In this episode of The Entrepreneur to Author Podcast, your host Scott MacMillan explores the potential benefits and pitfalls of traditional channels like bookstores and libraries.
While print-on-demand offers a game-changing solution for authors, Scott shares the nuanced dynamics of traditional channels such as bookstores and libraries. It delves into critical considerations such as book availability, the imperative for authors to raise awareness about their works, and the significance of direct outreach to these outlets. The podcast underscores that although bookstores and libraries may not be the primary focus for independent authors, they can still play a valuable role in reaching specific reader demographics.
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You're listening to the Entrepreneur to Author podcast.
Welcome to the Entrepreneur to Author podcast, the podcast that brings you practical strategies for building authority and growing your business. And now, here's your host, Scott MacMillan.
Print-on-demand technology has been a game-changer for the publishing industry and for authors alike. It allows us to sell print books through and to retailers without the need to commit a large investment to stock global warehouses with thousands of copies of books. It's a fantastic blend of the traditional and the modern - tangible books meeting the vast reach of the digital world. But even with that innovation, physical retailers still take on risk if they want to stock copies of a print book. For starters, they don’t know if the book will sell. Or if it does, how many copies might sell. But more important than that, they’re focused on stocking their shelves with titles that are likely to sell the most copies at the highest margin to maximize profit per square foot of their retail store. That’s why bookstores focus so much on big-name authors and mass-appeal titles.
But for those who aren’t Stephen King or Malcolm Gladwell, are bookstores and libraries out of the question? For those who aren’t full-time professional authors but rather are publishing their first book to build their authority and support their business objectives, these aren't typically the go-to channels, and with good reason – these traditional paths aren’t typically very lucrative and often aren’t even relevant for achieving our business goals.
Yet, there may be a strategic angle here that's worth considering. Some of you might find value in branching out to these traditional spaces. Perhaps it’s about widening your audience, establishing local presence, or the unique prestige that comes with having your book grace the shelves of a bookstore or library.
So, today, let's explore this avenue. We'll dive into how your book might make its cameo appearance in the brick-and-mortar world. It's about understanding the why and the how - exploring the potential benefits (and pitfalls) beyond the online domain.
When we publish your book at Grammar Factory, in addition to direct distribution to more than 1,800 global online book retailers, your book is made available to more than 40,000 libraries, physical bookstores, and other distribution points around the world. Thanks to print-on-demand fulfillment, a library or bookstore can order your book through the same logistics system they already use to stock their shelves.
But while your book is available to library and bookstore buyers, that doesn’t guarantee they’ll carry it. Generally, there are three factors that are involved in getting your book stocked on library and bookstore shelves:
- Availability – your book needs to be available to libraries and bookstores
- Awareness – librarians and bookstore buyers need to be made aware that your book exists
- Desire – they must decide to carry it
Let’s start with availability. The first hurdle an author must overcome to access the library and bookstore channel is ensuring the book is available for them to easily order.
As a professional service publisher, by the time your book is published, we’ve already addressed this barrier. Through our global distribution partnerships, libraries and bookstores (both large chains and local independents) can easily order your book through their standard order and fulfillment process.
If a bookstore buyer or librarian wants to order your book in any quantity, they simply need to search for your book in their system, place an order, and the order will arrive within a couple of weeks.
Next is awareness. Librarians and retail buyers need to be aware that your book exists before they can stock it. In preparing your book for distribution, we lay some of the groundwork for you, but there’s still a good deal of work to do.
There are four main ways that a librarian or bookstore buyer may become aware of your book: Topical searches, Editorial reviews, Reader demand, and Direct outreach
Let’s look at each of these tactics in more detail.
Starting with Topical searches.
The job of a book buyer, whether an acquisitions librarian or a bookstore buyer, is to stock books that are topical and relevant to their patrons. To do this, they’ll often search for books the same way a reader might search for books on a topic that interests them. If your book is a good match, it should show up and it then stands a good chance of being stocked.
The key to successfully appearing in the right searches is metadata. Metadata is “information about information” and its purpose is to describes your book completely and accurately.
In preparing your book for distribution, we make sure that your book is fully and accurately described with high quality metadata, which is “information about your book” – things like it’s title, cover artwork, author’s name and so on.
Sadly, many authors and publishers, whether the book is self-published or published traditionally, often do a poor job of describing the book well. But given the importance of data, information, and digital supply chains, book metadata is a critical success factor in making your book discoverable both for readers and buyers, and we prioritize it accordingly.
Editorial reviews are another way a librarian or bookstore buyer may become aware of your book. While some readers may be less savvy about which review sources are credible, librarians and buyers are professionals, and look to respected sources for reviews.
While these aren’t necessarily the only review sources they’ll look at, the big three reviewers that are most likely to get your book noticed are Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal.
Another powerful way for your book to get noticed is for readers to ask for it by name. If someone specifically asks for your book and it’s easily available for order, the buyer is likely to order it for them. For a bookstore, that may just be a one-off order, but if they get repeated requests, they’re likely to order additional copies to stock on the shelf. For a library, the copy ordered becomes part of the collection at that library location.
Can you engineer this? Maybe. The best way to encourage this type of grass-roots demand is by telling people to ask for your book. This can be especially useful for libraries, since you may get readers who are a) interested in your book, b) not keen to pay money out of pocket for it, and c) already avid library patrons. You may just drive net new demand among readers who wouldn’t otherwise have bought your book.
Make a point of mentioning your book’s availability in libraries and bookstores in email, social media, and other communications by telling your audience to ask for it at their local library or bookstore.
Now, the most effective and, unfortunately, most time-consuming way to gain access to libraries and bookstores is through direct outreach. This is less effective for large chain bookstores who often will only deal directly with large book distributors, but it’s surprisingly accessible for libraries and independent bookstores. The problem is that it’s hard to scale, so it’s best to focus your attention on a specific list of locations that are most relevant to you and your book, perhaps due to geographic proximity, or because of a thematic focus on the subject covered in your book, like with bookstores focused on a particular niche.
Create a list of bookstores you plan to reach out to and add them to a spreadsheet to help collect contact information and track when you’ve reached out and if you’ve heard back.
Here are some tips for reaching out to bookstores:
- Call or walk into the store and talk to the person behind the counter. Be friendly and respectful, as this is the person who has direct contact with readers and their support can go a long way in how well your book performs in their store.
- Ask who the appropriate person is to speak to about buying your specific type of book, e.g. “What is the name of the person who buys Professional Development books?” Then ask what the best way to get in touch with them is. Be respectful of this communication preference.
- If you’re in the store, an effective approach is to ask the bookseller for a recommendation on a book of the same type as yours and buy it. As they’re cashing you out, ask politely who the book buyer is.
- When you speak with the buyer, leave (or send) a 1-page sell-sheet that includes the title, a brief description of your book, your name, bio and contact information, and cover thumbnail. Including a letter that describes your plans to market the book and get the word out in the local area is a great idea also. You can leave or send a review copy of your book, but only do so if you don’t expect it back. You won’t get it back.
- Offer to do an event of some kind (give a talk, run a workshop, etc.)
BONUS TIP! Do not mention Amazon. Amazon, while great for independent authors, is the bane of the bookstore’s existence, so they won’t be happy to hear how you’re killing it on the platform that’s so often seen as trying to kill them.
Now for libraries, you can use LibWeb (at www.lib-web.org) to identify and prioritize which libraries you’ll reach out to, and to collect contact information. Record this information in your tracking spreadsheet.
The outreach process is very similar to reaching out to the process laid out above for bookstores, except you’ll likely be contacting the Acquisitions Librarian.
Ok. Now…availability and awareness are necessary, but they’re not sufficient to get your book into libraries and bookstores. The final piece of the puzzle is desire. Unlike online retailers, physical bookstores and libraries have limited shelf space, and so they must be selective about which books they carry.
Apart from mass popularity, much of what buyers are looking for when assessing whether to carry a title is similar for both libraries and bookstores. They’re looking for Relevance and Engagement. And? They also want it all to be as Low risk as possible.
Let’s start with relevance. Even if your book is new or niche, there may be certain bookstores and libraries that will be open to stocking it because it fits with what their audience is looking for. This may be a speciality bookstore focused on your subject matter, or it may be a library with a suitably themed collection. Bookstores and libraries might also be interested in your book because of some affiliation with you as its author, as is often the case with local bookstores and libraries who are interested in supporting local authors.
In the digital age, one remaining competitive advantage that libraries and bookstores have is physical space, and so they’re always interested in ways to engage their patrons and bring traffic to their location. This may be something as simple as an author meet and greet and book signing, or it could be a book launch event, a talk about the subject of your book, or a workshop.
Depending on the channels they use to engage their patrons, digital offers not available elsewhere (at least elsewhere in their local market) may be appealing. If you can easily create a unique digital asset they could offer to their audience, this may make it more appealing for them to support you and your book.
The main thing is to be open to the idea of adding unique value to their patrons and come prepared with some ideas of your own. If they’re interested, they’ll engage with you and help craft the right event or offer.
Now let’s talk risk.
In physical locations, shelf-space utilization drives everything and so buyers, especially bookstore buyers, are risk adverse. There are two key things you can provide to help mitigate this risk: an attractive wholesale discount and flexible returns.
When setting up your book for distribution, in addition to the Recommended Retail Price (or RRP), we also set a Discount Rate for your book. The Discount Rate refers to the discount that’s offered for wholesale purchases by retailers and other wholesale buyers.
Most independent authors are focused on online sales, so we default to setting the discount to the lowest level possible, which (depending on the market) is around 40%. This makes sense, because online retailers don’t have shelf-space limitations and thus are likely to carry every book that’s made available to them and maximizes the book royalties you receive.
Bookstores and libraries, however, require higher margins and are far less likely to consider stocking books that are distributed with lower discount rates.
To make your book attractive for libraries and bookstores, we recommend offering the maximum discount rate of 55%, rather than the usual 40%. So, what does this mean for your book sale revenue?
Consider an example where your book’s RRP is $20, and the discount rate is set to 55%. Let’s also assume that printing cost of your book is $7.50. The retailer or library buys your book at a 55% discount off the RRP, generating $9 for you as the author. The $7.50 printing cost is then subtracted from this, leaving you with a net royalty of $1.50. Compare this to a discount rate of 40%, which would net you 3x as much revenue at $4.50, and you can see why so many independent authors aren’t all that excited about the physical bookstore channel.
Another big worry of bookstores is that they’ll order copies of your book, nobody will buy it, and it will just sit collecting dust on the shelf. Don’t take it personally, it’s not you or your book. This is their worry about every book!
To address this concern, distributors came up with a tidy solution to mitigate the retailer’s risk. They let them return any unsold copies.
Thanks to print-on-demand, stale inventory isn’t a concern for online retailers, so by default, we set your book to non-returnable. But like with wholesale discount pricing, if you are determined to get your book into bookstores, we recommend making your book returnable.
There’s risk to this, however. If a retailer returns your books, you are on the hook for the wholesale cost of the book + the shipping costs of sending the books back to you, which can be expensive, especially if you’re based outside of the United States. Instead, we can set your book listing to “destroy” rather than “return”. In that case, the books are not returned and you’re then just on the hook for the wholesale cost that the retailer originally paid.
It’s important to note that these settings cannot be set separately for online retailers and bookstores. Changing them for one will affect them for all these channels. It is, however, possible to set them differently by market, so you could, for example, optimize in your home country for library and bookstore outreach, leaving them as-is in other markets.
When it comes to book distribution, remember this…
While bookstores and libraries aren’t often the first priority for independent authors, these channels can serve a useful purpose for certain authors wishing to reach a particular type of reader. Getting your book into these channels is achievable, but it’s a game of inches, requiring time and persistence to engage buyers location-by-location. You’ll need to decide if the juice is worth the squeeze, but the guidance above will put you in good stead if you choose to prioritize these channels.
Now is the time. Time to write, time to publish, and time to grow. I’m Scott MacMillan, until next time.