How do I get my book into bookstores?
This is a question we all wish there were a simpler answer to, but…
The short answer is that it is very difficult to get a self-published book into general bookshops – but not necessarily impossible. Think about the economics of it: all bookstores have a finite amount of shelf space and the smaller the shop, the less there is. Their job is to sell books – so the more likely that a book is a safe bet for selling, the more likely they are to order some copies and put them on the shelves. They will nonetheless strive for some diversity – having a variety of interesting stock is important, and many book buyers will respond to the serendipity of happening across something they haven’t heard of before. And booksellers play an important curatorial role, keeping up with the popular titles but also finding hidden gems.
But all of that is easier to do when trusted, well-known publishers are supplying the books (via a distributor – more on that shortly). Their titles are more likely to be reviewed in the press, so customers are more likely to come in and expect to pluck these books straight from the shelf. And these publishers may well be subsidising the shelf space: here in the UK, at least, it is well known that chain bookstores have often charged publishers for the privilege of titles appearing in shop windows or special offers (although there has been some backlash against that). In the past, centralised buying has made it even harder for smaller presses and independent publishers to get shelf space, although again there has been more of a return to individual branches having some influence over what they stock. Anyway, as with everything: it’s an attention economy, and proven popular channels always end up getting preferential treatment.
Now, if you self-publish a book with IngramSpark, say, you are doing so with a company owned by what I believe is still the biggest book distributor in the world (Ingram). And your book will be listed in their online catalogue system, ipage, which is what many booksellers will have access to for ordering stock. Well, in the US it’s the default, but in the UK the front-runner is Gardners, and it’s more complicated. In recent years, if a bookstore places an order for an IngramSpark-produced book in the UK, typically they will have ordered it through Gardners, who then in turn place a ‘special order’ to Ingram. Everyone involved wants a piece of the pie, all of which puts pressure on the author’s percentage of any sales – and the number of parties involved has typically meant that order times have been slow, sometimes even weeks. (I’ll talk about retail discounts and those margins another time.) Recently, Ingram announced direct distribution in the UK, but the impact of this has yet to be felt – only this week they announced that ipage orders would reflect direct UK distribution from February 2023.
Anyway, these systems do at least mean that a customer walking into a bookstore can generally order your self-published book through the shop, but it may take a while to come. What is much less likely is the shop deciding to order several copies and putting them on the shelves.
Where does Amazon fit into all this? As usual, it’s a world unto itself – if you publish with the standard KDP offering, your book will only be available via Amazon. However, in the US and UK, Amazon also offers ‘expanded distribution’ – this reportedly piggybacks on Ingram’s infrastructure and means your book can be ordered elsewhere, although you have to sacrifice a higher percentage of revenue for the privilege (60% instead of 40%).
But back to the original question. Here are some possible ways to have bookstores actually stock your book rather than just order it when a customer requests it:
advance planning: giving bookstores advance info (six months or more, preferably) about your book at least gives them the opportunity to consider it
amazing marketing: there’s no substitute for publicity – if you can get endorsements for your book from well-known names, or get significant media attention (again, ideally in advance of publication), you stand much more of a chance of shops being interested
offering ‘sale or return’ (rather than ‘firm sale’): i.e. you take the risk on unsold copies, rather than the bookstore having to. IngramSpark supports this option but it means you will have to accept copies (including damaged ones) being sent back to you – at your expense – and most people find it isn’t worth it (another option is just having them destroyed, but you still pay for their shipping). Your mileage may vary.
offering generous retail discounts: in theory offering a 55% retail discount (again, IngramSpark supports this) makes the prospect of stocking your book more attractive to the retailer (because they might still get the minimum 40% they’d hope for, with the intermediary wholesalers/distributors hoovering up the other 15%). Personally, I think this only works if you have already established some interest in your book – see ‘amazing marketing’ above!
having a niche book of local/themed interest: if your book is about a particular place, of course there’s more chance that shops in that area would stock a few copies. And do think beyond standard bookshops: galleries, museums, country houses, exhibition spaces all tend to sell some books in their shops, and if your title is of direct relevance, it’s worth approaching them (you’d definitely need to find out who the book buyer is).
And bookshops of course aren’t the only places where you can sell books – Amazon obviously dominates the market anyway, and if you have access to an audience of your own, e.g. via an email newsletter or website that you know people read/visit, you can sell directly to them. (And you could try cross-promotions with other authors in your space.)
There’s always going to be a certain cachet in seeing your book on the shelves of a shop – but I’m afraid you will need to work very hard to get it there!
This week’s link: Here in the UK there has been a lot of buzz this week about a survey of authors’ earnings. It makes for sobering reading – but it helps frame the importance of seeing authorship as part of a wider portfolio of revenue streams.