Even in this era of online retailing, publishers covet shelf space in brick-and-mortar bookstores. There’s just no substitute for a sales venue where the reader can pick up the book and leaf through it. “Shopping for physical books in a physical space offers an interaction that can't be replicated online,” says Moneka Hewlett, vice president of sales at Quirk Books. “It is one of the key ways people discover books.” The recent increase in the number of independent bookstores (60 new stores in 2015, according to the American Booksellers Association) has created a slight uptick in available book retail square footage. That’s good news for publishers who count shelf space as an important part of their overall marketing efforts.
“You want any given title to go out in a big way if at all possible—to reach as many stores as it can and to be available for customers who might come through,” says Brooke Warner, publisher at She Writes Press. But for many independent publishers, acquiring shelf space is a struggle. And as books flood the market, the premium on shelf space continues to rise. Indie publishers seeking to lay claim to coveted shelf space need to take a strategic approach.
A shelf is a shelf is a shelf. Or is it? Publishers that want to get more books on the shelves should first decide which stores are the best fit. “Shelf space at the indies provides a home that makes sense for almost all books,” Hewlett says. “If a book is face out or on a table, it has a good shot at the discovery factor. If a book is lucky enough to have gotten the attention of the store staff, it will have the benefit of the hand-sell by the knowledgeable and passionate booksellers that, in my experience, populate all independent bookstores.” Kelly Gallagher, vice president of content acquisition at Ingram Content Group, affirms the value of independents. “For the small, independent publisher with a largely unknown name and largely unknown authors, it’s about finding the niche places where that book will find readers,” Gallagher says. “Indies working with indies, you’re always going to get a better hearing versus a big box that’s going to want sales history and track records.” The focus at chain stores tends toward best sellers and mass market, notes Hawthorne Books Publisher Rhonda Hughes. Before deeding over shelf space to a title, buyers at chain stores such as Barnes & Noble want to see marketing budgets—including the availability of co-op funds to purchase optimum placement—plus an analysis of comparable titles. Aside from the difficulty of getting into chain stores, there’s the problem of being the proverbial small fish in a big pond. “You need to have hundreds of books going in to even make a dent or to have any hope of visibility,” Warner says. “With the indies, you can look at orders of ones and twos and threes as successes.”
Boomerang: The Problem of Returns
In weighing shelf space options, publishers also need to consider the issue of returns. The average return rate for independent bookstores is 20 percent and chain store returns average 30 percent, according to an article, What Chains Want, published in the December 2014 issue of IBPA Independent. At Hawthorne Books, return rates from chain stores average 30 to 35 percent and 25 to 28 percent for independent booksellers—a necessary evil, Hughes says. “You cannot anticipate returns as a reason not to have your books in bookstores,” says Warner, “but we sometimes do try to temper certain accounts—like Barnes & Noble—by suggesting they buy less because they have a tendency to take too many units, and sometimes we know they won’t sell through. But this is a tough call, and as a publisher, you don’t want to stand in the way of a book’s potential because you’re anticipating returns. Knowing they will come is part of the business—a very hard part of the business.” The challenge, explains Hewlett, is in striking a balance between putting enough product out while avoiding returns that can negate the net benefit of shelf placement. “It can be a tricky thing,” she says, “and it needs to be evaluated differently depending on the book and the retailer.” Gallagher also warns publishers to be cautious about that initial sell-in to brick-and-mortar stores. “Make sure there’s traffic that comes through your own marketing,” he advises, meaning using marketing efforts to drive customer interest in books, which would in turn drive interest within the store. “Manage your print run effectively,” he cautions. Independent publishers that try to work around the problem by opting not to accept returns end up doing more harm than good, he adds. As an alternative, Gallagher suggests ordering low print runs and moving to print on demand as quickly as possible in order to better manage overall costs.
After deciding which stores to target, publishers seeking a greater brick-and-mortar presence need to convince retailers that their books will do more than gather dust. “A dynamic publicity and marketing campaign; good promotional face-out placement on that shelf or, even better, on a front-of-store table; an engaging cover; and a quality format at a fair price—all those things contribute greatly to a book’s in-store success,” says Hewlett. “Being able to show a retailer that the publisher will be doing some of the heavy lifting of making consumers aware and getting them into stores is always helpful, if not required.” Striking covers, notable blurbs, and localized media coverage can help convince retailers to carry particular titles. Attention to market cycles also helps. “Careful curation in the publishing cycle is going to be crucial for a retailer to see, especially for a small publisher,” Gallagher says. For instance, a diet book will sell better in January than it would in May. In their bids for shelf space, Hughes recommends that publishers develop direct relationships with bookstore buyers. Proposing co-promotional opportunities—for instance, an in-store event—is one way to build these relationships. Events held outside bookstores can also help books find their way onto shelves. “I’ve found bookstores in a geographical region buying books when the author made appearances on radio or in person at libraries or other public venues in that area,” says Casey Dorman, publisher at Avignon Press. Social media can expand this reach.
In devising a shelf space strategy, distribution is another important consideration. “It’s difficult to get shelf space across a wide number of stores if you don’t have a third party doing it for you,” Warner says. “For publishers who aren’t reaching their goals, there might need to be a change in their distribution relationship, or they might need to jump a tier to the next higher level of distributor.” As publishers weigh distribution options in relation to their shelf space goals, Gallagher notes the importance of distinguishing between traditional wholesalers and full-service distributors. Traditional wholesalers such as Ingram Book Company provide full metadata records to ensure title availability, he explains, but they do not provide any significant marketing or selling of a title from a wholesaler. Only from a full-services distribution company should publishers expect direct marketing that includes shelf space for high-profile titles.
For many publishers—and their authors—shelf space has a validating effect. It also enhances discoverability. For smaller publishers that lack significant name recognition, the discoverability that happens on shelves can be substantial, Hughes points out, especially if shelf-talker placards draw attention to a title. There’s also the undeniable fact that a healthy percentage of book sales still happen straight from the shelf. “Who would want to walk away from 30 to 40 percent of sales?” says Gallagher, citing in-store sales estimates. “But there has to be a tempered understanding of what’s going to be accomplished in that shelf space.” Solid metadata and online discoverability potential are every bit as important as shelf space, he notes. “A lot of people try to sell [a book] in and then create a plan around it,” he says. “You need to demonstrate that you care about it as much or more as you want the retailer to care.” Ultimately, Hewlett points out, a retailer’s interest “comes down to content and the book itself.” In the end, no shelf space strategy can compensate for a book that is poorly conceived or produced.