Bookstores and Getting Into Them (Starting a Small Press Publisher)

The holy grail of starting a book publishing company: getting your books onto bookstore shelves.

I’ve focused most of my efforts on ebooks and print-on-demand Internet orders for physical books. It’s a great model since it has such low overhead cost. It’s a pretty new model too, with ebooks taking off in popularity only in the last four years or so.

But I have my eye on getting my authors’ books onto bookstore shelves.

blogpostbookstores

The biggest thing holding me back is the nature of returns. Basically, books go to bookstores on a consignment basis. The books sit on the shelves and if they don’t sell, they get returned to you for a refund. You shipped out a bunch of books, got paid for them (at the steep discount that bookstores get) and then months and months later all that money has to be refunded! It can be a nightmare for a small business’s cash flow.

So you can’t count on any of the bookstore money until there are actual sales.

Okay, once I’ve got some money saved up so cash flow isn’t an issue, what is the process to actually get books into bookstores?

Who Is Your Distributor?

Createspace and Lightning Source both use Ingram as a distributor which means that working with them your books will show up as available for bookstores to order. The only trouble is, they set the terms not you. And they tend to set terms that aren’t attractive to bookstores. If you want bookstores to stock you, you’ve got to be willing to accept returns and give them a significant discount so they can maintain their profit margins.

I had a friend who works at a bookstore look up our books in her system and they are marked as unreturnable. That means the store is not going to take a chance on them.

Lightening Source may claim that with a fee you can make your books returnable, but my friend said in practice they are still effectively unreturnable.

The reason why? Because it is literally “print on demand” they don’t have a warehouse for returned books. The book is created when someone buys it so there is no inventory sitting around. I’m told that you may be able to tell bookstores that they can buy through Ingram but return directly to you. I’m going to try that out before I start looking for a non-POD printer, but that is probably in the future for this company.

Book Reps

Book Sales Representatives are people who travel to bookstores and present various potential books to the bookstore buyers. You can hire them to add your book to the list, but the issues with that are:

  1. Your bad terms still show up if the bookstore is interested in buying some stock
  2. It’s very expensive
  3. Your book is just one of a bunch they are representing and if it isn’t as flashy or exciting as another book they’re repping, then yours might not get much attention

More on hiring book reps here:

http://blog.bookmarket.com/2005/02/hiring-book-sales-representatives.html

http://www.andrewsmcmeel.com/for-the-trade/find-a-sales-representative

Talking To The Manager

It seems like the best way for a small press to start getting into bookstores is through the local route. Get to know the book sellers in your area. Go in and talk to them.

If you are the author or you are nearby the author, present your books as local. A lot of bookstores have a special section to highlight local authors.

Just ask if you can do a test run of books on their shelves. If they stock just five or ten copies, that’s a start!

Once those books are on the shelf, make sure they sell. Tell your friends and family, ask for help. The most important thing for bookstores is that the books sell. No matter how small the first run is, if it sells out than they will be interested in getting more copies in.

(Here is a great description of how an author did exactly that: http://www.selfpublishingadvice.org/selling-self-published-books-in-bookstores/)

Ask if you can do a test run on a consignment basis where the bookstores don’t pay for your books up front but they pay you back a percentage on sales. (Here is a list of examples of different bookstores and the terms they offer for self-published authors [which are going to be at least very similar to the terms for small presses particularly if they’re using POD technology]: http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/how-to-sell-your-self-published-book-into-bookstores_b51732 Note how important it is to be up to date on industry pricing).

You can also call bookstores and speak to the manager about your book. Here is one author’s advice on how to get them to carry your book:

But … if your self-published POD book is not picked up by Barnes & Noble corporate (the dream, as it saves plenty of time), you can still get it in the stores. How? By calling the stores individually, or hiring a salesperson to work on commission. This is what I do. Though several hundred Barnes & Noble stores still need to be called (ugh!), the book has been ordered by nearly 100% of the stores individually contacted.

Here’s the spiel. First, you give them the book’s title or ISBN number. Then, as the bookstore staff person is looking it up in the computer, say, “Though it is POD, it is through Ingram and fully returnable with regular terms.” If you do that, nine times out of ten Barnes & Noble will at the very least “short order” the title, that is, order two or three to see how it goes, before they place a larger order. This is assuming, of course, that you can sell the virtues of your title.

Shouldn’t be a problem, though, if you add, “Could you just short order a few and see how it goes?”

You’ll be surprised at your results. –http://www.absolutewrite.com/novels/how_to_get_your_self.htm

Just, check and make sure that it is fully returnable and if not, remember to say it can be returned to you directly.

Set Up A Signing

Ask your local bookstores if you can do an book signing at their location and offer to supply the books yourself.  Bookstores like events that will draw people in and if your book is selling well, they may consider stocking it.

Make sure that you get lots of people to your signing. Again, call in any favors you’ve got! If you bring the bookstore traffic, they will be interested in working with you.

Ask Fans To Request the Book

You can also create demand for the book before it is on shelves. Ask your fans to request them. If a bookstore doesn’t have the book, it can be special ordered for a customer. Tell your fans to ask at the customer service desk. Enough demand and the buyer at the store may want to stock it.

Networking

Up next for me are to look into getting a non POD printer and hiring my own distributor. I plan to make some connections to help me do that when I go to Book Expo America next May!

I’m super excited to have a booth at the trade show. This will allow me to present my books to bookstore buyers, library buyers, big chain buyers, as well as distributors.

It’s expensive to attend but it has fantastic potential to grow my business. Later on we’ll talk about booth set up because it’s important for both trade shows and bookstore signings!

One of the nice things about doing ebook first is that I have a sales record to show buyers and reps. I have books that have shown their market potential already. That’s a big benefit!

As the publisher, you’re going to be thinking about sales and proving your book’s sales potential. That’s a big part of the job or a publisher.

Starting a Small Press Publisher: What Is It You Do?

It can be hard for people outside the book industry to understand what publishers are there for.

blogpostwhatyoudo

When I told my family that I was starting a publishing company, they thought what I meant was that I’d be charging writers to format their books for them and put them up for sale. That’s what’s called an Author Services Company (or Vanity Press) and the vast majority are super scamy.

If you’ve been a writer for any amount of time I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that publishers don’t charge authors, they pay authors. You as an author should never be asked to pay fees or to pay for publisher’s services. That’s because authors are not a publisher’s clients.

The authors are not my clients.

The authors are, to make an analogy, my manufacturers. They create the product that I then sell. (By the way, going back for a moment to the legal side of things, my accountant has told me that the authors are 1099 contractors for me and as such I need to have them fill out a  W-9 form providing either their social security number or the EIN of their own business identity in order to report on taxes how much I’ve paid them. Check with your own accountant about this).

So who is my client? Readers. Anyone who buys books.

What’s the problem with Author Services Companies?

As with most things, you have to look at what the incentives are. If I’m making money from charging an author to edit her book or format his book, then what motivation do I have to hussle and sell that book? I’m already making money! Why would I care if it sold? I would be incentivized by the wrong thing.

The way publishing companies are set up is that we get paid when the book sells. We are incentized and motivated to sell that book as much as possible because the more money it brings in, the more money we all make.

I could have created a company around charging a small fee to format someone’s book or upload it to Kindle for them, and there’s be nothing wrong with that (as long as I was upfront with the authors about what service I’m providing), but that’s not being a publisher. That’s not the business I’m interested in being in.

So what do I do?

Get the book ready to sell and then sell it! Basically all the things on this list I either do or coordinate the hiring of someone to do and then I do all the publicity and talking to bookstore reps too. I hope that this series is illuminating the many things that a publisher does do for their authors’ books…there’s plenty of work left between finished manuscript and finished book!

Starting a Small Press Publisher: Setting the Terms

It’s possible to just make up a name for a fake company and slap it on your books when you’re self-publishing. But once you decide to publish other people, you’d better gets some legal things in order first.

blogposttwo

Choose a Name

I did a poor job of this one. I didn’t take my time and just picked a name quickly. I didn’t think about how important a name is and how I needed to be able to say it with pride, tell friends and family about it, put it on everything. I think our name is okay but it’s not great.

So don’t do what I did!

If you’re starting your own company, take some time to think about the best name for it. Particularly think about the connotations of the name and what people (like your target audience) will think when they hear it.

The book The Brand Called You recommends always using your own name but I’m not sure how well that advice works for forming a publishing house. Perhaps your last name will sound good and elegant as a publisher name. I agree with a lot of the premise of the book, which is that the brand you are creating is centered on you and who you are as a person. I don’t think that means you have to name it after yourself, though.

Form an LLC

Okay, so it turns out some of my background actually has come in handy! For the previous five years I’ve worked as an office manager handling a lot of accounting for a small company. Before that I took a number of night classes in the paralegal field.

Both those things helped me understand how to go about setting up a legal entity and running it!

The LLC stands for “limited liability company” and this means, to my understanding (and please know this is NOT legal advice) that if something goes catastrophically wrong or you get sued, you personally are not responsible for the money. Just your company is. Keeping yourself a little separated from the entity of your company is a wise move.

It’s been two years, but if I remember right, I think a DBA, or “doing business as” is another option. You can find out what you need by doing some Internet searching. How to get an LLC or a DBA depends on where you live. I found the process to be very simple and easy. So easy I wasn’t sure I’d done it right! (One thing I did need to have was a mission statement/explanation of what my company is. See more about that below).

Apply for an EIN

An EIN is an Employer Identification Number and it is your business’s equivalent of a social security number. You’ll use that number rather than your personal ssn when doing anything connected to money and taxes with your business.

Apply for a Bank Account

Use that EIN to set up a business bank account separate from your personal one.

This is easier for taxes and it gives you a clear idea of what money is for use within your company and to pay your authors and which money is for you to take home. You’ll pay yourself either a salary or a royalty from the profits of your company and you’ll transfer it over to your personal account with the same level or paperwork you would for any of your authors.

I can’t stress this enough: keep your business’s money separate from your personal money!

How much money will you need as seed money? Not that much.

Some businesses require a lot of money in start up costs: renting a space, furnishing it, getting the things to sell. This is not like that. You’ll need money to pay for things like editing, cover design, ISBN numbers. The way I have started is by using print-on-demand for physical paperbacks and that means not having to pay to print thousands of books or warehouse store them. I’d say probably $1,000 to $2,000 will get you started.

Write a Mission Statement and Business Plan

A business plan doesn’t have to be the size of a PhD thesis. The word can be intimidating, but in reality it doesn’t have to be more than a single page laying out your intentions. Answer questions like why you want to go into business, what your company offers that’s different from what’s already available, your practical steps to get books visibility. It’s like writing a query letter for your business instead of your book!

As part of this you’ll want to create a profile of your target audience. Who do you think is going to want to buy the books you publish? Get as specific as you possibly can because you can use that profile to figure out where to go to reach those people.

Having a niche is a great thing. It gives you focus and allows you to remember what you’re doing that’s different from the big guys. On the other hand, you have to be careful in selecting your niche that it’s not so narrow that you have no audience.

Being small, we don’t have a lot of overhead so we can afford to take on these quirky books that wouldn’t find a home in a bigger publishing house. Also, because it’s our sole focus, we know where to market them to.

Having a Niche: It’s a double edged sword, as they say. You want a narrow focus so you know exactly who to market to but you also want an audience large enough to sustain your company. The balance that I try to find with Dev Love Press is to take on books that my core audience, people like me who enjoy “wounded hero” romances for whatever reason, will love but also promote the books to general romance novel readers who have never considered giving a disabled hero a chance. I love when we see reviews where someone says that they would never expect to find one of these guys sexy but they totally do. A mainstream person comes to realize that a guy with a disability is still a guy and still a viable romantic partner. Now that’s what I call success!

Make a Contract

Again my paralegal classes prepared me pretty well for this. I had taken one class specifically in business law and contracts because at that point I knew that I was heading towards creating a company.

I got a lot of inspiration and ideas from the book Business and Legal Forms for Authors and Self Publishers.

You’ll need to decide on a fee structure. How much royalty will you be giving your authors? Will that be gross or net? How much will you take as your own salary (in any) and what percentage will go towards advertising, towards getting new business, towards maintaining your office systems?

I regret the current way we’re set up. I think for future books I’ll do things a little differently. One thing that is a priority for me is getting the author’s a good royalty rate.  You’ll need to figure out what percentage of profits you’ll want to:

  1. pay authors
  2. pay yourself
  3. put into advertising and other promotional activities
  4. put towards physical copies for reviewers, giveaways, conferences
  5. save for taxes (I’ve been setting aside 14% for that)
  6. put into office supplies
  7. put towards future editing, cover design, ISBN numbers, etc.
  8. put towards future advances
  9. put towards professional development like conferences or organization fees

Since it’s a start up, you may want to not pay yourself for a while and put all your profits back into the business. That’s up to you. Luckily with Print on Demand and ebooks there is not much initial cost. I’ve focused on those while I build up enough money to branch into more traditional physical books.

In a later post I’ll talk to you about my favorite budget software and how to keep all these categories separate!

And make sure that you are clear on what rights you are getting! If you’re going to focus on e-books (as I do) then you’ll have to make sure that you have both digital and print rights!

Get an Accountant

Your taxes are about to get more complicated.

So get a professional to help you with them. No more TurboTax or Dad doing your taxes for you!

It’s going to be worth it because someone who understands taxes for small businesses will know what deductions you can get and will often save you money. So far for the last two years, my accountant’s fee has been completely covered by the refund he’s gotten me (and there was leftover too).

So you’re prepared for tax time, use having a business bank account (or budgeting software that I’ll talk in more detail about in the future) to keep totals of certain categories like: money spent on advertising, money spent on business travel, money paid to authors, money paid for office supplies and equipment (and keep receipts too)

 ***

Does this sound horribly unsexy? Perhaps surprisingly, I found it fun. I enjoyed the process of getting all my ducks in a row.

 

Recommended Reading:

business and legal formsbrand called you(This last one recommended by Jane Friedman)

Last Week: Taking the Leap             Next Week: Finding Your Manuscripts