Many authors don’t feel like they’ve really “made it” until they can walk into their local bookstore and find their book on the shelves. They want their friends and family to be able to find their books at their local bookstores, too. After all, real authors have their books in bookstores, right?
While twenty years ago that might have been true, it’s definitely not anymore. There are plenty of author success stories that did not rely on brick-and-mortar bookstores, at least not initially.
Besides, getting your book into local bookstores can be more hassle than it’s worth—and even presents some major financial risks for self-published authors.
Here’s what you need to know about getting your book into local bookstores:
Why You Might Not Want Your Book in Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores
There are a number of reasons you might not want to spend a lot of time trying to get your book into local bookstores. And all of them amount to the same thing: major financial disadvantages. Let’s break them down:
1. Wholesale vs Retail Pricing
When a bookstore purchases your book for resale, they’re paying the wholesale price rather than the retail price. That generally means about 40% less than the retail price.
Let’s say your book normally retails for $14.99. That means bookstores will purchase it for $8.99—that’s the amount you get. Then subtract your printing costs—around $4 for a 250-page book—and the cost of shipping (a little over $17 for a medium-sized flat-rate box through USPS).
Let’s say a bookstore orders 10 books from you (a large order for most small bookstores). Your cost based on the above is $5.70 per book. That means a gross profit of $3.29 per book—you made $32.90 on that sale, before your other self-publishing expenses. Not bad, but not great.
2. Time Involved
Using the example from the section above, making just shy of $33 sounds reasonable, especially if it means your book is available in physical bookstores. But how much time did you spend to get that single order for 10 books?
If you spent 10 hours calling around to bookstores, sending out emails or promotional materials, and then actually receiving and shipping the books, then congratulations: you just made less than $3.50/hour.
And if the bookstore only ordered a couple of copies instead of 10? Then you likely made only a couple of dollars per hour. Wouldn’t that time be better spent writing your next book? Or marketing directly to readers?
3. The Cost of Returns
This is the biggest risk for self-published authors and one that can make or break their financial success. Brick-and-mortar bookstores require publishers—including self-publishers—to take back books that don’t sell and refund them.
Let’s keep using the math from above. Let’s say the bookstore ordered 10 copies of your book. You earned around $33 on that sale after direct expenses. Three months later, your book isn’t selling very well, and they decide to return the eight copies that remain on their shelves—the copies they paid $8.99 apiece for. That means you now owe the bookstore $71.92—$39.02 more than you earned from the entire sale.
And if you want those books back so that you can potentially resell them (assuming they’re still in like-new condition)? You’ll have to pay for the return shipping, which is likely another $17 or so out of your pocket.
The biggest risk here is this: let’s say you spent a bunch of time and energy and managed to get your book into a regional or even national chain of bookstores. They ordered 1,000 books, earning you $3,290 in profit.
Three months later, that bookstore chain closes a bunch of locations and returns 800 copies. You now owe them $7,192. And either have to figure out how to store 800 copies of those books (and pay to have them returned to you) or tell the bookstore to have those 800 copies destroyed. Either way, that’s a HUGE financial hit for most self-published authors. And one that most don’t want to risk.
Now that you know the risks, what if you’re still really set on getting your book into local bookstores? Read on for some tips on how to actually do that.
7 Tips to Getting Your Book into Local Bookstores
There are times you might want to try to get your book into local bookstores. Say, for example, that you wrote a novel that centers around your hometown and want to make sure local readers can find it. Or you’ve written a tourism guide that would benefit from being available in the area it covers. Those are both instances where having some physical bookstore presence would make sense.
Here’s how to go about actually getting your book into those local bookshops:
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.
Bringing a review copy to your local bookstore owner is a great way to let them know that you’ve published a book and give them a chance to check it out and decide if it’s a good fit for your store. If you bring them an advanced copy, they might even want to partner with you for a local book launch. Some bookstores love to host events like that and support local authors.
2. Listen to the Readers
Are you sure you’re creating the book that readers 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 that people want (like step-by-step instructions for some crucial task) you may not find many buyers.
3. Cold Calls
According to author Jo Ann Kairys, cold calling book retailers can work wonders. Once your book is in Ingram and Baker and Taylor distribution, cold calls to bookstores can really work. Here’s the way her script goes:
Me: Hi, I’m an author! Could you check my ISBN?
Store: Let me connect you with the right department.
Me: Hi there, I’m an author! Could you check my ISBN?
Store: Sure, What is it? (Checks the computer) Okay, I have it.
Me: Great! Could I ask you to order a few for your store?
Store: Yes, that’s fine.
Me: Thank you so much!
Jo Ann says short conversation has worked for every call she’s made—literally hundreds!
Just remember that if you’re not doing your research to make sure your book is going to do well in the brick-and-mortar retail market, those hundreds of orders could turn into hundreds of returns!
4. 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.”
5. 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.
You don’t have to travel to New York for the BEA either, since local trade shows are held around the country. For example, the Northern California Independent Bookseller’s Association show provides a great opportunity if you’re in that area. Your local publishing group may sponsor a display that can make the costs of exhibiting very reasonable.
6. 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. Just remember that if returns happen—and they almost certainly will—you’re losing even more money.
7. 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, and 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.
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.
After watching many self-publishers try to break through into this market, it’s rarely worth the effort unless the book has a really wide appeal and is produced from the beginning with physical 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, and using print-on-demand for fulfillment as books are ordered by readers.
But getting into the bookstores can be done, and if you establish your book in the retail channel, you may find that orders continue to flow in for years to come.