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.

From Manuscript to Book (Starting a Small Press Publisher)

Sometimes authors wonder why it takes a publishing company so long to go from manuscript to book. There’s good reasons for it!

There’s a lot that goes into getting a book into shape and ready to sell.

For each of these things, you’ll need to decide if you are the best person to do the task (thereby saving on costs) or if the book would be better served by hiring someone else to do the task.

blogpostmanuscript

Someday perhaps we’ll have a staff of people but for now it’s just me and a bunch of people that I contract for individual jobs.

Editing

The first step when you get a new manuscript that you want to publish is to do a content edit. If it’s your own book of course you’ll want to hire someone else to do this. I usually do for all the books we have. I might do one pass of editing first and then once the author has worked on those changes, send it out to another professional content editor.

The author doesn’t have to take all the suggestions that come up. The purpose here is to make the story itself better: tighten it up, make sure the conflict is strong and serves the story, make sure everything makes sense and flows from one plot point to the next in a believable way. This will do a lot to make the book better.

Next you’ll want a copy edit to check on facts, style issues, and consistency.

After that you need a line editor or proofreader to scour the manuscript for typos and mis-spellings.

After each of these edits the author will go over it and make sure of all the changes. You and the author need to come to an agreement on changes at this stage before you can move on to getting it out for sale.

Formatting

The book will need to be formatted for print and ebook. There are lots of people you can hire to do this, but it’s one task I prefer doing myself. This will involve things like putting together the look of the front matter (the copyright page, notice of other books available, etc.) This will look different in a print book v.s. a digital book (examples of mine at the end of the post). You’ll need to choose how a new chapter looks (Do you call it Chapter One or Chapter 1 or One? Do you have it in a different font from the rest of the text?)

Ebook formatting isn’t too intimidating. The key factors are that you should not have page numbers and you should not have hard tabs (tabs should be created in the formatting, not by hitting the “tab” button. You can find these in “find and replace” with ^t).

For most ebook vendors you won’t need to have it in their formats, they will take a Word document and turn it into their own format. But you may still want to get a program like Calibre to convert between formats (This is particularly good for ebook giveaways and free review copies that you can give people in whatever format they would prefer).

Cover Design

Cover design is crucial. You may have heard not to judge a book by its cover, but nearly everyone does! You can put together a cover yourself with GIMP (ironic name for my business to use, don’t you think?) or Microsoft Paint, but it’s usually painfully obvious that you did it yourself and it makes the whole thing look unprofessional.

There’s lots of great book cover designers out there and having a high quality cover will do a lot for your book sales and credibility.

For example, I’m super proud of the cover for The Boy Next Door, which I did myself. I paid for high quality stock images, I modified them into the characters, I picked the fonts, I picked the color, I blended it all, I got feedback.

The Boy Next Door

 

 

 

 

 

 

But look at it next to the pro designs for (W)hole and The Time Traveler’s Boyfriend and it’s still a little bit…lacking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You’ll want to have your cover designer put together both an e-book version and a print version (and for that you’ll need to know the dimensions of the paperback including the spine width, which depends on the number of pages, and you’ll need to have your back cover copy ready or an ability to add it later with your designer).

Blurbs

There are different names for this, but I’m talking about the quotes of endorsement from other authors in the genre or from reviewers. Look for well known authors with books similar to yours and reach  out for quotes. It’s beneficial to both of you. That author will get their name on a book and you’ll get an endorsement. You’ll also be sending out pre-pub review copies, so when you get reviews in from that you can pick a flattering line and put that on your book. Figure out where to place this on your cover and include it in the book description.

Back Cover Copy

After the cover, this is the next most important element of selling a book (in my opinion!). It’s difficult to get back cover copy just right. It’s got to be interesting, to the point, snappy, and draw people in. It has to intrigue while not giving away too much. Writing this kind of copy is a real art form unto itself.

You can hire someone to work on it, but most of the services I’ve seen for this the person doesn’t read the book, so it’s not ideal. For Dev Love Press the authors and I work together on these descriptions, trading drafts and suggestions. Though actually, Annabelle has such a talent for it that I often just end up putting her copy on it directly.

Setting up Publicity

You’ll want to put together a plan for how you are going to market the title. I’ll go into more detail about how I do that in a future post!

Buy An ISBN

If you’re only going to be doing ebooks, you don’t strictly need an ISBN. If you’re doing print books, you’ll want to be the owner of the ISBN. If the company you’re working with offers you free ones, it means that their name will be listed as the official publisher. For self-publishing that doesn’t matter a whole lot, but to build your company you’re going to want to be the owner of your own ISBNs.

I buy them through https://www.myidentifiers.com/ and buying in bulk will save quite a bit of money.

An ISBN identifies both the book and its edition so if you have a hardcover and a paperback you’ll need two for that book. If you decide to put an ISBN on your ebooks (I don’t) you’ll need a separate one for that, etc.

Apply for Copyright

A literary work is automatically the property of the author, but it is good to officially register it with the copyright office. Typically you would put the copyright in the name of the author but in some cases you might use your name as the publisher. Make sure this is part of the contract between you and the author.

It will involve a small fee and sending a copy of the work to the copyright office. More info here: http://www.copyright.gov/fls/fl109.html

Sending for Pre-Pub Reviews

Four or five months before your publication date, you’ll be sending out what’s called ARCs to reviewers. ARC stands for either Advanced Reader Copy or Advanced Review Copy. These can go out before the proofreading is done and before the cover is done. Traditionally they were sent out with plain cardboard covers, but these days a rough draft cover is okay as long as it clearly says ARC on it. You’ll want to send a cover letter with it too telling the reviewer about your new company and what the book is about. (Make some business letterhead to send it on too).

We’ve had wonderful luck sending to The Romantic Times. I was intimidated at first to try them, but I decided I had nothing to lose and they’ve actually been wonderful to work with. We’ve gotten two print reviews, one web review, and done a print ad with them. Being able to show that our books got good reviews from a respected magazine in the genre makes me really proud.

Here are some places to send (but definitely look into magazines in your company’s genre!) Also consider looking into book review sections of your local newspaper. They may also be interested in a story about a local entrepreneur starting a publishing company.

(More info here: http://www.sellingbooks.com/get-pre-publication-book-reviews/)

You can also send review copies to book review blogs but it’s less critical usually to do that ahead of the launch date. Blogs depend less on these books being brand new than print reviewers do. (A later post will go into how to get reviewed at book blogs).

Choose Distribution

You need to decide who you’ll be working with to get the book out.

Print:

For the print book, the most important thing is that you work with a service that will get you in the Ingram database. If your book is there, bookstores will be able to order it.

The big choice is between Createspace (owned by Amazon), Lightning Source (LSI), or a local printer. I would cross off the local printer right away because most print shops are not equipped to handle something as specialized as professional book printing. Lightning Source is well respected and is what indie publishers have been using since before “indie” became a euphemism for “self-published.”

Personally I find LSI a little intimidating to get started with and I’ve been very happy using Create Space. Now that I’m starting to grow a little bit and working on expanding into more print sales I will be researching and reconsidering LSI.

LSI does give you more choices and has hardcover as well as paperback options. For just getting started, Create Space is simple and easy. (The only paid service on Create Space I ever use is the expanded distribution for $25).

(Post later on how to get into bookstores)

e-Version:

The big choice you have here is whether to enroll your books in the “Kindle Select” program. It requires that your book be exclusive to Amazon for ebook format for 90 days at a time. In return Amazon gives you the ability to run promotions like free days (that can help you gain visibility) and countdown deals. Typically I start a book out exclusive to Amazon, take advantage of those deals and then don’t renew after the first 90 days. So three months after launch I add the ebook to the other channels. I am strongly considering changing that for the future. I have not been finding the Kindle deals to be doing as much as they once did for sales.

The other big channels are Smashwords, Barnes and Noble Nook, Kobo, and a handful of others. You can get distribution to Nook and Kobo through Smashwords, but it’s often a better deal to upload directly with each one. Smashwords’s big advantage is that they make your book available in every ebook format from HTML to PDF to Epub and .mobi (Nook and Kindle formats).

Uploading

Getting your book uploaded is a pretty straightforward process. Just follow the instructions. One question that you’ll get asked is about whether you want to add DRM to your books.

DRM decision: I never put DRM on any of my books. It is supposed to discourage pirating, but in practice it usually doesn’t at all. Being a player of video games, I’m used to DRM being something that punishes the honest people buying something and does nothing to deter pirates. Put a Google Alert on the name of your books and authors and send take down notices to any pirate sites where you find them. That’s about all you can do to combat piracy. Here’s an article about DRM when it comes to book selling.

In a future post I’ll go into details on optimizing the look of your books’ pages as well as SEO and keywords/tags.

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Oh man, I have promised you SO MANY future posts! Don’t worry, I’ve already got drafts started on at least half of these!

Sample front matter for paperback and ebook (for the ebook versions, keep the front matter as brief as possible. You want to make sure people can see a sample of the story itself and also that they don’t feel cheated by a huge file that is mostly filler:

print front matter

 

ebook front matter

Why a Small Press?

Anyone interested in publishing knows that the business is experiencing a huge amount of change and growth in a very short time. The nature of this business is changing incredibly quickly and I think it’s a wonderful thing.

We all have the same goal: get good books into the hands of readers.

There are different ways to get to that goal, though. And the correct method will depend a lot on both the book being written and the author him- or herself.

One of the things that makes me sad is the division that’s been going on between indie/self-publishers and traditional publishers. There’s a lot of anger from indies who have felt rejection from publishing houses. There’s also frustration that some publishers are having trouble keeping up with new trends in book selling.

A question was posed the other day: Why would anyone want to go with a traditional publisher? 

After all, you can do all these things yourself and not share the profit with anyone. The person acknowledged that a large publishing house might be able to put extra muscle behind an author or offer a large advance (statistically unlikely for an unknown author, though). So perhaps, he thought, there would be a reason to go for a big publisher, but why would anyone choose a small press?

Let’s not forget the amount of work that small presses (and all publishers) are doing. The villain-ization of publishers has got to stop. We are not trying to make a quick buck off someone else’s hard work. A real publisher (as opposed to an author services company) is making money from how well they can sell your book. They work very hard at it. There are no quick bucks in the writing business.

So why would anyone share profits with a small publisher instead of doing it himself?

Because not everyone is the same. Not everyone has the same desires. You may want to do all the work to maintain complete control over your book. And that’s fantastic! You should definitely do that. Some authors do not want to learn how to:

  • format
  • upload
  • find a distributor
  • Figure out how to buy an ISBN and set up LCN, etc.
  • understand print sizes
  • gutter space, headings
  • front matter
  • commission a cover artist
  • find an editor
  • decide on a production schedule
  • send away for pre-publication reviews and blurbs
  • network
  • learn how to set up book signings
  • organize a book tour (virtual or IRL)
  • test out marketing strategies
  • set discounts
  • talk to bookstores about shelving
  • ETC.

They would like to write a book and hand it off to someone else to worry about the details and the receive a paycheck while they’re working on the next book. A good publisher is going to get the authors that paycheck. Because the only way for the publisher to make money is to sell those books!

The royalty check may be smaller than you would get on your own. But if you are not at all inclined to learn how to sell your book, it may also be bigger even with the marketing and overhead budget subtracted from it.

There will always be marketing that is better done by the author. I’m not going to start a twitter account in your name and tweet while pretending to be you. That would be ridiculous. A good publisher will help you understand what you can do to help your book succeed and they will be open to hearing your ideas too.

But let’s not discount all the hard work that a publisher can do for you. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes and when you’re a self-publisher, you are responsible for all of it. As I said before, there are no quick bucks in writing and a publisher can do you a valuable service. They take on the risk for you. They put their money on the line in the belief that they can sell your book and make it back. If you are with a publisher, you do not have to make that investment.

I encourage people to self-publish if they have the stamina and the drive for it. Just remember that it isn’t the path for everyone and there’s no need to make others feel bad about their choice to sign with a publisher, whether large or small.