As promised, here it is: the (somewhat unpleasant) truth behind selling an indie book in bookstores.
When it comes to getting your book on shelves, there are three types of bookstores in the world:
- Huge chains (such as Barnes & Noble) that receive hundreds of thousands of submissions a year and are unwilling to take on any book without a distributor and a convincing marketing package
- Small bookstores (like the New Zealand chain, Paper Plus, where each store is independently owned) that are willing to support a local author and might give your title a trial run on shelves
- Local bookstores (such as Boulder Bookstore) that are all about supporting local authors, and have a system in place designed to give any indie work a chance
The Big Dogs
I cannot speak from personal experience about the likelihood of indie titles breaking into large chains quite yet, since The Natural Order is currently being considered by the New Zealand chain Whitcoulls, but I can imagine my chances of success with Barnes & Noble are close to zero.
However, I will submit my book at some point, just as a bit of a test to see whether it stands a chance.
The New Zealand chain, meanwhile, has been more helpful than I expected. I visited a local Whitcoulls store last week to ask what I would need to do to get my book on shelves, and after providing contact information to the staff, I heard from the head of Whitcoulls just two days later requesting a copy of my book to review. My chances of placement in Whitcoulls are still slim, but I described my plan of speaking to schools to further my case.
Of course, I really would need a distributor to boost my chances, but I would lose money with every copy sold if I decided to do that.
Shipping costs are truly the most difficult part about publishing in New Zealand. With the shipping costs added to each title, I have paid $12 NZD for each copy of The Natural Order printed. These are then sold to bookstores for $14 or $15, which means my profit margin is very slim. If a distributor were to take 40% of the profits, I would be paying for every book sold.
As it is, I’m only making about $2 per book. It’s a difficult business! Only the top 2% of authors earn a good living solely with their books. The rest of us have to work for every sale–and keep the day job in the meantime.
Most of the bookstores I’ve visited in New Zealand have been small, independently-owned stores that are willing to work with a local author. Some of them have accepted The Natural Order immediately, while others have taken a copy to review first.
These bookstores–as with most–sell books on a consignment basis. That means you give them however many copies they ask for, and they pay you as each one sells.
As an indie author, you start off with a trial run (usually 3-4 months); if your book proves to be successful, that time can be extended.
This is where marketing becomes crucial. If you can send enough people to bookstores that they have to re-order your title, you’re in business!
However, I’ve been surprised by the degree of support these small bookstore owners are willing to give my title. One of them promised to display the book on every shelf–on the front counter, on the teen fiction display shelf, and on the “selected reading” shelf. That is something you won’t get free in most places. Even traditionally published titles are usually lucky to get that sort of prominence.
And the Local Gems
Boulder Bookstore is one of a handful of local bookstores that goes out of its way to promote independent authors. They have a large collection of indie titles, and a system in place to allow any indie author to sell their book in the store (for a small fee).
There are even options to pay for front-shelf placement. I’ve gone with one of their main display packages–for $75, I get 10 books in the store for 3 months, with front-shelf placement for part of that time. I won’t make a profit until the first 10 copies have sold, but given the popularity of the bookstore and the number of customers who like picking up eye-catching titles from the front shelves, I decided the package was worth the investment.
Now, the real test will be whether any copies are sold. Even one will be a success at this point!
Two months ago, I had no idea I was even going to order physical copies of The Natural Order, let alone see it in bookstores. And now I’m days away from embarking on my very first book tour!