One of the most common questions I hear from self-published authors is whether or not it makes sense to pursue brick and mortar bookstore placement for books. In most cases, it’s rarely worthwhile, but it’s important to understand how the process works.
When self-published, in order to get major bookstore placement, you have to sign up with a book distributor. Book distributors are great and they absolutely serve a purpose—their entire job is to go out and get books placed on store shelves.
However, book distribution can be expensive. Distributors take 65% to 75% off your cover price. They do this because they typically offer the bookstores a discount of 45% to 55% off and they need to leave room for their own profit.
For example, if your book retails for $20, the distributor would pay you $5 per copy sold. If it costs you $3 to print your book, and another $1 to ship it, then your profit would be a whopping $1.
Distributors are also selective about the books they represent so new authors need to convince distributors to take their books on. If yours is selected, you will likely be required to print and ship 1000+ books to the distributors’ warehouse, where you may also be charged a storage fee.
So, let’s say you agree to all of these terms and sign on to work with a book distributor. If you’re lucky, your book could get placed on shelves in hundreds of bookstores (or other retail stores, gift shops, etc.) across the country. Hooray! Time to celebrate!
But, not so fast.
If your books don’t sell within 60 to 90 days, they will be returned by the store—sometimes tossed haphazardly into boxes, scuffed, torn, etc.—and a full refund will need to be issued.
There are very few industries that allow for fully refundable returns regardless of the product’s condition, but unfortunately the book industry is notorious for this. It’s just not an easy business.
For most self-published authors, it makes more sense to focus on online book sales where there is still some profit to be made and far fewer headaches. However, this doesn’t mean that bookstore placement is out of reach. You just need to change your approach.
Create Reverse Demand with Bookstores
When you do the promotion work to build your author platform and create demand for your book, your potential readers will go looking for your book in their neighborhood bookstores (better yet, ASK them to go to their bookstores and try to buy your book). Ideally, the stores should be able to special order your books because you’ve set up distribution through Ingram, the largest supplier of books to bookstores. (Ingram distribution should be considered an essential step in your self-publishing journey.)
So, what do you think happens at Barnes and Noble when a manager notices they have special ordered a title several times? Or when the entire chain notices it’s been special ordering books by the dozen—books that it doesn’t yet stock?
Yes, they come to you.
Barnes and Noble and other bookstores are operation a business, and they follow the money. If a book is selling well, they order more. They have also been known to contact authors directly about buying large quantities of books. Never forget: They follow the money.
They will also prefer to purchase your books from Ingram (or another book distributor), so if you’ve made your book available through Ingram at a discount of at least 40% off the retail price, they will buy your books. And they will potentially buy them in larger quantities if you’re set up to accept returns.
Keep in mind that returns in the book industry can mean risky business. A store chain could order 500 copies and return 499 of them a couple of months later. But, if you’re creating demand and readers are out there looking for your book, then instead of returning books, you should see subsequent orders for MORE books come through!
Consider your book promotion efforts as part of your insurance plan to generate more book sales.
Interesting Side Note: Did you know that the majority of the books you see on display tables and end caps at B&N are benefiting from PAID placement by the publisher? Yes, publishers pay for that exposure. This is a crazy industry!
If you like this blog post, you’ll love our Author Toolkit with templates, checklists and worksheets for self-publishing. Check it out!