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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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