Barry Eisler, a well respected name in the self-publishing world, not too long ago said that mass distribution into the bookstores was the only thing that the trade publishing houses had to offer that an indie author could not do for themselves. At the time this was true, but even this is starting to pass.
Print on Demand costs are dropping. The technology just keeps improving every year. Will it ever be competitive with offset printing? In some ways it already is.
Offset printing is for large volume printing. Unless you’ve already sold over 1500 books via pre-orders it is just not a safe option for a self-publisher. POD is still the better route to take. However, the higher cost of POD is being made up within the drop in returns. As I said in the previous posts, bookstores can now order one book at a time and return one book at a time. This has dropped returns from a prior average of 50% to a record low of 27% already. Logic dictates that that number will drop further as the bookstores get better at working with the new system. The dreaded return system that the big publishers have been stuck with for so long may be dying a natural death.
Say there are two books in the store. Both have been on the shelf for three months without selling. One is in the red zone, the other in the green. Which book do you think the store is more likely to return and which one might get a lower sale price and be given another three months? The red zone book has a thin margin already, so there really isn’t room for the bookstore to cut the price. The red zone book will get returned. It pays to be in the green zone.
So, how do you approach the bookstore owner about getting them to stock your book?*
*Here I’m referring to ordering and stocking your book from the wholesaler through their regular system just as we’ve been talking about, not carrying your book on a consignment basis. Taking books one-at-a-time on consignment from the author is really not something they wish to do. It is much more time-consuming (read less profitable) for the bookstores than going with their established distributor channels. Selling books on a consignment basis does away with automated reordering, returns, and ease of payments.
First you need to have your book set up properly as we talked about in the previous post(s). Once you have everything ready there you need to do a little research on what stores you plan on approaching.
Keep these things in mind when you do so.
-If your book is a military thriller and the store specializes in cozy romance novels you may want to find a different store.
-Check their stock first, if your book is about cute puppies and they already have twelve cute puppy books on the shelf they are probably not going to add another one.
-Create a Sell Sheet. This is a one page flyer or brochure that gives them everything they need to know about your book(s). Include the fact that your book is available through Ingrams and B&T at a standard discount first. Once they know that they are more likely to keep reading. Include the ISBN, place it in a large font so they can easily read it and look it up in their system. Include your cover art and a brief synopsis. Add a few reviews. Identify the genre, never assume that your cover will do it for you as people get different impressions from the same cover. They should be able to read the entire Sell Sheet in under a minute. Display your publishing company name and logo. Show links to your website and Facebook pages.
-Identify the owner. Call them by name. I like to shop in the store and actually pick out a book before initiating contact. If you have a Sell Sheet that’s usually enough. They don’t necessarily need to see your actual book. (Doesn’t hurt to have one in the car if they do wish to see it though!)
-Come in during a weekday. Avoid the weekends as this is their busiest time. They’ll be less stressed if you come in on a Wednesday after lunch and have more time to talk to you. Asking for a minute of their time is not unfair, asking for thirty is.
-Chain bookstores are usually a waste of time. Most of these store managers have no say in what they stock (unless they have a “Local Author” section). In the case of the chain store their stock is determined by their corporate overlords and the manager has little to no input. The local author section is the best you can hope for, but don’t expect the staff to push your book unless you find one who likes your genre and you give them a copy.
-Avoid suggesting where they should place your book in the store. They are the customer in this situation and they will decide where they want your book. Obviously if you want it on their Staff Recommendation shelf you have to provide a free copy. Expecting them to order it themselves or to place it there unread is naive.
-Author signings are a mixed bag. Some stores encourage them, some don’t. If you presented your book well, were friendly and engaging, then they might wish you to do one. Unless you already have a large local following and are debuting a new release I find them to be counterproductive. The person behind the counter has much more credibility and sway with the customer than the unknown author sitting at a table in front of the store. I’ve found it works better to sit in the back and have the staff steer people looking at your genre to you. The front of the store is more like an ambush. Nobody likes being ambushed. Ask what you can do in return for them carrying your book, that way you’ve left it up to them.
-Have some promotions already started. Things that you can point to as an example of your efforts to get the book some buzz.
-Have your e-book available directly with Kobo. Kobo has a program set up where they partner with indie stores to give them a percentage of e-book sales. So if the customer sees your book and would rather have it as an e-book the store can provide it and still get a percentage of the sale.
– Be prepared to take no for an answer. Many of the people you approach will say the decision is out of their control, some stores will simply not be able to take the book on. Be nice, don’t question their reasons, they may not know about the changes taking place and it’s not your job to lecture to them. Thank them for their time and move on, try again in a few months and hope they are more receptive.
I can’t emphasize the be nice part enough. It helps to remember the late Vince Flynn.
If you read military/political thrillers you’ve no doubt heard of Vince Flynn. Vince was a collage graduate who was working in real estate when he decided to take a gamble. He quit his job and found work as a bartender while working on his first novel.
Five years later he had sixty rejection letters and no prospects, so he took matters into his own hands and self-published his first novel. This was in the mid-nineties before the explosion of e-books. It was reported that Vince hand-sold books everywhere he could and he soon had a big following in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area he called home. The book went to number one in the Twin Cities, and within a week Vince had a new agent and a two-book deal with Pocket Books, a Simon & Schuster imprint.
That can still happen today. If fact, it’s even more likely now.
Indie bookstore owners talk to one-another. If you do well at one you may suddenly find yourself doing well at another three states away. By showing yourself to be a professional in their business and approaching the store owners correctly, you could find yourself a rising star in their informal network.
For an aspiring indie author, it doesn’t get much better than that.
Next week I’ll talk about distribution and just how important it is.