shattering the illusion – self-published books and bookstores

Writing a book is easy. Selling it – well – that’s another matter entirely. When you go through conventional publishing channels, the selling effort from you will be concentrated pre-publication. We all know how hard it is to get a novel published by a traditional publisher. Even to get an agent seems impossible at times.

So you’ve grown tired and impatient and you’ve self-published a book. It’s easy and quick and with the help of various sites, doesn’t cost much. You advertise on the web, and you sell a few copies. Your sales aims aren’t high. It would be great for sales to cover that con you plan to attend, or maybe the cost of a new computer, or maybe you just want the use sales, no matter how low, to justify to your family the amount of time you spend on writing.

But your real dream is to see your book on the shelves of a bookshop. That is hard. It’s not entirely impossible, but it’s important that you know how the book trade works and how your book fits into it, and especially that you understand the pricing structure and have incorporated it in the RRP (Recommended Retail Price) of your book.

Here are a few truths about the book trade from a bookshop sales perspective:

    When a bookshop buys stock, they typically get a discount of 40% off the set RRP. Large chain stores can buy in bulk directly from the publisher and get larger discounts.
    Most bookshops get most of their stock from distributors. These companies have travelling sales reps who go around shopping titles in their range. It’s handy for a bookshop to buy from these companies, since it consolidates a lot of their paperwork into a few accounts.
    Distributors sell book for a range of publishers. To have a book listed with a distributor, you have to offer them between 60 and 70% off RRP. They won’t pay you until the bookshops have paid them.
    Bookshops don’t like risk. They will be heavily biased towards publishers/distributors who can offer three-month sales-or-return contracts. That’s right – if it doesn’t sell, a shop returns the book to the source (publisher or distributor). In the US, it’s customary that just the front covers are returned, in effect destroying the book (writers, mind your language: I can hear the WTF!! exclamations from here).

So why on earth would a run-of-the-mill bookshop stock a book from an unknown self-published writer, who can only offer 30% off RRP, and whose stock is ‘firm sale’ (in other words: non-returnable), who cannot be paid through regular digitised channels, whose stock carries a lot of extra administrative work?

No reason, really. That’s why the chain stores won’t be interested, unless you can somehow interest their head office, but then their administrative requirements will be the paper equivalent of having wisdom teeth pulled.

Dream on. It’s very unlikely to make this worth the time, effort and aggravation.

A shop will be likely to stock your self-published book for a few reasons:

    The manager is a friend of yours
    The shop is very specialised and you have published something in their genre
    The shop is an independent seller and not adverse to trying something new
    And the manager is a friend of yours (I know I said this before, but it’s really important)

Whichever of the above, it’s still a hard, hard process that involves lots of work. Above all, do your homework on pricing structures. Some shops are willing to give you a go, but only if you can offer them 40% discount so that at the end of the day, they can pay the rent and their staff.


9 comments on “shattering the illusion – self-published books and bookstores

  1. I’ve got my books in a few stores by striking up a conversation and being nice to the store owner. Only independent stores will do it as a rule and even then it’s not guaranteed. They’ll take consignment stock and will insist on at least 40%. It’s polite to follow up a month or two later and they’ll often say they haven’t sold any and ask you to pick up the books again as their shelf space is at a premium.

    I’ve sold quite well through specialty speculative indie bookstores, but otherwise it’s often more trouble than it’s worth. Look to the internet, online stores like Amazon, ebooks and selling through your own website for far better results.

    • Totally agree. I’ve had books sold by Borders pre-Angus& Robertson take-over. Oh man, the frigging paperwork! Not worth it. You’re better off hiring a stall at the local village fair. Seriously!

  2. Patty, this is a really important point to make, and it’s another reason why you have – as a self-publisher – to be 100% clear of your aims and your strategy in advance. And it’s why self-publishing suits some books so much better than others.

    There are two conditions for a successful self-published book (that is, taking it for granted the author is a marketing wizz, and full of energy, enthusiasm, patience, and persistence). First, it should be the kind of book that isn’t served well by mainstream publishers (almost certainly this means something “mid list”). Second, it should be aimed at a very specific reader group – because you’re going to have to target those readers yourself, and you just can’t afford a scattergun and hope someone picks it up approach – you have to throw your net where you know there are rich pickings.

    If these conditions are met, and your expectations are realistic (the conditions mean you will never get rich – you will, over a long period, possibly be able to build enough of a following to make a modest living. Eventually.), you will not need to use bookstores. Which is a very good thing, for the reason Patty outlines (of course your local store will stock your book – I’m lucky enough that I live in spitting distance of about 5 indie bookstores who’ll stock mine. It will probably do very well in all of them. And that will probably mean 100 or so sales. That WON’T be replicated nationwide – and even if your local chain takes it in and makes some numbers becasue you’re local, don’t expect their regional director to knock your door down.

    The lesson’s this – self-publishing can work. It can work very well. But you ave to know exactly what you want from it. And you have to be realistic.

    • I find myself ‘speaking’ (on internet and such) to so many writers, even those setting up publishing ventures, who just don’t know about these massive discounts and sale-or-return conditions.

      Local shops can be very good, but, as I said, YOU need to go in and do the work.

      I think that the traditional route and the electronic route are two separate entities, not necessarily mutually exclusive, but it’ possible to sell in one, but not the other. You may not NEED bookshop sales is all I’m saying.

  3. That’s exactly what I was agreeing with.

    I do find it worrying that people go into this without doing their research – it’s essentially setting up your own business. You wouldn’t dream of setting up a shop without researching markety and competition, and crunching the numbers within an inch of their life. You need to do the same with self-publishing. Which is one reason you’d do it so well if you ever decide on it.

  4. Absolutely. I recently got a very lucky break entirely by chance, with the US online music journal The Indie Handbook. That’s led to me getting my first proper, paid commission for a printed magazine.

  5. Pingback: Why self-publishing may be a bad option « SHINY IDEAS

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