PB&J: Indie Bookstores and Me

Peanut_Butter_Jelly_Time_by Meredith Maslich

When I started Possibilities Publishing Company, I had a super-idealized vision of what my relationships would be like with independent bookstores.

I thought, “Indie publisher…indie bookstore…like peanut butter and jelly!” My whole company is based on a partnership model, so why wouldn’t that extend to bookstores?

Being able to build partnerships was a big piece of what was appealing about small bookstores because Amazon can move inventory, but that’s about it. Its staff won’t even return my messages about meeting for coffee.

However, as with most fantasies, the reality was a bit different. Less PB&J, more like peanut butter and tuna fish. Sure we have some stuff in common but no direct connection.

And not for lack of trying on my part. I spent months contacting stores in locations across the country — and not just generic mass email messages. I customized the messages based on the information they provided on their websites about how they wanted to work with indie publishers.

The result? Overwhelming silence.

Maybe my messages got caught in a lot of spam filters or maybe I didn’t do a good job of communicating that I was the peanut butter to their jelly. Either way, no forward motion was happening.

My business mind took over from my emotional side and decided that this endeavor was not a good use of my time because even if every bookstore responded, the profit margin would be minuscule. According to a Forbes article, less than 10% of books sold in the U.S. each year happen through bookstores. My marketing efforts were clearly going to be much better spent directing traffic to Amazon and other online retailers.

But I couldn’t totally abandon my fantasy of partnering with indie bookstores. So I turned to the strategy I use every time I hit a brick wall with something I want. I leave it alone and trust that at some point the stars will align and it will happen when it’s meant to.

I realize that makes me sound like I might actually believe that I’m peanut butter, but in my experience, business is a mix of science, art, and luck. I conceptualize the luck part as being the result of some cosmic alignment. I don’t know any other way to explain it.

So a few months ago when an indie bookstore opened in Washington, D.C., which is in my general ‘hood, I immediately started fantasizing about how our companies would become best friends. But I couldn’t find any information about the owners’ opinions or preferences regarding small publishers, and given my track record, I couldn’t bring myself to send another email. I preferred to keep the fantasy alive in my head.

Then a few weeks ago, I was looking for a place to hold the release party for our upcoming book “Last Flight Home,” and I contacted a bar where I’d done an event last summer and asked the manager if she wanted to host it. She said yes and added that the bookstore next door liked to host events and maybe we could all partner up. Before I knew it, I was cc’d on an email with the manager of the very bookstore I’d been fantasizing about. She was enthusiastic about the event, and within hours, we had our launch party scheduled.

Now full of confidence, I asked if she would like to carry any of our other titles. Turns out, she was already carrying one of our books – “Freak Show Without a Tent” — and then picked another, “UNFIT.” Just like that, I went from having no books in bookstores to having three in Upshur Street Books!

Simultaneously, an enthusiastic reader took it upon herself to pitch “UNFIT” to some indie bookstores in North Carolina (where the book is set). Within a week, TWO stores expressed interest. We’re still hammering out the details, but the experience served as a confirmation of my strategy of waiting for the stars to align instead of banging my head against a brick wall.

SO, if you’re in the D.C. area, make sure to stop in at Upshur Street Books to see (and buy!) our books — or any of the other excellent books for sale there. And on Friday, May 8, stop in around 7:00 p.m. for the launch event for J.B. Lawrence’s debut novel “Last Flight Home” and then join us at 8:00 for the afterparty next door at the Petworth Citizen and Reading Room.

Meredith Maslich is president and CEO of Possibilities Publishing Company. She is also on the faculty at SpeakeasyDC, where she has been teaching the art of storytelling for more than six years.

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