Before we begin I just want to forewarn you: getting your self-published book into bookstores is hard. Is it as hard as writing the book itself? Maybe not, but it requires a lot of time, effort, and there is zero guarantee that being in bookstores will lead to more sales. That’s why getting your book into bookstores is not typically a marketing strategy that we suggest, especially for self-published authors. There are plenty of more effective ways to market your book that will actually lead to sales and new readers.
All that being said, we still run into authors who want that personal accomplishment of getting their book into bookstores. So, how do you do that?
First let’s clarify what we mean by bookstores:
There are two kinds of bookstores – your local independent bookstore (that is way more likely to accept your self-published book) and national chains like Barnes and Nobles. Getting your book picked up by a chain is much harder and again, there is no guarantee it will lead to more sales. You will have to decide if the benefits of being in a bookstore chain outweigh the risks, but for our purposes we are going to focus on how to get your book into a local, independent bookstore – which in 2022 was a $9.9 billion industry with more than 300 new bookstores sprouting up across the United States post-pandemic.
So, how do you get your book into your local bookstores?
For one, don’t skimp on quality. Your book should be as polished as a traditionally published book. Many independently published books start out at a disadvantage because people expect them to be sub-par. The professionalism of the binding, the artwork on the cover, the interior formatting and font choice all matter. Alot. If your book presents a solid first impression, customers are more likely to pick it up and take a closer look. And remember, in this case the bookstore is your customer. They have to buy it first before someone else will. If your local bookstore can tell a book has been self-published without even opening it, it is less likely to succeed.
Understand how bookstores purchase books and set your royalty rates accordingly. Knowing how wholesale works is going to be incredibly important when you are setting up your publishing accounts. There are a couple tricks to make your book more attractive to bookstores (whether they order it or not is a different thing, but you can at least keep it off the “do not order” list.) First of all, most self-published authors use Amazon KDP to publish their books for a number of reasons, including its easy-to-use interface and no set up fees. Amazon claims it can get your book into bookstores, but the truth of the matter is that very few bookstores, if any, are ordering books published through Amazon KDP. This means that you will also need to upload a version of your book to IngramSpark, which puts your book in the Ingram catalog and makes it available for bookstores to order.
Now, when you’re setting up your title you will want to pay close attention to the royalty rate you select and the returns option. While Amazon KDP lets you set your royalty rate at 60 percent (meaning that you make 60% of the retail price minus the printing costs), bookstores are very picky about their piece of the pie. If your book is not set at a 45% royalty rate or lower (aka a 55% discount) they likely won’t order it. Period. Bookstores want to make money and if their cut is too low (or your price is too low) they won’t order it. It’s important at this stage to price your book accurately for its genre and set your royalty rate at 45% (55% discount).
Know the risks involved. You will also want to set up returns through IngramSpark. This is risky, because what you are telling bookstores is that if the book doesn’t sell, you will buy it back from them and pay to have it shipped back to you. You can see how this poses a problem with print on demand where typically your book is printed at the point of sale, but for bookstores, the store has become your customer. They want to purchase your book at a discount, sell it for retail, and then have a guarantee that if the book doesn’t sell they can ship it back to you for their money back, putting you in the red should that happen.
Let’s break it down further. If you have a book that retails for $14.99 and your wholesale discount is set to 55% (45% royalty), a bookstore can order that book for $6.75. After you pay for printing costs you will earn roughly $3 per book which is half of what you could have earned through an online sale. This means that you have to sell twice as many copies of your book in physical stores just to break even. When the bookstore sells the book they will make $8.24 per book. Now, if the book isn’t selling, the bookstore has the right to return it to the author for their money back (in this case $6.75). You are responsible for paying for the book and the shipping cost to get the book back. Or, you can tell the bookstore to destroy the book, but you still have to pay the $6.75. And remember, you only made just over $3 when the bookstore bought the book from you, so you are now in the hole.
Get to know your bookstore. A lot of locally-owned bookstores have special sections dedicated to local authors. Take a look and see if your bookstore offers this and then introduce yourself. Other bookstores that have popped up over the last several years are catering to specific audiences. If your book falls into this market, you might be a good fit for their shelves. Bring them a review copy and ask that they consider selling it for you. Most bookstore owners will at least hear you out if they are already offering a section for self-published and/or local authors. If your book is attractive (which we already talked about) they will be more likely to want to stock it.
Come prepared with your marketing materials. While of course you are hoping your local bookstore thinks your book is good, what they really want to know is if it will sell. Are there readers for your book? Showing even independent bookstores your “credentials” like best seller lists, online customer reviews, or any awards you have won will help sell its credibility. Mention any media your book has been in, guest articles you’ve written, or podcasts you’ve interviewed on. Be prepared to explain to them why your book is a good fit for their customers.
Ask if they will host an author signing or reading for you. Just remember, their goal is to sell books – yours and others – so you will need to prove that you have a marketing strategy to go along with your event. You will be responsible for advertising, sending invitations, creating a digital buzz through Facebook events and other mediums, so that people actually show up to the event and want to buy your book. You will want to partner with the bookstore so that they get their cut of the sales and aren’t left with a bunch of books that didn’t get purchased.
Again we would like to reiterate this is a lot of work for what will likely be only a few sales. The majority of your book sales will come through your Amazon book page, or your author website. We understand that being in bookstores is a dream for a lot of authors, and is totally plausible if you put in the hard work and keep your expectations in check. Being in your local bookstore should be less about making sales, and more about fulfilling a personal goal.
So where does that leave us?
- We wouldn’t worry about your book being in bookstores. Your book’s success will be based on a variety of other factors.
- If you do want to be in bookstores, focus on your hyper local stores. Remember you will have to use the IngramSpark, make it returnable, and set the discount to 55%. Even all that still won’t be enough – you will have to go in and talk to the bookstore face-to-face and convince them to stock it.
- Make sure you have a contingency plan if you have to buy your books back.