Bookstores! Those sacred bastions of literary excellence. Along with libraries and coffee shops, bookstores are a haven for authors. And it’s part of the author dream to see your book on the shelf in your local bookstore.
The Internet may have bruised that dream a little.
Online shopping with sites like Amazon and Etsy is cheap and easy. And you can find exactly the item (book) you want with no fuss and no browsing. Digital marketplaces expand an author’s range by opening up most of the world as potential readers.
Add to the online marketplace print-on-demand, which pairs with digital retail perfectly. Today authors can publish with very little (if any) initial investment. They can see their book listed alongside widely read and well-known authors on the web. And they can engage in online marketing campaigns to drive readers to their book with far less effort than in years past.
Sure, the Internet marketplace is flooded with products. Amazon alone boasts over 32 Million titles on their bookstore. That is a staggering number of books! All easily searchable, most of them tagged wisely and appearing in genre-specific categories. It’s a great system for an author because they can market and sell from their home computer. No need to fill their garage with boxes of books. No hefty initial investments. And no more tedious packing and shipping of individual books.
Where does this leave bookstores?
The short answer is: in trouble.
We can see this with the closure of local bookstores and big names stores alike. Borders folded up in 2011. Barnes & Noble has since then operated the only large-scale bookselling operation in the USA. And while B&N is surviving, their revenue figures show just how challenging the bookselling market is.
In the wake of Barnes & Noble’s dominance of the bookstore space, smaller book retailers have suffered too. According to a piece from Quartz published in 2017, the American Bookseller Association reported a steep decline in the number of independent booksellers in the late 90s. This decline in bookstores correlates with Amazon’s rise to prominence as the premier online retailer of books (and everything else).
All hope is not lost! The Quartz piece goes on to report a sharp increase from 2009 to 2015, in defiance of the idea that online retailers are pushing out brick and mortar stores. Physical stores suffered while Amazon was the hot new thing. But as Amazon becomes just another everyday tool we use for commerce, the importance of actual bookstores comes back around. We see this clearly in the increase independent bookstores over the last 10 years.
With the initial surge of interest in online retail fading, we can start to see the gaps in online retail. There is no sense of community, there is no gathering of people with similar interests—essentially there is no emotional connection. Shopping online is shopping alone.
Amazon and other online retailers are great for finding very specific items. When I broke my fountain pen earlier this year, I didn’t go to the local office supply store for a new one. I could have; they keep a few styles and brands in stock.
What I did instead was to go online, research a few styles, find one I liked and ordered it directly from the manufacturer. I was able to find the exact item I wanted. Yes, I went without a fountain pen for a week while I researched and waited for shipping, but the tradeoff in time meant I got exactly the item I wanted.
For some books, this is equally true. If you’re researching a topic, you might have better luck searching online for source material. The same is true for manuals and guides to specific tasks. Your local bookstore might not have a detailed guide to protecting your API online from DOS attacks. But you can easily find a guide online for just that topic.
Buying online is great if you know exactly what you want.
Bookstores offer more than a place to browse for books. They provide readers and writers a place to encounter each other. Bookstores are a community hub in ways an online retailer can never be. When my to-be-read pile dwindles, I go online if I know what I want to read next. I go to the bookstore if I want to discover something new.
Despite the downturn in the late 90s, bookstores are back as a mainstay for book-lovers. In particular, independent bookstores are enjoying this resurgence and finding new and better ways to promote authors, connect readers, and serve their communities.
Self-publishing is helping
The rise of self-publishing and digital printing coincides with the growth of Amazon and other web retailers. These online sellers need on-demand printing to profit from sales.
There’s another benefit self-publishing brought with it, one I’ll wager you’re already familiar with: traditional publishers no longer have a stranglehold over the book world. The gates are wide open now, and the traditional gatekeepers can only hope to siphon off the best and most marketable books to keep themselves in business.
And thanks to services like Lulu, authors can publish in print and digital cheaply and distribute their work through the same pipeline traditional publishers use. With one glaring exception: bookstores. For the lifetime of self-publishing, the bookstore has been a nearly insurmountable challenge. Most self-published authors ignore the bookstore entirely and focus on their niche market online.
Some do find creative means of stocking their physical book, such as working directly with their local bookstore or drumming up support from local writing groups. But these methods are all highly localized and demand legwork from the author. But that too is changing. Keep reading.
The playing field is nearly level.
Let’s quickly recap:
- Bookstores are back and independent bookstores in particular
- Self-publishing makes bookselling a reality for anyone and everyone
- Unlike online retailers, bookstores serve a variety of purposes in their community, making them versatile and important
Bookstores and your book
Alright, now we’re at a crucial juncture.
Self-publishing and print-on-demand make publishing available to anyone. A self-published author could get printed copies, make an ebook, market online, sell books by hand, everything.
Except getting their book physically placed in a bookstore.
Because self-publishing controls cost for authors by using print-on-demand, most companies that facilitate printing do not accept returns. Makes sense, right? If all the books are made to order, there can’t be returns.
That puts bookstores in a tricky position. Bookstores books they offer to be returnable. Because they have to be able to clear space in their storage areas and their shelves, and they can’t afford to buy a book that doesn’t sell.
On top of that, bookstores buy at wholesale discounts, meaning the asking price of a book has to be slashed by 30-55% in most cases.
Two major hurdles for a self-published author:
- Wholesale pricing
The Wholesale Conundrum
This hurdle is the easiest one, so let’s cover it quickly.
Self-publishing already covers distribution that encompasses wholesale pricing. For example, Lulu offers distribution through our GlobalReach program to sell your books with online retailers. This program and similar ones from other self-publishers already incorporate wholesale pricing models.
Selling your book at wholesale pricing does mean you make less per sale, but the tradeoff is that your book is available to a wider audience and through more diverse channels. Most authors are resigned to this fact and selling in a bookstore will be no different.
It’s not all bad though. For example, a novel might cost $4.00 to print, you might price it at $12.00, and with a wholesale cut of 50%, you’d still get around $2.00 per sale. Not amazing, but you are still making money from book sales. And in the long run, the increased exposure should mean even more sales and more interested readers.
Getting your book into a bookstore is much more challenging.
You could use Ingram Spark’s option for “returnable” self-publishing. That would mark your book as available for return in their catalog and bookstores would know that when they order the book.
The problem? First Ingram Spark is not truly free self-publishing, so you’ll be paying their set-up fees. Then you’ll be marking your book down 55% for wholesale listing, potentially driving up your list price. After all that, your book will be available for bookstores. You’ll still be doing the cold calling. You still have to ask those bookstores to stock your book.
I wouldn’t have written all of this if I didn’t have a solution to offer.
DartFrog is a USA based service that offers Hybrid Style publishing. What sets them apart—I bet you guessed it—is that they have a coordinated deal with independent bookstores all over the USA!
If you self-published with Lulu and your book is in retail distribution, DartFrog can offer you guaranteed exposure in independent bookstores!
How does it work? DartFrog has a nice graphic that provides broad strokes:
You’ve got the book done and it’s out there. You’ve got a marketing plan in place too, so you’re pushing it on social media and through email and the like. Now you can submit your book to DartFrog to get the book in independent bookstores!
I’ve always advocated for working with your local bookstore to get copies on the shelf. It’s very doable if you’ve got a quality cover and you’ve made a personal connection with the store owners. It might cost you the printing and shipping of a few books, but you can still see your book looking out from the shelves of a bookstore.
DartFrog is stepping that up and bringing your book to a range of independent bookstores.
I’m looking specifically at DartFrog for a reason.
We work with them to help print and ship books they supply to bookstores. As part of that deal, we also offer Lulu authors a discount on DartFrog’s services. If you’re a Lulu author and want to try out DartFrog’s distribution service, you’ll get 15% off the listed price.
Let’s break that down:
- Limited – $89 for evaluation by DartFrog and $386 if the book is accepted
- Full – $475 for a detailed evaluation and if the book is rejected, one free re-submission
The 15% discount will save you $71.25 off the total price of either package!
What does Limited and Full mean? And a bookstore evaluation? What’s that?
Glad you asked! Or I asked for you. Whatever. I’m going to explain.
First, here’s a link to DartFrog’s suggestions to prepare your book for their evaluation – First Steps to Submitting
DartFrog can’t get ALL self-published books into their bookstore network. Realistically, the number of self-published authors who want to have their book in a store could fill your average Barnes & Noble a couple of times over.
So, they have to review and be selective about which books they accept to avoid being overloaded.
But that’s okay. Because their Limited option is less expensive ($76 for Lulu authors) and even if they do reject your book, you’ll get a Book2Look biblet included in that price! These biblets list at $200 on their own from Bowker and serve as a great marketing tool for promoting your book to readers and retailers.
The point is that there is great value in DartFrog’s offering even if they don’t get your book placed in an independent bookstore.
There is still no 100% guarantee DartFrog will get your book placed in their network of independent bookstores, but with the full package ($403.75 for Lulu authors) you’ll get an in-depth and detailed evaluation from DartFrog (whether they accept your book or not) and the Book2Look biblet. If DartFrog does reject your book after the first evaluation, you’ll get an opportunity to resubmit for the second round of review using that detailed evaluation to update and improve your book.
Using the Full service greatly increases the likelihood that DartFrog will be able to accept your book and get you shelf space in their network of independent bookstores.
Bookstore Best Practices
This is self-publishing, so you’re going to be on the hook for doing most of the important work. Simply publishing your book is not enough to make it worthy of a sale or a spot on the shelf of a bookstore. You need to be conscious of the quality of your book, particularly the cover.
Rather than going through a full list of formatting and cover design best practices, let’s finish up today’s post with a few self-publishing bookstore best practices.
- Cover design – you need to be aware of how a book is displayed at a bookstore. Online, your front cover is your thumbnail and you’ll be conscious of how the cover will work as an online image. But for bookstores, you need to consider the entire cover.
The spine, for example, is going to need to include your title and author information.
There is a very good chance you won’t even have a chance to get the book in a bookstore without the text on the spine and because it is the part of your book a potential reader sees! Only a handful of books in the bookstore will be cover out; most will be tucked in with other books in the same genre with only the spine showing.
- The blurb – this could be arguably part of the cover design, but it’s important enough to get a bullet point. Let’s say you’ve got an awesome cover and the spine has your title in a cool font to catch attention. It all worked perfectly and a reader has slid your book off the shelf. They haven’t bought it yet though!
There’s one more hurdle. The blurb.
That block of text, maybe 250 words or less, that has to close the deal. The blurb will need to make that reader want to spend their money to take your book home. Misspellings or grammar problems are unacceptable. This small piece of text has to be impeccable.
But more than just being a coherent string of words, your blurb has to grab the reader. Like really grab them. How you do this might be specific to your genre—a fantasy novel might provide a little background into the world the book inhabits, while a mystery novel will set up the mystery your readers will follow.
- Marketing plan – this might seem like it doesn’t belong here, but you need to have a dedicated marketing plan in place before you approach a bookstore. Even DartFrog will look for this when reviewing your book to work with their services. Why?
Because bookstores and distributors are trying to make money from book sales. Sure, a local bookstore owner probably loves books and authors and owns a bookstore because of that love. But they’re still in business and need to pay their bills and their employees. That means making money.
It is much, much easier to convince a bookstore to carry your book if it has well thought out marketing plan behind it. A marketing plan means an audience, and an audience means reviews and ultimately sales.
Bookstores are awesome for advertising and for selling some additional copies. I encourage authors to always make an effort to connect with their local bookstores to sell either through a wholesaler (the bookstore orders copies) or through consignment (they buy and sell directly from the author). There’s just no reason not to at least connect with your local bookstores!
And with services like DartFrog, you have a low-cost and low-risk option to get your book in even more stores! But don’t forget that you’re still going to be the primary advocate and salesperson for your book(s). Even with twenty or thirty copies on the shelves of independent bookstores near and far, you are going to make most of your sales directly from your website to your online followers.
Bookstores are a supplement and a marketing angle you should actively pursue, and as your author brand develops, you’ll get more and more value from bookstore exposure.
Paul is the Senior Copywriter at Lulu, responsible for all the words you see on our site (misspellings included). He also manages the community site – http://connect.lulu.com/en/ – and in his free time, he’s an avid reader and short story writer.