An Ode to Independent Bookshops: Lessons from the Road
When Reedsy author Mason Engel embarked on a book tour to promote his Amazon-published dystopia 2084, he didn’t expect self-promotion to be the last thing on his mind. But getting to know local booksellers, Mason changed focus and filmed a documentary on indie bookshops instead.
When my book sales plateaued in 2019, I came up with a crazy idea to go on an in-person book tour. My Reedsy-edited debut initially sold well with over 30,000 downloads on Amazon in the first year, but that avenue was drying up. So I wanted to try a different outlet: brick-and-mortar stores.
My plan was to cross the U.S. in my beat-up 1995 Mercury Tracer and visit 50 indie bookstores in 50 days. I would give away one copy of my book to each store I visited, and maybe, just maybe, they would put me on their shelves.
Do you see a flaw in this plan? I certainly didn’t.
The book tour that changed my perspective
Starting my road trip, I was immediately struck by how excited every bookseller was to meet me and hear about my journey. During these conversations, I could hear the enthusiasm in their voices. I could see the passion in their eyes. I’ve always been fascinated by people who love what they do, and I could tell right away that indie booksellers loved talking about and selling books.
Did you know that when you walk into an independent bookstore, those hundreds or thousands of books on the shelves were individually chosen by a bookseller? It’s a humbling thought.
The eighth bookshop was when everything changed.
I walked up to The Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kansas, and noticed a black and white pamphlet with the title: How to Resist Amazon and Why in the shop window. Looking down at my Amazon-published novel, I started thinking.
My book was available only through Amazon, so by walking into these stores and asking them to promote my work, I was asking them to advertise a product that only their direct competitor could sell.
It seems so obvious now, but at the time I was so focused on my own agenda I never realized what I’d actually been doing: asking them to help make their competitor money with nothing in it for them.
The merit of independent bookstores
At the beginning of my road trip, I’d been an Amazon diehard. Slowly, however, I started to prefer independent bookstores. In a frenzy to promote my book, I kind of forgot why I was doing this in the first place. Stories have the power not only to provide an escape but also to give us the strength to return, to build empathy, and bring people together. And, in a way, that’s what independent bookstores are all about!
As my indie bookstore odyssey continued, an idea started to brew. What if I went on a second road trip, equipped with a camera and a simple question: why should we shop indie? I could use my story to affect my transformation in others and show people what they were missing by shopping on Amazon. So a year later, I went on a second tour and filmed my 30-minute documentary, The Bookstour.
How can self-published authors and independent booksellers work together?
While the documentary focuses more on readers, I also had the chance to ask booksellers how authors and local bookshops might better support each other. If you’re a published or aspiring author, Amazon will inevitably play a role in your journey to publication. However, we shouldn’t forget that in our fight for attention, independent bookstores are important allies. Speaking to Janet Geddis of Avid Bookshop in Athens, GA, I learned four things that I’d recommend to any self-publishing author.
1. Foster long-term, personal relationships with your local indie bookshop
So much of the marketing in indie publishing takes place online in an environment where we expect fast results. For Janet, a self-published author’s first step is not quick but is really rewarding.
“Foster long-term, personal relationships with your local, independent bookshop. Spend money at the shop, attend author events, and introduce yourself to the booksellers working (not just the bookstore owner). That way, when your new book is on the horizon, you can approach the shop as a friend and not as someone who is a virtual stranger.
This business is all about relationships, and we independent bookstores love to support local authors.”
2. Consult a bookseller for marketing advice
Despite how they’re sometimes portrayed in the media, booksellers are some of the most helpful people you’re likely to meet. If you want advice from someone like Janet, all you have to do is ask, she says.
“Once you’ve established a relationship, you can ask a bookseller if they’d be willing to talk with you for a few minutes about the book you aim to publish. Booksellers are experts in not just books but how to sell them. They know how to merchandise, promote, and sell a book, and can be a great resource for self-published authors.”
3. If you want a bookshop’s help, don’t publish exclusively on Amazon
For this kind of relationship to thrive, everybody needs to get something out of it — or at the very least, the author shouldn’t be a parasite.
“When you ask for our advice, be clear that you’d like to publish in a way that would not be detrimental to the local bookshop,” Janet tells me “For instance, publishing on KDP, Amazon’s print-on-demand platform, will work against you if you want your local bookstore to carry the book since Amazon has posed an existential and predatory threat to independent bookstores for decades now.”
If you’re looking for a way into indie bookstores, you’ll probably need to distribute it through a wholesaler like Ingram — but why not just ask your local shop where they order their books from?
4. Support your independent bookshop financially
Janet’s last piece of advice sounds obvious, but it comes back to this idea of being someone who’s willing to give as much as they take.
“Support your independent bookstore financially. Making a purchase in a bookshop is a gesture of goodwill and appreciation for the knowledge and time booksellers have shared. When there is a mutually supportive, beneficial relationship between an author and their local, independent bookstore, both the author and the shop will perform better.”
To cast a wider net as an indie author, check out these ebook publishing alternatives to Amazon.
With Janet’s advice in mind, I'd like to leave you with one message: remember why you love to write. It’s probably because a book in your past changed you, inspired you, influenced your perspective, maybe even saved your life. You write, on some level, because you love to read and you love what books represent: empathy and human connection — the heartbeat of the independent bookstore. So if you ever need a reminder of your “why,” just visit your local indie bookshop.
Watch the Bookstour documentary and support U.S. independent bookstores with your donation!