Why few self-published books make it into national book shop chains
Updated: Apr 17
Chains such as Waterstones. And although it’s fairly easy to have your book displayed in there, on a local level, it’s much harder to get your self-published book stocked nationally by such chains. And that’s what I’m going to explore here, with the help of Linton Robinson and Dave Bricker.
It must be every writer’s dream, to walk into their nearest branch of Waterstones, or Barnes and Noble (if it wasn’t for the recession, digital disruption, and a whole host of other reasons, there may have been more), and see their book proudly standing, face out, in the shop’s most visible, attractive display. Or better still, the window. Just picture the scene, if you will….
“My book!” you sigh, picking a copy up from the large pile, silently pleading with everyone loitering amongst the other displays to spot that it’s you on the back cover photograph. One of said literary browsers turns, wondering why an apparently normal woman is acting all weird around the main display, stroking a particular title like it was her offspring in distress. Then it clicks.
“Oh, my god!” says the book browser. “It’s the author of this year’s best-seller and blockbuster film spin-off. Here! IN OUR STORE!” She falls to her knees, bowing at the author’s feet.
Cue queues – people pushing and shoving others out of the way to get their signed copy, in scenes echoing any Black Friday. You demonstrate faux humility. “What? This little thing? Oh, it was nothing. I’m sure anyone could do it.” (It was wise to not mention the three years of pure hell for you and your family, as you created, then edited, then cried, and completely despaired.)
This little scenario belongs in my sarcasm and your la-la land. It’s never going to happen.
I’ll let Linton describe why….
“The obsession with attempting to get books into bookstores is among the most common, and so often disastrous, mistakes by new writers/publishers – the egotistical desire to “look like a real writer.” It takes huge amounts of work and money to get an indie book distributed to stores, but if you succeed in getting there, you are really in trouble. First, let’s examine some realities of how stores sell.
The majority of writers clamouring and spending to get into stores have no idea of how store merchandising and jobbing really work. Your book will be back in the stacks, spine out, unless you pay for special display. In all those stores. Worse, the big publishers have that all sewn up; they buy it up wholesale. Not to mention things like display at the sales counter or in tables up front. You’ll be buried under drifts of cheaper, better books, by writers people have heard of.
I haven’t even gotten started on how little you will make on any sales you stumble into; you’re probably used to the lavish royalties paid by Kindle and CreateSpace. Well, welcome to the retail world, where some stores take 60% of retail price. You’ll be lucky to get back a quarter a book, after spending thousands of dollars to sell it.
Every indie publishing authority I know of agrees that “bookstores are the worst place to sell books.” If you doubt that, Google that phrase. “Return” is one of the weirdest artefacts of publishing, the most dysfunctional industry since the industrial revolution. It means that stores have the right, at whatever time, or for whatever reason–if any at all–to return your book for a 100% refund. I’m not aware of any other industry that does this. If a hardware store orders 100 hammers and they don’t sell, they can’t just ship them back.
Actually, the worst thing that can happen is if some chain does buy a bunch of books from you. Because unless they sell, you always have hanging over you the possible return, where you give the money back. To fill a big order you have to buy thousands of books at a very high price—and give up most of the sales money to the stores, and possibly middleman distributors.
There are two ways you could get your book returned. One would be that they ship it back to you…at your expense. So you end up paying TWO lots of shipping costs on a book that you took zero money on—and get back shopworn copies. Or they can tear off the cover and send that back to you and toss the books in the dumpster. Meaning you paid to produce a book and ship it for zero income and don’t even have a book in your garage to show for it.”
This is all assuming the book buying rep takes your self-published book on in the first place, and considering the look and quality of the vast majority of titles pumped out via Lulu, Amazon on Demand, Lightning Source et al, this is a big ask. Odd sizes, one-type-suits-all-stories paper choices, and an array of poorly designed covers will not entice any store’s buyer to pick your book over a traditionally published one – and they’ll never run out of those. (I’m not even going to mention inner content, because we’re talking mainly about readers taking their first bite of your book with their eye. If it’s a no-go at that point, you may as well have written ‘kill me now’ ninety thousand times across the interior pages – no one will ever see.)
Dave Bricker does the maths:
“Concerning most self published books (whole-saling at around $9 per book), imagine having three books in every Barnes and Noble across the country. That’s 777 stores and 2,331 books. At $9 per book, you’re gambling $20,979. Let’s say you sell an average of one book per store and you’re making $3 profit per book, so you make $2,331. They return 1,554 unsold books to the printer expecting $6 per book (print cost) to be returned, plus around $1 per book for shipping. $7 times the 1,554 unsold books equals $10,878 dollars you owe the book printer. You lost $8,547 on a deal you you started off celebrating. Large publishers need to sell as many as 25,000 to 30,000 books to break even, after absorbing returns and shrinkage.”
Can you afford to lose money on unsold books? Can you afford to pay for positioning in the store? Can you afford to spend your time fulfilling huge orders to the wholesalers for the tiny returns you may see?
Can you still see your book in every book store?
Now, I’m not a sadist, I wish it was easier for authors to be stocked across national chains; I wish authors were paid better; I can only hope that self-published books will one day be seen as equals to traditionally published ones. The last thing any book store will struggle with is a lack of books to place in their stores and on their pretty tables/displays. The old elite have book store methodology and practice all sewn up. Don’t fight it, just find other ways to get to your readers.
You do, as a self-publishing author, have one huge advantage over a best-selling traditionally-published author and book store conglomerate. It’s a point I keep banging on and on about, but it should be the starting point for all your promotional and sales activity. Selling to your readers directly, you’re able to nurture a relationship with your readers. Imagine each one is your best friend – find out about them, show interest in them.
They’re not a statistic, a faceless shopper in a huge store, a random email address amongst billions of others. They’re real people you can, with their permission, keep in contact with. People who could become your biggest fans, who may enlist their own friends to read your book. The premise works.
I know it’s crushing to see other authors basking on Waterstones’ shelves and in their windows as you struggle to sell a few copies of your book each month. Which is why it’s futile to compare your objectives. You’re an indie publisher; start small – don’t jump to join the big guys. And be comforted by the fact that they’re fighting their own battles up there.
Linton Robinson was born in Occupied Japan, schooled in Asia, and spent 25 years in Latin America, writing for major magazines and marketing for catalogues. Lin has published his own work since grade school, and supports himself with a self-published and notorious book, and has owned and run a dozen imprints.
Dave Bricker is a publishing consultant and a professor of graphic design in Miami, Florida. He’s the author of The Dance, Waves, Currents, The One-Hour Guide to Self-Publishing, and The Blue Monk, a colourful memoir of his solo sailing experiences.