvious way this happened was through the organisation of virtual events, with Our Bookshop in Tring leading the charge. Frances Quinn and Nikki Smith are just two of the debut authors I heard from who were thrilled with the online launches they organised, but owner Ben Moorhouse is quick to point out that the relationship is one that benefits both parties: “The beauty of debut authors is the enthusiasm they bring, which you often don’t get from the established writers. They’ve spent a lifetime working towards their debut and they want a celebration, which means they often bring an enthusiastic following of friends and family.” And that means sales: at his three-way launch for Lorraine Brown, Philippa East and Caroline Bishop, he sold more than 150 books.
As things have slowly opened up, the nation’s indie booksellers and debut authors are looking for ways to deepen the relationship. This could be in the form of Tamsin Rosewell’s beautiful hand-painted window displays that she does for a select few publications at Kenilworth Books. Or, as Tilly Lewis from Topping in Edinburgh notes, simply being a passionate champion: “Lending our support to debut authors is one of the best parts of being an independent bookseller. If there's something we think is truly brilliant and deserves to be read and recognised widely, we have the freedom to really get behind it – stocking and recommending it generously.”
And this can be transformative, as Nic Bottomley at Mr B’s in Bath explains. “A particular book won’t work in every shop – and authors will sometimes need to recognise that – but if there’s genuine synergy then we can have a huge impact on titles we feel have been overlooked. Take The Hummingbird by Tristan Hughes. Three of my colleagues absolutely loved it. And so we worked with Parthian on creating buzz around a second print run of the hardback, which we took a large portion of thanks to our Christmas catalogue promotion.”
Of course, these relationships don’t emerge from nowhere. As Tina Gaisford-Waller from Hunting Raven Books in Frome says: "Nurturing relationships – coming into the shop to make a warm and personable impression – can be make or break for an author and their book." One of the unexpected highlights of promoting my own novel, Peterdown, has been reaching out to the nation’s independent bookshops, offering each of them a few of the unique bookplates that I’ve made for the hardback. From the conversations I’ve had, it’s clear that creating these kind of points of difference from the all-powerful online retailers is hugely important to indies. Tilly Lewis agrees: “We love having signed books - and actually having them signed to the page rather than bookplated, if possible, is always our preference. It makes them that bit more special - and we always put a 'Signed First Edition' or 'Signed By The Author' band around them which makes them really stand out to browsers when they're walking around the bookshop.”
If you were looking for a test case in how to cultivate a relationship with indies, then Annie Garthwaite’s efforts for her historical novel Cecily would be a good place to start. The book, which tells the story of Cecily Neville, the matriarch of the House of York, comes out on July 29, and Garthwaite’s already organised events with eight different bookshops, many of them in locations that played a prominent role in Cecily’s life. Her tips for debut authors include creating a top list of indies you think should be interested in your book, either because of its subject or location. “Create a ‘hook’ for bookshops, just as you would for media.” And think what you can do for them as well as what they can do for you: “Supported by my publicist at Penguin, I’ve helped draft and produce invitations for example, forged partnerships with other organisations and hosted events myself then invited bookshops to come and sell the books.”
However, as Tina Gaisford-Waller notes, “authors champing at the bit to get out there and schmooze should proceed with caution. It's always good to call or email ahead if you plan to visit, and it also gives the bookseller a chance to see if the book is a good fit for them.” And, if you’re a debut author working hard to establish relationships with independent booksellers, don’t forget that it’s a two-way street. As Ben Moorhouse urges authors: “please don’t promote Amazon on your social media profiles. Also in the run up to your indie bookshop event - support the shop by plugging hard, try and refrain from plugging your 99p Kindle offer. And finally during the event, don't bang on at length about your Amazon rankings and reviews.”
David Annand’s debut novel, Peterdown, is published by Corsair. He is still making bookplates for any interested booksellers.