The Bookstore Bind 8

by Meredith Maslich, CEO

“My book will be in bookstores, right?”

This is the most common question I hear from potential Possibilities Publishing Co. authors, as well as self-publishers who attend my workshops. And my answer is always a resounding “Maybe.”

The whole bookstore issue is a somewhat complicated and layered problem for me as an indie publisher, both logistically and philosophically.

If maximizing access and exposure is an author’s primary goal, no one would care all that much about bookstores. They would realize that Amazon and other on-line marketplaces were much better tools to get their book into the hands of their readers.

So my theory is that the focus on being in bookstores is because it makes them feel legit…like a “real author”… like a real published author.  Like they’re just as good as those other authors who were published by big, famous publishing companies, right? I get it.

And much of this feeling goes back to what I talked about last week, where a mere whiff of self-publishing on a book automatically makes it seem inferior.

But I think it’s time we started pushing back against those ideas.Borders-Bookstore

Authors need to stop thinking of their book sitting on a shelf in a bricks-and-mortar building as validation. A few decades ago, it made more sense; that really was the only way to let the world know you’d published a book and give them a way to buy it. And the only way onto the shelves (because it was the only way to be published) was through the hands of a big, fancy, publishing company.

But that’s not the case anymore. Not only are bookstores not the primary way to reach your audience, they’re not even the best way.

And the big, fancy, traditional publishing houses are not the only way to get a book published anymore. It’s a whole new world, and yet writers and bookstore owners are keeping (at least) one foot firmly planted in this paradigm of bookstore=legit.

So let’s start working to disrupt this culture shall we?

First, can we work on changing the definition of what makes a “real” author? But we can’t just replace “bookstore” with “Amazon”, because, let’s be honest, any fool with a computer can throw something together and get it up for sale on Amazon. (But that’s a philosophical debate for another time.)

Instead, let’s look at things like having a well written, professionally edited book, with a professionally designed cover and comprehensive marketing plans as evidence of legitimacy (and better indicators of success than just having your book sit on a shelf in a store).

How about using unsolicited reviews from strangers as a marker of legitimacy? Reviews from your best friend and your dad’s cousin are great, but logging onto Amazon and finding a review from someone you don’t know, someone you didn’t ask to read the book? Especially if they loved it? That’s a great moment in an author’s life, and a powerful marker of legitimacy.

How about book sales? Not comparing your sales to traditionally published books, because they have huge marketing budgets that no indie publisher or self-publisher can match, not to mention relationships with media and bookstore chains that result in book sales independent of actual quality or demand for a book. But rather, looking at book sales in terms of selling your books beyond your immediate friends and family. Or selling copies, even if just a few, each month, for months or years after your release. All of these things taken together, in whatever percentages, add up to being a real author, without a bookstore shelf in sight.

So why am I talking about bookstores anyway? Why not just forget them and focus my time and attention on other marketing and distribution strategies? It’s because, while they may not be the best distribution channel anymore, bookstores are still a useful and important point of distribution, and as such I do want to be able to get my author’s books into more of them.

I expected to find a natural alliance between small indie bookstores and my small indie publishing company. And I’ve found a touch of it in a few stores. But more often I’ve run into more discrimination and stigma about non-traditionally published books than anywhere else in the book world.

So the second part of disrupting the culture is convincing bookstore owners to fully commit to changing the relationship between bookstores and indie books.

Now, to be fair, it’s a little more complicated for bookstores than just deciding to embrace self-published titles. There is at the very least, the very real issue of inventory. Inventory, logistically and financially, is the biggest barrier I can see to the open armed acceptance of self and indie publishing. And the business owner in me totally understands the type of risk-aversion and traditional thinking that results from a constant struggle to be profitable in an industry with razor-thin margins. And I’m the first to admit that I don’t know enough about running a book store to offer concrete solutions. But I do know about being an entrepreneur, and as such, I believe that creativity, drive, and innovation can solve any problem eventually. And if bookstores really wanted to shift the paradigm, and truly be part of the publishing revolution, they would be trying to innovate solutions to be able to more fully support indie titles.

And I think this is going to be necessary not only so they can stock my books, but because I really believe it’s their best chance for survival. The fact remains that bookstores are just not the best or most efficient way to distribute books anymore. And it hurts me to say that because I am a book nerd at my core and the idea of a world without bookstores is terribly depressing. But it’s a very real possibility.

But for bookstore owners to be motivated enough to commit to the level of innovation and change that will be required they will have to have a philosophical shift first.

They will have to agree that the old system doesn’t work; that self-published doesn’t automatically equal bad; and that the future is going to look very different from the past, and that they want to be part of creating that change.

And to be sure, there are some indie book stores that are as welcoming of indie titles as they can be. They do what they can to stock, promote, and support self-published and indie published books within the limits of their profit margins. And I think those are the stores who will be at the front of the revolution.

I really believe we – independent bookstores, authors and publishers – can create great things together and I can’t wait to see where we go from here.


Learn options and strategies for getting your self-published book into bookstores, as well as how to avoid the most common mistakes that scream “Self-published!!” at our How To Self-Publish Workshop March 15, 2014. Enter the code BLOG at checkout and get $30 off the registration fee.

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8 thoughts on “The Bookstore Bind

  • dena liston

    as someone who hopes to write a book someday, this is very useful knowledge. i think we need to think outside the box when it comes to reaching an audience whether you are a crafter, writer, artist or provide a service.

  • Juli Monroe

    As a self-published author myself and editor of a site which talks a lot about self-publishing, I agree with most of what you’re saying. My books have been e-only up until now, but I’ve been reading about how to get my books into bookstores, and I’m moving in that direction myself. Lots of readers still find their books that way. My day job is as a business coach and if one of my clients said to me, “My customers say they want to buy my products from [fill in the blank], but I’ve decided not to give them what they want,” I’d tell me client he was crazy. I see books in much the same way. No, bookstores aren’t the only place to discover books, but they still are important, and an author must think very carefully before ignoring that sales avenue.

    • Meredith Post author

      Juli – I agree with you – my issue and the point I was trying to make was that is not as easy as just deciding to put your books into book stores. The bookstores have to be willing to take your book, and for self-published, and small indie published books, that’s usually the obstacle. If you’re willing to spend a lot of money to work with distribution centers like IngramSpark who will handle the inventory, then you have more options. But I think its worth considering whether the amount of time and money that it could take to get your book into a book store is always the best investment of those resources. The answer is likely going to be different for every author. I wish you the best of luck in getting your books into bookstores – let me know how it goes! 🙂

      • Juli Monroe

        Granted I haven’t done it yet, but Dean Welsey Smith recently published an article on getting books into bookstores, and while there are certainly steps to follow, it doesn’t sound particularly expensive to do so.

        As I read his articles (and his wife’s), it sounds like the biggest takeaways (beyond the obvious good cover and blurb) are not using a CreatSpace ISBN (so there is the cost of purchasing an ISBN block) and pricing the book properly, which trips up many authors who price their paper books too low. Oh, and a publisher website, but setting up a WordPress site doesn’t have to be expensive.

        I’m certain I’ll run into challenges I didn’t anticipate, but the basic process seems straightforward. A big key is to think and present as a reputable business, not as a self-published author who’s trying to sell what is little more than a first draft (which I grant is still rampant behavior in the industry).

  • Lori Krause

    I’m not an author, so I’m just guessing here, but I think for some people, it’s about holding their book in their hands and being able to show people, “Here it is! I did this.” It’s got to be an incredible feeling of accomplishment to go into a bookstore and see the book you wrote on a shelf for sale.