Why Isn't My Self-Published Book for Sale in Bookstores?
I received a comment from a frustrated author who was hoping to have a self-published book (done on a popular self-publishing platform) included on the shelves of a brick-and-mortar retail bookstore. The author thought it might not be included on the bookstore's shelves because it didn't meet certain physical requirements for this particular store.
While, yes, non-complying print sizes, bookbinding types, and barcodes can be a problem with self-published titles—whether they've been printed independently or on a self-publishing platform—the real obstacle to gaining retail distribution is a much, much larger issue.
Who Decides What Books Go on the Shelves in Bookstores?
Competition for shelf space in retail bookstores is fierce!
Bookstores, especially the large chains, have marketing and retail professionals on staff to determine what books actually appear for sale in the store. Here's a glimpse of the field of choices these people face. As reported in a 2013 Forbes.com article, there are an estimated 600,000 to 1,000,000 book titles published EVERY YEAR! That's the new titles. Plus, according to book bibliographic agency, Bowker, there were just under 305,000 physical print titles produced in 2013. There are thousands and thousands of backlist titles that continue to sell year after year that are also up for stock consideration.
No Bookstore Has Enough Physical Space to Sell Every Book
There is just no physical retail space to feature every book available in print. The titles that are chosen to go on the store's shelves are those that have the highest chance of resulting in brisk sales for the chain. That determination can be based on previous sales history, the amount of pre-sale media attention, author popularity, or other benchmarks. To allot precious retail space for a new work by a lesser known or unknown author is a gamble.
Smaller and independent bookstores face the same daunting task but may have more freedom and incentive to feature unknown or local authors and books than the large chains. However, they face the same physical space limitations as the big chains do, perhaps even more so.
"But I Was Told My Book Would Be Available to Bookstores and Libraries!"
Self-publishing platforms such as Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing can offer distribution options that will make a title "available" to and through bookstores, libraries, etc. But, unfortunately, this does not guarantee "placement" in any particular outlet. It just means that, should a bookstore receive a special order from a customer for a self-published title or should the bookstore wish to purchase inventory of the title, the platform can fulfill those orders.
Some self-publishing platforms offer marketing services to help improve the chances that a self-published book will be picked up by bookstore buyers. But these programs can be very expensive (into the thousands on some platforms) and have strict and demanding requirements for both the author and the book.
How Self-Published Books Can Be Sold Through Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores Even If Not on the Shelves
Customers can usually special order books through a retail bookstore even if the title doesn't appear on the shelves. That is about the best brick-and-mortar retail outcome a relatively unknown and/or self-published author can expect with a new title that has no sales track record. That's why it's important for authors to promote and market their own books to build a fan base that's interested and motivated enough to go to a bookstore and ask to order a title.
That's why it's also important to get an ISBN number for every book so that it can be easily located for a customer in Books In Print (from Bowker, the official ISBN agency for the United States), an online bibliographic catalog that bookstores and libraries use to research and locate available books.
Why Are the Royalties Lower?
Be aware that royalties paid to authors by self-publishing platforms for bookstore distribution can be lower than other sales channels. This is due to the wholesale discounts demanded by retail bookstores and the costs of processing bookstore orders.
The Virtual Retail Bookshelf
Take heart, dear self-published authors! E-commerce and self-publishing platforms can make your book available in more places and to more people, not just to those random buyers who wander into a physical bookstore.
According to Digital Book World citing data from Bowker, as of November 2012, e-retailers of books accounted for 43.8 percent of books sold by volume and this is up from 25.1 percent in 2010. That is a huge shift in only about two years' time. Large chains? Only 18.7 percent of volume as of November 2012.
The Internet is now your "real" bookstore!— Heidi Thorne
Did you know how bookstores figured out what books to sell before reading this article?
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.
Questions & Answers
What if you have a platform, but not much marketing strategy, is it possible to be in a major bookstore?
First of all, good for you for building a platform and fan base! Everything is possible, just not always probable. Again, your platform will help you appeal to publishers and agents. But going to a bookstore direct, as a self published author, is unlikely to be successful. Bookstores work with distributors, wholesalers, and publishers, rarely (if ever!) direct with authors. Good luck with your book!
© 2015 Heidi Thorne