For many new publishers and authors, the notion of retail sales is like either the Holy Grail, or like that sermon at your grandparent’s church when you were young, that you had to endure, but certainly didn’t enjoy or understand. Retail placement can be the culmination of years of work writing, editing and finally publishing a book. Retail placement is the final stop, the pinnacle of a publishing career…or is it.
Bookstores have been favorite haunts for book lovers, and for writers who have been called to share their message. Traditional publishing has always relied on the retail store to be the link from the author/publisher to the consumer. So naturally, an author/publisher is very interested in getting their book in retail stores, whether they be bricks and mortar, or online.
During my career working in traditional publishing, I had the opportunity to call on just about every sales channel in the industry, including the retail trade. I have represented both large publishers and self published authors to these same channels. I have consulted with scores of content providers and in almost every case, have had to consult with them by answering these questions or correcting misconceptions about how the retail channel works:
1. No matter how you are published, you better have a marketing and business plan before you are done.
Serious writers and publishers are in business to make money. I am sorry if this bursts the creative/artistic bubble, but it is true. If you are in business, you have to have a plan that takes you from content (creative) to profit. Retail distribution can be a part of this plan. Pricing, promotion and other placement is also very important. Can you leverage your own network? Can you sell direct? Do you speak to small or large groups of people? How can you build relationships with others who will do your promotion for you?
2. Your marketing materials need to be ready eight to ten months in front of my release date.
What? The book isn’t even finished. “How can I possibly get the marketing onto a pitch page? I don’t even have a cover finished.” Refer to point number one. If you already have a business plan, you will have thought about covers and marketing copy before you got to this point. Retailers work far in advance of what most authors realize. They are planning for fall releases (books that are releasing in September through November) in March and April. They have to plan catalogs and other in-store promotions and merchandising for your book. Unfortunately, these are the retail rules and publishers who do not follow these timelines will struggle to get retail placement.
3. Retailers will not buy your book just because it was pitched by a sales team.
Retailers do not have to buy your book. There are many reasons why a buyer will pass on a book. They may not like the cover. They may have had bad experiences with content like yours. They may just be having a bad week. Sales teams can help tremendously because they have build relationships with their buyers that bring a trust level to the sales call. However, this doesn’t guarantee anything.
A typical independent store might carry 50,000 titles, and a typical chain store might carry 150,000 titles. This includes all the backlist and incoming frontlist. There are more than 300,000 traditionally published titles each year. If a store can absorb 10,000 frontlist titles, this means that only 2-3% of these new titles are going to make it into most independent retailers. Online retailers will likely ‘stock’ your book on their ‘shelves’ because they have unlimited shelf space, however, the competition for consumer dollars increases with more choice.
Any book can find success if there is demand. Retailers will stock just about anything that has enough demand – and it is your job to create that demand.
4. Build your platform and your tribe as soon as possible.
There are lots of great articles about this topic. If you want to be successful selling your message, start with the people who love you the most. Build relationships with people who resonate with your message. Encourage these people to share it with others. Publishers can be very successful with just a few hundred or few thousand people who want to buy what you have published, and want to tell all of their friends about it.
5. You can be successful even if you are not selling through retail.
Speakers who write, will sell more books themselves to their listeners, than will retail. Bloggers, who have lots of followers, can offer their book and reap the benefits of these direct relationships. If your topic has a specific niche market, there are likely businesses or non-profit organizations who would love to use your book (expertise) to help build relationships with their own customers. Find markets for your book that are not already crowded with thousands of other choices, and you will find buyers.
6. Amazon can sell your book, but the numbers are smaller than you think.
I used to sell directly to Amazon on behalf of a publisher that I was working for, and we had some best-sellers. These same best-sellers might be ranked in the top 500 or even 100 in the book category, or sub category and the authors would always be very excited (and should have been). The sales numbers, however, even at these high rankings, were only in the hundreds of books per week. Amazon sells millions of titles and gives the consumer millions of choices. These choices spread the purchasing dollars over a broad array of books. Even the Amazon best-sellers are not going to make any publisher or author rich, in almost all cases.
7. Selling through retailers is expensive.
Average retail discounts are 50% of the suggested retail price. Every book is fully returnable (if you really want it to be stocked, this is required), and the publisher bears almost 100% of the risk. Returns can be damaged. Retailers will take months to pay their invoices. Shelf placement and in-store promotion can cost thousands of dollars with some chain stores and many times the resulting sales do not cover the marketing expenditure.
Bookselling is changing and more publishers are developing direct-to-consumer models which help them leverage new sales channels against the traditional retail model. This will be an ongoing shift in the way books are sold into the future.
What are some other tips/tricks/observations about selling books through the retail channel?