Indie Bookstores & Indie Publishers—On The Same Page?

by | Apr 12, 2010 reports on self-publishing and independent bookstores at BAIPASaturday was the monthly meeting of the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association (BAIPA). It’s been a year that I’ve been going to the meetings, and I look forward to them.

We had the usual hour of Q & A from those who chose to show up at 9:00 a.m., orchestrated by BAIPA President Pete Masterson. The questions ran from how to get on a bestseller list to printing with Createspace, Lulu and Lightning Source. We talked Smashwords, ISBNs, Baker & Taylor and the transition from Print on Demand to offset production. The usual.

Entering the second hour the room began to fill. The subject announced was “Indie Bookstores + Indie Publishers: Working Together for Success” and the speakers were Calvin Crosby of Books, Inc. and Bill Petrocelli of Book Passage.

I don’t know Books, Inc. very well, since they have no stores in Marin county. They do have eleven stores in other parts of the Bay Area, and their website shows a tremendous number of events they hold with noted authors.

Book Passage bills itself as the Bay Area’s Liveliest Bookstore (two stores) and you’ll get no argument from me. In the next few weeks they will play host to Anthony Bourdain, Elizabeth George, Isabelle Allende, Annie Lamott and Anna Getty, while also hosting dozens of author events, readings and workshops, over 700 events a year.

Great Expectations

At BAIPA meetings we have a time where each person gets up and gives their “elevator speech,” a 30-second pitch on who they are and what they do. People also use these to announce personal victories and milestones.

Over the course of the year I’ve alternately heard stories of how difficult it was to get a book event at Book Passage or, having gotten the event, how exciting it was to have an event there. Back and forth. Complaints about the process, excitement over the product.

Of course the one thing most self-publishers want more than anything else is to see their books in bookstores. This is what eludes many self-publishers, who rely on Amazon and other online retailers who have no need for gatekeeping, since they stock—at least virtually—everything. Amazon, along with digital printing and print on demand distribution, has really made self-publishing what it is today.

Ah, but the bookstores. The lure of being on an equal footing with every other publisher out there—that’s the holy grail to a certain segment of self-publishers. And what better place, what more suitable place, what place will they be understood better, than at the independent bookstores? It seems to the new self-publisher like a match made in heaven.

So the idea of “Indies” working together has a special potency to it. The meeting was very well attended, the room overfull. I would guess sixty or seventy avid self-publishers were ready to hear the talk, learn how we could work together. Here are some notes from the presentation, including some responses to impromptu questions:

  • Independent publishing is growing while big publishing is waning
  • Stores work with self-publishers on a consignment basis, and will shelve books in a “special section” for local authors and publishers, giving them 2 or 3 months shelf time
  • Yes, they do charge a fee for having an event, and this is to cover promotion costs including $30,000 – 40,000 every two months for catalog mailings and email promotion.
  • We have one of the biggest communities of local authors, publishers, and booksellers and we should try to utilize that community
  • Distribution and publicity are most difficult for self-publishers
  • They are optimistic about the survival of indie bookstores, because they adapt to changes in the market
  • Discounters like Borders (which has flirted with bankruptcy for nearly a year) are in trouble, not indies
  • Some of the biggest events have been run by self-published authors, who bring a considerable following into the store

What’s Missing From This Picture?

One question that was asked repeatedly was “What do we do to set up an event or put books into your store?” We received a sort of narrative in response, about how authors who had events were long-time customers, who would naturally, over time, become friends with one or more people “behind the register” so that, when a book came into the equation, they would have a friend to talk to.

It was suggested that authors have a promotion plan, that they be organized, two pieces of good advice. It was also suggested that authors have a blog, a website for their book and to build their community. And, Bill Petrocelli pointed out, make sure there’s no link to Amazon on your website, because that will kill any chance you had of doing something with the store.

I Think I’m on the Wrong Page

It was around this time I started to grow uncomfortable with the whole presentation. There was a question from an indie publisher, who had earlier announced the publication of his 36th book, about why he had to keep going into the stores year after year to remind the buyers to stock his consignment books.

Of course, selling on consignment is not a long-term business model, and the publisher was advised to find some way to get into the bookstore’s database by finding a wholesaler or distributor. Of course, he would have to be prepared to give a discount up to 70%.

This also seemed odd, since the consignment model was the one being pitched at the beginning of the meeting. They agreed that books from Lightning Source with 55% discount, fully returnable, would be acceptable to them, but that iUniverse books were a problem because they had to buy them retail and they were non-returnable.

In a subsequent question it turned out that this information was incorrect, and an iUniverse author in the audience confirmed that they sold on regular, returnable wholesale terms.

Another questioner had trouble containing the outrage he felt because he had to pay to have an event at the bookstore, to which he would be bringing his own new customers, on top of which they wanted him to not sell on Amazon.

Surprisingly, in response Bill Petrocelli launched into an energetic attack on Amazon in what I can only call “Axis of Evil”-type language. I remember the word “pariah” came up, and there was discussion about Amazon’s tactics and their refusal to pay sales tax.

And I can understand some of this. Bookstores are businesses. As Bill pointed out, it costs a lot of money to pay for all the activities they put on. Both Book Passage and Books, Inc. are treasures of our community and centers where people gather to celebrate books, authors and writing. And certainly the internet and the companies it has spawned have decimated some bricks-and-mortar businesses, that’s obvious.

But at the same time I found this the most disappointing meeting of BAIPA I’ve been to. Despite the promise of the billing, this is what we didn’t receive:

  • Any organized process to make contact with the bookstores. Even all these years into the self-publishing “revolution,” neither of these stores seems to have any formal process of any kind for dealing with one-book self-publishers.
  • Confirmation that booksellers have any idea what self-publishers are all about. The complete tone-deafness of the attitude toward Amazon was startling. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Amazon to self-publishers.
  • A hint that there was any interest on the part of the indie booksellers in actually working together. The presentation contained no suggestions, no ideas, no call to action, no request for input from publishers, and no direction. Some people prepare slides, handouts, talking points for their presentations to this group. Bill and Calvin didn’t even stand up. They sat at a table the whole time, which means they basically didn’t make contact with most of the people in the room.

Still Waiting

I was left with the distinct impression that the indie bookstores may not have much common ground with indie publishers and self-publishers, no matter what we’d like to think. Book Passage and Books, Inc. are full of books from major publishers. Smaller presses are certainly well represented, and there’s a definite effort to reach out to the local community in many ways.

But if I were managing one of those stores, would I want an endless stream of self-publishers coming in, trying to get shelf space, trying to have author events? What would I need them for? They just create more work for the bookstore, and the possibility of bad feelings.

Concessions can be made for long-time customers, or for those who “know someone” at the store. If all the self-publishers were subtracted from the equation, it’s likely the bookstores would be just as happy. Can you imagine just doing the accounting for 70 publishers, each of whom publishes 1 book, for which there is likely to be little demand?

I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think the bookstores have any common ground with self-publishers and small indie presses. Individual staff members may have a love of books that extends to the books made by these publishers, but that’s not the same thing.

I shop at Book Passage, and I bet most of the people in that room shop at these stores, and the stores know that. Self-publishers as a group are activist, passionate, independent-minded people. Otherwise they wouldn’t have taken on the enormous job of publishing—and trying to sell—their books.

The dislocations in the publishing industry brought about by digitization and hastened by the speed of technological development and the urgency of the recession, are severe. We’re faced with serious challenges, like

  • Finding new ways to deliver content,
  • Finding new ways to identify and satisfy discrete audiences,
  • Discovering how different media can be used together while maintaining the integrity of the book
  • Redefining what it means to “publish,” to “author” and to “distribute” content

Right now everyone concerned with these issues has a stake in working together, of being on the same page when it comes to the changes we will have to negotiate. I hope some of us end up on the same page. What do you think?

Takeaway: There are many challenges for the self-publisher, and establishing relationships with bookstores—even indie bookstores—remains one of the most problematic.

Image: BAIPA members wait to talk to Bill Petrocelli of Book Passage after the meeting. Photo by yours truly.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Lee Richie

    2020 and nothing has changed.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Amen. Motivations haven’t changed either.

  2. Michael N. Marcus


    Bookstores may provide ego gratification (after a lot of work to sell a few copies at a large discount which may come back in a few months too shabby to sell elsewhere at full price).

    Amazon and other online sellers provide visibility and money.

    I think it’s an easy choice.

  3. Derek Murphy

    Thanks Joel, absolutely agree with this worrying trend. I thought indie-bookstores would be the natural place to start pitching my self-pubbed non-fiction historical research title… but as a small business, it seems they are even less likely to take risks on indie authors. Big “indie” sites like list and promote mostly books from Harpur and other big publishers. “Going Indie” in the publishing world seems to mean avoiding amazon and buying popular books from small independent bookstores, rather than seeking out potential new talent from the self-published crowd. Avoiding listing on amazon in the hopes of selling on consignment to a few small independent bookstores sounds like book-marketing suicide! I’d gladly choose amazon and it’s powerful selling technologies than an independent bookstore.

  4. Frank Long

    This has been a terrific read. As an indie author/publisher in southern Oregon, distribution through local indie bookstores is proving to be a non-starter.
    We’re listed on and B&, but of course sales there rely strictly on self-promotion efforts and leading buyers to their sites.
    Facebook, blogs, tweets, etc– I suppose with enough effort on several fronts, it might add up to enough sales to justify all the effort in creating and publishing books.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Mari, thanks for your thoughts. Of course the bookstore in Boulder is quite a different matter since it’s a physical store with actual book buyers walking around. They are actually trying to work with local self-publishers, not always the case.

      But I can see how you feel you’re getting value for your investment, and that’s exactly the kind of information I was looking for: What is the value represented Melissa’s process, and you’ve given a fair answer, and for that I thank you.

  5. melissa

    The 25 dollars was to cover all the promotion I did for the authors. Every order I sent out would include a mini newsletter with five books and their summary. It was something that I had taken upon myself to help promote the authors. Rather than just listing the books, I tweet, facebook and promote the books heavily.

    But as this seems to be an issue, I will simply list the books and not help authors in any other way.

    I will take off the administrative fee today and cease to add promotional things in all orders.

    • Dorothy

      I am a customer of Melissa’s and I can tell you that her service is amazing. She promotes the authors in her store very effectively with Twitter and Facebook. I have made purchases based on her recommendations. I don’t know much about the author side of things, but I can tell you that from what I have seen, Melissa really does a fantastic job promoting books and authors while keeping her customer’s interests in mind.

      The personal touches she adds to each purchase enhance the indie reputation. I will continue to support her store….

  6. Melissa

    Hi Mari –

    We work on consignment :)

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi Melissa! Thanks for your consignment offer. Like I said to Mari, it seems that most authors do this the old fashioned way, they walk into the store. Since you’re online, how do you accomplish this? Seems like the shipping costs would have a big effect on any profit.

      • Melissa

        Hi Joel,

        You are right, the fact that I am online means that there is a shipping fee to get books into my store.

        However authors need to realize that by just having a book listed at a store doesn’t mean they will be sold. Authors need to direct people to each of the stores (obviously not all of them, but the ones that are friendliest to them).

        I have some authors on my site that have not only made back the shipping cost, but have been making a nice profit by continually bringing people not only to my site, but other indie stores.

        So yes, while I am online and authors need to ship the books to me, there is a great potential in making it back plus more.

        • Joel Friedlander


          Thanks for explaining how authors are using your bookstore service. I’m sure your site, as well as others, will become more and more popular as bookstores gradually vanish from shopping malls and main streets. And the “friendly” stores deserve our business as authors, publishers and book buyers.

        • Michael N. Marcus

          A book costs $4 to print (at Lightning Source). It costs me $12 to ship five of them to your bookstore, for a total cost of $32 for the five books.

          The book has a cover price of $15.95. If the five books sell, you collect $79.75 and I collect 60%, or $47.85. I also have to pay an administrative fee of $25, which lowers the gross revenue on the five books to $22.85. When I deduct the $32 cost of printing and shipping, I’m $9.15 in the hole.

          For comparison, if Amazon or Barnes & Noble sells the book, I collect 80% of $79.75, which is $63.80. If I deduct the cost of printing and shipping five books ($20), I make a profit of $43.80. That won’t make me rich, but it’s better than a $9.15 loss.

          Even without the higher 55% discount for a wholesaler and bookseller, your business leaves very little for the self-publisher, unless you can sell a huge quantity of books that were offset printed at a low cost.

          • Joel Friedlander

            Gee, an “administrative fee” of (the equivalent) of $5 per book? I don’t see why anyone would do that. Melissa, can you explain this, because it doesn’t seem remotely feasible for hardly any of the self-publishers I work with. Do you have some massive traffic, or are publishers paying for a review on the site? Your setup, as Michael points out, doesn’t seem to offer much to the average self-publisher. I’d be curious to hear how you feel this is advantageous. Thanks.

          • melissa


            I appreciate your comments and opinion. Selling through consignment is not for everyone. As I am online, there is that extra step.

            I have never and will never force any author to use my site. If they choose to I appreciate it, if they choose not to I wish them nothing but good wishes.

  7. Mari Miniatt

    Is there anyway to find a list of stores that will do consignment. I have looked through indie bound. And it’s a lot of time looking through websites. Which I don’t mind doing on a weekend, but some stores I have over looked because they do not have a well laid out page. Then I find out later they ‘might’ do consignment.
    I think it would save a lot of work, if a list of stores could be put together. Of course not everyone’s book is going to work in all stores.

    • Joel Friedlander


      That’s a good point. I don’t know of anywhere to get a list of stores that will do consignment. And it might be hard to create the list, since many indie stores do consignment but might not be anxious to advertise it. Because consignment works for stores you can travel to, most authors do this in person. Good luck with your efforts and if you learn something about bookstore consignment I hope you’ll come back here and share it with others!

  8. Melissa

    Joel and Christina

    I am an online indie bookstore. And I stock all my books.

    Joel – you said as an indie author, you will look elsewhere to sell your books? What has been your experience in the past with getting your book on shelves? How can other sellers make this a better experience for authors like yourself?

  9. Joel

    Paula, I really appreciate your comment. I was also excited when I found out they were coming, but in retrospect it’s hard to see a different outcome. I guess it really depends which hat I’m wearing: as a citizen and book buyer, I admire and promote these stores. As a self-publisher, I will look elsewhere to sell my books. Thanks for stopping by.

  10. Paula

    thanks joel. i couldn’t agree more with both your article and the comments. personally, i found the meeting enlightening and sad — like when you know something but somehow keep hoping it will be different and then, again, it gets confirmed that what you thought to begin with is the truth.

    i was actually delighted that both Calvin and Bill showed up and talked to us. And through the talk and discussion made it so clear where we need to spend our energy and resources — and if we continue to hope the indy bookstores will want us and support us in significant ways, chances are we will be seriously disappointed.

  11. Joel

    Owen, thanks. I’d like to check those out.

  12. Joel

    Christina, you’ve put your finger on it. For self-publishers, it just makes more sense to generate interest and sales on your own, whether online or through your own activities in your particular niche. The bookstores aren’t going to be a big help there. As to the cost of distribution, real distributors do provide a lot more than just accounting, but they don’t want you as a client if you’ve only got one book, it’s not economical for them. Thanks for your contribution.

    Sally, you are right on. As you know from experience, self-publishing is mostly about direct sales, that’s the way it works best. And yes, exactly, “Why bother?” I love that, thanks for your comment.

  13. Owen

    Very interesting. I second the indiebound recommendation. I also think that oddly enough the independent bookstore market itself is moving in two directions. Both Books, Inc. and Book Passages are in one camp. The other camp is represented by indiebound and places like the Lafayette Bookstore that are keeping physical presences small and are instead focusing on personal service.

  14. Christina Shook

    What Sally says is true, everyone is just doing business. I’ll take my business where it makes the most sense. Not the bookstores. This is not “vanity press”, no ego here.

  15. Sally

    Thanks for your honest reporting about the BAIPA meeting. My response to getting your books into bookstores (not just the independent ones) is “Why bother?” (That’s what I call my decaf mocha with 2% milk, no sugar, dark chocolate and a tiny bit of whipped cream.) It doesn’t help for everyone to get angry with each other because of changing times. I have more productive things to do with my time. Welcome to the real world everyone.

  16. Christina Shook

    What a great article, thank you Joel! Its eye opening to realize that the indie bookstores are really no more open to indie publishers than the big chains might be.

    My entire goal is to get my book into the hands of the public, hopefully a diverse public. And that it have some margin of profitability. I find that approaching individual shops myself and all the logistics that go with it is unfeasable for the amount of sales and profit.

    And in reverse, I can see why their accounting for each tiny publisher is unweildy as well.

    What I can’t understand why distribution is so expensive. Especially if they don’t store and ship the books, they are basically a big accounting firm to streamline the process between publishers and stores. Why does that accounting cost 30%?

    Between distribution and whole costs leaving me with 20% of the sale price this is a deal killer for me. Amazon leaving me 40% is tolerable and entirely easy.

    If self publishing is truly a big viable source of books being made, either its going to go through online sales or a change needs to be made in getting the books to the stores.

    I’m a believer in online community. How about online indie bookstores?

  17. Joel


    Thanks for adding more first-hand experience to the conversation. Your book is a good example of one that should be in any local bookstore with a complementary section of books. It’s great to hear that your online sales are increasing, and I predict they will continue to do so as more people learn about your book and its unique perspective.

    For readers who missed it, there’s an interview with Jennifer about her self-publishing journey on my blog, just follow the link.

  18. Joel

    Hey Michael, thanks for your comment. Yes, as a book buyer and a member of my local community, I also like, promote and patronize independent bookstores. But I don’t see how the program you’re talking about is in any way different to what we heard at the meeting. It’s all about driving prospects to indie bookstores (nothing wrong with that) but as far as putting your self-published books into those same stores, or doing publicity in conjunction with those stores? I don’t think so. I received several Twitter messages about this from Old Towne Books in Utah, who say they proactively market with local self-publishers, but in my neighborhood, this is the exception.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  19. Jennifer Robin

    Joel, thank you for the terrific summation of the meeting. I wasn’t able to attend, but got very interested when I heard things got heated. I would have been part of the brawl!

    I can share a bit of my experience with Book Passage. I had a wonderful author event there last November, and I appreciate that they hosted me. But what most don’t realize is that they are quite disorganized internally compared with the other bookstores I worked with. Possibly “A” list authors have a different experience. I’ll spare the details, but Joel nailed it when he said we authors hold bookstores in such high esteem.

    I spent a year visiting bookstores including all the branches of Books Inc., trying to get my book placed. Then I got tired of it and moved on to other things. Meanwhile, without any effort on my part, my Amazon sales have increased from one book a week to an order for 30 books last week. Their marketing program seems to be working

    When I first investigated independent publishing I was repeatedly warned that distribution to bookstores would be a problem and that I should develop alternative markets. I didn’t really believe it and thought somehow my fantastic book would be the exception. Now I get it.

  20. Joel

    Melissa, it’s great to know about your site as a resource both for people who write and publish independently, and for people searching for “something different.” Maybe we can do an interview together. Let me know.

    Lisa, they may be independently owned, but they are all selling pretty much the same books, aren’t they?

    Mark, very well said, as always. I agree that the motivation here is very similar to the motivation of someone spending year after year sending hundreds of queries, trying to get an agent or publisher interested. A lot of it is about personal validation, which is okay as far as it goes, but really has nothing to do with marketing or selling books.

    The kicker for me is that it always comes down to the “consignment” issue, as if this is the way stores keep the hordes at arm’s length when, in reality, the entire book business is one big consignment operation. Due to the “special arrangement” between publishers and booksellers, every bookstore is a consignment shop, nothing more or less.

    And I totally agree that for the vast majority of books (excepting books with an intensely local appeal) spending time and energy pursuing bookstores is basically going backwards. There are better ways for self-publishers to use their time.

    Linda Jay, thanks. Yes, that was quite noticeable to me also. The cognitive dissonance of the entire presentation had my head swimming, and the disconnect between what was billed and the reality of the presentation is what got me going.

    And thanks to all of you for your interesting comments!

  21. Lisa Alpine

    Excuse me, Bill, but aren’t ALL the books in your store also found on Amazon?

  22. Linda Jay Geldens

    Excellent assessment of this BAIPA meeting, Joel. What I found most telling about the sincerity of one of the speakers to “work together for success” with indie publishers was this: he ignored the important and legitimate question about how independent authors can secure a speaking event at Book Passage. Bill Petrocelli didn’t “dance around” the topic, or reply in some indirect manner; he didn’t address the question at all — it was almost as if he didn’t “hear” the question.

  23. Mark Barrett

    To the extent that I’ve learned anything about publishing over the past eight months or so, it’s how incestuous the entire traditional publishing process is. Bookstores are called ‘independent’ because they are not part of a corporate chain, yet their business relationship with publishers is the same: a heavily-subsidized business model that essentially locks up retail space (if not retail initiative) in favor of the publishing industry. And why not? If you can get your wholesaler to give you 40% or more off the cost of their product AND take back every unsold item, who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

    Still…. To say that these stores are ‘independent’ in any economic sense would be like arguing that Soviet-era satellite states (Estonia, Latvia, even Hungary) were ‘independent’.

    I think your reporting of this meeting is important precisely because it defines who the independent bookstores are allied with. Sure, I can see why Amazon is a problem if you’re a bricks-and-mortar store, but Amazon is not going away, and no amount of isolationism or protectionism is going to defeat Amazon as a competitor. Asking — let alone expecting — authors not to link to a sales channel like Amazon is not simply unrealistic, it’s the equivalent of spitting into the wind in front of crowd. You’re going to end up looking bad.

    I have a family connection with a strong independent bookstore in the Midwest. They are being deluged with self-published writers who are looking to get their books in stores. I agree with you that I wouldn’t want to have to deal with individuals who are convinced that their book should be on the local shelf. It’s got to be frustrating for all concerned. But here I think the bookstore owners (independent and otherwise) are also paying a price for the mystique they’ve perpetuated about bookstores. In effect, bookstores want people to believe that having a book on a shelf confers some validity that would otherwise be lacking, which in turn drives self-published authors who seek that legitimacy to their doors. (Before they joined today’s growing wave of self-published authors, many of these individuals were loyal probably bookstore customers who also bought into that mystique. Now that publication is possible they want to be on that shelf — probably more than they care about sales.)

    Here I think the antidote is for self-published authors to avoid trying to put a book on a physical shelf until somebody else (a traditional publisher, a local bookstore owner) brings up the subject. Between the costs (including time) associated with trying to penetrate the retail channel, and the hassles associated with the current business paradigm (reserves against returns), why would any direct-to-consumer self-published author want to go down that road? (And I say that as someone publishing a small collection of short stories in digital form. The idea of trying to place my book on a shelf seems to me like going backwards, particularly when POD is available.)

  24. Melissa


    The indie bookseller came from being independent from the bigwig sellers – but yes, you are right.

    As indie sellers there should be more attention to indie authors. They are, for all intents and purposes, the same thing. Individuals who are separating themselves from the pack.

  25. Lisa Alpine

    Why do those bookstores even call themselves “independent” when they only promote the mega publishing industry?

  26. Melissa

    I loved this article.

    This is EXACTLY what I am trying to do. We only list books from indies and small publishers. There are many (great) stores out there that deal with the big boys. I want to focus on tomorrow’s talent.

    The hoops to get into my store? None. Print and sign our contract and send us your books! We take print and e-books.

    The problems listed above were on point as to why we opened the store to begin with. I grew tired of reading the same books everyone else was.

    Great article Joel.


  27. Michael N. Marcus

    I love terrestrial booksellers — both indies and big boxes B&N and Borders.

    It would be nice to have my self-pubbed books on bookstore shelves, but no way in hell would I remove links to Amazon from my blogs and websites, allow unsold books to be returned, or allow a 55% discount instead of the 20% that online sellers will accept.

    You said that there was no “hint that there was any interest on the part of the indie booksellers in actually working together.” Altho your local stores my not be involved, there is a national program from the American Booksellers Association.

    The Association has an online locator for independent bookstores. It’s at

    Shoppers just type in a Zip Code and distance and get an instant list, compete with addresses, store profiles, and websites.

    The Association even offers a free Apple app called IndieBound. It lets shoppers find independent bookstores near home or anywhere in the United States. It also provides book information and allows online shop-ping.

    Self-pubbers can support independent bookstores by becoming an affiliate. Instead of just having links to Amazon and B&, publishers can also have a link that sends potential customers to indie booksellers in their area — and publishers can earn a commission on what they order. See



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