Although more than half of all book sales (regardless of format) take place online, most authors wish to see their books in bookstores and libraries. My self-publishing clients often ask whether it’s possible for that dream to become reality. It is—if you know how and are willing to contact booksellers yourself.
Compared to traditionally published books, self-published books are at a disadvantage when it comes to being found and purchased by bookstore buyers. I learned some new information at a recent event with Arsen Kashkashian, head buyer at Boulder Book Store, in Boulder, Colorado.
How do booksellers find new books to put on their shelves?
Kashkashian shared that he starts his workday reading emails about new titles from publishers and authors. He receives as many as a thousand such offers per day! If a book interests him, he’ll look on Edelwiess+, a database of publishers’ catalogs that lists upcoming and current-season book titles. Bookstore buyers place orders directly from within Edelweiss+. They also place orders from other distributors’ catalogs and directly from publishers, but Kashkashian prefers the ease of purchasing from within the Edelweiss+ system, which, unfortunately, is not available as a venue to self-publishers. (There is another venue open to you, which we will discuss later.)
Before contacting booksellers, educate yourself about the bookselling business—their concerns and motivations are not the same as yours. Create a free browsing account on Edelweiss+ and peruse publishers’ catalogs. You’ll see which titles publishers believe will be hot sellers in the coming season, and you will learn the details booksellers want to see in a book listing. (With the free Edelweiss+ account, you can only browse catalogs; you don’t have access to anything else.)
What do book buyers look for in a listing?
In his presentation, Kashkashian showed us typical book listings and told us what book details he wants to know. Your book has about two to ten seconds to grab the bookseller’s attention, he says. Since 95–99 percent of bookstore books are stocked from established publishers, self-publishing authors must focus on giving booksellers the information they want in a brief, accessible format:
- An attractive cover. A professional-looking cover is vitally important, and he stressed this is so whether the book is sold in a store or online.
- A match between what the store’s customers buy and what’s offered. Buyers know their market and what sells to their customers.
- Kashkashian pays attention to current book trends and popular topics.
- An easy transaction. The book should be easy to find, to order, and to return if unsold.
Six steps for getting your book considered by booksellers
Here are tips I’ve learned over many years working in publishing and as a consultant to self-publishing authors.
- Make sure your print book is also available through IngramSpark, the self-publishing subsidiary of Ingram, America’s largest book distributor. Even if you’re using print on demand (POD) through Amazon KDP, the most reliable way to get bookstore buyers to purchase a self-published book is through IngramSpark.
- Put your retail price in the barcode. Many bookstores, including Barnes & Noble, require this.
- Research bookstores to target. Check websites for the names and email addresses of book buyers at those stores.
- Contact each bookstore buyer individually by name. Email is best.
- Study the listings on Edelweiss+ for examples of the information provided about other similar books.
- Write a brief email that covers the following essential information:
- title and subtitle
- author’s name
- genre/subject categories BISAC code (Book Industry Standards and Communications; you can find the list of codes at the Book Industry Study Group website)
- ISBN number
- retail price
- format (book trim size and type of binding)
- page count
- book’s distributor (Ingram or other)
- discount off retail (stores want 55 percent; this is the store’s profit)
- whether unsold books are returnable (most stores require returnable titles)
- picture of your cover
- sample interior spreads if the book is highly illustrated (two to three spreads)
- sales description of the book
- comparable titles (what best-selling books are similar to your book?)
- sample chapter or short section—not more than ten pages (optional)
- short author bio, including credentials, other published titles, your writing history (example: you’ve sold stories or articles to magazines)
- one or two blurbs (testimonials) from well-known personalities or authors (not unknown persons or Amazon reviewers)
- marketing plan (a brief outline of what you’re doing to drive bookstore sales)
- a link to your author website
Do not mention your marketing efforts to boost online sales, says Kashkashian. A brick-and-mortar store does want to know that your book is selling well, but they aren’t interested in your Amazon ranking or that you are buying Amazon, Facebook, or BookBub ads. That’s great for you, but it doesn’t help them! Be sensitive to the fact that bookstores lose a lot of revenue to Amazon and it’s a sore spot for them.
Start by contacting local indie bookstores
Independent bookstores, particularly local ones, are your best bet for success. It’s not impossible to get your book into a chain store—it’s just much harder. Approaching big-box stores like Target/Walmart/Costco or airport bookstores is probably a long shot. Spend your time on better prospects. Truthfully, huge store chains don’t want self-published books. And airport stores want only bestsellers that are hot right now. (A possible exception is Costco only if your book is specifically of interest in that local store and is of very high quality. Even if you are able to place your book in Costco, it will likely be for only a short time—days to a week—possibly connected to a special event. You must negotiate this with the local store management. I’ve known this to work on a few occasions.)
Consider that every time retailers stock your book, they have to remove another title from the shelf. Bookstore shelf space is finite. Returns are expected in this industry! Bookstores routinely order twice as many books as they think they’ll sell, and they often return 50 percent after a short time. How long? New, traditionally published titles will stay in the store 30 to 90 days before unsold books are returned. Self-published titles may not get that long. Kashkashian notes that depending on the store, books that reliably sell a few copies per month will stay on the shelf longer—along with “evergreen” titles that are in constant demand.
Selling your book on consignment—an alternative approach
Even if you do everything right, a bookstore may decline to stock your book. It might be possible, however, to place your book on consignment with the store. Each store will have different requirements and terms for consigned books. Also, consignment sales are not “scalable.” In other words, a consigned book is only in an individual store even if it’s part of a chain—and for a specified amount of time.
Be aware there are costs involved with consignment. In addition to covering your cost of printing the books and getting them shipped, you’ll pay for shelf space, and you’ll give the retailer a discount off the retail price so they make a profit. It’s quite possible that placing books on consignment will be a net loss and not financially profitable for you. So be clear about why you are selling on consignment. Is it to build credibility by having it in the store? To support a launch event? To build community locally? To help an indie bookstore? These are all reasons for you to pay to sell your book on consignment—profit isn’t the only motive.
If you’re printing books outside of the IngramSpark ecosystem, consignment sales may be your only option for bookstore sales. This is often the case if print-on-demand publishing isn’t a good fit for your book. (Example: your book has a unique format—perhaps a full-color, coffee-table book.) Books of local interest have the best chance of selling on consignment, as do very trendy subjects of interest to a particular store’s clientele.
So then what do you do?
You’ve placed books in your local indie bookstore or even at Barnes & Noble on their featured “local-authors bookshelves.” Fabulous! To get those books to sell, however, you need to help. It’s your responsibility to direct your readers to the stores where your books are being sold! You’ve been building that email list for months while you finished your book, right? Tell your readers where they can buy copies of your print book—particularly if it’s a subject of local interest. Hold an event at the store if you can, and ask if you can do a signing.
As mentioned earlier, Edelweiss+ is only open to traditional publishers, distributors, booksellers, and other industry players. Conversely, IngramSpark is for self-publishing authors, and while its books do not appear in Edelweiss+, your book does get listed in the Ingram Book Services database just by virtue of you putting it on IngramSpark. So any bookstore or librarian can order it. When someone goes into a bookstore and asks for a book, this database of published books is where the booksellers look for it. Most bookstores will do this for customers if they ask. (Let your readers know they can do this!)
Ingram Advance Catalog is also available to self-published authors. It’s distributed (via print and postal mail) to 7,000 top retailers and librarians in the United States and to 27,000 international and domestic customers (via digital format), according to IngramSpark’s client-services department. You can pay $85 for an ad featuring your book, which is placed according to its BISAC subject code. My personal opinion is that it’s unlikely bookstore buyers will spontaneously read a catalog of self-published titles, so that $85 might be better spent elsewhere.
It’s unfortunate that self-published books don’t have the same easy access to bookstore sales that traditionally published titles do—brick and mortar is still largely their territory—but so much has changed in the years since self-publishing has gone “mainstream.” Much of that change benefits self-published authors the most.
Don’t be afraid to try! Use these steps, persevere, and you too can see your book for sale in bookstores.
Sue Campbell is a book designer and publishing consultant for small publishers and self-publishing authors. She has worked in publishing exclusively since 2004 and was an art director in advertising and marketing for many years prior. Her work can be seen at Sue Campbell Book Design and you can follow her on Facebook.
Thank you, Sue. It’s helpful for self-publishing authors to know how the system works. Your concise explanation makes it seem less complicated and more do-able.
Wow! I never knew any of this–though I do know an author who sold her book of poetry on consignment. Lots to learn here!
Great article Sue! Thanks so much for sharing your insights in such an actionable way.