Breaking into the Brick and Mortar Book Biz
Every author dreams of making the Big Leagues, of walking into Barnes & Noble and seeing their book displayed on the shelf. You might think that it’s beyond your reach as an independent author, but it isn’t! You absolutely can sell through large retailers, but it takes planning. You must have the following before you can get your foot in the door: sales history for your work, an ISBN purchased from Bowker, market research and a willingness to accept the return of unsold copies.
By default, big-name publishers have something that unknown, indie authors don’t - a track record. They have solid sales histories and whole departments dedicated to moving inventory. Not to worry! You can create your own track record by selling your book online in audio and ebook formats, or through a publish on demand program. Any sale is a good sale and with each one, you build numbers while building your author brand.
Before you can branch out into the world of brick and mortar bookstores, even before a single copy is printed, make sure your physical book looks as professional as possible. Hire a professional designer if necessary, because your cover is crucial. The old adage may tell us not to judge a book by its cover but everyone does. Also, make sure that your back matter presents your book in the best possible light. A well-done blurb, an “About the Author” section and an excerpt from a review (ask permission from the reviewer), along with that perfect cover are your book’s first impression for your would-be readers.
Know what niche your book fits into and the competition. Get a feel for what similar books in your genre look like and know their average price. Gather your sales data and reviews for your other formats and then create the printed marketing information that will make the Book Buyer’s job easier. An author information sheet, also known as a One Sheet, gives your relevant information at a glance: your contact information, your wholesale distributor if you have one (you’ll need one for the major retailers), urls for your author website and YouTube channel if you have one, reviews for your ebook/audiobook, and anything else that might make you look more attractive as an author such as speaking engagements or evidence of expertise in particular field.
Along with your One Sheet, you should create an information sheet for your book or a Marketing Sheet. This is your marketing plan in a nutshell. Include a thumbnail of your cover, all of the publication details such as the title, ISBN, page count format, retail price, a paragraph with your “elevator pitch” for the book, and a brief paragraph about yourself. List any and all media where you or your book have been mentioned or reviewed. If you’ve contributed to a blog list it. List your Facebook, Instagram, Twitter accounts, your YouTube channel, include any tool that you are already using to promote your brand.
Armed with these two sheets and a copy of your book, you’re ready for the next step: local independent bookstores. No matter what kind of bookstore you’re marketing to, do some research to find the Book Buyer for your target store. A Book Buyer’s job is to select books that will sell in their specific market. Most of their budget goes to purchasing the superstars of that market, the hot titles and authors they know will make a profit. But they generally have some discretionary funds set aside especially for special interests like local authors.
Independent bookstores may be less constrained when it comes to distributors than major bookstores or big-box retailers like Walmart. The Big League players are limited to wholesalers, but an independent bookseller might offer a consignment agreement if you have sufficient inventory on hand to make it worth their while. In either case, consignment or wholesale, most independent bookstores will require that all unsold copies be returned after a given period of time. Consigned copies must be bought back by the author at cost, while books through a wholesaler will be returned to the distributor.
To find an independent bookseller in your area search Indiebound.org, the website of the American Booksellers Association. Whether you go with consignment or a wholesaler, you need to show that your book will appeal to their specific market, which is where those marketing materials come in. If you’re willing to set up a table at an author event it might make getting into the store a little easier. And of course, independent bookstore sales give you one more item to put on your marketing materials. Each step you take gives you more and more ammunition when approaching the big stores.
To get into big box stores you’ll need to have an agreement with a book wholesaler. Ingram Spark is a subsidiary of Ingram, one of the largest book jobbers in the world. Baker & Taylor, another major wholesaler, offers independent authors distribution services through Author Solutions. In any case, you can sell through these companies as a wholesaler, but their publication set-up isn’t free and if they act as your wholesaler you have to agree to a large bulk discount, which means that you are selling books to the bookstores at a discount of 40-55%. Even with a wholesaler lined up, you will have to do the legwork of finding stores to sell to, contacting their local Book Buyers and persuading them to carry your book.
Before I set you loose on the world of large retail bookstores like Barnes & Noble or the Big-box Meccas of Walmart and Target, it is important that you fully understand how selling books through a wholesaler works. Large retailers do not deal in short print runs, hence the need for a wholesale distributor who can handle large numbers of books. They are in the volume business. If the local Walmart agrees to sell your book you might be ready to bring out the champagne. Of course, you want to celebrate, you have a deal with a major retailer! But this is not the end of your sales journey. Not every copy of your book is going to sell and you need to understand what happens to the copies that don’t.
Books that remain on bookstore shelves for a given time are sent back, or returned, to the wholesaler. Titles usually have a shelf-life of six months, but it could be a year or more depending on the store. The standard rate of returns is 30%, which means that publishers, wholesalers, and booksellers are operating on the assumption that at least 30% of the books they put on store shelves will not, in fact, sell. Even with known authors, they assume a sell-through rate of 70% or less.
Working through wholesalers such as Ingram or Baker & Taylor the author will have online sales and royalty reports at their fingertips, making it very tempting to hover over those sales figures, but experts caution against watching those numbers too often. When your book is “sold” to a large retailer in bulk, these sales numbers will be inflated. Each book that reaches the bookstore’s shelves is a “soft sell”, meaning they haven’t been purchased by a customer. If your sales report shows 1000 copies sold, that means 1000 copies have been sold at a discount to the retailer with the understanding that at least 300 copies will likely be returned to the wholesaler. Once they are returned your sales numbers will show 700 copies sold, instead of 1000, and of course, this affects your royalties. A good rule of thumb is not to count your eggs until they’re hatched, so to speak.
I certainly don’t mean to discourage anyone from going this route. Even with the discounts and unsold copies complicating sales reports, large retailers sell thousands of books. This is how they make a profit. It’s also how you make a profit.
Side note: Even best selling authors have unsold inventory. Traditionally published returns are often sold at bargain rates. These bargain copies are called remainders. Returns and remainders are such a ubiquitous part of author life that in the early 1990’s fifteen best selling authors, including Stephen King, Amy Tan, and Dave Barry, formed a band as a way of letting off steam. The band’s name? The Rock Bottom Remainders.
A Brief Note from our Founder Joshua Schmude
Mrs. Brown has done a fantastic job presenting this somewhat complex topic. One thing that hasn't been mentioned is the need for an agent. A agent is one who calls these bookstores up on behalf of the author, also creating the one sheet and marketing materials for their books. Most authors don't have the time or patience to call up indie book stores and other retail outlets to pitch their book to buyers, which is totally understandable. At Lion Heart Publishing we have a small team that does this for the author. It is important to understand that just because you are included in Ingrams catalog, this doesn't mean book stores will carry your book, you can be almost certain that they wont. This is why having an agent is of the utmost importance for the author as this person has a financial incentive to sell the authors book due to the fact that agents work on commission from sales. If you are interested in hiring an agent contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, we would be happy to give you a free consultation over the phone.