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How Can Authors Get Their Books Into Bookstores?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


Many authors dream of the day when they can walk into a bookstore and see their masterpiece displayed on a shelf. They dream of picking up the book, smelling the ink on the pages, kissing it, and crying tears of joy.

However, the sad reality is that many authors browse the store only to find that their book isn’t where it’s suppose to be. They cross their fingers and hope the store has already sold out or given it a better spot because it’s so popular.

But the reality is that the bookstore has never carried the book and doesn’t have any plans to.

After the initial dejection, the author can’t keep from wondering this aloud: Why do some books make it into stores while others don’t? And wondering this privately: Why are all those other poorly written books sitting on the shelf and not my Pulitzer-Prize winning novel?

As bookstores close and shelf space shrinks, obviously stores won’t have enough room to hold all the books being published.

So how can authors get their books into the limited space? Who determines what books make it in? And what (if anything) can authors do to carve out a spot on a shelf?

I took my questions directly to Bill Shady, National Accounts Manager for Baker Publishing Group. (My publisher, Bethany House, is a division of Baker.) Bill leads sales efforts to key CBA accounts such as Family Christian Bookstores and LifeWay. Previously, he also sold books to stores like Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Borders, and a plethora of other accounts.

With his many years of experience in getting Baker books (including mine!) onto shelves, he graciously answered my questions. During our phone conversation, I quickly concluded that the process of publishers selling their titles to bookstores is much more complicated than most authors realize.

Nevertheless, here’s a simplified version of how the process works:

Bookstores & Publishing Houses:

Before ordering any books from a publisher, bookstores have to open accounts with the publishing house. The process of setting up an account requires a lot of paperwork and often the logistics can be overwhelming. (This will vary from publisher to publisher—some may be difficult and others might be much easier.) That means bookstores are more likely to buy from publishers with whom they’ve already established accounts. Often it’s not worth the work and trouble for bookstores to set up accounts with smaller or newer presses.

Bookstores & Sales Representatives:

Once the bookstore has an account with a publisher, they work with the sales representative like Bill to obtain the books they put onto shelves. When Bill meets with the store’s buyer, he brings catalogs, pictures, and a spreadsheet which lists authors’ titles for the past 2-3 years along with sales figures. The bookstore buyer looks at the spreadsheets and makes decisions accordingly. Previous sales play a critical role in which books the retailer buys.

Debut authors are harder to sell. Obviously new authors don’t have past sales records for stores to look at. So stores pay more attention to the genre, the catalog information regarding the book, and the marketing value a publisher is assigning to the debut author.

Bookstores & Individual Authors:

So what happens if an author walks into a bookstore and notices it isn’t carrying his or her book? First the author can approach the manager with a gracious attitude (instead of one of entitlement) and say something like: “I’m from the area. I have a newly released book. People are asking for it but aren’t finding it. Can we fix that?”

Some managers will be more savvy about the business than others. If they’re busy or don’t understand the process, they may say they can’t do anything, that decisions are made on a corporate level. And to some extent that’s true. But, on the other hand, if the bookstore already has an established account with the publisher, the manager still might be able to order the book.

The hard reality is that much of the control of getting a book into a store is out of an individual author’s hands. And even harsher is the reality that unless the publisher is already established in the store, authors have very little chance of getting the book in.

Bookstores & Ingram:

Lest I end this post on a depressing note, Bill held out a ray of hope for all authors no matter their publisher. He indicated that an author can check if Ingram carries their title. Ingram is one of the largest distributors of books in the US. Every chain and bookstore uses Ingram to some degree. If Ingram carries the book, then a store could order it from Ingram (versus the publisher).

There you have it—the ins and outs of how books make it onto the shelves in brick and mortar stores. Many thanks to Bill Shady for taking the time to share his wealth of knowledge with us!

So, raise your hand if you’ve ever dreamed about walking into a bookstore and seeing your book on a shelf (here’s my dream post!). Do you still have the dream? Or as the times have changed, has your dream evolved into something else?

37 comments:

  1. I don't know why this post makes me nervous....or maybe a combination of nervous and giddy. I have no idea. I just hope that my book makes it into bookstores!

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  2. This is so interesting. I love learning more about the book industry works.

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  3. Thanks for the information, Jody.

    With the recent release of my first novel, I personally approached a few bookstores in my area, including a Parable store (Kregel Parable), Baker Book House retail, and Schuler Books, a very large independent bookstore nearby. I had to fill out an extensive questionnaire at the Parable store, but the two Kregel locations in my area are now carrying my book, as are Baker, Schuler, and my church's good-sized bookstore, The Word Shop. All three Family locations I visited informed me that books are chosen via corporate. One location said I could consign my books there, but the other two said they don't have the space. My title IS available through Ingram, and I just don't understand why my local FCB don't want to carry my book. I know several people who have gone to one of the other retailers and picked up a copy. I would have loved to offer Family as an option. They can ORDER it, though, if requested. I will say that Family is very open to holding book signings and local author events. But I still have to bring all my own books, which will cost me a hefty chunk of change up front. I guess I'll just have to hold out for publication with a bigger house. :-)

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  4. A little depressing, but very informative nonetheless. I appreciate your putting this post together; I really had no idea what went on behind the scenes. Also, I loved your 'dream post.' I wasn't blogging or reading many writing blogs back then, so it's neat to read something from that point in your publishing journey.

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  5. I have a huge confession: I love my new Kindle Fire. Love it! How does that relate to your question...yes, I still have the dream, but I'm open to how it will come to fruition.

    Educational post, Jody!
    ~ Wendy

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  6. My hand is raised! I learn so much from you Jody!

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  7. Good morning everyone! Glad that the post is educational! I learned a lot too from talking with Bill.

    Lynda, I'm sorry to hear about your experience with some of the local stores in your area. From what I understood from Bill, there is so much out of the individual author's hands. Most of the decisions on what a bookstore carries happens when the store's buyer meets with the publisher's sales rep. Which just shows how important the publisher's sales department is!

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  8. I suppose sneaking a box of them into the store and shelving them yourself isn't really an option? Great post, and definitely something to keep as a reference. Thanks!

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  9. This is an incredibly useful post on something we rarely see discussed. I think you could add that getting friends/family to request your book is another way to help get it on shelves... ;o) And yep, having worked as the manager of the textbook department at LSU for a few years, I know all about Ingram. Great tips.

    I do dream of seeing my book on the shelves one day. Alas, will I beat the e-revolution? We'll see! Thanks, Jody!

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  10. I've had this dream since I was about 12 and it's still as strong as ever. I'm fortunate enough that my book will be distributed through Ingram. The tricky part is going to be getting my book into non-Irish bookstores!

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  11. Jody, Great post. I learned some of this the hard way by butting my head against the stone wall represented by certain bookstore managers.
    One of the low points of an author's life: looking for your book and finding that the store doesn't stock it.
    A high point in an author's life: finding your book on an end cap in a book store.
    A shameful point in an author's life: finding your book on a shelf and "facing" it--turning it cover out so it's more obvious.
    Thanks for sharing.

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  12. Thanks for the insider info, Jody! As with many things in life, we just don't have as much control over this as we'd like. Thanks for the tips!

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  13. This is great information! Thanks Jody!

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  14. It makes so much sense with more and more books being published, that there's just not shelf space for them all in brick and mortar stores. Sobering, and humbling to be sure! Its comforting to know that there are ways an author can help get their books onto shelves and makes me thankful for all the Indy booksellers who often have more freedom to work with new and small press authors.

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  15. Jody,
    Thanks so much for being willing to share the behind-the-scenes view of publishing with us.

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  16. I have a dream...that one day...I will see my book in stores ( both hands raised high!). Lol. Great post! Thanks, Jody.

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  17. My book won't be in Barnes and Noble (except for those stores near me). A debut middle grade literary historical isn't exactly a hot seller at our country's biggest chain.

    And that's okay. May B. will find her place in the indies (and online).

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  18. Thanks for sharing this info. It seems that it takes a village to sell a debut book in a bookstore...or, more presisely, lots of publisher support.

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  19. It is a nerve-wracking thought, and, honestly, I've been chasing it away from my brain for a while. But at some point, if my book will be published in the traditional way, I will have to face the dilemma :-)

    Thank you for sharing these fabulous advices on the process!

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  20. This is good to know stuff. Thanks, Jody. (Can a writer sit outside a book store with a stack of books and a tin can??? Probably not.)

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  21. My hand is up, and the dream is still alive!

    Thanks for sharing this information.

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  22. Thanks for taking the time to learn all this and post it, Jody! I knew there was a lot of work involved in getting books in stores, but you laid it all out quite nicely. :)

    Oh, my hand is up! up! up! :) That and the library. I can't wait. :)

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  23. Fascinating, Jody! Thank you so much for sharing the insider scoop on this. (And by the way, I love that picture you used in your post. ;))

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    1. Love the picture too, Sarah! The photographer was VERY talented! ;-)

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  24. As always, great information. It's good to get another take on the business and what's going on with hard-cover books. Thanks for passing along the knowledge.

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  25. Very interesting,thanks Jody! That explains a little bit better why I can't always find a book I want at a store. ;-)

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  26. Some bookstores (such as Barnes and Noble, and Family Christian Stores) have submission guidelines right on their websites for authors who wish for them to carry their books. For me, Barnes and Noble carries my book on their website, but to get it into the stores it would either have to have a high sales rate, or I would have to deliver a submission packet to each individual store in the area. If they chose to put it on their shelves and it did well, then it would be put on shelves nation wide.

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  27. Heather, Thanks for sharing your further insights and what's worked for you! Appreciate it!

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  28. If anyone would explain how an author can find out if Ingram is distributing his/her book, I'd be most grateful!

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  29. Karen, From what I understand Ingram carries most traditionally published books. But I think your publisher could check for you. Or the bookstore in question could look it up for you too.

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  30. It only matters to me if my book is carried in a local store after I first release it and publicize it. Most people are shopping online these days, and a non-famous author's book can easily get lost in a real book store, esp one as big as B&N unless you're publicizing the heck out of it. Out it goes into the discount bin if it doesn't sell - or worse, it gets returned. Local indies are much more amenable to your book and may allow you a book event.

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  31. I still have the dream, and it will (to some extent) become a reality in April. I've seen other books from my relatively small publisher in bookshops here, but it seems to be a matter of chance as to which titles are stocked by which branches. On the other hand I'm very lucky to have a book sales rep for a husband (non-fiction, admittedly), so I can be reasonably sure that local shops, at least, have a few in stock! :)

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    1. Hi Anne,

      Yes, I can imagine that it's not always clear-cut as to why some bookstores carry our books and others don't. I'm sure there is some variations among stores, depending on the size of the store, customers that frequent it, etc. And yes, I agree! You're very lucky to have a sales rep for a husband! :-)

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  32. There is a sobering reality to how one gets their books into a Christian bookstore, should that be a venue an author wants to pursue, and the reality is this. Christian Bookstores FKA Baptist Bookstores will only ever shelve books from publishers who write for their "core market" readers. Meaning that there are strict "denominational" guidelines and writing restrictions that make the work unappealing to everyone even other readers of Faith. Sadly, the broad label Christian is used giving many authors the idea that the store actually wants books that appeal to many readers of Faith. I went through the entire process of having both of my titles approved by Spring Arbor and still NO Christian Bookstore would carry my books which is fine now that I understand they are totally NOT using the label Christian as it was meant to be defined. Authors need to always check the motive of bookstores before they waste their time attempting to get into one. Chain Christian bookstores will only ever stock books from publishers who understand their "core market" readers and write specifically for them, restrictions and all. But then, why would anyone expect anything else. The Baptist Bookstores founded CBA in 1950 to solicit publishers to write specifically for their store visitors . . . for a fee but gave the publisher exclusive access to their bookstores in exchange. The nice thing is that exclusivity is about to bite the dust with technology being "the great equalizer" making it possible for the voiceless to be heard. It's about time too. ;)

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  33. Hi Sue! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences with books and bookstores. Even though it's still a struggle for us to stand out online, I agree that modern technology and the new e-revolution is changing the game! :-)

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  34. Jody, Thank you for taking your time to post an informative blog. I am going to check out Ingram immediately. It would be interesting to know how many books are being ordered online compared to how many books are being purchased in a store.

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  35. Well I thought my book was listed with EVERY online bookstore. Seems Ingram may be the one that doesnt carry it. Go figure. :( It is so hard getting my book out. It has been out for a year now and Ive mainly only sold to people I know - with a few others buying as well. I wish there were an easier route. Maybe one day I'll open my own book store and shelf ONLY authors who cannot get shelved elsewhere! Sounds like a good idea to me! On a bright note, at least I fell in love about 20 times today! All the gorgeous and beautiful women that have posted in here really made my day! You all have such tantalizing faces! :)

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