The Study

Some Hard Truths About Bookstore Shelves

It's intoxicating, isn't it? The idea of seeing your book on a bookstore shelf.

There's a sort of magic in that, I think. It comes from growing up in a time before Amazon, when browsing through stores was how you discovered new work. Bookstores are where we found the authors who would become our lifelong favorites, whose work would irreversibly and unapologetically change our lives. Our first great love affairs began in bookstores.

Plus, it gives us validation, which, frankly, is important for us self-published authors. Any slob can slap a stack of paper between some other, heavier stock paper and call it a book. But a writer is someone with a book for sale in a store.

When you're writing your book, it's easy to get caught up in the excitement of getting it placed on a bookstore shelf. And it's a noble pursuit, to be sure. But it's not as simple as it sounds. For self-publishers, getting a book in a physical shop is a tough, tough battle. 

Of course, the easiest way to get your books into a store is to sign a distribution deal with a book distributor like Ingram. Big distributors have partnerships with all the major bookstores. The problem is, distributors don't work in print-on-demand titles; if you want them to carry your book, you need to supply them with a large quantity of printed books. That's a big upfront investment. Like, thousands of dollars big. Once you've paid to have them carry your books, there's no guarantee they'll actually ship them anywhere. They'll just have them available to ship. Just because Ingram carries your book doesn't mean you'll see it on the Barnes & Noble shelf. The bookstore has to request it. As a self-published author, that's a heck of a hurdle in itself.

The DIY route is certainly plausible, but here are some things to keep in mind:


• It's a Big Time Investment

Basically, you'll need to go from shop to shop and give them a hard sell on carrying your book. It takes time, and you'll have to provide each shop with a few copies of your book, so there's a monetary investment, too. 


• Relationships are Key

You should work to build a relationship with each bookstore. Become a regular, chat up the owner, give them a chance to know you, the person, before trying to sell them on you, the writer.


• Do Your Homework

Many bookstores have information on submissions on their websites. Make sure you read their policies before cold-calling. Some accept submissions, some don't. Some will pay a low fee for your books and keep the revenue, most will sell on consignment. That means if your books don't sell, you'll lose money. That's not a problem in the print-on-demand Internet world, so keep it in mind.


• It Helps to Have Thick Skin

You'll get a lot of eye rolls when you tell owners your book is self-published. Try not to take it personally. On the whole, I think it's safe to say that self-published books are ready for an upgrade. It's not your fault that self-pubs get a bad rap, but it's not the store owner's fault, either. But take comfort! If you have a solid, professional-grade product, it will speak for itself.


• A bookstore shelf does not automatically equal sales.

Think about it; how likely are you to wander into a bookstore and buy a book that you've never heard of, written by an author you've never heard of, recommended by no one, tucked alphabetically on a shelf among thousands of other books?

The best way to sell books through a bookstore is to get your book showcased on a "Recommended" table, on a shelf end cap, on a "Local Writers" shelf, or some other prominent location. (Think of the tables you see when you walk into Barnes & Noble. You're much more likely to find a new book there than back on the shelves, right?) 

Many bookstores won't give this sort of placement to new and/or self-published writers. You should always ask, and it's worth fighting for, but don't expect to be showcased.


• You'll be responsible for marketing. 

Seems strange, right? Your book is in a store, the store does its own marketing, ergo, why should you have to do the marketing for a book that's now part of the store's inventory? It all goes back to the previous point; people are not likely to wander in and select your book off the shelf. You'll need to direct people to the store in order to get them to buy it. And if you're going to be sending people directly to your book, aren't you better off selling it to them yourself and keeping a larger portion of the revenue?


In the end, you'll have to decide for yourself whether the effort and cost of getting your books in a store is worth it. I definitely recommend giving the process a try, because despite all the hassle, there really is something magical about seeing your work for sale in a shop. But it won't be easy, nor will it be cheap. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say, and you, my friend, are officially forearmed.

Boy, that sounded weird.



Clayton Smith1 Comment