In two earlier articles (A Novel Journey: Part I and Part II), I shared my experience with the process of writing, editing and self-publishing my first novel, God, Guns, and the Perfect Chicken-Fried Steak. In the first article I described how I thought writing a first novel was the hardest part of the process. In the second article I wrote that the editing piece was the hardest part.
I have learned that I was wrong both times. Marketing has by far been the most challenging aspect of this novel journey of mine, and in Part Four of this series I will explore the myriad of marketing options and their advantages and drawbacks. For most writers, the difficulties are the same whether you self-publish or are published by a traditional publishing house, This article will address the one major exception: when a traditional publisher publishes your book, you can have a reasonable expectation that at least the major bookstore chains will carry it.
Self-published books have no such guarantee. Because most self-published books are printed using Print On Demand (POD) technology, it takes a lot of work to get bookstores to stock them. The reason is simple, and as with almost everything in the publishing business, based on economics: POD books cannot be returned for credit if the store doesn’t sell all of them. This makes self-published books a financial risk many retailers are reluctant to take.
There are ways to have your novel end up on the shelves of Barnes and Noble, Borders, and other brick and mortar retailers, but it takes a lot of persistence. Most large national retailers now have a department that deals exclusively with small press publishers and self-publishers. You send them a copy of your book along with a marketing plan and, more ridiculously, why your book is unique enough to warrant their consideration. In some ways it’s like submitting to a publisher or agent, but with the book already written and printed.
One way to increase your prospects for a positive response on these requests is to be able to demonstrate strong online sales. If you are trying to get B&N to carry your book, be sure to encourage people to buy from their website (all major retailers will usually carry POD novels on their websites, provided they have an ISBN, because it costs them nothing to do so). If the Small Press Acquisition Department sees that the book is selling well online, they are more likely to take a chance on carrying some in their stores.
If you don’t receive a response, or worse, a negative one, don’t give up hope. Get to know the manager of the Barnes and Noble or Borders or Books a Million in your local community. Offer to do a book signing if they will order copies (store managers love book signings). When working with a local manager, you can even offer to purchase back the unsold copies at the wholesale price they paid. This removes any financial risk to the store, but could mean money out of your pocket, so don’t overboard.
Another option is to get friends, family, and anyone else who is willing to go into the store near them and ask for a copy of the book. If enough people request the book, and especially if a few order it, the manager of that store may start to take notice. Also, stores rarely request payment for a special order until the book arrives, so if your Uncle Eddie orders a copy and then never returns to pick it up, after a certain period it will be placed in normal store inventory, which is your goal in the first place. It’s at times like this that I wish I came from a bigger family.
Once some orders have run through their system, call the Small Press Department to follow up. The more persistent you are, the more likely it is that they will eventually order some copies, if only to get you to leave them alone. Be prepared for the initial order to be a small one, possibly as few as 20 copies total, until your book proves itself. It is then critical that those 20 copies sell, even if you have to find out what stores they are in and buy them yourself. The next order is likely to be larger if all copies sell; if not, there probably won’t be another order.
As far as the independent booksellers, contact as many as you can directly, but at best they might order one or two copies. Independents typically have a much thinner profit margin than the national chain outfits as well as less shelf space, both of which work against you. However, they are also more likely to appreciate your difficulties as a self-published author and may like the idea of stocking a title the big box stores haven’t yet. Building relationships with independent booksellers, and even associations of independents, is time well spent.