While the book sales landscape has changed drastically over the last few years, brick-and-mortar stores remain an integral part of an author’s potential success. Authors dream of seeing their book stocked on the shelves of their local store, and publishers understand the sales potential of having their titles available in physical locations with regular foot traffic.
The question, then, becomes how to make the dream of getting your book on store shelves a reality.
How Books Are Chosen for Chain Bookstore Shelves
Before pitching your book to stores, it’s important to understand how the buying process works. Not only the basics, like which wholesalers stores purchase from and their required discount and returnable terms, but the actual process of how books are chosen for store placement and what you can do to increase your chances of seeing your book stocked on bookstore shelves. While some chain bookstores have empowered individual store managers to make buying decisions, they typically have regional buyers who make purchasing decisions for multiple stores. Before those decisions are made, a lot happens in the background.
First, a designated marketing department staff member meets with sales reps from “their” publishers (the small press department handles indie and small press publishers) and hears about the books that each publishing rep wants to promote over the next six months. Marketing and display ideas are exchanged, and advertising dollar amounts are discussed in very loose terms.
The marketing department staff member then takes the list of titles they created with their publisher sales rep’s input and pitches their “wish list” to the chain decision-makers and regional store buyer. Titles are approved (or not), theme and display ideas are decided upon, and display tables and end caps are assigned.
Months after their initial meeting, the publisher sales rep hears from the marketing department staff member with a list of displays and titles that were approved for the upcoming sales quarter.
How It Works at Indie Bookstores
Does the sales process work the same way at local and independent bookstores? Sort of. Indie bookstores often run on a lean staff with one or two in-house buyers. Sales reps pitch to the buyers, and the buyers meet with the merchandising/ marketing team (which the buyer may also be a part of) to finalize the displays.
The indie store buying process is not as cutthroat as the chain buying process, but which titles to stock is still a business decision with broad customer appeal and profit potential in mind.
Unlike chain stores, however, the buyer and display merchandiser is, in many cases, also the store owner. This negates the need for multiple levels of approval and long decision-making periods. In turn, your local bookstore will often be open to hearing display ideas and working with publishers to come up with marketing ideas outside of a larger marketing program that was created six months ago.
Improving Your Chances for Stocking Consideration
Industry reports suggest more than 4 million titles were published in 2021. With that many books flooding the market, store buyers have plenty of options to choose from, which is why it is imperative that you do everything within your power to make it easy for bookstore buyers to say “yes” to stocking your titles.
Here are five tips to stand out and increase your chances of earning your way on to bookstore shelves.
1. Anticipate the Buyer’s Needs
Buyers look for professionally written, edited, and packaged books that follow typical industry standards. They expect your book to have been assigned a 13-digit ISBN (International Standard Book Number) and come equipped with a properly formatted and priced barcode.
Just as important is competitive retail pricing. Customers care about costs, and bookstores are driven to deliver competitively priced titles to ensure they are moving product regularly. Resist the temptation to pad your margins with high retail pricing that may price you out of the market.
In addition to the industry standards mentioned above, buyers will also want:
- Proof of demand and a reasonable expectation of sales
- Books that appeal to the store’s typical and specific demographic
- Availability through major wholesalers
- Full trade wholesale discount with returnable options
- Marketing and PR plans that focus on the bookstore’s customer base
2. Offer Creative Marketing Suggestions
Marketing is the cornerstone of a great sales pitch, so make sure you have a list of creative ideas up your sleeve before you start pitching your book to stores.
- Holiday-themed marketing. When I was a kid, holidays were pretty limited. But now? You can find a holiday to celebrate almost every day of the year. That means there are hundreds of holidays ranging from classic to obscure just waiting to be translated into potential marketing angles for your book. Just published a cartoon book about cats? I feel a display idea for “National Dress Up Your Pet” day coming on …
- Display ideas. Don’t just hope your book makes it on to the display table; pitch a display idea featuring your book. Display ideas can be tied to holidays, predominant book cover colors, book genre or themes, current events, and more.
- Go digital. As more bookstores see increased online traffic and sales, it’s smart to review online marketing opportunities. Consider advertising directly on the store’s websites, or curating a themed list like “the perfect gift for Dad” to be featured in the store’s email newsletter.
- Think local. If you’re working with a local store, or your book is set in a specific community, brainstorm ways you can highlight any local connection in your book marketing plans.
3. Understand That Money Talks
When pitching your book for store consideration, you should understand that some stores may ask for (and expect) payment to stock and display your book. These fees are an important part of a bookstore’s income and typically fall within one of the following categories:
- Co-op fees. This is a form of credit on purchases against display fees wherein a publisher offers steeper discounts on a particular title or offers advertising dollars based on sales. This form of advertising incentivizes the store to sell more copies of a book because their discount or profit margin are directly connected to the number of copies sold.
- Display fees. Not all stores charge display fees, but most do. Why? Because they can. They know that displays draw the eye and merchandising books on a table or in a window increases their appeal. It gives the book credibility and adds to the book’s overall sales potential. Publishers are willing to pay for these displays because they know the benefits as well. If you want to get into some of these displays at airport stores, in bookstore chains, or in your local independent retailer, you need to understand that you are competing with a group of publishers who have already offered the store some much-needed cash to display their books. Be ready to play on those terms, and you can compete for the display spaces and opportunities.
- Stocking fees. For those of you whose local bookstore told you that they only stock books that pay a stocking fee, that is not what I mean when I say “display fees.” Paying a stocking fee doesn’t necessarily guarantee your book will be displayed in the store, but rather ensures your book makes it on to the store’s shelf—a shelf that you might not get on to another way. There are good reasons to agree to pay $50-$100 to have your book stocked in a popular store for a few weeks or months. The gravitas and added credibility of having your book in a store combined with the number of people who will potentially see the book increases dramatically when it is on a bookstore shelf. If you are put out at the idea of a bookstore charging you a fee to stock, sell and profit from your book, keep in mind that bookstores survive on very thin margins and taking a chance on an unknown author (that’s you) is a financial risk. Your book will be taking up valuable shelf space, and it may not earn its keep. Also know that stores don’t charge to stock successful books by well-known authors. They don’t need to. They know they will make their money on sales of the book. Make it your goal to market your current book so successfully that the next time you pitch a book to the store, they will gladly shelve it without requiring stocking fees.
4. Timing Is Everything
One of the biggest mistakes I see authors and publishers make is pitching their book during the season they hope to sell it in.
Many bookstores create planograms—a sales map of the store in which every inch of space is accounted for—four to six months prior to any given sales season. If you are pitching your new romcom for a Valentine’s Day display idea in January, you’re already late to the game. The planning for a Valentine’s Day table featuring “Swoon-worthy Reads” started back in September and has likely been filled with titles that were pitched months ago.
Avoid the costly mistake of pitching your books during the wrong season by following the general pitch month recommendation below.
- January – Moms, Dads, and Grads
- April – Back to School and Fall Holidays
- July – Winter Holidays and “New Year, New You”
- September – Spring Themes and Holidays
5. Be a Good Business Partner
Above all else, understand that bookstores, both chain and indie, are running a business, and they need to turn a profit. If you want a bookseller to stock your book, you need to be prepared to tell them how and why your book can keep their customers happy and make them money. In other words, what skills and assets do you as the publisher bring to the table? How does your product help the bookstore or retailer reach their bottom line? What need does your book fill? Don’t just pitch a book, pitch a business proposition. And make it a good one.