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Can Merchandising Help Get Your Self-Published Book in Bookstores?

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.

Can special merchandizing make your self-published book more attractive to bookstores?

Can special merchandizing make your self-published book more attractive to bookstores?

A self-published author asked for referrals to sources who could manufacture a stuffed character based on her book. She wanted to offer it as a display piece to incentivize bookstores or other outlets to carry and sell her book.

As a former promotional products distributor for 17 years, I basically told her "Don’t."

What this author was hoping to do is called merchandising. It is out of the budget range for most self-published authors, and itmay not be an effective advertising effort. Let me explain why.

Merchandising, Branded Merchandise, and Promotional Products Defined

Let’s clarify what we mean by merchandising and how it differs from branded merchandise and promotional products.

  • Merchandising is the process of helping or incentivizing retailers to sell the products or services of a supplier. For books, the supplier is either the publisher, the author, or both. The supplier’s ultimate goal is to get the end consumer to buy, but they also must sell the retailer on participating. The efforts can include co-op advertising, wholesale discounts, and, yes, even display pieces, as the author I mentioned above was considering.
  • Branded merchandise is a product that bears a logo or other branding of a business. It is sold to customers who want to be affiliated with—or have an appreciation for—the brand. For books, the brand would be the author and/or their books.
  • Promotional products, sometimes called swag, are also physical items that bear a logo, branding, or an advertising message. These are usually given for free to customers or to the public to promote the supplier’s business or cause.

Confusion Between Merchandising and Branded Merchandise

The author's example is clearly merchandising, although she did note that she might eventually want to sell the stuffies on her website, which would make them branded merchandise at that point. Authors can often get confused, especially in understanding the difference between book merchandising and branded merchandise.

They might wander into a local bookstore and see displays of merchandise related to popular books. For example, they may see a display of Harry Potter-related toys and games next to the Harry Potter books. That is branded merchandise—not merchandising. These items are not offered or displayed to create more book sales, although they might. Rather, they are offered to make more add-on and non-book sales for the retailer. This is a retailing strategy that can be used for popular but aging books and book series, such as Harry Potter. These readers already have the books, so what can you sell them next?

This is not merchandising but branded merchandise. Know the difference.

Can Book Merchandising Really Help Get Your Self-Published Book in Bookstores?

Unless you have some special relationship with independent bookstore owners, I would say no, especially if you have no successful track record with selling your book in a physical retail setting.

Just a heads up—many indie bookstores don’t want to work with authors who have self-published on Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) because of Amazon, even if you have selected "expanded distribution." But that doesn’t mean that if you self-publish through a bookstore-acceptable platform, such as IngramSpark, that they’ll automatically be willing to carry your book.

Some indie bookstores will only work with you on consignment. This means they might shelve a few copies of your book in the store but will not buy stock of your book as inventory. If those don’t sell, you have to take them back. By then, they could be shopworn and not usable for book sales.

The main merchandising that independent bookstore owners want is wholesale discounts. They can expect you to give them as high as a 40 to 60-percent off the full retail price as a commission. I’ve run across some authors who balk at that, but you have to remember that these owners are giving up valuable retail real estate to sell your unknown work with unknown demand. They have no obligation to carry your book or help you promote it.

But here’s the bigger issue. The bookstores are not going to give your untested, unknown book top visibility in the store. And you want them to waste even more valuable retail real estate with your display pieces? You’d be lucky to get on the shelves with just the spine showing—not even a cover-out placement.

So any investment you make in creating display pieces with the intent that they will be appealing to retailers is likely going to be a waste since they’ll probably throw the display out after a time. You likely won’t get it back, and if you do, it will be shopworn.

And if we’re talking about getting your self-published book into the big book retailers like Barnes & Noble, just forget it. That’s a completely different sales effort and process. Book buyers for these big chain stores aren’t interested in self-published books for a variety of reasons. They stock books from big publishers and distributors. Dealing with your small, one-off sales is just not worth their investment.

The local big chain store managers aren’t interested in working with you either since they are just following the corporate marketing and sales plans.

The Only Possibility for Book Merchandising Displays

If you are doing trade shows or events where you’re hosting your own display table or booth, then considering merchandising such as display pieces is a possibility. But if you’re not making enough sales, you will be in the no-profit zone quickly.

You have to realize that if your book can’t sell without all this merchandising fluff, you’re not building your author platform effectively.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Heidi Thorne

Comments

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 29, 2021:

Bill, maybe if we were all younger, we'd give it a go. But now? No, too much been-there-done-that.

Glad it's raining by you. I am so ready for fall weather... and some rain. Lawn is in total brown out.

Thanks, as always, for reading and sharing your thoughts. Means a lot. Have a great day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 29, 2021:

Thanks, Amara, for reading and commenting! Glad you found it helpful. Have a great day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 29, 2021:

Hi again Ginger! True, writing and self publishing is more of a hobby business, just due to the nature of the market. IngramSpark is a worthy self publishing platform that's tied to Ingram's mega distribution network (largest in US if I'm not mistaken). Lots of authors use IS, and they have a great reputation. Thanks for stopping by and I wish you the best with your book adventures!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 29, 2021:

Peggy, if that isn't an understatement, I don't know what is! :) Self publishing is such a huge undertaking, I'm surprised anyone still tries. But, hey, I guess we all hope we'll be the next Harry Potter success story. Thanks so much for chiming in and have a wonderful day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 29, 2021:

Hi Janis! Glad you found it helpful. There's a lot to the whole self publishing game. So learn as much as you can. It will help you avoid the disappointment many authors experience when they start on this path.

Thank you so much for reading! Good luck with your books and have a great day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 29, 2021:

Hi Rodric! When I saw your name in the recently subscribed list, I knew exactly who you were!

Yes, since I realize that some people prefer to hear or watch, I've started adding the video version to my posts here on HP. Surprisingly, that has been driving some traffic to YouTube. Always learning about how to share our content, right?

Thank you so much for your support both here and on YouTube. It means a lot. Have a great day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 29, 2021:

Flourish, even without the pandemic, the idea of having to take back shopworn merch or books is yucky. :( I just wish authors would get their heads out of the clouds (or the bookstores) and think more realistically about their book sales prospects.

Thanks for adding the exclamation point to my point! Have a great day!

FlourishAnyway from USA on September 29, 2021:

In concept it seems pe-in-the-sky sweet but you provide realistic reasons why an author should reconsider. An in the era of COVID the whole idea of getting back shopworn potentially yucky books and other merchandise (if your advice was ignored) is kinda gross.

Rodric Anthony Johnson from Surprise, Arizona on September 28, 2021:

I watched the video and read the article. I like that you used the same words in both. The video was best because I could hear where you emphasized instead of depending on my own imagined emphasis. I liked, comment, and subscribed.

Janis Leslie Evans from Washington, DC on September 28, 2021:

Thanks for this lesson on merchandising and the differences between all the terms. I learned a lot about where and how to go about selling my self published book. Very informative.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 28, 2021:

It would seem that it is definitely an uphill battle for self-published authors to get noticed and make any substantial sales. Once in a while there is a break-out moment for an author that goes viral, such as the Harry Potter books.

Ginger Burke from Illinois on September 28, 2021:

You are a wealth of information. I'd never thought of merchandising. It really does seem as if self publishers are automatically relegated to earning pennies on KDP and writing simply as a hobby. I will have to look up the IngramSpark you mentioned. Most of this is new to me.

Amara from Pakistan on September 28, 2021:

Informative read.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on September 28, 2021:

As always, an excellent article and sound advice. If I was younger it might apply to me. :) Rain here, hopefully coming your way. I don't know about you, but I'm more than ready for Fall weather.

Have a great day!

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