One of your goals is to sell to bookstores. Great! But as an indie publisher, you have one big hurdle, the store’s expectations about you.
A Tale of Two Bookstores
I recently visited two bookstores to discuss the possibility of them carrying my books. I’ll get into the nitty-gritty business details in a minute. But I wanted to contrast these two stores on a more general level.
Bookstores A is a small independent bookstore. In the past, this store hasn’t been friendly to indie authors, or indeed to local authors. But it had a new bookstore owner, so I decided to make an effort to connect. During Children’s Book Week (CBW), six of my books were featured on CBW promos, such as booklists about a certain topic. A couple weeks before CBW, I sent an email to the Bookstore explaining that my books were featured. The week OF CBW, I received an email back and eventually, we set up a meeting time.
Bookstore A’s manager didn’t remember the appointment or my name. But she sat down with me to look at my books.
At this point, I have a strong catalog. I have two starred reviews, four NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Books, an NCTE Notable Children’s Book in Language Arts, an NCSS Notable Social Studies Book, two Junior Library Guild selections, and several other awards. I went through the books appropriate for the store, mentioning awards as appropriate.
Finally, the manager looked at me and asked, “Well, um. These are strong illustrations. But you’re self-published. Do you, like, use a copyeditor?”
I was stunned. Really? That was her big question for me?
“You know,” I said. “You don’t get starred reviews unless you use a copyeditor.”
Bookstore B was a small educational supply house, a local company, but with three sister stores in neighboring states. I called and asked the manager if I could show her my books. Cheerfully, she set up an appointment the next week.
Walking in, the educational supplies were bright and colorful, and more important, there was a dedicated section for books.
This manager probably started with similar poor views of self-publishing. But she looked at the books! One caught her interest right away, and she started reading it. I shut up and let her. The story captured her! She loved my books, and enthusiastically said they would be great for the whole company, not just her local store. What an uplifting experience.
This manager did say that she expected very little, having dealt with other self-published folks. She knew going in that I might be incompetent at business, might have horrible illustrations, and poor writing. She felt, though, that she needed to support the community and sometimes, that meant a small loss for her store.
For my books, though, she planned to immediately ship them to the corporate store buyer.
From the ridiculous to the sublime — that’s my experience with bookstores this week.
So, if YOU want to sell to bookstores, what do you do?
First, um, write a good book and get it professionally illustrated. You can’t skip this step! A quality story and amazing illustrations will always open doors!
I feel like I should stop there, because it’s really the most important thing. Be very, very sure that you have a good book before you talk to a bookstore.
Second, go in prepared. For me, that means, I have an updated catalog, printed out and ready to leave with them. Or at the very least have a promo sheet for each book that lists your contact information, a blurb, metadata (ISBNs so they know what book to order!), review quotes, and etc.
I also have my distribution set up. I use Ingram Wholesale and offer my books at 55% discount. For front list, I’ll take returns, but backlist (which a store would generally special order anyway) is set to no returns. I expect the store to order from Ingram.
However, I also understand if they want to order from me/my publishing company. The process looks like this:
1) Purchase order. The store give you a purchase order, which is a legal document saying that they will purchase X books at Y price for Z terms, with Q shipping details. Be sure to check the ISBNs and ask if you aren’t sure they used the right ISBN, perhaps order paperback when they wanted hardcover.
Price should be agreed upon. In my catalog, I have list prices, the maximum that I’ll charge anyone in retail. But that price is only for full-price situations, which are rare. When I appear in person, I might give a 10% discount. My website sources from Lulu, rather than Ingram, so the prices there are discounted. And so on. But for bookstore sales, it’s always BASED on the list price, with a discount (either 50% or 55%). That’s because I’ve figured my profit margins based on this number and can’t vary it or I’ll lose money.
Terms are tricky. Often stores want to pay in 90 days. Well, as a micro-business, I can’t absorb that financially. I ask for payment in 30 days, or for a credit card to charge immediately. I prefer the credit card!
Shipping. Make sure the shipping is addressed. You may offer free shipping for a large order, but it’s not required. Just be sure you and the customer agree on the shipping.
Once you agree on all the details from the purchase order, you can move forward. As I’ve negotiated prices (Yes! Negotiate!), sometimes, I’ve had to ask for an updated purchase order. Because it’s a legal document, I won’t move forward without a purchase order that I fully accept.
2) Fulfillment. Now, it’s time to ship books. If you have a stock, then you’ll pull books and send them. Often, however, I have to order from a POD company. If possible, I like to ship directly to the customer, so I don’t have double shipping fees.
3) Invoice. Now that the customer has your books in hand, it’s time to invoice. An invoice repeats the information from the purchase order, but now it’s a legal document asking for payment for goods delivered. It should contain all the same information: book ISBN, price, terms, shipping. If you were given a credit card along with the purchase order, I charge the amount the day I receive the order. It’s prepaid and that’s great. But I also create the invoice and send it to the customer for their records, making the invoice as PAID.
All this is basic business information - which I didn’t know when I started out! I’d had no business or accounting classes. The bookstore, however, will expect you to know this stuff. In fact, you need to know this for special orders, too!
If a bookstore wants to order directly, ask for a purchase order. Be ready to send them an invoice.
When dealing with a bookstore, first write a great book, and second be professional in handling the business details. But finally, be aware and sympathetic to the bookstore’s own business needs. They are a small business operating on a slim profit margin. Turning a profit at selling books is HARD! Try to understand the store, it’s typical customers, and anything else you can about them.
When you pitch a book, ask yourself: is this a good fit for this store and its customers? Bookstore A in my example above is a small independent bookstore that doesn’t have a strong children’s section. Going in, I knew that they’d only order hardcovers and wouldn’t order many. They’d never be my strongest customer, but my new Kittytubers series might interest them. Bookstore B, however, as an educational supplier would likely be interested in my nonfiction science children’s books. In my presentation, I focused on the nonfiction titles in my catalog. Personalize your interaction, while being prepared to be flexible. I had my catalog available during both conversations to point out anything that came up in the discussion.
Finally, manage your own expectations. Local stores WANT to support you and your work, but it may be impossible, given their own prejudices, store constraints, and budget. Accept that as a given for your business, and work to develop strong relationships when possible. The best is when you develop a win-win relationship, providing books that bring them a profit. But don’t be upset when it doesn’t happen. Instead, support THEM when possible - because it’s the right thing to do.
In the end, Bookstore A may tentatively order a couple books from Ingram as a trial. If they sell well, they’ll cautiously reorder. But Bookstore A is interested in a signing for a traditional book that I’ll have out in December. It was a good contact to make.
Bookstore B was far more enthusiastic. They’ll order direct from my company, and I think this may turn out to be a great win-win relationship. It was a great contact to make.
My job isn’t to stock the shelves of a bookstore. My job is to sell books. But one way to do that is to work with a bookstore to help them reach their audience. It’s one channel for selling, and one that you want to cultivate when possible. Here’s how.
Before I became a teacher, I worked commission sales and your advice is spot-on. During covid, I forgot how important our surviving bookstores can be. Thank you!
Darcy, thanks for this informative article. Saving and sharing!