Eleanor set up a small publishing company in 2019. Here, she shares her experience and insight as a newcomer to the industry.
How Easy Is It to Get Your Book Into Bookstores?
I set up a small publishing company in 2019 with a friend. In this article, I discuss how we got our book into bookstores. It's a question I've spent a lot of time researching. One thing quickly became clear – printing our book was only the beginning of our journey as small publishers. We had boxes full of books stacked in the hallway, but where were we going to sell them?
Naively, we had imagined them sitting on shelves nationwide, waiting for eager readers to discover them. I'm not sure how we thought they'd end up there – by some kind of magical intervention, perhaps? If only it had been so easy!
The truth is, for a new publisher without a reputation, it isn't easy at all. It was a LOT harder than we first thought. And even now, almost one year after our second book was released, we still have a long way to go.
If you have written a book and published it without the backing of an established traditional publishing company, this article is for you.
Bookstores Will Not Be Waiting With Open Arms
Bookstores, most of the time, like to play it safe. They have thousands of titles to choose from, and if you are an unknown author, they will not be jumping up and down to stock your book. Shelf space is precious, and making a living as a bookseller is hard. They can't afford to make lots of mistakes.
You will have to do the hard work and promotion yourself.
Over and over again.
Unless you are a known publisher or an author with a degree of excitement around your book, no one will contact you and ask to stock it. And that is the harsh truth. However, if you approach them in the right way, it is definitely possible to get your book into brick-and-mortar bookstores.
Bookstores Can Be Very Wary of Self-Publishing
If you have self-published your book, this is probably not what you want to hear. Unfortunately, it is true. But if your book is of a high quality and is well presented, a bookstore may be prepared to give it a go. It's better, however, if you can disguise the fact that your book is self-published.
We Self-Published Under the Guise of a Traditional Publishing Company
Setting up our own micro-publishing company allowed us to publish the two books we had written without it being obvious that we had (sort of) self-published.
In fact, when we approached potential booksellers, we were quite open about the fact that we had written them ourselves. However, as we were, in essence, also a publishing company, the appearance and quality of our finished books did not distinguish from any other book on the shelves.
- We had a company name that appeared on the books.
- We had a company logo.
- We had an ISBN.
- We had our books printed and bound by a professional printer.
- Our illustrations were produced by a professional illustrator.
- We meticulously imitated all the necessary small print typically present in books.
- We made sure we followed industry 'rules' (such as the expected length of a children's picture book).
- We used our company's social media handles to promote the books, which gave it an air of professionalism in comparison with using our personal profiles.
One bookseller who was kind enough to stock our books did express slight surprise that they were both by the same author. We always tell people that we fully intend to publish other authors when funds allow. This is true; it is just something that hasn't happened yet.
How to Approach a Bookstore With Your Book
Everything you read advises you to approach a bookstore, at least initially, with a polite email. It makes sense – staff who work there are busy people who don't want to be contacted in person with thousands of queries. Email is the preferred method of communication in the working world. Well, you would think so, anyway.
Except, from experience, I can tell you that bookstores rarely reply to emails. They just don't.
Even booksellers who we had already connected with were prone to ignoring emails. It can be very frustrating.
I have sent out countless emails to independent bookstores, optimistic that they would happily agree to give our books a chance. But ninety-nine percent didn't even respond. I've no idea why, but since most people who work in bookstores seem genuinely lovely people, I can only assume that they are so completely inundated with similar emails that they have overlooked it.
If you want to be sure of talking to someone about your book, the method that worked best for us was to simply turn up at the store with the book. Unannounced.
It's the total opposite of most advice.
You probably want to get your book into multiple stores, but where do you start? It might seem like a minefield, but it's definitely best to start locally. Bookstores like to support local authors, and they are far more likely to say 'yes' based on this principle alone. Presuming, of course, that your book is of a high standard.
We were very lucky in that we live in a city with several good independent shops, as well as a couple of chains. We first approached a brand-new children's bookstore. Luckily, they were extremely supportive of our project, and we arranged to launch our first book there. Following the book launch, they were incredible in that they personally recommended our book to customers, mentioned us in an interview and also displayed it in the window. I don't think we could have asked for more.
Start Spreading Out
With your book in one reputable bookstore, it is far easier to start expanding. We then contacted all further local shops with our first book. They all agreed to stock it on a sale or return basis, which is typical.
It's like a spider's web, expanding outwards.
I'm convinced that their decision was swayed by the fact that the book was already stocked by the very popular shop where we held our launch. Perhaps it gave them more confidence. Or perhaps they were equally happy to support local authors. All I can say is that some of them didn't even look at the book properly but said 'yes' anyway.
In any case, it was exciting to be able to walk into any local bookstore and find our book proudly positioned on the shelves.
A Big Chain
One of the stores that agreed to stock our book was the local branch of the huge UK nationwide chain Waterstones. Getting into Waterstones was exciting, but there was a catch.
Each Waterstones is independent and has its own book buyer. Which means that, to get your unknown book into all 400+ branches, you will have to contact them all one by one.
That's no simple task. Also, you will not have the benefit of being a 'local author' for the majority of them. But if your book suddenly takes off in a big way, you might be in with a chance.
The entire procedure is definitely a lot more complicated than we had imagined. It's true that it is listed on Waterstone's website and can be ordered by anyone who asks for it in any branch. But that's not quite the same as it actually being in every branch. In stores, people browse. Online, if they don't know about your book, they are unlikely to search for it.
You Have to Be Prepared to Do the Marketing Yourself
Even if your book is lucky enough to reach the shelves of the shop, you have to do the marketing. How else are you going to persuade potential customers that they want to select your book above all the other hundreds or thousands on offer?
Big publishers have huge marketing departments and spend a lot of money promoting their books. Marketing is a lot of work, and it's work that I, for one, don't like. I'm not comfortable promoting my own books.
One self-published author we heard from admitted spending in excess of two hours per day contacting bookstores and promoting his book.
We haven't done that. Perhaps that's why our spider web still has a long way to reach.
It's hard work and can be daunting, putting yourself and your book 'out there' like that. There is certainly truth in the saying that writing the book is only a small part of it. You might even say it was the easier part.
One major mistake we made was not marketing before the book was out. We definitely should have raised awareness of both of our titles a long time before we were ready to distribute them.
Also, we should have sent advance copies out to genuine reviewers as well. This is something that we will definitely do in the future. Any decision a bookseller makes when you approach them with your book is going to be influenced by good, organic reviews.
What Else Can You Offer?
If you want a bookstore to stock your book, what else can you offer?
We offer to run events relating to our books. Bookstores have been particularly keen for us to do this. Because the books we have written are for children, the events we have held tend to be book readings followed by craft/educational activities.
If your book is targeted towards adults, a talk with questions to follow is always nice. Some are accompanied by wine and nibbles!
Doing events helps to bring awareness of your book to a new audience. Generally, you can be sure of a surge of sales as long as people turn up, as many people will be happy to purchase the book at the end. Of course, you can sign it for them, which makes it even more special!
The bookstores are also happy because they also benefit from the publicity and the sales. In fact, some of them even asked about the chance of us running events for them when we initially approached them with the books. So it's a great idea if you have thought about what you might offer beforehand.
I find events very inspiring. There is nothing quite like seeing the enthusiasm and delight of a child listening to you as you read your own book. And, as I mentioned before, a lot of them will go on to purchase it at the end!
Mistakes We Made
As a new publisher, our journey has definitely been filled with highs and lows.
In hindsight, we would have done a few things differently. These are the mistakes we made:
Not Marketing in Advance
Marketing well in advance of your release date allows you to build up interest in your book. You can do this by creating a leaflet and sending it to bookstores. Publishing companies send brochures of their new products to bookstores so that they can order in advance.
Not Collating Reviews in Advance
Advance reviews are important, but we didn't do it. In retrospect, we should have sent free copies to select reviewers in order to build up a reputation for the book before the main launch.
Not Spending Enough Time Contacting Bookshops and Promoting the Books
Launching a book is a job all on its own. Undoubtedly, we should have spent a lot more time approaching a far greater number of bookstores. Expanding nationwide is definitely our current goal.
Is It Worth Trying to Get Your Book Into Bookstores?
Is it really worth all the effort trying to get your book onto the shelves of bookshops? After all, it's hard work, and bookstores take a chunk of your profit. Why not just sell it on Amazon or from your own sites?
Well, in my opinion, you should try to sell your book in as many places as possible. You will undoubtedly make less profit when selling through bookstores, but it comes with other advantages. Potential readers tend to view books available in physical stores as of a higher quality than books sold solely online. Being available in a store also gives your book more exposure, as people can stumble upon it more easily whilst browsing. And the more people stumble across your book, the more people will know about it.
We sell one of our books in the shop of an iconic landmark in London. It receives millions of visitors a year. We don't make much profit there, but the chance for it to be seen by so many visitors is too good an opportunity to pass over. And, of course, the more exposure your book gets, the more people will look for it online anyway.
Distributing a Book Is Difficult but Rewarding Work
Writing a book and trying to get it into bookshops can seem like a huge obstacle to overcome. It definitely wasn't as easy as we had first thought. However, if it is something that you really want to do, it is certainly possible if you are prepared to put in the time and effort. For us, it has been a journey of small steps, with highs and lows. But the journey isn't over yet, and who knows where it will end? That's the exciting part!
How to Set Up a Small Publishing Company
- How I Set Up a Small Publishing Company
A brief insight into how we set up our own small publishing company to publish our children's picture books.
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.