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’s 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 in its bookstore. That is a staggering number of books! All are easily searchable, and most of them are tagged wisely and appear 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, its 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 reports 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 in the increase independent bookstores over the last 10 years.
With the initial surge of interest in online retail fading, we can 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 could 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 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
All right, 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 for 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. That makes sense, right? If we make all the books to order, there can’t be returns.
That puts bookstores in a tricky position. Bookstore books they offer are 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.
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 Global Reach 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 means 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 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 a return in their catalog and bookstores would know that when they order the book.
The problem? First Ingram Spark is not 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.
3 Steps to be Bookstore Ready
If you don’t want to use Ingram’s returnable model, you’ve still got some viable options. You’ll realize better results the more local you can get; so the first step is to look at the bookstores you frequent.
This includes any local independent bookstore. These are the kinds of places you’d go to when setting up author signings before a book launch; take the same approach when asking to be on their shelves.
But before your approach the bookstore, you need to get your book ready:
- Know your audience and cultivate a relationship with the bookstore community
- Create a cover that resonates with your audience and genre
- Price your book reasonably (allowing for the bookstore cut too)
Know Your Audience
If you write in a specific genre or to a small niche audience, you have to be hyper-aware of their expectations. The same is true when it comes to working with a bookstore.
Start with your local shop, the place you go to browse and order books regularly. Ideally, these folks will already know and like you, so asking them to buy a few copies should be easy.
Then branch out to slightly fewer local stores. You can use IndieBound’s awesome bookstore finder to locate other independent bookstores near to you. Again, do some background research to make certain your book will fit in with the other authors this shop includes.
Create a Marketable Cover
You will always need to create a great cover for your book. But when it comes to landing in bookstores, you should also pay attention to your spine. Remember that most books in the bookstore only display the spine.
What this means is that you should be aware of how easy your title is to read and the color choices. Think about the emotions certain colors illicit and how the background color pairs with your title color and font.
Okay, this is a tricky bit. Lots of bookstores will want to order through their distribution channels, so you’ll need to be sure you’re using Global Reach (with Lulu) or that you’ve opted into Ingram’s content network. But many local bookstores will also sell on commission.
Oftentimes, the commission is the best way to get a few copies out there. And since you’ll be setting the price with the bookstore, you both have control over the details. Just find a price point that earns you some revenue and that is still low enough for the bookstore to mark up and earn a profit too.
Bookstore Best Practices
This is self-publishing, so you will be on the hook for doing most of the important work. Publishing your book is not enough to make it worthy of a sale or a spot on the shelf of a bookstore. You need a great book with a quality, professional 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 know how a bookstore will display your book. Online, your front cover is your thumbnail but for bookstores, you need to consider the entire cover.
The spine, for example, will need to include your title and author information. Only a handful of books in the bookstore will be cover out; they will tuck most in with other books in the same genre with only the spine showing.
- The blurb – the blurb will need to make a 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.
- 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 a 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 additional copies. I encourage authors to always attempt 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 will still 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 will 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.
One Innovative Alternative
Okay, so you can go with Ingram, paying their fees and taking the reduced revenue cut (or incurring the return fee) for wholesale. Or you can go totally independent and sell your book directly to local bookstores.
I’ve got one other way to land in bookstores to touch on today. Meet DartFrog Books, a company that partners with Independent bookstores around the USA to help you get on their shelves.
DartFrog has a unique model to help authors get their books on a bookstore shelf. They offer an initial review of your book to see how it will fit with their partner bookstores. If DartFrog accepts your book, they charge you a set fee to list the book with their network of bookstores. Currently, they offer a Limited package and Full review.
Looking to the future
Print-on-demand introduces a major cost-control for authors and bookstores. Already we can see this in action with Ingram’s returnable book plan. Between this option and the willingness of bookstores to sell on commission, the coveted bookstore shelf has never been more accessible for independent authors.
Paul is the Content Marketing Manager at Lulu. When he's not entrenched in the publishing and print-on-demand world, he likes to hike the scenic North Carolina landscape, read, sample the fanciest micro-brewed beer, and collect fountain pens. Paul is a dog person but considers himself cat tolerant.