Should I Try Bookstores?
In the back of A Directory of American Poets [and Fiction Writers] (a book you should have in any case: [$29.95 plus tax and shipping], Poets & Writers, Inc., [72 Spring Street, New York, NY 10012, (212) 226-3586 – to purchase, it would be best to call them or visit their web site at www.pw.org]) there is a list of bookstores which "consistently stock poetry and literary magazines. Most will also single-order poetry and fiction books." [I don't know who Judson was quoting, and I don't know if the directory still gives that information, though I presume it does. Incidentally, in 1981 the directory cost $6 – that's inflation for you!] It is a geographical sampling, and there no doubt are many more around the country. That is the kind of store you need to find if you are going to try to place your work in bookstores. Try in the vicinity of college campuses or in artistic and craft-oriented neighborhoods in cities. Most bookstores buy on consignment only (i.e., you have to take back the copies that they don't sell) at a 40% discount. Some distributors (see the Publish-It-Yourself-Handbook [as stated in the last chapter, this is out of print; try the Self-Publishing Manual]) will handle small press and self-published books, but they, of course, require an additional discount. You can make a career for yourself, if you lack one, travelling around to bookstores, talking to managers, persuading them to take a few copies on consignment, checking back to see how (or if) they are displayed, collecting bills and unsold copies. But it won't pay your gas money.
Go into a bookstore and look around. Try to imagine what would happen to your book if it were there. To sell at all it would have to be displayed up around the cash register. What books are presently displayed there? How many books of poetry? If you live in a town or neighborhood where you are known, a bookstore manager might be willing to feature your book for a while – perhaps even to have an autograph party for you in the store. But you can probably count the number of copies you sell that way on your fingers – and you may ask whether it is worth the bother.
[The bookselling industry has changed slightly since Judson wrote this pamphlet. It is more dominated now by large book chains with large stores. These stores often do have a decent poetry section, though it is never huge and only the most famous poets are represented. Getting your books into these stores may not be easy. In the coming weeks I will speak to some of them, but it is my impression that they purchase books only from their distributors and/or parent companies, so your individual sales efforts may not be successful. Taking the time to deal with a single poet selling his own book may not be worth their while.]