6 Tips for Getting Your Book onto Bookstore Shelves

by Joel Friedlander on October 25, 2010 · 17 comments

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Briefly: The lessons of other entrepreneurs can be helpful for those self-publishers trying to sell their books in retail bookstores.

Eilene Zimmerman of the New York Times had an interesting article in the paper last week (“Getting Your Product Onto Retail Shelves”). She talked to a number of small-scale entrepreneurs to find out how they had cracked the retail market and got their indie products onto store shelves.

I found this interesting because if you think about it, self-publishers and small publishers are product manufacturers just as much as someone making a new kind of diaper bag in their kitchen, or cooking up their own jams and jellies to sell.

At one time retail merchandising gathered products from many producers from small to large. Like other parts of the American economy, retailing has increasingly coalesced into big box discount stores, chains of stores in hundreds of malls around the country, and favoring the products of the biggest manufacturers.

We’ve seen something similar in the book business, since big discounters like Borders and Barnes & Noble have gradually driven many of the smaller independent stores out of business. With the arrival of Amazon and massive online retailing, it seems like the end of small-scale book selling is just over the horizon.

I wondered if the lessons Ms. Zimmerman evoked from the garlic, diaper bag and organic-nut-butter entrepreneurs—all indie producers—would provide any information for indie authors and self-publishers. Here are the six tips that came out of her research, and how they might apply to our business.

6 Tips to Get Your Book on Retail Shelves

  1. Start Small and Local—As an unknown publisher with one book, you’re not likely to attract much attention even with repeated attempts to get to big chain store buyers. But you’re probably a regular at some local bookstores (or other retailers who might represent a great fit for your book’s subject). The manager or owner of a local store where you’re known is much more likely to give your book a chance, and you should take that opportunity.
  2. Listen to the Buyers—Are you sure you’re creating the book that buyers want to purchase? Particularly with nonfiction it’s crucial to pay attention to what’s already selling well in your niche, and to find out what format, features and price book retailers think would succeed. If your book is simply a restatement of books already in the market, there’s likely to be little demand for it. Likewise, if some important element is missing, and that people want (like step by step instructions for some crucial task) you may not find many buyers.
  3. Expect to Hear “No”—Tens of thousands of new books join those already for sale every year. The automatic response to a new product is “no” because most of them will not find much of a market, and the retailers need products that will sell. Try to get to what’s behind the “no” so you can address objections. For instance, if your content is good but buyers don’t care for your book cover, trim size or price, go back to the drawing board and try again. You may encounter a lot of “no’s” before getting to “yes.”
  4. Go to Trade Shows—Trade shows offer a unique opportunity to meet and interact with book buyers, bookstore owners and personnel from bigger publishers. Any small publisher looking to break into retail will find many opportunities to learn from the people in the business. And you don’t have to travel to New York for the BEA either, since local trade shows are held around the country. Near me, the Northern California Independent Bookseller’s Association show provides a great opportunity. Your local publishing group may sponsor a display that can make the costs of exhibiting very reasonable.
  5. Consider a Distributor—A common objection to carrying self-published books is that the publisher has no marketing or sales staff, and is unlikely to be able to create much demand for the book. Authors need to learn that like any other product, books sitting on shelves do not sell themselves. One answer to this objection is to try to set up an account with a book distributor. In exchange for a rather large discount (65% of retail or more) you may be able to get access to retailers and buyers you could not obtain on your own.
  6. Make the Buyer Call You—Without a doubt, the most effective way to get your book onto store shelves is to create so much demand that buyers are calling you. Using creative ways to promote your book through PR, media releases, feature stories, blog tours, book reviews, online marketing of all kinds can work wonders for your sales. Buyers at retail want books that sell. If you can create a strong demand for your book, the obstacles to getting onto retail shelves may well evaporate.

Ms. Zimmerman closes the article with a quote from a successful indie producer of specialty chocolates, Susan Johnson:

“Everything about getting your product on store shelves has to do with building relationships . . . with bloggers, brokers, buyers and, of course, the customer.”

Can You Do It?

There’s no denying that getting your book onto bookstore shelves is a daunting task for a self-publisher. It will take a lot of hard work, sensitivity to your market, a strategic ability to fine tune both your book and your sales approach, and a bit of thick skin. And hey, an appearance on Oprah wouldn’t hurt either.

My own opinion, after watching many self-publishers try to break through into this market, is that it’s rarely worth the effort unless the book has a really wide appeal and is produced from the beginning with retail sales as the ultimate goal.

Most self-publishers of nonfiction will be far better off building an online community, learning keyword research and how to market their book online, using print on demand for fulfillment.

But getting into the bookstores can be done, and when you establish your book in the retail channel, you may find that orders continue to flow in for years to come.

Image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License, original work copyright by stan, http://www.flickr.com/photos/whoisstan/

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    { 14 comments… read them below or add one }

    Michael N. Marcus October 25, 2010 at 2:02 am

    While an author may feel good seeing her books on the shelf in a physical bookstore, the burdens of low profit, difficulty in making sales to stores, returnability of unsold books, and short shelf-life make online sales much more appealing.

    The long-term prospects for bricks-and-mortar booksellers are not good.

    The “big boxes” killed off many mom-and-pop bookstores, but now their killers Borders and B&N are suffering.

    Both companies seem to have constant management turmoil. Borders has been closing stores and firing people. B&N is concentrating on eBooks, Nooks and online sales. Both chains devote increasing floor space to non-book products including backpacks, stuffed animals and wrapping paper.

    Self-pubbers should concentrate on promotion to drive online sales. If a prospective reader learns about your book and prefers to buy it in a physical bookstore, stores can easily get it.

    Here are two ways to have some fun at bookstores (that may actually help your book sales):

    (1) Many B&N stores have self-service computer kiosks which shoppers can use to order books not on the shelves. Whenever I’m in a B&N, I go to the kiosks and bring up my books on the screens so the next person sees them.

    (2) Try “reverse shoplifting.” Stealthily carry three copies of your book into a store and put them on display on the proper shelf. Arrange for a willing co-conspirator to take one off the shelf and try to pay for it, along with one or two “normal” items. When the cashier scans the bar code, the price should come up, but there may be some difficulty in making the purchase since the computer will show the book as out-of-stock. The cashier may have to call the manager to override the computer, but the manager will find some way to take the money. Over the next few days, have friends buy the other two copies. This scam may cost you $40-$60 for printing and purchasing three books, but the apparent demand might cause the store to order some books that will generate revenue for you. When your friends give you back your books, you can sell them, give them away or send them out as review copies. OR, for extra fun and reduced expense, have your friends return the books to other branches of the bookstore chain where they will presumably be put on display and might get sold to “real” customers and create demand for your book. (NOTE: I have never tried this, but I’ve been thinking about it.)

    Michael N. Marcus

    http://www.BookMakingBlog.blogspot.com
    http://www.Self-Pub.info
    – Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series: http://www.silversandsbooks.com/booksaboutpublishing.html
    – “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),” http://www.amazon.com/dp/0981661750

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander October 25, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    While I agree that it makes most sense for nonfiction self-publishers to sell online, I’m not sure you will really gain anything from attempts to “game” the system with chain bookstores besides creating a lot of ill will associated with your book.

    Reply

    Michael N. Marcus October 25, 2010 at 10:11 pm

    I have never done reverse shoplifting and wasn’t seriously recommending it–just contemplating the procedure. It’s a lot of work for dubious benefit. My short discount and lack of returnability work against stocking, anyway.

    OTOH, it can’t hurt and it’s not much work to display a book on a kiosk in B&N. It’s also good to check periodically to make sure books are listed, and listed correctly. One of my book listings showed my publishing company as the author and me as the editor.

    Whenever I have a new book, I take a few copies to “my” B&N to give to some of the staff. I let the managers and some of the salespeople know about it, and that it can be ordered for customers and that customers can order it at the B&N website and kiosks.

    Although I buy most of my books at Amazon, I make a point of buying at B&N about twice a month, so the staff knows me, knows my books, and knows that I spend money there. They have definitely helped to sell some books for me.

    There are several magazines that I could subscribe to (including Writers Digest) that I instead buy at B&N to force me/remind me to go to the store.

    I also shop at a nearby Borders, but the personnel seems to change so often that it does not pay to try to develop a relationship.

    I’m working with my local B&N to organize a book show for local authors whose books can be ordered thru B&N, even if they are not on the shelves.

    Reply

    Jenni Wright November 1, 2010 at 12:33 pm

    We know someone who actually had several of his friends go into local stores and ask for his product. Of course the stores didn’t have it in stock. Then he went to the stores as the salesman for his own company and they were so glad to see him, they bought his product. He created his own demand!

    Who was it? Justin Herald, and his Attitude brand of t-shirts became famous.

    Jenni

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander November 1, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    Nice story, Jenni. We used to do something similar around New York City when I first self-published back in the 1980s. Don’t see why it wouldn’t work today.

    Jennifer Robin October 25, 2010 at 10:23 am

    When The Book Passage asked me to pick up the 6 consignment copies they had in their store I felt sorry for them as I had already sold 50 copies of Growing More Beautiful that month on Amazon. I want to support my local bookstores, I do. I purchase books from them to help keep them in business so I will have the pleasure of browsing their shelves. The bigger issue for us indies is not getting our books on the shelves, but having them available in the system should someone want to order them. A bookstore or library can order my book through Ingram, but I have a terrible deal with them. Being a one book publisher I had to go through a “middle man” (Book Clearing House) and they take an additional percentage. I think some of us should be getting together and doing some kind of co-op distribution. Any info on that , Joel?

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander October 25, 2010 at 3:40 pm

    Co-op distribution is an ongoing interest, Jennifer, and I may have more to report on this soon. I’m glad to hear your book is selling on Amazon, it’s a unique product and I’m sure buyers are quite happy with it. As Michael noted above, it’s much more effective for most self-publishers to sell online anyway. Great to hear from you!

    Reply

    Carla King September 27, 2011 at 11:36 am

    Yep, I have the same story – exactly. However, I am happy to get daily pdf downloads of my books (at $6.95 to $9.95 a pop) direct via my websites and Smashwords, and can weekly be found stuffing priority mail envelopes with autographed copies of the print versions – also ordered from my website – sent to markets in the US, Canada, Europe, and Australia. My statements from Amazon are decent, my statements from Lightning Source, less so, and from my print book distributor IPG/SPU, minuscule. Personal appearances rock the most, however, from writers conferences and salons to motorcycle shows. All in all, I sell more books now than I ever did before ebooks existed. Rah rah!

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander September 27, 2011 at 11:39 am

    Hey Carla, that’s interesting. I’m always on the lookout for ways to sell PDF books because there are so many that don’t print well on POD. I suspect you have to put your book through the “meatgrinder” to sell PDFs on Smashwords, though.

    Reply

    Carla King September 27, 2011 at 11:45 am

    Yep, PDFs look a lot better if they’re purchased from my SelfPubBootCamp.com or CarlaKing.com website, because they look just like the printed books. People can buy PDFs from Smashwords (or EPUB, Kindle, etc.) but the PDFs have indeed gone through the meatgrinder so they’re not so “pretty.” Which in my case doesn’t really matter so much because I write wordy books. :-)

    That’s one of the reasons I like my AuthorFriendly.com websites, because of that ability to sell digital downloads as well as physical books using the PayPal store integration. It’s a rare feature in a website builder.

    Reply

    yves brown mcclain October 25, 2010 at 11:17 am

    Thanks for tips! Very useful information. I’m at the point in my publication process where I am debating if I should try to go for retail. So coming across this was very timely. Thanks again!

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander October 25, 2010 at 3:40 pm

    Yves, I hope it’s some help because this is a difficult process.

    Reply

    Betty Aaron May 26, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    what places can I sell online besides Amazon.Com & Barnes & Noble.Com

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 26, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    Borders.com and Abebooks.com come to mind, but if Google “online book retailers” I guarantee you’ll find plenty.

    Reply

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