Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Dear Cupcake Killer

I got a letter addressed to me the other day. The real me, not the Bookseller Chick me, or at least that’s what I’m assuming since it was addressed to the events coordinator/(genre specific) head a bookstore store. Hard to tell, really, since it was also addressed to a bookstore that hadn’t been in my space for five years!

And things just went down hill from there.

After I read the letter I was incensed and mortified (didn’t know you could be both at the same time did you?): on one hand I couldn’t believe that someone had written this expecting me to take it seriously, and on the other I just felt really bad for this author.

“Oh, honey,” the angelic side of me said, “that’s not good. That’s not good at all. Did you have someone read over this before you sent it out?”

“Obviously not,” hissed the other half of me, which may have drawn some of its pure evil from my psycho grandmother. “A better question would be, ‘Who thought this person should be published and do they still have their job?’”

“Don’t be like that. It must be hard to send out self-promotional letters like this. S/he doesn’t know any better.”

“Well, they should learn,” devil me sniffed. “We should send the letter back. Send it back covered in red correction marks. Bleeeeeeed on it with pen. This person needs to be taught a lesson.”

It was at this point that I put the letter away and went to look up the symptoms for Multiple Personality Disorder in the DSM-IV-TR we keep in Self-Help. Since close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades I figured I wasn’t suffering from MPD, but just in case, I ate a cupcake. One should never underestimate the healing power of a sugary baked good and its ability to assist in one’s overall wellbeing. Still the letter stuck with me; I wasn’t really going to write the author back, nor was I going to out the poor person in the blogosphere for the amusement of others, but there had to be some way to talk about the author/bookseller letter format.

Is there some sort of template out there that y’all use when you write up you’re “get to know my book” letters or do you have to wing it? If there is, I hope it includes the following points:
  • Get the bookstore’s name right. I have a feeling that a lot of publishers, publicity people and authors are working from old lists because we routinely get mail addressed to the bookstore that hasn’t been in our spot for five years (one that was part of a whole different company). If two stores are showing up with the exact same address maybe someone should call and find out who is actually still there. While it is possible to have two bookstores in the same mall, why waste the postage if you can easily find out if this is indeed the case, or if someone simply forgot to remove a store from the list.

  • Event’s Whaaa? Let’s get something straight here: large chain stores have events coordinators, while small chain stores have someone who may answer to this name right before they walk into their backroom and starting crying “Why me? I don’t get paid enough for this.” “Dear Bookseller” is a perfectly acceptable way to address a letter if you don’t know the specific bookseller’s name. If you do have access to the person’s name then make sure to spell it right!

  • The word “rollicking” should never, ever be used in your letter. EVER. Especially when talking about your plot. In fact, let’s just table the ability to use that word for the next twenty years, at which time we can reexamine its ability to make a reader wince in pain.

  • I don’t care where you went to school (Oh sure, I might care if we went to the same college, but then I would wonder how you knew we went to the same college and that paranoia would make me seek out the DSM-IV-TR again, so let’s not go there). I don’t care if you’ve worked in publishing before. Your job and schooling history should never appear in your letter to a bookseller unless you are writing to tell us about your fantastic nonfiction book about a topic related to your job or schooling. If you write fiction for a living the only thing I want to know is if you’ve written anything else that was fiction and if it sold well (or if Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert/or someone else with the power to sway the masses liked it).

  • Most chains don’t have a section for local authors. They may occasionally stick said author in the local/regional section, but usually only if they are nonfiction or if the book’s fictional world takes place in real world surroundings (and those surroundings are the local area) and has gotten a lot of press because of that. If I walked into a chain store in Wisconsin I would not expect for them to have a bunch of books in a wall-bay labeled “Local Authors!” (I would, however, expect cheese paraphernalia.) ?” I can tell if you are local by your postage mark and return address. Asking me to label your book as “Local Author” just makes me frown as I wonder, “Do we even have a ‘Local Author’ sticker

  • Kill the adjectives. Unless you have a quote from someone famous telling how super-fantastic your book is, don’t describe your book in any terms that would make you personally retch if applied to a movie or another book description. (See “rollicking” rule.)

  • Don’t send bookmarks unless asked. Please, dear God, don’t send bookmarks. I’m drowning in the suckers.

  • A little card with your cover on it is more effective than a computer printout on regular plain white paper. They are easy to file in rolodexes, they can have all your contact information on the back, and you can use them in any situation (when meeting booksellers face to face, as a friendly reminder for friends and family to pass out, an ice-breaker at the next business meeting). Printer sheet covers are not any of these things and just look tacky.

  • Short, sweet, and to the point is the best way to go. If you’ve got an elevator pitch for you book, or a good marketing slogan then use it, if you don’t then don’t think up something groan-worthy just to fill the white space.

This letter I received broke almost all of these rules even though it had the best intentions. It wasn’t a letter from a self-pubbed author (who might not have had access to anyone in marketing or publicity), but someone being released by a major house, and it was not the first of this kind I’ve received. I know how hard it is to write business correspondence, believe me, but please have someone read over anything you are going to be mass mailing (and don’t let that person be your mother who has loved everything you’ve ever produced and still has your macaroni painting from kindergarten on the wall in the kitchen). Work on your letter until it has some sort of flow, otherwise the person on the other end—the bookseller you want to order in your book—will being to doubt your writing ability.

And that’s an unhappy thought not even a cupcake can fix.


Eileen said...

Would you consider posting a letter that really worked?

As I am getting to ready to write these very letters and and all suggestions are welcome. Course now I have to find another word for rollicking...

web said...

As a reviewer, I've seen my share of those letters. {shudder}

Christine Fletcher said...

The things I learn by hanging around here. Who knew about mass mailings to bookstores? Well, now I do. Thanks for a stellar post, BSC--

Colleen Gleason said...

Thanks for the info, BSC. It sounds like the letter should be short and sweet--rather like a covering query letter to an editor and agent.

I'm guessing a postcard with the bookcover on one side and the pertinent information on the back might even be more effective.

One more question: what kind of cupcake???

lady t said...

Oh,boy-the dreaded"local author"! Nothing against that but I've seen way too of them who expect you to be all "ooo-ahh!" and to drop everything to promote their precious tome(and their moms,too!).

I think it's best to use the local angle if it directly relates to your book(particularly if it has any historical content).

stay_c said...

As a resident of WI, Oshkosh, specifically, the two local books stores are good about promoting local authors. The independent store -- Apple Blossom Books ( is fantastic at recommending and working with the local authors.

Paper Tiger, which is part of the region Bookworld chain, has a good local interest written by local authors.

The Barnes and Noble in Green Bay holds local author signings for the published RWA members.

Paper Tiger is the only one of the three that has "cheese paraphernalia" though.

I'm sure others will tell you differently, but the above is my experience.

Bernita said...

Not at that stage yes, but I'll remember.
Thank you.

Bookseller Chick said...

Eileen, I don't keep the letters. That's why I'm a big fan of inclosing a business card of some type. Letters that worked were very tailored to their story and their genre, and didn't waste my time. If I come across one that works for me in the next couple of months I'll contact the author and see if I can post it.

Web, I'm so glad that I'm not the only one.

Christine, by mass mailing I meant that it was obvious that this same letter was used for a large group of booksellers (probably all of the ones in my state) with just the address in the top left corner changed.

Colleen, your query is probably an excellent starting point when trying to write to booksellers, only now you have the information such as Publisher and marketing campaign to put in (although if you have a marketing campaign then chances are you have someone to help with your letter). The cupcake was a yellow cake with chocolate frosting, I have two bite-sized ones in other flavors in my fridge.

Lady T, I agree completely.

stay_c, I'm open to local author signings, and never meant to come across like I wasn't. Local author signings happen all the time in my town and I fully support them, and had the author of the letter offered said local status as a reason to do a signing/be available for a signing, it would have made sense. S/he only gave the information in reference to having local author stickers placed on the book (or for the book to be placed in a local authors display bay, which we don't have, nor do we have room to create one). I'm sure that most of the independents around me do as they are much more community focused in many ways. (I'm completely saddened to hear about the lack of cheese paraphernalia though.) Sorry if this didn't come across in the post, this is what I get for blogging in a hurry.

stay_c said...

No problem. I know the local stores and thought that they were doing a great job. And that maybe some of the other BNs should be open to their local RWA members (snicker). Your audience is wider than mine.:)

Anonymous said...

I've never written to a book store, but this was very enlightening. My publicist sends the letters and arranges signings, all that, but what I'm wondering is how booksellers feel about "drop in" authors. Are they a bother or are booksellers happy to have a warm body to talk to about the book? On my way to booked events, I often pass by bookstores and think about stopping by to say hello, but never know if that's proper etiquette.

Alyssa Goodnight said...

I feel the same way 'anonymous' does...never know if I'm imposing on a local bookseller. I wonder if they'd prefer to be contacted via phone, a mailer, or not at all. I really like the idea of the business card with the book cover and all pertinent information.

This blog was quite a find--I'm happy to have your perspective, BSC!

BuffySquirrel said...

What is it about this blog that makes me want to rush out and get a job in a bookshop? I can't figure it out...

Anonymous said...

This is very interesting, thanks for the info! My first book is coming out in print next month o_O and I'm unsure about how - or whether - to contact the bookstores that might possibly stock it. I'm also wondering if the in-person approach is best. I'd much rather talk to someone face to face than send a letter, frankly, but don't want to put anyone off.

And another thing, does anyone know where one could go to get business cards made with a book cover on them, decent quality but not too horribly expensive?

Thanks again, this is some very useful info here!


Christine Fletcher said...


I had mine done at Kinko's. Cover art on one side and my contact info on the other. I actually had 2 versions made: 1 w/ address/phone/e-mail/web, the other w/ e-mail/web only. 500 cards for about $150. I'm sure you can get it done for much cheaper by one of the online sites, but I'd never done my own cards before and wanted someone to talk me through it, see the proofs, etc. And now that the setup is all done, ordering more will be a lot less expensive.