Recently I blogged about how I believe, all things being equal, self-publishers shouldn’t bother with brick-and-mortar bookstores. If you talk to almost any mega-seller, uber successful self-published author – the kind who has made it into the headlines – bookstores don’t tend to even be on their radar, and why would they? One or two non-fiction exceptions aside, even the best outcome is just not worth the effort required. For novels, I just don’t see the point all.
But they ARE exceptions. The two most common are (1) you have a book with a local interest, (2) you have a book that only really works in physical format, e.g. a photography book. So today I’ve asked Lorna Sixsmith, an Irish writer whose books fall into the category of These Really Should Be For Sale in Shops, to tell you about her experience.
Welcome to the blog, Lorna. Tell us first a bit about your books.
Thank you Catherine, my books are funny non-fiction farming books. Would You Marry a Farmer?, How to be a Perfect Farm Wife and An Ideal Farm Husband may sound slightly like marriage manuals of the past but they aren’t. They show what farming life is like and give plenty of tips for impressing your other half, your in-laws and your neighbours, all with tongue in cheek humor. The feedback I’m getting is that one person in the family starts to read bits aloud and before long, they are chatting about how similar they are to the circumstances in the book – usually with lots of laughter. That’s partly why they sell better as paperbacks than ebooks, they are used like coffee table books to dip into at times too. Those interested in social history enjoy them too – both for the insight into farming life but also for the research into farming lives in the past.
How did you self-publish them, i.e. did you use CreateSpace to create your stock?
While my books are available on Amazon’s CreateSpace, my own stock of books were printed locally by Naas Printing. It is a risk doing a large print run (and I know some authors use CreateSpace, FeedaRead and other print on demand services and order by the boxful) but I ran a crowdfunding campaign for my first book Would You Marry A Farmer?. It gave me the confidence to do a print run of a thousand books.
Why approach bookstores? Was that always part of your plan?
No, not at all. I had planned to sell my first book from my website and from some local farm and gift shops, and perhaps a few local bookshops. I hoped to sell the first print run and thought that would be it. Indeed, I was so unprepared that when Ryan Tubridy [ed note: host of one of the most listened to radio shows in the country] interviewed me about the first book a couple of weeks after publishing it, I never thought of contacting bookshops to say “Ryan Tubridy is interviewing me, would you like to stock my book?” Ridiculously daft especially as it was so near to Christmas. I contacted Argosy Books and Easons, Ireland’s two wholesalers, in the new year. Argosy stocked it from February and Easons from May. Once I realised that my books would sell reasonably well, it made sense to increase sales by getting my books stocked in bookshops.
Please take us through the steps involved into getting into (Irish) bookstores.
I was lucky in that I didn’t have to visit bookshops on an individual basis as the two main wholesalers stocked my books. However, that is only half the battle as bookshop owners still need to know about your book to order it from the wholesalers. I relied on press coverage and direct emails to bookshops to increase awareness and orders.
I’d suggest that anyone thinking of trying to get bookshops to stock their book, get to know the staff in local bookshops while you’re still writing it. Buy books in there and converse with them occasionally on social media.
What do you need for the bookshop to say yes to stocking your book? It must be professionally edited and formatted with an attractive cover and well written blurb. It really should be almost impossible for anyone to tell the difference between it and any traditionally published book in that genre. I didn’t quite achieve that with my first book (my blurb and back cover was a bit lacking) but am pleased with my latter books. The book also requires an ISBN (purchased via Nielsen) and a barcode.
You also need to know that your book will sell. Bookshops won’t want it taking up shelf space if it isn’t selling. It has to earn its keep. You’ll increase your chances of getting it stocked if you can say that you have press coverage coming up such as an interview on local radio or a feature in the local paper.
When contacting either of the wholesalers, you’ll need a marketing plan with evidence of existing sales and press coverage to date. I had heard that existing sales of 250 books was a helpful starting point when approaching the wholesalers but I’m not sure if that is true or not. The chief buyer at Argosy had heard my interview with Joe Duffy [ed note: another very popular Irish radio host] – Liveline devotes one programme to self published authors just before Christmas each year – and said she was going to contact me which was nice to hear.
Authors should be prepared regarding their pricing. Wholesalers take 55% and in my experience, individual bookshops take 35%. I think 35% is fair, they need to make money for stocking your book on their shelves and creating the sale. It’s important to know your costs so you can work out your profit if you sell via the wholesalers. There’s no point in getting the sales if selling them at a loss.
What are the advantages in being in bookshops?
Some believe that vying for shelf space in bookshops is a waste of time for self published authors and yes, perhaps many would be better concentrating on increasing sales on the online platforms such as Amazon and Kobo. Much depends on the genre though. I suspected, and as it turns out I was correct, that my books would sell in much higher numbers in paperbacks than as ebooks. My sales on CreateSpace far exceed the ebook sales.
While it is nice to be able to say your book is available in all bookshops, it’s just vanity if they don’t sell. It can be hard to get attention as your books won’t be placed on a centre table or within a 3 for 2 offer. Hence, you need readers to go in looking for your book (remember that people tend to need to hear about something seven times before they buy!) as well as browsers finding it on the shelf.
Having your books in bookshops gives them kudos and credibility. Some people do buy on impulse when they see a book in a shop, they like being able to flick through before making the purchase. A lot of readers expect to see books in bookshops. Not all like reading them as ebooks.
Approximately half of my sales have been via the wholesalers. The other half have been sales from my website, in gift shops, UK farm shops and I take a stand at the Ploughing Championships each year. I’ve been lucky with getting interviews during the Ploughing week each year which really helps.
What are the disadvantages (if any)?
I’m not sure if I’d describe them as disadvantages but there are certainly things that authors need to be aware of before they rush into it. No author wants to be left with 500 books in their attic for evermore.
The retail price of your books needs to be comparable to traditionally published books in that genre but if printing books in small volumes, it may be a challenge to make a profit if giving wholesalers 55%.
There is an element of risk in preprinting a large volume of books but there’s nothing like making you work on your marketing than seeing boxes of books in your hallway or spare bedroom. Just don’t print so many that the task seems impossible.
Much depends on the genre of your books – if you believe that your crime or romance novels will sell well as ebooks, then concentrate on marketing them as such.
If stocking bookshops individually, there’s a lot of work involved in maintaining records, invoicing, delivering books (as well as the cost of delivery). I stock some farm shops in the UK on an individual basis and some gift shops here and yes, it does take time. I tend to supply on a minimum order (as it’s just not worthwhile supplying a shop with three books given the postage costs) and on a sale or return basis. I’ve only have to take books back on a couple of occasions.
Payment isn’t as prompt as, for example, with Amazon. It’s a minimum of three months before payment is received from the wholesalers and it can vary with individual shops. Yes, sometimes I’ve waited up to nine months for payment but there aren’t any bad debts so far. To be fair, I’m not the best at sending reminders and some bookshop owners prefer to sell the vast majority of the books before they pay.
How does the profit margin compare to online sales (both of POD paperbacks and e-books)? Is it worth it?
I sell so few as ebooks that I just look on those sales as little monthly bonuses. I make the most profit on sales from my website. I’m currently offering free shipping on all website purchases.Sales to gift shops and farm shops deliver about 20% more profit than sales on CreateSpace and sales to wholesalers deliver about 20% less than CreateSpace sales. However, of course, I don’t have any work to do with CreateSpace sales – no printing, no posting, and this is an advantage. There’s no risk of returns either.
For me, it has been worth it with about half of my sales coming from nationwide bookshops. Total sales to date are almost 3,000 of Would You Marry a Farmer?, almost all of the print run of 2,000 copies of How to be a Perfect Farm Wife have been sold and over 1,000 of the newest book An Ideal Farm Husband.
What advice would you give to a self-publisher wondering if they should approach bookstores?
Be prepared. Ensure your book is as professional as it possibly can be. Do your sums – know your retail price and what margin you’re prepared to give them. If possible, tell them about upcoming press coverage. Being a familiar face in the bookshop should help your case too.
If they say it’s not for them, don’t take offence. Be polite and gracious.
See if you can collaborate with other authors for any events in bookshops. One that worked well for me was arranging a “Rural Reads” evening in a local bookshop with other authors of rural / farm related books, we also secured an hour long interview on the local radio show’s farming programme.
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