Star Tracks: Innovative Ideas for Publishing

Want to sell books? Go where people buy them!

by Don Keith


A note from the publisher: I asked Don Keith to share his insights into selling books to the military. His article offers you that and more! Learn who is considered the best seller of books. Hint Ö Itís not Barnes and Noble?

Don Keith Itís a common (and discouragingly true) expression in the publishing business. Bookstores may be good places to buy books but they are terrible places to sell them. Thatís especially true of the big chains. A friend of mine who operates a wonderful little independent bookstore (read: struggling to stay in business) says the typical chain store is a mile wide and an inch deep. Yes, theyíll have a thousand copies of the latest Grisham or Steele or King spiral-stacked near the front door, but they dare you to try to findÖwith or without helpÖa book by a relatively-unknown mid-list writer youíve been dying to read. That is, if they are even aware the book or the author exists or if they bother to stock such a work.

Sort of brings you down, doesnít it? Just because you opened your veins and bled your brilliant prose doesnít mean the ill-paid clerk at the information desk has to care. And many of us who write, even those of us who are published by big, famous houses with sterling distribution and wonderful sales departments, have had that humbling experience of not finding our own masterpiece on the shelf, of asking a clerk about it, and finding it may or may not be in stock, may or may not be available for order, may or may not exist anywhere in the shadowy regions of the companyís arcane inventory system.

If you are a writer who wants to be read, you need to understand the economics of the book business. Where books are sold. Where you have the best chance of getting your own works into the hands of readers. Where theyíll be glad to see you coming and where they would just as soon not be bothered with the likes of you. If you want to be read, you have to go where readers are, where people buy books.

Yes, we need Barnes & Noble and Borders. Of course they sell books. But your presence among all those other books on their shelves, your chance of getting picked from the 200,000 other works that get published each year in this country, is pretty much in the hands of your publisher. Your book is either in there or it ainít. With the exception of some "local interest" bins at your neighborhood store, thereís not a lot the writer can do about getting his or her books stocked in the mega-stores. So how do you set up some kind of event to call attention to your prize, let the store know you have the next work to be spiral-stacked at the front door, and maybe sell a few copies in the process? The big boys will either be happy to work with you on setting up signing events to call attention to your book or they wonít. All you can do is try, and that effort sometimes seems to be a zigzag, store-by-store experience. Some welcome you with the same fervor they might Dan Brown or Nicholas Sparks. Others sullenly tell you it has to go through "corporate," so either buy something or move on.

But the truth is, the biggest seller of books in this country isÖwanna guess?ÖWal-Mart! And more books than you can ever imagine are sold in drug stores, grocery stores, military base exchanges, airports, and the like. No, you wonít see many book signings at the checkout lane at Safeway. To be truthful, though, I have done them at grocery stores. It was an unsettling experience, peddling my literary tour de force there between the snack aisle and the dairy case. Itís hard as hell to get an airport store to do a signing although one of my co-authors, George Wallace, is having great success in that venue these days, mostly through sheer persistence. Itís also difficult to wrangle events out of Wal-Mart, although a hustling sales staff at my publisher did arrange, through the distributor that racks Wal-Mart, a nice tour around a series of books I co-wrote that were set in NASCAR racing. And thereís another way to possibly influence what books get displayed in "Wally World." Read on and Iíll eventually get to that.

Iím in marketing and advertising in my day job, so I went back to Marketing 101. I decided to concentrate my efforts on market segments where I suspected that I could make some kind of impact instead of wasting my time and long-distance money on those where I didnít stand a chance. One of those segments that made a lot of sense to me was military bases.

Granted, my last two books lend themselves very well to a military readership. Final Bearing is a techno-thriller co-written with a former nuclear sub skipper. Gallant Lady: A Biography of USS Archerfish is the true story of an amazing World War II-era submarine. But when I first started trying to get into the base exchanges, my books had no particular tie to the armed forces or to a military readership. I learned that base exchanges are really similar to Wal-Marts or Targets except they happen to be located on military installations. And that they attract a surprisingly diverse clientele who buy the same things we all buyÖclothing, appliances, chips and dip, books. Their customers arenít just active military. They are also dependents of folks on active duty as well as military retirees. There are plenty of both. These people shop the exchanges instead of traditional, off-base outlets because the exchanges typically discount deeply and customers pay no sales tax on merchandise that is purchased on base. Armed forces retirees tend to live near military installations, too, and they love to shop where merchandise is cheaper and un-taxed.

I quickly determined that there are two major government/private hybrids that operate the military stores: Army and Air Force Exchange Service (www.aafes.com) and the Navy Exchange Service Command (www.navy-nex.com). As with typical non-bookstore accounts, civilian distribution companies rack books and magazines in exchanges. The major distributors are Anderson News and The News Group, Inc.

Armed with this information, I began the real work. Working through the Anderson News branch in my home town (they are in the phone bookÖAnderson and other companies like them also distribute books to grocery, drug, and other accounts so these are good folks to know and cozy up to), I found out where the offices were that serviced the military accounts in my part of the country and who the key people were in each. Then I started calling and talking with the Anderson employees who physically lugged the boxes over to the bases and put the books on the racks. I found that the guys and gals on the front line are only too happy to have authors of promising books come in and do signing events. It makes them look good to the exchange personnel that they are doing something to help move merchandise. But I also intuited that these guys werenít looking for demanding, prima donna "auteurs." They wanted regular folks who could identify with the customers and store management. People who would be flexible and co-operative and not do anything to embarrass them in front of a major account.

I also found out that in most instances, there is one person back at the corporate office who could queer the whole deal. Thatís the "military" book buyer. The distributors have someone charged with choosing which books will go into the base exchanges and which ones donít stand a chance. This specialized buyer will theoretically have a handle on what will sell to this particular market and will also want to avoid certain material, such as anti-military works or books that are patently inaccurate in dealing with the military. And, as with any other store, rack space is severely limited. They donít want to fill their racks with books that wonít move. They canít afford to. They have to be picky.

Okay, thatís all I needed. Another gatekeeper. But I also learned that the local office managers and even the route salesmen have some input and can recommend that the distributor handle books they might not normally pick up. Once I convinced the distributor that my books were viable, they went to bat and the publisher got a nice orderÖfirst for the books we needed for the signings, then later for stock.

The route salesmen have been, to a man and woman, great to work with. Iíve never arrived at an exchange signing without the display being beautifully set up in a prominent spot, a great printed sign standing there, and a huge supply of books available. Theyíve always been appreciative of my being there and make sure Iím comfortable. And Iíve never left a signing without autographing a stack of books that went right back on the racks in a very busy book department when I left. You can be assured that I express to them how appreciative I am of their having me. Same with the store managers. Make sure they know how eager you are to be of help.

There are tricks to learn. First, listen to the people at the distributorís branch office when you schedule the signing. The first one I set, the route guy suggested we do it at 11 AM to 2 PM on a Thursday. Iíve done over 150 signings and I always shoot for a weekend, mid-day or early afternoon. Thatís when stores have customers, right? "Trust me," he said. "Thatís pay day. Itíll be the best time." Sure enough, the store was packed, people had money, and we sold books like crazy. Iíve also done signings as short as an hour and as long as four hours, as proposed by the person who knew the account as well as anyone.

Hereís the deal. These folks take the book and magazine racks in these stores and make them their own. They "own" them. Theyíre proud of them. Theyíll insist that you go over and get a tour of "their" department. They know what will sell and what wonít. Youíd be well advised to listen to them.

Another thing: if you donít have a military ID, getting onto bases can be a bit touchy. You will need to check in at the base gate and get a pass. You should always have your driver license, proof of auto insurance, and registration papers for your vehicle. In some cases, you will need the distributor rep or someone from the exchange to "sponsor" you onto the base. The rep will tell you the procedure when you set the signing. Be sure to get there early, though. It can take a bit of time to get through the gate at some bases, and especially with todayís heightened security. The longest itís ever taken, though, was about half an hour and that was at a very secure nuclear submarine base.

Be sure to ask the rep what the price of your book will be. It is always discounted and someone will inevitably ask. I feel like a dope if I donít know. Itís also a good selling point. "Cover price is $24.95. Theyíre selling it for $16, with no tax."

And as with all book signings, I have memorized a one-sentence answer to the question, "Whatís your book about?" I also have a short announcement about me and the book typed up and ready. In most cases, they will read it several times verbatim on the store PA while Iím there.

By the way, you wonít be able to buy anything in the exchanges unless you have military ID. My wife usually accompanies me on signing events, and one of her great frustrations is walking through the store, seeing all those great prices, and not being able to buy stuff. That, by the way, is her version of hell.

Now, what kind of books work best? Anything people read. Customers at exchanges are a reasonable cross-section of America (with quite a few foreign military visitors with temporary exchange privileges thrown in) except for their military connection. Of course, thrillers, mysteries, military-related non-fiction and the like are naturals, but any general interest books should sell. Local-interest may be tough since many of the customers are only temporarily in the area. And, as mentioned before, if you have something that shines a bad light on the military or is inaccurate in the way it deals with the armed forces or military hardware, you may not be successful or welcomed in an exchange. Thatís not censorship. Thatís just the way it is.

As with any other event, Iíve had some base signings that were spectacular and others where we only sold a book or two. Iím always careful, regardless of the setting, to make sure the store personnel and distributors know that I donít blame them for the ones that bomb. There are too many factors that determine the success or failure of a book signing. And I always happily thank everyone in sight, regardless of the success or the lack thereof. I want to be invited back again. Besides, even at the book-or-two signings, I left behind a nice supply for stock.

I also take along a digital camera and get pictures to post on my web site (www.donkeith.com) and to send to the distributor. I want them to remember me fondly for two reasons. First, I want to go back and do it again. But secondly, and maybe most importantly, these same companies also put books on racks in a wide variety of other accounts. A division of Anderson News is the company responsible for every single book that goes intoÖyesÖWal-Mart stores. And if you donít think the route salesman for a distributor like Anderson News or The News Group can help your book, then you donít understand one of the fundamentals of how this business works. If they remember you from the base, if they think you were a decent person, if they are appreciative for your help at their big military account, if they are familiar with your work, it might just influence them to put your books on racks elsewhere, and maybe keep them there for awhile, even if they donít all sell in a week. Wonderful person or not, none of them will rack a book for you that he doesnít think will sell. He simply doesnít have the rack space to put in a personal favorite of his. But anything that gives me an edge is to my advantage.

Finally, I recognize that a large majority of people in the area of the base signings are not military and cannot get on base, even if they are desperate to purchase my fine books. I fill in with signing events in traditional bookstores in the area to give everyone a crack at charging my books on their MasterCard. I also make sure the local newspapers (including the base papers, and they all have oneÖthe distributor can tell you more) get a press release about the events. Papers in towns which host military installations are most anxious to court that readership and tend to use the releases, even if only to list the event in their "Community Happenings" sections.

Pardon me if this all sounds just too too mercenary. Hereís my deal. I write for several reasons. I love the process of putting plot and character on paper. I live for the chance to affect someone emotionally with something I create. I want people to read and enjoy what I write. To do that, I necessarily have to get the books into their hands. While Iím as generous as the next guy, Iím loath to give books away for free. My publisher isnít enthusiastic about that either. Plus like most every mid-list author out there, I yearn for the day when I can write full time. I have far too many stories to tell and not enough time to do it. The only way Iíll be able realize my dream before I accept that first Social Security check is to sell some books.

Luckily for me, itís a process I enjoy. Even if you donít like standing behind a stack of books in a store or base exchange, grinning at folks as they walk by while trying to avoid eye contact with you, you might still be able to be a successful writer someday. There have been plenty of authors who didnít play the promotional game and still found fame and fortune and beau coups loyal fans.

But odds are against you if you donít want to work at the promotional end just as intensely as you do the writing side. Itís not necessarily a burden. I truly enjoy meeting potential readers. And thatís what everyone coming down that aisle is to me.

Potential readers who just havenít discovered me yet.

"Well, hi there. Pleased to meet you. Yes, Iím the author of this book. Itís the story of..."



Author Don Keith has twelve books in print, including the award-winning novel, The Forever Season, and an eight-book young adult series set in NASCAR racing, The Rolling Thunder Stockcar Racing Series. His latest work includes co-writing the national bestseller, Final Bearing, with George Wallace, a former nuclear submarine skipper. It has just been released in paperback by Forge Books. Forge has also just published Donís first non-fiction work, Gallant Lady: A Biography of USS Archerfish. That book was written with the considerable research help of former Archerfish crewmember Ken Henry, and tells the story of one of naval historyís most amazing vessels. Keith lives in Indian Springs Village, Alabama, where he also teaches media and advertising at a local college and runs a successful advertising agency.

Don can be reached through his Web site: www.donkeith.com.

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