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?
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