Video: Bookstore Distribution

by | Jul 27, 2012

It’s been said lots of times: bookstores may be the worst place for a self-publisher to sell books.

In this video I explain why, including:

  • The three key elements that have to line up for you to be successful in bookstore distribution.
  • Why print on demand books don’t work for bookstore distribution
  • The reason you’ll need to spend thousands of dollars up front and at risk to pursue this distribution channel
  • The many players you’ll require to get your book the attention it will need
  • How to “work the numbers” to see if your book will succeed in distribution

If you’ve ever thought of selling your books in lots of bookstores, take a few minutes to watch this 8:52 whiteboard video and let me know what you think.

Here’s an audio version if your prefer to listen, but then you’ll miss out on all my whiteboard drawing:

Is this the right path for you and your books? Or do you see this in your future in publishing?

Photo by Aaron Gustafson

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. B.B. hane

    Hello Joel and your ‘audience’ whom I am beginning to feel I know.
    I thoroughly enjoyed your video, although you may not appreciate.
    Slowly I sat back and began to smile more and more broadly as you
    described the process, or rather the hoops one must jump through,
    should one, the author?, want to have a book distributed into shops.
    I loved seeing you in person for the first time, after noting your often
    tactful replies. You were so serious, as those circles became more and more ‘peopled’. Forgive me. I have an absurd sense of humour. When
    this was followed by Tracy’s reference to an Espresso Book Machine, I all but collapsed. Is this my English sense of humour, or is it age that makes me also laugh at myself at the thought of notching up one more failure, this time in ‘selling’ my written work. Please accept my best thanks for introducing me to the labyrinth of self-publishing – I seem to spend more of my time following your blogs than actually writing – and please forgive me being so
    glad to have my evening so entertained. Truly I do appreciate your excellent help through your blogs.

    you in person, after reading so many of your blogs, a writer

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, B.B., much appreciated. No forgiveness needed, I try to have a good time with these videos while also communicating something of value. You might be interested in the one I did just before this one:

      The Book Marketing Continuum

      Great to have you as a reader, thanks for taking the time to comment.

  2. Otis G. Sanders

    Joel: Thanks for another great video. I just finished reading all the comments. I knew self puublishing and publishing traditionally was not going to be an easy thing to do, so with that in mind I’m finding out what will work best for me as I plan to be in publishing for as long as I can stand it. With that said, when you produced this video back in July I was looking for a distributor to help with the process of getting my book into stores. As a result I signed with one recently and just sent out 80 books last week. Since this is my very first book I’m attempting to figure out what will work for me and the idea of my book being everywhere it can sell is a plus along with all the marketing I can do to help the process.

    I like to think I can become one of the 1% of authors that can and will invest the time and energy to market this book along with the others I plan to publish. Due to some unforseen financial difficulties I’ve had to scale back on my already small marketing campaign, but I believe I have a book with no expiration date on the material it contains. That fact will allow me to keep marketing this book longer than the time a traitional publisher will be able to beause it might not be doing the numbers they want to see in a set time perioud. I’m betting this will help me stay in the game where marketing is concerned allowing me to see greater sales over time. At least that is what I’m counting on without knowing exactly what will actually happen.

    The numbers don’t look great after all is said and done with having a distributor and getting my book into book stores, but it seems that it’s is a step in the right direction especially since I’ll be publishing more books, and maybe at least I will be building a little bit of a buzz. The process of putting this book together took 3 years so I feel I need to at least market it for that long to give it a fair change. In the mean tim I’m working on the next title, that way I’ll have another book to market along with the first.

    This is a challenge I’m up for!

    Thanks for all the information you provide. I also gain more information frrom reading the comments here.

    Thanks again.

    • Joel Friedlander


      Combining a book that has “evergreen” appeal with an enthusiastic author is a great recipe for success. One of the best things you can do for your publishing business is to continue to publish more books in the same genre or category, now that you have your publishing and distribution set up. Best of luck!

  3. Michael N. Marcus

    >>You may have 2,000 books in inventory. If your break-even comes in at 500 books, it’s amazing the mental relief it is to many an author to know that they only have to move/sell 500 books to get their initial money back.<<

    I have much greater mental relief using POD and not having 2000 books in inventory, or possibly coming back unsold and tattered from bookstores.

    Michael N. Marcus

  4. Ernie Zelinski

    To add to my comments:

    The following tip comes from today’s edition of Rick Frishman’s newsletter. (which you may want to subscribe to given that Rick is one of the most knowledgeable people in the book business. Subscribe at )


    It’s amazing how so few authors really know what their unit (book) cost is.

    Totaling the moneys that you spent for design—cover and interior— along with printing, shipping, editing, or any consultants you’ve worked with in the creation process, you come up with a sum.

    Take that amount, divide by the price of your book, and you come up with how many books you need to sell to “break even.” Just know that number—how many books you need to sell—can take a great deal of
    pressure off your shoulders.

    You may have 2,000 books in inventory. If your break-even comes in at 500 books, it’s amazing the mental relief it is to many an author to know that they only have to move/sell 500 books to get their initial money back. The next book sale starts the profit train.

    The Miscellaneous category could include the cost of your ISBN; packaging material for fulfillmentor sending books for reviews; costs related to starting your publishing company; or website or social media related strategies.”

    One last note: Even though I am quite successful as a writer and self-publisher, I have signed up for Rick Frishman’s and Brendon Burchard’s
    Author Master Class on Oct 25 in Las Vegas.

    You may want to do the same given that Brendon Burchard is one of the most astute and successful authors and internet marketers in the world. Brendon just used his creativity and marketing savy to get his new book “The Charge” on the “New York Times” best-seller list. The print edition has sold over 50,000 copies in the first two months (far outselling the Kindle version).

    Spending a whole day with Brendon for only $295 (and you can bring a friend to get the cost down to $147.50 per person) is great value. Here are the details.

  5. Tracy R. Atkins

    I finally got to watch the video presentation today. What a spot on article on the business backend of putting a book out. This strikes right at the heart of what most first time authors run up against in both self and traditionally published methods. For a book to even have a real shot at retail, I would say the minimum investment is in the $50-$100K mark at a minimum. Running 10k copies, even at $2 a pop, is $20K, plus transportation, adding another $5k.

    Advertising in any venue isn’t cheap. To place an ad in a magazine with any number of readers is at a minimum, $5K. Major web ad campaigns need at least $5k, and to get on a large media-site for a week, will often run $40K. Getting an insert or add in major newspapers is expensive, again, $5-$10k. So, even a savvy and targeted campaign on a national level will set you back $25K.

    There is $50K, and you haven’t even brought the costs of producing the book, $3-$5k into the mix.

    Returns are another bear that will eat you up. I have read several horror stories where after the smoke cleared from returns, authors have lost thousands of dollars!

    These problems aren’t limited to self publishing. Small presses also have the same costs to incur for a release. That $3-$5k in production is spent on in-house staffing. And they too have to pay for advertising and printing. Its all a risk. And authors wonder why they only get a $3k advance sometimes.

    • Ernie Zelinski

      Actually, it doesn’t require near the investment that you have estimated.

      Even most of the large publishers today wouldn’t think of printing 10,000 copies of a new release unless the book is by a well-known author.

      I was just featured in a book called “65 Things to Do in Your Retirement” by Sellers Pubishing (proceeds to be donated to cancer research). I was told by the editor that they are going to do their third print run soon. Near as I can tell (from the sales figures that I can reasonably estimate) they only printed about 1,500 copies for each of the first two print runs.

      Although I print 10,000 copies of my self-published “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free” whenever stock runs out, I would not print more than 3,000 or 5,000 copies of a new title.

      Yes, the cost per copy goes up to around $3 a copy for a print run of 3,000 copies. This keeps the outlay to $9,000.

      The model I use is to release a book and have my distributor carry it. I may not even spend money for an ad in my distributor’s catalog. I generate interest in the book on websites through organic searches and through blog posts.

      Using this model, there are only the other costs of editing ($600) and book cover design ($500 for “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”). I have laid out several of my books using Quark Express so I didn’t have to spend money for this.

      Add in a few incidentals and cost still does not have to be more than $12,000 to $15,000.

      So, it is possible to get the original print run less than $4 a book which includes all the editing, design, etc.

      One of the great things is that when you print 3,000 to 5,000 copies, your cost per book is relatively low. You can now send these books to foriegn publishers to see if they want to publish your book (that’s how I have managed to earn over $200,000 in foreign rights deals). Also, you can give away hundreds of copies to media and the “big-mouths” on the Internet to help generate word-of-mouth for your book, which is still the best form of book promotion.

      Using this model, the returns of my titles have been less than 4 percent whereas I believe the industry average is over 25 percent.

      The model I describe is one that I am reasonably confident will still work for three of my new titles.

      For the record, I have self-published 7 of my books using this model. “Career Success Without a Real Job” has made the lowest pretax profits of around $32,000 (foreign rights sales included) and the rest have each earned me at least $50,000 (foreign rights sales included) in pretax profits.

      • Joel Friedlander

        I really appreciate you spelling this out, Ernie, it’s very helpful. There are many ways to self-publish, and finding a method that works for your books and your market is crucial.

  6. Jan DeGrass

    Thanks, Joel. An exception to this might be when you build a good relationship with your local bookstore or book community. You participate in Meet the Author events and stop by the store to see how they are doing with marketing your book. Some of the onus is on them to drive customers towards your book. It generates interest overall–and you can tell the next bookstore that “my book sells well at xyz store!”

    • Joel Friedlander

      Jan, good point. I also think that most authors will do well to “start local” and establish relationships wherever they can. But that’s not the same thing as the national distribution that’s discussed in the video.

  7. Peter DeHaan

    Joel, I knew in my gut that bookstore distribution for a self-published book was not a viable option — and I now I know why.

    Thanks for the detail and explanation.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Sure, Peter. As I said several times in the video, it can be done but you have to have the resources and drive (see Gretchen’s comments above) and the right book.

  8. John Richardson

    Great explanation of the problem, Joel. There are certainly way too many hands in this gravy train. I think an innovative solution might be for an enterprising bookstore entity to work with some of the top indie authors to cut out the middlemen and be a self pub hub. This might involve using regional printers with direct to store distribution or developing an in-store press that can print quantity and quality at a price that is low enough to make the model work.

  9. Gretchen

    Joel, great job of explaining the basics of the financial end of publishing. People think that selling one’s own books is easy. It’s not. I am one of the few self-published authors who made it, but I did so by working incredibly hard and by starting my own publishing company.

    I sell for a higher mark up because there isn’t enough money to spend for marketing and staff if you charge too little. I would guess that most publishers have a 7-9x markup on trade paperbacks. maybe higher.

    Prior to publishing my own titles, I had been a publisher’s field rep, so I knew what it was like to visit 200 independent bookstores three times a year (face-to-face), driving around 8 states, spending 240 days annually on the road year after year. That was back in the golden age of bookselling, the 1980s. I doubt many authors today are willing to invest that much sweat equity. And with the decline of the indie bookstores, it’s virtually impossible now.

    Distribution is easy to get. It’s sales representation that’s tough. Anyone will toss your book onto a spreadsheet in their database. But will they expend any effort to convince others to buy it?

    The big publishers have open doors to every store, distributor, and international market. They also have experienced sales staff to push it into the pipeline.

    Publishing companies are nothing more than investment companies. They know that over the next several years, marketing and selling a book will cost a lot more than editing, designing, and printing it. They ask the question: will the investment drive sufficient revenue?

    A self-published author is really a self-funded publishing company that faces mostly closed doors. The question is: what will it cost in time and effort to get that door open and sell your product into it, and will the result be worth it?

    • Joel Friedlander

      More than most, you can understand just how appealing both print on demand and epublishing are to today’s entrepreneurial writers. Researching keywords and massaging metadata instead of endless driving with your trunk full of catalogs and sample books.

      • Gretchen

        Yes, I agree about the appeal. I love the print-on-demand model. I hope it will eventually have the pricing that we need, especially internationally.

        It would be wonderful to sell books just sitting in one’s home office messing with metadata (now sadly disrupted by Go*gle’s Penguin) and keyword content. But driving around with book samples and order forms in your car sells a lot more. Not many self-published authors today want to work that hard; no wonder the oft-quoted statistic that 50% don’t see more than $500 per year.

        Last year I did a quick analysis of how many books I could sell by tweeting and Facebook posts, blogging and radio interviews, in comparison to my staff’s efforts of having each salesperson phone 60 indie bookstores a day (there are still thousands of indies), contacting 100 non-profits/institutions a month, and flying to meet with the buyers of major chains on a regular basis: In an average month, they outsold me 950 units to one.

        An entrepreneurial author who writes category-killers can build their own staff, but are most writers willing to work this hard and take the financial risk?

        That’s why your “Bookstore Distribution” post is such a good reality check.

        • Joel Friedlander

          Totally agree, Gretchen, and I’d love to hear more about your publishing enterprise, would you like to share?

  10. Victoria Noe

    I’m a member at my favorite indie bookstore here in Chicago, though certainly not well-known to them. On a whim, I asked if they would carry my book when it comes out in September (self-published). They didn’t bat an eye; briefly explained their procedure and contract.
    I think the key for those of us who self-publish is to start with local indie bookstores. They all have sections for local authors. If you’re not local, but have a connection (went to college in that town, have a subject that local), that helps, too. Linking their website to yours is just good business.
    You’re right that being distributed through Ingram is passive. It’s up to us to market ourselves to bookstores and other places (gift shops, etc.) that might be a good fit. You have to be able to identify where your audience buys books/ebooks and make sure they can find you there.

  11. Anna Erishkigal

    Another fantastic video, Joel. I bought the original 70’s-era book ‘self publishing’ when I decided to go it alone and quickly figured out that if I did everything that needed to be done, the math didn’t jive. Barnes & Noble (as a major book chain) is an endangered species. Once Amazon finishes killing off the mega-bookstores, smaller and more nimble small chain stores and indies who can come up with a gimmick to sell their books (cafe + book???) will dictate what happens next.

    That will leave alternatives besides online stores. Local bookstores/small chains. And mega-sellers such as Walmart or supermarket chains. Mega-sellers will always gravitate to a top-100 bestseller list, but the smaller, local bookstores will cater more to their readers and be willing to cater to authors willing to come into the stores and work with them to help market their books (reciprocal relationships).

    It’s not quite ‘ding dong the witch is dead,’ but I’ll be curious to see what happens once B&N as a mega-chain physical presence dies.

    • Joel Friedlander

      I think the great promise of modern self-publishing is that it makes long-tail marketing a practical reality by eliminating a lot of the financial risk while making all titles equally available. That’s powerful.

  12. John Mulkey

    Interesting commentary that demonstrates the continuing turmoil going on in publishing. I believe that as writers we will ultimately benefit from all the changes–I’ve already achieved moderate success with an eBook after receiving numerous rejections–and look forward to seeing how the industry will appear in another decade.

    I appreciate your dedication to keeping authors informed on how to best approach our evolving market.

    • Joel Friedlander

      I believe that also, John, and it’s a great time for authors who are willing to learn the new rules, even though they keep changing. Good luck with your book.

  13. David Kudler

    Thanks for running through this, Joel. I just went though the process of trying to explain this to an author that I was working with–but wasn’t able to do it so eloquently.

    (Turns out he was happy just to see his book on the shelves of a couple of local independent stores. THAT I could manage!)

  14. Kiko Arocha

    CreateSpace has a “third distribution channel” named “Expanded Distribution”. If you accept to participate in it (cost: $25.00), CreateSpace put your title in Ingram catalog, so anyone can ask and order the book from bookstores. It this a palliative for the lack of distribution?

    • Joel Friedlander

      Kiko, this is a passive availability, in that anyone who is interested can then order the book if they want to go to the trouble to do so. Distribution is active, in that there’s a third party (a distributor) trying to place your book in lots of bookstores.

  15. Michael N. Marcus

    Excellent presentation, Joel.

    I agree that the combination of large print runs, huge discounts and returnability can be fatal to a self-publishing author.

    However, folks should keep in mind that just because a book is not on the shelves in a local B&N or mom & pop store, doesn’t mean that those stores can’t or won’t order books for customers who request them.

    Authors should be customers of their local booksellers and get to know managers and salespeople. Make them aware of your book. Maybe give out some freebies and sell-sheets. Make sure your book is in the store’s ordering system. If there is a nearby B&N, make sure your book shows up in the self-service kiosk and that the information is correct. If the store hosts events featuring local authors, get included in the event. You can even try to organize an event for authors who use POD, and have some books to give away or sell at the book party. Maybe you can convince a manager to display your book or hang up a poster.

    E-books are not on shelves, regardless of who publishes them, so e-books can be a great equalizer between ‘Joe’s Book Company’ and Simon & Schuster.

    Strong marketing and word-of-mouth can drive readers to stores to buy an e-book, and there is no need to invest in a large print run, offer a huge discount or accept returns.

    E-readers on display have to show books. When I visit a B&N, I always set their sample Nooks and self-service kiosks to show MY books. A few times I even convinced folks to order my book while I was manipulating the display. Store managers like to have authors around to help sell. Be prepared to give an impromptu presentation and give out some cards or bookmarks.

    Michael N. Marcus

    • Joel Friedlander

      Even more reasons why ebooks are turning out to be such a disruptive technology for book publishing. Your re-setting the sample Nooks reminds me of many trips to bookstores in years past, when Jill and I would quietly turn my books from spine-out to face-out on the shelves.

      • John Richardson

        Or you can just sneak in and put a half dozen of your books on the shelves. If you cleverly put them face out and have a few of your friends buy them, you might get an enterprising manager to re-order them…. :-)

        • Joel Friedlander

          Sounds pretty futile, John since you still don’t have distribution and any books that are ordered will likely just sit there until they’re returned, unless you have a whole lot of friends.

  16. Ernie Zelinski

    Great insight about the difficulties of making it in self-publishing, particularly with print books. It is a lot harder today than it was ten years ago because of the decline in the number of bookstores and the emergence of ebooks.

    It can still be done, however, but only by those 1 percenters who are willing to put in more time, money, creativity, and effort than the other 99 percent of writers.

    Of course, one must also have a great book. Problem is, virtually every writer thinks that he or she has written the next “War and Peace”.

    Always keep in mind these quotes about the business of writing (and it is a business):

    “To write books is easy. It requires only pen and ink and the ever-patient paper.
    To print books is a little more difficult, because genius so often rejoices in illegible handwriting.
    To read books is more difficult still, because of the tendency to go to sleep.
    But the most difficult task of all that a mortal man can embark on is to sell a book.”
    — Sir Stanley Unwain

    “Even the most careful and expensive marketing plans cannot sell people a book they don’t want to read.”
    — Michael Korda

    “There are three difficulties in authorship: to write anything worth publishing, to find honest men to publish it, and to get sensible men to read it.”
    — C. C. Colton

    In regards to Paul S’s comment, bookstores have absolutely no interest or obligation to make it less risky for self-published authors. Why should they? Bookstores are facing their own scenario of risk and do not know how long they can survive.

    Problem is, this “indie” thing has been hyped up so much that a lot of writers think it is so cool, and that this leads to success big time. I refuse to use the word “indie” to describe myself even though I have been more successful than 99 percent of self-published authors. I am still a writer, published by traditional publishers as well as self-published.

    For the record, my two best-selling books will likely sell 20,000 copies in print editions this year (just like they did last year), mainly through Amazon and traditional bookstores. The one with a traditional publisher will sell about 5,000 copies and the one that is self-published will sell around 15,000 copies. (Both still do not have ebook editions).

    The thing that also makes me successful in self-publishing is that I am an entrepreneur, not concerned that much about risk, knowing that the greatest rewards go to the people willing to take the greatest risks (the one percenters, in other words).

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    Best-Selling Author, Innovator, and Prosperity Life Coach
    Author of “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 150,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and “The Joy of Not Working”
    (Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks for your input, Ernie, you are definitely in the 1% who have cracked the code on bookstore sales and I’m sure a lot of that has to do with the way you approach book publishing—as an entrepreneur. As I said above, I completely agree that the bookstores, whether chains or indies, have strong disincentives to dealing with the vast majority of self-published authors.

  17. Paul Salvette

    Joel, you make a very compelling case for why bookstore placement is not worthwhile. I’m interested in seeing what innovation bookstores can come up with to sell self-published books, because the current model is definitely too risky for indies.

    • Tracy R. Atkins

      There are actually some small book stores that have invested in PoD technology. There is a small, but I wouldn’t say affordable, device on the market called an Espresso Book Machine. ( ) (Around $100K) I can foresee a time when the price of these machines inches lower to where they may be put in place at B&M or Books-A-Million. But for now, it’s more of a niche application.

      However, if these types of machines are adopted across the board, I can see a major shift in the way bookstores operate. Perhaps titles that are not on the shelf will become something that no longer have to be ordered, but printed in the store while the customer sips a latte. Taking the model further, the local book store or chain may evolve to having a “catalog” section, with large touch-screen kiosks where customers can shop for books and have them printed on the spot for purchase.

      • David Kudler

        Tracy, that sounds wonderful–it would be a boon for both independent booksellers and independent publishers, bypassing the whole commercial distribution system.

        The problem is that the cost of owning and operating the machine would have to be WAY lower than $100K per unit. And the way market conditions are right now, I’m not sure that developing such a low-cost system would be terribly attractive investment for manufacturers.

        After all, a kiosk like the one you describe (albeit with a slower delivery system) already exists:

        David Kudler
        Stillpoint Digital Press

        • Tracy R. Atkins


          I am curious to see what Amazon will do with their “Same Day Shipping” model and how that will tie in with CreateSpace.
          I know that libraries are actually doing some of the PoD work too. That adds an interesting variable into the mix too.

          I also forgot to add, I don’t think that Espresso uses existing PoD book libraries from CreateSpace or Lightning Source, and that you must format and submit your work to their platform.

      • Joel Friedlander

        Tracy, the EBM does represent a way around the distribution system, but so far in the years since they became available, these devices seem to be used mostly by universities and other large operators, and the “have a coffee while you wait for your book to be printed” scenario (which I wrote about here in 2009) hasn’t materialized yet, but who knows?

        • Tracy R. Atkins

          I too feel that it will be a while, if ever, before that, technology makes it into stores in general. It’s interesting for certain, but it isn’t a technology that we really have to worry about yet. The issue of getting your self-pub in retail is highly relevant for anyone publishing today. Just had my head in the clouds, thinking about a possible future.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Paul, I think one of the only things that will drive bookstores to carry self-published books will be brand-name authors doing the publishing. Short of that, there’s very little incentive for bookstores to carry these books.



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