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Getting Your Self-Published Book in Indie Bookstores (or Not)

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

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I would say at least a few times a month, I run across an author post on social about getting their self-published books sold in independent (indie) bookstores. At least they’re not aiming for the big chains like Barnes & Noble. Maybe they’re looking at indies because they correctly recognize that getting in the big chains isn’t going to happen. But aiming for smaller doesn’t mean they’ll be successful in getting shelf space in indie stores.

I’m going to bust some myths that self-published authors have when working with indie bookstores. I’ll also explain how indie bookstores work and how they are battling Amazon (if they even can).

Myth #1: Indie Bookstores Are Interested in Your Book Because You’re an Indie Author

Self-published or independently (indie) published authors may feel some rebel kinship with indie bookstore owners. “We’re doing our own thing without the ‘big’ guys.” Popular movies such as You’ve Got Mail from 1998 portray indie bookstores as blissful places, pitting them against the big, bad bookstore chains. In the 1990s, that was the case. Today, it’s the big bad bookstore chains and the indie bookstores against the even bigger “baddie” of Amazon.

Being an indie bookstore merely means that it is not part of a bigger retail organization. That is all. Though they may have special collections based on topics or philosophical leanings, they usually carry the same books as the bigger retailers. It does not mean that they specialize in, or even will consider, independently or self-published books.

Like their bigger bookstore brethren and rivals, indie bookstores want to sell what will sell. If you have no sales track record that proves your book will make them money, they cannot afford to waste valuable retail real estate—which they have to pay for—on your untested book. It is incorrect to think they are here to serve you and market your book.

Myth #2: Indie Bookstores Will Buy Inventory of Your Self-Published Book

It is obvious that many new self-published authors don’t understand how bookstores work, or how retail and business work either. They think that bookstores buy books directly from authors. Nothing could be farther from reality.

Bookstores, the big chains, and indies, too, buy books from wholesale distribution partners. The largest and leading book distribution company in the United States is Ingram. Bookstores of all sizes work with Ingram. They get favorable pricing and other support services from Ingram and other similar partners.

Stores usually buy book inventory from their wholesale distribution partners on a seasonal or other planned schedule. This way, they can have enough stock to fulfill demand, particularly for big buying seasons like the holidays. Unless demand warrants it, such as when a surprise hot new release happens, they don’t buy in fits and starts throughout the year.

This organized buying scheme helps them plan their budget, marketing, and even store warehousing and layout. Buying, researching, and ordering take time and effort. By consolidating these functions, they save time and labor costs. Planned and organized buying also helps them take advantage of any special pricing and promotion programs that might be offered through the wholesale distributor and the publishers the distributor represents.

When a random self-published author wanders into a bookstore, pitching the owner or book buyer with the prospect of having to do a one-off order for stock of a lousy few copies of their book, they are asking the bookstore for too much for too little reward. If you have no previous track record of sales, how will you convince a store owner it’s worth their while to spend extra time and effort on your book? Because your book is so special compared to the millions of other books available? Because you’re so special that you’ve self-published a book like millions of other authors around the world?

Some indie bookstore owners with a soft heart and commitment to community may be inclined to shelf a copy or two of a local self-published author’s book, but only on consignment. Do not take this as an endorsement of the value of your book or their commitment to you. Don’t ever promote that this bookstore is “carrying” your book. They are not. It is only on consignment.

Consignment means that you will not be paid for those few copies on the shelf until those books actually sell. Some stores may require that if the books don’t sell within a certain amount of time, you will take them back, or they will be trashed if you don’t retrieve them. Even if you do get the books back, they could be shopworn and unsuitable to be sold elsewhere.

One self-pub author I encountered was planning a whole investment in retail book merchandising, including display pieces, for the purpose of approaching bookstore owners. She wanted primo exposure and thought it would make owners excited to help her market her book. Even though I admire the drive, to hope that a bookstore owner would make any special effort or allot space to sell an untested product is presumptuous.

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Myth #3: You’ll Make More Money Selling Your Self-Published Book Through Indie Bookstores

An author was incensed that an indie bookstore was asking for a 50/50 split on consignment sales of her book. Why was the bookstore asking for so much? They weren’t really doing anything to make the sale, right? Now I’m getting incensed just thinking about how little the author understands about how business and bookstores work.

Here’s what that 50% to the indie bookstores goes towards retail space rent or mortgage, labor costs to run the store, accounting, marketing to get people in the store, software, store maintenance, security… the list is extraordinary. These authors think they should get 100 percent of the list price or give some paltry percentage, like 10 or 15 percent, to the store owner.

So what is an appropriate split? IngramSpark, which is the most bookstore-friendly self-publishing platform, suggests that a 55% discount off the list price is the standard that bookstores expect. IngramSpark will allow authors to offer as low as a 30% discount. However, they note that 30% is considered a “short discount,” meaning it’s not enough of an incentive to make a bookstore want to sell your book. With IngramSpark being a part of Ingram, the largest and leading book distributor in the United States and the world, I think they know what bookstore owners want.

Myth #4: Expanded Distribution on KDP Will Make My Book Available in Bookstores

When you make the book you published on Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) available for Expanded Distribution, your book can be made available to bookstores, libraries, and schools. Notice that I carefully worded that as “to,” not “in.” Expanded Distribution does not mean that your KDP-published book will be shelved in any bookstore. In fact, I can almost guarantee it.

Indie bookstores are anti-Amazon since Amazon is their arch-rival for sales. So they don’t want to fulfill customer orders for books self-published on KDP. If they actually did the sale, they also wouldn’t probably make a whole lot of money on those one-off sales either.

You can probably also guess that they don’t want a book on their shelves that is identified as being self-published through Amazon. So if you wander into an indie bookstore pitching them with copies of your self-published book done through KDP, they’re going to politely, or maybe not so politely, ask you to leave.

If it’s important for you to have your book in indie bookstores, you’d be better off self-publishing through IngramSpark. Indie bookstores likely already work with IngramSpark’s parent company, Ingram, in ordering inventory. If you self-publish on IngramSpark, you can make your book available on Amazon, though you’ll make lower royalties than if you self-publish on KDP.

Understanding the Bookstore Landscape

Bookstore sales, independent and chain stores, have been decreasing over time. From 1992 to 2016, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences reports that the count of all bookstore establishments fell from 13,136 stores in 1992 to 6,448 in 2016.

There has been an interesting uptick. Statista reports show that the number of independent bookstore companies has hovered between 1400 and 1900 since 2009. But in 2020, there were 1,700 independent bookstore companies in the United States with a high of 4,100 locations. That means many of these indie bookstore companies are just expanding their retail locations.

Even that doesn’t really tell the whole story. Print book sales, especially and surprisingly during the pandemic, remain strong… just not strong from the physical bookstore side of the equation. In 2018, bookstore sales in the US amounted to 10.28B, a decrease from 17B a decade earlier. And for 2020, Statista shows bookstore sales at $8.84B.

What Is Bookshop.org?

Before you read this article, did you know about bookshop.org? If you did, great. If not, I’m not surprised.

What is bookshop.org? bookshop.org is a bookselling site whose goal is to provide support to indie bookstores so that they can survive against Amazon. They report having about 1,100 indie bookstores participating in the program.

Here’s how it works. Readers can shop for books on the site. If the reader wants to support a local indie bookstore, they can search for a store and order through that store’s Bookshop page. The bookstore can get 30% of the cover price. For sales that are not pegged for a certain store, the sales are pooled and 10% is paid among participating bookstores. Orders are fulfilled through a wholesale distributor, Ingram. Another reason self-published authors interested in bookstore sales should use IngramSpark to self-publish.

Sounds like a great way to support your local bookstores without having to go to the store. For those who are anti-Amazon, Bookshop provides an alternative.

If you haven’t heard of Bookshop, it’s probably because they are still relatively new since they launched sometime around early 2020.

Bookshop promotes a lot of competing independent bookstores in one site. Why would any indie bookstore want to promote a site that promotes all their competitors? As Publishers Weekly reports, about 700 of the 1,100 participating bookstores use Bookshop in addition to their own websites, while 400 use Bookshop exclusively for online sales. This makes sense since bookstores can make more money by selling direct to customers than by sharing the sale with another site.

From a buyer’s perspective, I found the site confusing and clumsy. The site seems designed to assist buyers in discovering books, not bookstores. Looking at a typical book product page, I’m not sure how I support a bookstore with my purchase.

Like a physical bookstore, books are displayed in genre or topic collections, e.g., Warren Buffett’s Favorite Books. When I looked at business books, there were three such collections on the business category page. Then the rest of the business books seemed to be randomly displayed. It’s not easily searchable for subtopics within major categories.

A Poets & Writers article reports that Bookshop hopes to persuade Amazon customers who don’t buy from indie bookstores currently to change their habits and buy books on Bookshop to support these stores. They plan to accomplish this by working with major media outlets to link to Bookshop rather than Amazon.

Though Amazon does not release sales data, according to a Publishing Perspectives article in 2020, Amazon has a recognized share of about 50 percent of the print book market. While I can’t predict the future of Bookshop, I can predict that they will have a massive uphill climb if they hope to make a dent in Amazon’s market share.

The biggest problem with Bookshop and indie bookstores is that they sell the commodity book products that Amazon does. Is the “we’re not Amazon” message enough to sway large swaths of the population to stop buying books at Amazon?

Why Do You Even Want Your Self-Published Book in Indie Bookstores?

My statistical heart was thrilled to find some research done by marketing and CRM company, Womply, on how much local independent bookstores make. They analyzed sales transaction data at over 1,100 indie bookstores for 2018, before the pandemic era. Certainly a significant sample.

Here were the key stats relevant to our discussion here:

  • Average revenue per day: $697
  • Average ticket per sale: $48.24
  • Average transactions per day: 14
  • Number of indie bookstores that are closed on Sunday: 54%

I have to say that I had to look at these stats twice to make sure I wasn’t reading them wrong. And this sales data is before overhead expenses for a brick-and-mortar operation are subtracted from revenue?

Of course, averages are calculated with every data point from highest to lowest. I would like to see the median. But for the sake of this discussion, let’s just say that these are not impressive. This tells us that many indie bookstores are really small businesses, who are very dependent on retail foot traffic.

I am not disrespecting indie bookstores or bookstores in general. Some of them are truly committed to their customers and communities. But if you are hoping that they will be a growing or consistent source of sales for your self-published books, you need to understand the current retail environment they operate in and adjust your expectations accordingly.

Please stop the madness of chasing bookstore sales for your self-published book and concentrate on building your author platform, which is your best long-term book sales strategy.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2021 Heidi Thorne

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