Self-Publishing Authors Can Get Their Books on the Shelves of “Traditional” Bookstores

Even with the recent changes in the book publishing industry, a “traditional” bookstore presence should still be a goal for authors who want this. Why? Well, with this presence, authors are able to target an audience that is passionate about books. Think about it — people have to leave behind the comforts of their own home to go into a bookstore. Most likely they are there to purchase a book. If your book is on the shelf, yours may just have a chance at being the book they buy.

How can you work toward getting your book into that bookstore, though? Is it a matter of luck? Can self-publishing authors make the cut? The good news is that even if you’re not necessarily on a “lucky streak”, it’s still possible to successfully target placement in “traditional” bookstores. However, you must have a solid plan in place for doing so. Here are a few action items to put on your list as you get started:

  • Make sure your book is fully returnable. If your book cannot be returned, there is great risk involved for the bookstore. For example, if they stock 10 copies of your book and only 4 sell over the course of a year, they are losing money. If the book is returnable, though, the store can simply send the book back that doesn’t sell. Think of this return-ability as a type of “insurance” for your book.
  • Offer a sufficient trade discount. What’s sufficient? Typically that will be around 50-55% (or higher). Of course this does cut into your profits, but a higher retail margin gives the bookstore more incentive to stock your book on their shelves. No incentive? No cigar.
  • Build proof that your book is desirable. This is probably the most difficult (though not insurmountable) part of it all because authors often have a bias view of their book. However, the best indicator of a desirable book is exponential sales figures. If the amount of books you sale doubles, triples, quadruples, etc. month-after-month, that is something that can work in your favor. If you aren’t a professional marketer, you may want to seek the services of a book marketing consultant. Make sure they are able to help you draft a marketing plan and go forth on planning your publicity.

After you’ve done all of the above, you must put together a proposal to submit to bookstore contacts. You can find others specifically on their websites, but Barnes & Noble can be reached here:

The Small Press Department
Barnes & Noble
122 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10011

Other bookstores can be found through Google. Another popular site for locating independent bookstores is Indie Bound.

Do you know of any other bookstores that are small press/self-published friendly?

Wendy Stetina is a sales and marketing professional with over 30 years experience in the printing and publishing industry. Wendy works as the Director of Author Services for Outskirts Press. The Author Services Department is composed of knowledgeable customer service reps and publishing consultants; and together, they all focus on educating authors on the self-publishing process in order to help them publish the book of their dreams. Whether you are a professional looking to take your career to the next level with platform-driven non-fiction, or a novelist seeking fame, fortune, and/or personal fulfillment, Wendy Stetina can put you on the right path.

15 thoughts on “Self-Publishing Authors Can Get Their Books on the Shelves of “Traditional” Bookstores

  1. Think carefully about making your books returnable. When the bookstore ‘simply’ sends the book back, you have to refund their money, and maybe pay shipping too. In the above example, if the store sells 4 of 10, they will send 6 back. If 10 stores do that, then 60 books will be returned; if 20 stores do it, it will be 120 books. If your book sells for $10, with a 40% discount to the store, the cost you will have to refund is $6 per book – for 120 books that comes to $720.00, plus shipping. Then you have to try to resell those 120 books – and some of them may come back damaged and be un-saleable. All of that to sell 4 books per store.

    1. Hi, J.

      That’s very true. The process is “simple” for the bookstore but very complicated and expensive for the author. The idea of this blog post was to help authors who absolutely want to pursue that dream. The “insurance” you purchase each year to have your book returnable is rather pricey, but it is always an option.

    2. I understand your concern, J., but many bookstores, Barnes and Noble included, simply will not accept books that are not returnable. It’s no different than with traditional publishers. My advice to authors who are wary of listing their books and non-returnable is to place just a few copies in stores on a consignment basis rather than “selling” them through Ingram or another stream. Many stores will make this arrangement for local, independent authors or authors whose books have a specific local appeal. If those books sell well, then consider placing more.

      My other bit of advice to self-publishers would be to get creative – books aren’t just purchased in book stores. E-books and retailers of course are great, but so are niche-interest stores for those who choose the print route.

      1. That’s great advice, Amy!

        I definitely recommend consignment as a way to get books in front of buyers. That’s a much less “risky” option than making your book returnable.

  2. First of all, I disagree fully with your entire first paragraph. Something like 30 percent of people have never even been in the bookstore. I say it’s fine to ensure your book is available at traditional bookstores by having distribution to the trade (see my next point), but the chances of making a lot of money through traditional bookstore sales is practically nil (mostly because of the returns and steep discounts you mention). Online book sales is where authors should put their main focus.

    Second, how you can talk about reaching bookstores without talking about distributors? Bookstores don’t want to deal with publishers; they want to deal with distributors and wholesalers.

    1. Hi, Sue:

      You bring up very good points, but I think you may have missed the intention of the first paragraph. It wasn’t to say that people who don’t go into bookstores can’t be passionate about books but rather that people who go into bookstores are definitely passionate about books. I agree that authors should concentrate their energy on online promotion, but as mentioned above, this article was written for authors who still want to reach that presence. I don’t think that an author should give up on their dream of getting their book on the shelves of bookstores just because of changes in the book industry landscape or the cost of doing so (as long as they are fine with the profits received).

      There are still a few authors out there who REALLY want to see their book in bookstores.

      For your second point, the article focuses on reaching bookstores because people who are unfamiliar with the publishing industry may not be thinking of distributors. However, most (if not all) will be familiar with the bookstore. Furthermore, the author has to have their book set up appropriately (i.e. trade discounts, returnable, etc.) in order for the bookstores to consider them. Distributors such as Ingram don’t have any such requirements.

  3. Hi, Michael:

    I agree. Authors do give up quite a bit to get into “traditional” bookstores. Also, it is easier for authors to target online booksellers and eBooks.

    However, the point of this blog post was to help authors who want to achieve this goal.

    Also, the post never said that online book buyers weren’t passionate about buying books, but rather that people who go out of their way to drive to a bookstore are at least somewhat passionate about books. Make sense?

  4. Actually, Elise, the article (was it written by you? I’m not sure) says “a ‘traditional’ bookstore presence should still be a goal for most authors.” And that’s just not true.

    1. That’s a good observation. I believe there is no true/false or right/wrong here as this case is a matter of opinion. That opinion can only be determined by the author and no one else. On points like this, it’s fine to agree to disagree (I actually agree with you). However, I think this post is really targeted to the author who can benefit from it (i.e. they already have their mind/heart set on the goal of getting their book into “traditional” bookstores).

      Lastly, the post wasn’t written by me. I’m just responsible for comment duty. 😉

  5. I’m traditionally published now but began as a self-published author, and in my experience bookstore owners won’t touch a self-published title unless it’s sold on consignment. They also won’t read the book to know if it’s any good, so you’re sort of screwed unless you take the time to walk into each store yourself and meet the owner. Then you have to manage each account separately, which is time consuming and inefficient. And anything you pay a consultant to do will most likely cost much more than you’ll make in sales. So I agree that if you’re self-published, you’re better off spending your time marketing your book in other ways. (My novel got picked up by a publisher because of the online things I did, not because of the book store thing. I have more information about this on my website if you’d like to check it out.)

    Also, I have to point out that “fully returnable” doesn’t have a hyphen. To a professional writer, that’s like fingernails on a chalkboard. Sorry! 🙂

    Maria Murnane, author of Perfect on Paper

    1. Hi, Maria:

      Thanks for the constructive criticism.

      I agree with all of your points and also added a line of clarity to the first paragraph as this post wasn’t written with the intention of persuading authors to go after bookstores. It was actually written to let authors who are going after that avenue know that they shouldn’t give up on that “dream” because of the current landscape of the industry. Also I made the change to the hyphen between fully and returnable. Another good point!

      I will have to take a look at your website to learn more about your road to publishing.

  6. I have a question about book signings at bookstores…

    I’m a self-published author that will be making an appearance at one of our local bookstores. The owner of the bookstore is reluctant to order my book because it’s not returnable. I understand the concern. However, if I bring in the books and make them available at the bookstore, do I set up a certain split of the gross between the owner and myself? I’m assuming that all the proceeds don’t go to the bookstore owner. After all, I had to order the books and pay for postage. I’m assuming that my costs should come out of my cut. But how much is a fair amount of the book’s cost to offer the bookstore owner?

    Thanks for your assistance!

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