You’re certainly not alone if you want to get your book placed in bookstores. This is a goal for many authors, and it’s not impossible. But there are some details you need to know.
How Book Distribution Works
Books are placed in brick-and-mortar bookstores by book distributors. As a self-published author, you can apply to work with a book distributor. But book distribution comes with a hefty price tag.
Distributors typically take 70% to 75% of your book’s retail price, leaving little room for profit. They need to pass on a discount to retailers, and the distributors need to get their cut. You will likely need to print, ship and store hundreds or even thousands of books, which comes with a substantial investment before you even get started. Distributors may provide warehousing services, but they aren’t free. Your books will pay rent to live there until they are sold and moved to their new retail home.
When a distributor convinces store buyers to carry your books, it’s a big accomplishment! But it’s not exactly a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.
Accepting Dreaded Bookstore Returns
Once your books hit bookstore shelves, they need to sell briskly. This means you should be working in the background to generate publicity and inspire masses of people to go out to buy your book. If books don’t sell well within about 60 days, you will likely find yourself having to accept huge quantities of returns.
The bookstore industry operates based on returns. If a book doesn’t sell well, all copies are pulled from store shelves and sent back for a refund. There are simply too many titles competing for shelf space. Returned books can be tossed carelessly into shipping boxes and can come back damaged. But you still must issue the refund, even though you may be stuck with inventory that is too damaged to sell.
Yes, this is the harsh reality of bookstore distribution. And it’s one of the only industries that expects to receive full refunds. When a retailer like Macy’s doesn’t sell out of a line of jeans, they don’t get to ship them back to the manufacturer. They sell them off to discount retailers like Marshall’s and TJMaxx. Unfortunately, the bookstore industry is a different animal.
Is Bookstore Distribution Worthwhile?
While seeing your book on store shelves can bring a sense of accomplishment, it is not a true marker of success. The reality is that most book sales today happen online. While nobody knows the exact statistics, it has been estimated that 70% of all book sales happen through Amazon.
Sadly, physical bookstores don’t have as much clout as they used to. (And I’m speaking to you as a former bookstore owner.) The one major advantage that a brick-and-mortar bookstore brings to the table is that sales are likely reported to the New York Times Bestsellers lists (though not all stores report sales). Amazon sales are not factored into these lists. But it takes a tremendous amount of publicity to generate enough sales to make a dent in the list so either way, it’s an uphill climb.
Just as publishers are selective about the manuscripts they acquire for book deals, distributors are choosy about the books they accept. They need to be confident that a book will sell well, otherwise they lose money too. If you think about it in terms of business, everyone is just trying to make a profit.
If you’re not scared off yet, you can apply to work with book distributors (see list of book distributors here). Keep reading for some additional options.
Submit Directly to Barnes and Noble for Consideration
There is a process you can follow to submit your book for potential placement at Barnes and Noble. Your book must have the following:
- ISBN – All bookstores require an International Standard Book Number, which you can acquire here. Be sure to avoid using the free numbers offered by print services because this screams self-published, especially if it comes from Amazon. BN doesn’t want anything to do with Amazon publishing.
- Barcode – These are used for scanning and inventory purposes. Many print services will help you create one for free (including Lulu and Ingramspark). You can also create them through the ISBN agency. Your barcode should have the ISBN and retail price embedded into it, and retail price should be printed next to it as well.
- Spine – Because books are shelved spine-out, you are required to have your title and author name on the spine.
- Distribution – Your book must be listed with a distributor and if it’s available through Ingram with a 55% discount and accepting returns, that should be sufficient.
- Publicity Plan – Yes, they want to see your full marketing plan and links to any articles or publicity you’ve received.
- Pricing – Your book needs to priced competitively with other books in your genre.
- Positioning Statement – Explain what makes your book unique and why the retailer needs it on their shelves.
- Professional Production – Your book needs to be fully edited, have an eye-catching cover, and have all the elements of a professionally designed book (title page, BISAC codes, chapters starting on the right, etc.).
You can see the full process and submission guidelines for getting your book shelved at Barnes and Noble here.
Alternative: Create Demand
If you put your marketing wheels in motion and generate enough interest, buyers will start asking for your book in stores. When this happens often enough, retailers will notice and seek you out when they are ready to buy in large quantities. They will still require your books be available through a distributor, but if your book is available through Ingram, that may be enough (provided you’ve set a retail discount of 55% and accept returns). Bookstores may also ask you to work with their favorite distributor, and then you’re back to giving up 75% of your retail price so everyone gets paid.
Independent bookstores and some Barnes and Noble stores will accept a few copies of your book for sale, often on a consignment basis. You can walk into any store and ask to speak with a manager. If you’re able to get traction for sales in a single store, this can create leverage to convince other stores to carry them too. But you must begin by reaching out directly to one store at a time.
Focus on Online Sales
After reading all these guidelines, you may feel discouraged by what you’ve learned here. You’re not alone. Many new authors have no idea how much work is involved in not only publishing and marketing their books, but in getting retail placement. But this isn’t the only path to success.
Keep in mind that not every book is right for bookstore placement. If you have a niche title, such as a book for medical doctors or a highly technical manual used only by technologists, bookstores probably aren’t where your target audience is spending time. You will likely get better results by focusing on online sales, and perhaps placement with specialty stores or trade associations.
I recommend focusing on selling online. It’s where most of us buy our books anyway. Grow your platform online by finding out where your audience spends time and connecting with them there.
Like it or not, traditional book industry success often comes back to platform. When you build a larger audience, you create more opportunities for your book. If your goal is to sell thousands of copies, let this motivate you to focus on building your platform while you leverage online marketing strategies and speaking engagements to sell books. With consistent effort, you can create success for your book on your terms.
Like this article? You will find more resources and support when you join the Nonfiction Authors Association.