Obviously, some books are sold in bookstores, but I am not enthusiastic about any but large and knowledgeable publishers following a sales strategy that relies principally on bookstores. Here’s why:
- First, selling to bookstores is unlikely to be profitable. In order to get your books into bookstores, you must sell them at a substantial discount. If you sell to them directly, you will probably sell them for 40% off of your list price. And then you will need to set up an account for them, invoice them, collect payment, and deal with returns. If you sell to bookstores indirectly through a distributor or wholesaler, you will do so at 50% or more likely 55% or more off of your list price. If you are a self-publisher, starting out with a small press run, you will find it almost impossible to make money at these discounts. Even if you are an independent publisher of several books, able to do standard runs of 2000-5000, you will find the economics of bookstore selling difficult at best and a strategy engaged in as a secondary rather than a primary revenue stream.
- Second, selling to bookstores is risky. If you sell to bookstores directly and set up accounts with them, they will expect to return unsold books. This is something you may be able to live with, at least over time as you build up your business and your account base. However, if you sell to bookstores indirectly through distributors, returns are a killer. Here’s what happens. When your book comes out, your distributor asks you to send them a quantity of copies, let’s say, 1,000. Now you think you’ve sold 1,000 copies. You haven’t, whether your distributor buys the copies up front or on consignment—because your distributor retains the right to return unsold books to you. You ship 1,000 books to your distributor, who ships them to one or more warehouses. The warehouses then distribute your books to stores. However, the stores usually will not put your books on the shelves unless one of two things happen: 1) you give them a monetary incentive to display the books (this is called a “retail display allowance”) or 2) people are coming into the stores asking for your book. The latter only happens if you’ve done some publicity or taken other marketing steps that drive people into the stores. Assuming you haven’t been able to afford to pay stores extra money or to spend thousands of dollars on a national publicity program, the bookstores now send your unsold books back to the warehouse, which sends your unsold books back to you. What’s more, thanks to all the handling, a large percentage of the books may be damaged and not saleable, at least at the list price. And to add insult to injury, the distributor may tear the covers off and send you only the covers (to save shipping costs) so that you can’t even sell the damaged books at a discount. Now you’ve spent extra money on books you can’t sell and on shipping that did you no good.
- Third, bookstores (especially general-interest stores like Barnes and Noble) are not an effective way to market your book. Bookstores are infrastructure, a place where customers can find books. Of course, there is some marketing involved, especially in the way bookstores display books. And that’s one reason why it’s important to pay attention to your cover design. The problem is that bookstores, especially the general ones, do not do an effective job or reaching your particular customers. They attract all kinds of customers, few of whom are going to have the remotest interest in your book. They are highly inefficient that way. (On the other hand, if a bookstore has a focus—travel, for example—and you have published a travel book, the match is better. More about this some other time.) Moreover, if they do attract the right customers, and even when the right customer buys your book, you don’t have this customer’s name. And you can’t sell them something else or talk to them about your work—unless this customer contacts you.
This is not say that it is impossible for a small publisher to succeed with a strategy of selling to bookstores. Here are two of my favorite stories about two authors who “succeeded.” (Their names are fictional.)
- Joe Miller printed five thousand copies of his first book, a hard-copy compendium of inspiring stories. This was a rather large run for a first-time author, but Joe was both energetic and smart. He figured out how the bookstore business worked. He hired a distributor, put together a publicity plan, and managed to sell most of his press run through bookstores. I thought he was rather successful. However, when I talked to him a couple of years later, he had a new strategy—enlisting the aid of corporations to buy editions of his book to be given away for publicity purposes. Not a bad strategy, actually. I asked him what happened to his bookstore efforts. “Oh, I gave up on that,” he said. “With tons of hard work, I managed to get rid of my books. But the discounts to distributors and bookstores were so high, I didn’t make anything.”
- Bill Scarpelli created a small publishing house with a list composed entirely of his own photo books, which he sold mainly through bookstores. He was planning more books in the same vein. I was impressed. “Well, it’s taken a tremendous amount of work,” he said. “And capital. The worst problem is that it is so uneven. Sometimes the money pours in. Sometimes there is nothing. I’ve had to declare bankruptcy twice.”
And those were successes! The Publishing Pro, LLC.