Whadda ya gonna do? Author Letters from Hell

Sometimes my posts are a little bit experimental. This one’s really frivolous and, for some of you, it will serve as the perfect sedative. So, turn away. Don’t look. I won’t get my feelings hurt if you read no further.

I suspect my business is no different from others who sell things. If you have a store, there’s always someone who wants you to stock their merchandise. But when it comes to the book world, especially these days, you wind up getting phone calls, e-mails, postcards, and all manner of stuff from authors.

I was very careful not to use quotation marks on the word author, though I considered it. And the purpose of this post is primarily for me to vent – not to trash anyone. I’m not unsympathetic, at all, to these authors who self-promote. In fact, some of my best relationships with writers came from unsolicited contacts with micro- and self-publishers.

No, this is not a statement about quality, per se. But I do get a lot of “please sell my book” communications that are fired indiscriminately, like a shotgun. Yes, I might have a patron who wants to buy a book about the flowers of Eastern Washington’s deserts, but I’m unlikely to buy a case at a “short” discount, plus freight costs and without the privilege of returning them if they don’t sell.

So, to the point …

I received a letter during the holidays that was, inadvertently I’m sure, so generic and which demonstrated so little understanding of what might inspire me to champion the author’s book that I kept it on the top of my to-do list. Herewith, without revealing the author or the book, is a special Bookstore Mad-Lib author letter. Please note that the author gave so much attention to his request that he addressed it to me like this:

Dear Mr. Contact Name,

(What if I were a woman? At least he was respectful in calling me Mister.)

Briefly, if you’ve never seen it before, the whole Mad-Lib concept is to work from a generic story while leaving out key elements – nouns, verbs, proper names, a color, an adjective, a quantity – providing those pieces first and then wedging them into the pre-written story.

Here, satirically, I deconstruct a finished letter and invite you to play Mad-Lib with it when you construct your author solicitation letter.

Dear [a first name][a last name],

Everyone knows the importance of [an activity or outcome] as they get [a state of being], but so many of the [blank] and [blank] programs available today seem to overlook [types of people] in their marketing and design. There seems to be little out there for the [adjective] individual who just wants to be [state of being] and feel [quantity] [emotion or condition], not lose [a quantity] [a thing] or gain [a quantity] [a thing]. Now, there’s an option for the [age group] [activity] crowd: [My Book Title] by [first name] [middle initial] [last name] ([evocative name for publisher] Press, ISBN 978-1-999999-99-9, [Month, ordinal Date Year, $00.00]). Full of [adjective], [adjective] [compound adjective] advice, [My Book Title] can help any [type of person] improve their [blank] and feel like they’ve [blanked].

[My Book Title]’s easy to follow suggestions show readers how to [something you do] that will increase their [something you can increase], allowing them to reap benefits like:

– Having fewer [noun] and [noun]s (and taking fewer [adjective] [noun]s)
– Gaining an increased [something you can obtain] and improved [something else you can obtain] (without the help of [adjective] [noun]s)
– Achieving better [something] to diminish [something]

Specifically developed for the [age group] crowd, [My Book Title] understands the  [noun]s, [noun]s and [blank] needs of [age group] people. It is specially designed to help people over [age] fit [something] into their lives simply and sustainably, helping to ensure [a quantity] of years of [something great].

If you are interested in reviewing [My Book Title], interviewing the author, or need additional press materials, please contact the author at [myname@provider.net]. For more information, visit [http://mybooktitle.com].

About the author: [My Name] is a [number] year old [vocation] in [my City, St.] With work, a family, a vocation and obligations, life is full. Using common sense [techniques] and a common sense [a discipline] coupled with [unusual activity] training techniques, he has found the formula to remain [condition of being] at an age when most are [doing something not-so-good].


I fully expected it to be signed “Sincerely, Insert Author’s name.

That is all. Good night folks. More and better to come in your daily opportunity at NewAlbanyBooks.


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23 responses to “Whadda ya gonna do? Author Letters from Hell

  1. pmgibbs

    We get the same kind of letter on a continual basis. With all the new techno options available to communicate…it does seem a bit lame.
    The #86 file is overflowing.
    I commiserate.

  2. Friday

    Ok, so what would you like to see instead?

  3. Friday, glad you asked. I may expand on this in a future post, but here are a few thoughts.

    Dear author,
    Don’t let your pitch letter expose your weak grammar and syntax. Many in your trade have a great story to tell, but are weak writers. I suppose that’s where screenwriters come from (kidding!. If your solicitation is riddled with cliches or generics, it doesn’t give me confidence that your book will be any good.

    Show me that you understand that no matter how good your book might be, I might not be able to carry it. It may be the best book on desert flowers, but if it is, acknowledge my position in some way. If you know that there are 78 members of the Desert Flower Appreciation society in my region, tell me. And don’t send letters to all of those 78 offering them a discount if they buy direct from you, expecting me to stock your book and sell the 79th and 80th copies on the off-chance someone might be interested.

    For heaven’s sake, don’t tell me it’s available on amazon.com. You’d be shocked at how many authors act as if having their book on amazon.com is just a precursor to the Pulitzer Prize. What I want to know is if it’s available through my regular sources – a publisher I do business directly with or both of the major national distributors. DO NOT put your book with Ingram Book Co. and neglect putting it with Baker & Taylor.

    Show me that you at least talked to a bookstore owner before you published your book. Hint to me that you are, yourself, a reader and buyer of books from stores like mine.

    Give me a comparable. Don’t present a price point that’s out of the norm, like a first-time novel, in paperback, for $23.95. I have hundreds of $7.99 novels from established authors.

    Tell me if you have a community of interest here or online that WE can draw from to sell your book. Are you traveling? Do you have friends here who would help promote an appearance?

    Show me the cover art. I can tell when a professional was involved and when they were not. It matters.

    Tell me what the story is about. Don’t tell me the story, and don’t say it inartfully, like : “First Novel” is about a young college student named Carrie Awn who moves away from home and begins to experience the world for the first time. Show me you can write punchy copy, too. “Carrie Awn thought she knew the world, but within a few weeks at Awnover College she knew much, much more than she ever wanted to know.”

    Tell me if you have a local connection. If you don’t, that’s OK. But then, tell me how your self-help book stands out from the hundreds of others I can buy for my store. Do you have a backstory that will fascinate the readers of my blog or newsletter. For nonfiction, that can be a dealmaker. Is YOUR local independent bookseller willing to give a testimonial, including sales figures? Do you even know your local independent bookseller?

    Find out who I am. Lots of people call asking for Randy who are just more clever. But at least they found out my name. It is not Mr. Contact Name or Store Manager or Buyer.

    If you wouldn’t read your own postcard, don’t expect me to read it. Booksellers look briefly at every piece. I’d wager that fewer than 1 out of 20 get more than a 5-second look. If it doesn’t drill right into my brain, it goes in the circular file.

    Don’t be insulted if I’m not interested. Maybe it’s the biggest mistake I’ll ever make. But I think I know what will sell at my store. It might be worth e-mailing me to ask if I have an LGBT relationships section or even if I refuse to carry such. Maybe I specialize in that. An e-mail USUALLY gets a response. A letter almost never does.

    And when your letter does cross my desk, the first thing I do is go to my distributor websites to see if a) it’s available; b) if it’s available at normal trade discounts; and c) if it’s properly annotated there. If you used a predatory self-publishing house known for dealing badly with authors, know 2 things. One, you have my sympathy, but you should have talked to your local independent booksellers about it first. And two, that predator will also have a bad relationship with stores.

    I have championed first-time writers from first-time publishing houses. “Shakedown” by Andy Ryan was such a book. I loved it, told the publisher so, and successfully nominated it for the IndieBound Next List. It can happen. Even so, we’ve sold a only handful of copies. If my memory serves, a phone call started that process and it’s a book I carry because I think of it as my discovery, even though its sales don’t justify the shelf space.

    And if you do call, be considerate. Don’t rush. And don’t rush me. Ask if I have time to hear your pitch. Ask if you can send me something by e-mail. Offer a sample chapter to me. Be brief.

    I’m 90% more likely to try your book out if I can order 1 copy from my distributor just as a normal course of business, with free freight, see it, examine it, see if it sells. If I can only get it from 1 place and I have to pay freight and I don’t get normal reseller discounts and I can’t return it if it won’t sell, I’m unlikely to give it another thought.

    I’ll stop now. But these are a few things. It could be (and often is) a looong blog posting.

    Thanks again for asking.

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  5. Thanks for you long answer. So, I‘m a new, small publisher, I‘m not carried by bookstores yet, so let me tell you the business from my perspective.

    I perfectly understand why you need a good cover, and good copy, and a professional look (and good content). So, here is the tricky part: A publisher can get any PoD-book with a short discount, no returns, into Amazon and BN.com fairly easily without the need to explain to Amazon why this book is so special or to figure out the first name of Mr. Bezos (it’s Jeff, btw).

    Especially the no-return-part is important, because otherwise you’d have to have a pricey infrastructure of receiving, storing and redistributing books (or, more likely, throw them away). The discount is something we can talk about. However, those PoD printers make it difficult, if not entirely impossible to set a different discount for NewAlbanyBooks and for Amazon. I‘m not even sure whether this is legal.

    So, I‘m asking myself, would it be worth giving Amazon and BN.com 50 percent instead of 20 and letting them return the book for the slim chance that one of the few independent bookstores left in the USA might carry it?

    The answer is, of course, no. Also, does it make sense to spend the same amount of time to get NewAlbanybooks to carry my books than I’m spending on Amazon? That might make sense if I‘m publishing books about the history of Albany (or so I assume), but otherwise, also no.

    So here is what I can do for you: I can order copies directly from the printer at a 50% discount sent to you, and I could even pay shipping as long as I’m still making money on the book (i.e. if you order a substantial number of books, say, 10). The return part is somewhat more tricky; I’d say, rather not, but I would be willing to give it a try, once. However, if a bookseller returns more books than he sells, that’s not a viable business in the long run.

    So, my books would be within Ingram, and (soon) at B&T, but the ordering would be done by me. Is that acceptable? If not, do you have any suggestion how we can deliver books to you without taking substantial losses with Amazon and BN.com?

    • Baker & Taylor has PODStream, and Ingram Book Co. has bought up half the so-called POD publishers in America. Sometimes (why?) the margins are only 35%, but here’s the key: If you’re a publisher, you can work with all of them, amazon.com included, and make your book widely available instead of kissing off the kinds of businesses that make your community and mine vital. It’s a choice about sustainability of economies and in the long term, it’s a choice about your business’s survival. I understand why you would “fix it and forget it” and become part of the “Borg.” So, how are you doing with that model? And what do you do tomorrow when your chosen manufacturer/distributor changes the terms on you because you have indentured yourself to their solution? My post was not intended to be advice to POD publishers – I actually am one, myself – but only because I saw all the exploitation of authors and the inattention to bookstores. I do advise on a consulting basis, but I don’t think you want to pay my $75 an hour rate. I do appreciate your responding and perhaps giving my readers a peek into the dynamics of publishing today. I wish you well with your business venture.

      • My reference to so-called POD publishers refers, of course, to the myriad printers and middlemen who contract their fulfillment and printing to Lightning Source, et al. It is not intended to reflect on actual publishers.

  6. DO NOT put your book with Ingram Book Co. and neglect putting it with Baker & Taylor.

    – Sorry to have to say this, but YOU are apparently ignorant of the fact that one of the two distributors you mentioned has a reputation for trashing returns, failing to deliver, failing to pay on time.
    Why the hell should we publishers stock with both B&T AND Ingrams? Ingrams is perfectly adequate, thanks.

    • The post isn’t about POD publishers or their masters, but your comments are welcome.

    • In a just-in-time world, Ingram Book does all its POD in the Nashville area. That’s 3 days shipping for me, and I’m less than 200 miles from Nashville. Imagine you are with Ingram but have a following in Portland (any Portland). That’s an inconvenience to our patrons to have to wait until I can build a Nashville order. POD ought to be distributed – not centralized. It’s not that costly an infrastructure. It can be done at relatively low cost in small space. Desperation puts hundreds of publishers at the mercy of Gargantua, or Gargantuette.

      • I have to disagree; if you do everything on demand, it is a huge extra expense to deal with returns. For starters, you need storage space and a person to pick up your mail and send out packages on a regular basis.

        I understand your concerns about being on the mercy of Gargantua, but spending days to convince an independent book store to carry and sell three books is really not an alternative.

        Also, you have not answered my question: Is it an acceptable way of business for you to order from the publisher directly for a 50% (or 55%) discount, or not? And if not, why not?

        Also, three days? I can order a PoD from Amazon within 2 days, and I live a lot farther from Nashville (LS prints in Pennsylvania, btw). And what would you consider the alternative? If I would store books in bulk and ship them to you, do you think that would be faster than 3 days?

      • This is off track, Eva. I didn’t address POD … I responded to specific comments. POD is certainly viable. Remember I said I actually do POD printing in my own store (which I think is where things are headed – buy the rights securely and print it in the store, like with the Espresso machine). Getting an indie to carry 1 copy is what you want, and 40%, even 35% is acceptable if I want it and am intrigued by it. But if I can add it to my regular Ingram Nashville order, it’s free freight to me (and sometimes returnable). Direct from the publisher works, too, but isn’t necessary to get the book in the store. As the original post implied, you have to make me want the book. But once 1 copy is in, if it sells, we’ll get another. That’s how we keep breadth. One copy feeds the next, and for most books, if I sell it this morning I’ll have it tomorrow afternoon. Ingram’s centralized approach hurts publishers.

        But I have not denigrated the POD model here. I simply pointed out that it complicates things if you want to sell in bookstores. Some commenters don’t; so be it. I appreciate your sincere questions. And to your first point, at least for me, lack of returnability isn’t a deal-breaker. But returnability can be the deal-maker. I do few returns and on POD, it’s rarely even possible. But the tradeoff is that you won’t get stores to buy quantities. You’ll sell them when someone asks for it (or 3 or more days later). And that puts all the burden on you to expose the book to the world, with no help from a legion of people who love books and whose recommendations carry weight.

        It’s all an investment. POD lowers your risks and costs, but it also lowers your return and revenues. That’s how all business works. Risk-free is less profitable, inherently.

        Asking me to carry (buy) an unknown book by an unknown author is asking me to take your risk off of you and put it on me. If everyone understands that, then if they want stores to carry their books, they’ll be much better served in crafting a solicitation.

        I ordered 2 unsolicited titles today from mailed pieces. They offered me better discounts to buy direct, but what worked for me is to try them out by ordering from distributors. They weren’t POD, but they could have been.

      • I see. Here is the problem: Why would a customer walk into your store, order a book and come back and pick it up three days later when he can have it shipped by Amazon faster and cheaper, other then to fight the beast, surely a worthy cause, but how long will that go on?

        So, of course I can send a single copy of a book to start a relationship, but with LightningSource, shipping a single copy is about as expensive as shipping 10 copies, so that doesn’t work in the long run.

        Would there be any middle ground like, say, you will be ordering 5 copies, 35%, I pay shipping, and I take them back if they don’t sell (in which case you pay shipping?) Or something like that?

        Also, I just found out that New Albany is in Indiana – boy, am I glad I didn’t make any Eliot-Spitzer-jokes about what might or might not sell.

      • In order:

        My patrons DO NOT LIKE amazon.com, do not trust amazon.com, and want a bookstore that’s theirs. In the case you suggest, where they’ve found out about the book elsewhere, they choose to order from me – even asking to be sure it’s a profitable transaction. If it’s not, I walk them around the counter and help them buy it right there and then – from you, perhaps. That’s what full-service is. Most books aren’t POD, so if I don’t have it, I can have it soon. They KNOW they haven’t walked into a million-book inventory. They prefer to do business and see their community enriched by a return that is 3 times what it would be in a chain store and infinitely more helpful than an online purchase. They purchase from me online, too, knowing the profits go back into their community. It’s a relationship as old as time. Buy local first from someone you know and trust. These are facts, not faith.

        As to your second point, I repeat: I order POD books from Ingram all the time. I don’t need to order from the publisher. If I have an event, I might inquire of a small publisher about better discounts, but generally I’ll buy those 10 copies 1 at a time, as needed. And Ingram’s POD books ship from Lavergne, Tenn., without any extra delay, wherever they are printed. It’s just tough for any bookseller for which Lavergne is a secondary warehouse to extract those books because of shipping minimums.

        For No. 3, that doesn’t sound like a “middle” ground. I can do better through Ingram, except for your offer of accepting returns. Again, returns aren’t a big deal to me. I know when I order whether a book is potentially returnable and I buy accordingly.

        And good ol’ Eliot coulda been a contendah! But no, we fly in and out of Louisville … we’re right in the flight path for midnight UPS landings at the hub, so we know early whether our books will arrive on time.

      • You don’t need to yell at me; it’s not that I love Amazon, I‘m trying to get along with them the same way the Ewoks were getting along with Darth Vader, albeit less successful.

        So, if I understand you correctly (and forgive me if I don’t, I‘m in the business for 8 weeks now), if you order a PoD, even a single, from Ingram/LS directly, you don’t have to pay shipping?

        As for me, I would be happy to set two types of discounts, one for Amazon and a better one for bookstores, but LS doesn’t let us do that. There is a lot of debate in the PoD community about how to screw the system and trick them into it, so far to no avail.

        Have a great day!

      • Just lazy on emphasis. Not yelling. And yes, an independent bookstore of at least a certain size and quantity of purchases can negotiate for free shipping on minimum-sized orders. Not on a single, but in my case for 15 books shipped from the same warehouse (Lavergne). If I only have 1, it waits on the shelf until 14 more are ordered and ready to ship. But yes, then it’s free freight.

  7. Why should an author even bother to try to get into a local bookstore? They are endangered species anyway, why join them?

    • Obviously, I disagree. But maybe not all authors ought to be going that route; as you imply, it’s a “bother.” The independent bookstore will still be here when the chains are gone. They help define or reflect the culture of a community. Few will get their books into the groceries, price clubs, and such. So if online is the only choice you see, grab it. Modest success is a good thing, too.

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  9. As a reader, I love shopping in both mom&pop and bigbox bookstoress. But as a small publisher, there’s no way I’m willing to forsake the 20% discount/no inventory/no returns scenario I have with POD and online booksellers in order to support terrestrial booksellers.

    Selling books on consignment is a system invented for the Great Depression, which ended about 70 years ago. The system encourages over-printing and waste, and its time has passed. Sellers of Nike sneakers, Sony TVs and Honda cars don’t return unsold products. It’s time for booksellers to move into the 21st century.

    Don’t order what you don’t think you can sell. If you’re wrong, mark ’em down. It works for shirts, and it should work for books.

    Michael N. Marcus

    • And you make my point. I won’t order what I don’t think I can sell.

    • I know of no independents who work on a consignment basis except for obscure, marginal books that would not justify the investment. We pay for our books. We do have limited return privileges, but they are so limited and have such repercussions that it really doesn’t enter into our calculations of what to buy. Back to the original post, this fictional author is asking me to invest in him/his book, without recourse. While we appreciate being informed about a new book, if you ask us to make that investment, give us a reason and/or make it easy for us to take the risk. That’s all I’m saying. It’s my money buying your books. If I don’t think I can sell it and make a profit, I’ll buy that which I can sell and sustain my business. And if I’m willing to take a chance on your books, the risk needs to be apportioned.

  10. I’m a small press publisher, and enjoy dealing with my local indie stores. As fellow small businesses, we’re supportive of each other. I use their location, reputation, and goodwill when I hold an author signing, and I make money. They use my bullpen of regional authors, their followings, and my buzz to bring people into their store, so they make money. It’s a sustainable symbiotic relationship.

    I’ll cold-contact the occasional book store owner, but I’ll research them as much as I can first. Find out what their specialty is, what would make my book appeal to their customers, and how I can help them sell a book so that we both make money and make a customer happy.

    The 55% discount with returnability standard can work well if you find the right way to support the offering. Do you drive business to your book store? Do you keep the books on your website at full price so that you don’t undercut your own best champion? Do you promote author signings at your stores with media announcements, publicity flyers, and online customer invitations?

    I’m happy to have my books stocked at NewAlbanyBooks and other independent book stores. And when a reader in the area asks where my books are stocked, I’ll refer them to their local book store.

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