On Independent Booksellers and Romance

Romance can be a bestseller in an Indie. I swear!

Romance can be a bestseller in an Indie. I swear!

Four years ago, I made friends with my amazing local independent bookstore (WORD in Brooklyn). Our relationship had an unexpected beginning—you see, WORD didn’t carry romance. But the store had a fabulous manager who was willing to hear me out when I promised her that romance wasn’t just a genre she should carry, but a genre that was worth carrying. Indeed, with the lock on more than 60% of the paperback fiction market, and with readers who read (on average) 5-10 books a month, it would make them money!

I’ll tell you, at the start, she said the same thing I’ve heard from other indie booksellers: “Our customers don’t read romance,” but she listened when I said, “Perhaps they don’t buy it from you because you don’t carry it.” It’s the ultimate chicken/egg conundrum.

In 2011, WORD started their romance section with 12 books – less than one shelf in a tiny, 600-or-so sq ft space – a section curated by me. I suppose there might have been 15 books, actually, because they also carried the Love By Numbers series. In 2013, WORD moved more than 500 romance novels out of their store—books sold to walk-ins, through the WORDs of Love monthly online book club that we started together, online to Sarah MacLean readers (WORD also handles signed copies of all my books), and at myriad romance events (and through an in-store book club). 2014 is shaping up to look even better.

A few weeks ago, at the Southern Independent Booksellers Association annual conference, I told my WORD story and shared data on the success of bringing romance to WORD. The room was full of independent booksellers who were romance converts, and it was awesome to see.

That said, I know there are others out there – people who sold 1000 copies of 50 Shades of Grey, but still think that your customers don’t read romance. This post is really for you, because I’ll tell you something – no person who read all three of the 50 Shades books stopped reading romance. They’re just buying it from somewhere else. Shouldn’t those sales be yours? I mean, if you’re selling them Elizabeth Gilbert, why not Kristan Higgins? If Hillary Mantel, why not Loretta Chase? If George RR Martin, why not JR Ward?

I get it – Romance is a HUGE genre, and overwhelming in the extreme. With hundreds of books published each month, where do you begin? And how do you do it intelligently and without giving up miles of shelf space before remaindering a bunch of stock?

As you can imagine, I’ve got ideas. And I want to help.

Start Small (or, Quality Not Quantity)

Julia Quinn likes to say that while the rest of the book world is judged by its best, romance is often judged by its worst. Enough of that business.  As I said, WORD started with one shelf of romance. And I’m guessing that your store is bigger than theirs (I promise. It’s bigger.). You can surely spare one shelf, right? You can put it next to mystery and scifi (our genre brethren), or you can do what WORD did and put it right up front in Fiction, as if to say, “We know you’re buying this stuff from *cough*-azon. We don’t judge you. Buy it from us instead.”

BUT WHERE DO YOU START?

It's hard. I get that. There are literally tens of thousands of romances published every year, and if you don't know much about romance, it's utterly overwhelming. I put together this list of more than 100 romances I love, and I'm happy to say it's served as a starter kit for several new indie-bookstore romance sections. I think these are great books that provide excellent representation for the genre. Some you’ve heard of. Some you haven’t. Some you’ll love. Some you won’t. And your patrons will guide your hand on this pretty quickly. 

There are a bunch of other sources for romance recommendations: All About Romance does an annual poll of the top 100 romances of all time; the professional organization Romance Writers of America gives the RITA award annually to celebrate the best in romance; RT Book Reviews is the trade review publication for the genre, but there are also romance reviews in Library Journal, Booklist & Publishers Weekly and at blogs like BookBinge.com and smartbitchestrashybooks.com. I have a monthly romance review column in the Washington Post.

Find the Romance Lovers in Your Midst

Is it someone on your staff? Is it a customer? Is it a local romance writer? Someone you know reads romance, and romance readers are voracious. These readers are tremendous ambassadors, but they’re more than that – they’re a resource. They can tell you what’s out there, what’s good, what you should be stocking. What’s coming down the pike that they can’t wait for. Lean on them to curate your tiny starter-section. Encourage them to write shelf tags. Romance readers have long, impressive memories for stories, and they really really want to talk about the books they love.

Events – or, Creating a Safe Space Your Romance Community

You can do this in a million ways, but events help—and I’m not talking about readings. I’m talking about discussions demystifying romance, panels that respect romance readers, conversations that show an understanding of (or at least an interest in) the depth and breadth of the genre.

Talk to your publishing reps about which romance authors are in town or nearby (there are thousands of us…you definitely have one or two in your back yard).

Offer Preorders – Signed Preorders, too!

Romance readers preorder books. Lots of them. They do it because they have so many auto-buy authors, that it’s easier to preorder than to remember the exact date they arrive.

And if you have a local romance author, why not offer to handle her signed preorders for new releases? WORD handles my signed books for new releases – we include a free giftie in the package to help ease the pain of those big shipping fees – and we sell hundreds of books with each new release.

Tailor the Section to the Store

WORD started with that tiny shelf, which soon grew into a small section (Romance is 2% of the store’s total inventory). But they realized that they could sell more of it if they shelved it in with Fiction. They find that shoppers are more willing to find it and buy it if Sarah MacLean is next to Hilary Mantle because—and this bit is interesting—customers aren’t buying romance instead. They’re buying romance in addition to. Which is pretty good for everyone, don’t you think?

Try It Yourself

You’ve never read a romance novel. Or, you read one a million years ago when you found it on your grandmother’s nightstand. It’s time for you to try again, friend. And I want to help you with that. If you don’t know where to begin (though, again, I encourage you to try one of the above list), comment below and tell me what you like to read. Give me the names of a few of the books or authors you like. I bet I can find a romance novel that you’ll enjoy (or at least won't hate). Don’t want to comment? Prefer a faster response? Tweet me @sarahmaclean #romancerecs.

I look forward to making you a kissing book convert.