There is something of a validation in walking into a bookshop, especially a big-chain branch, and spying your book on the shelf. It’s something we crave as indie authors. But as indies, with corporate structure and head office guidelines, that shelf can often seem a million miles away.
But is getting our books into big chains as impossible as we think?
HOW I DID IT
I’m a fantasy author of The Emaneska Series and my books The Written and Pale Kings are permanently stocked in some 20+ Waterstones stores across the UK. I hold regular signings and events at a large number of branches across the South and the Midlands – around twenty so far in the past year.
I’ve just finished one Waterstones Book Tour to celebrate the release of Pale Kings, and currently am in the process of booking my Winter Tour, which will be around 20-30 dates.
There are three very simple facts about bookshops:
Fact No.1: Bookshops, yes, even big chains, are usually staffed by avid readers and book lovers.
Fact No.2: All bookshops are businesses.
Fact No.3: Big-chain bookshops communicate with each other.
1. BOOKSELLERS LIKE BOOKS
“You can't just waltz in there and ask them to put your book on the shelf!” came the cries. But to me, it made perfect sense. Why? Waterstones actively employees people that are avid readers and book lovers.
This is a quote from their employee policy:
“We know that our booksellers feel passionately about books, and they want to share their enthusiasm and knowledge with customers and with the rest of the company.”
Now this is great news for a big chain, as it puts people on the floor that actually care about the products they’re selling. The passion is obvious in every store I’ve visited. As self-publishers, this fact gives us an IN. A rapport. A common ground. My then local branch – Guildford Waterstones – is one such store. By the time I had finished The Written in January 2011, a few of the staff were good friends. My book eventually came up in conversation, and being big fantasy readers, they were genuinely interested in reading it.
So, when I finally brought in a copy to show them, looking smart and respectable for once too, I was bold enough to suggest stocking it as a test run. There was no formal request, just a friendly question. Impressed by its cover, they agreed, and eight copies were ordered there and then.
Was that luck? A friendly favour? No. My success was due to the freedom that Waterstones branches are given by head office. Despite having a big-chain structure, they understand that local interest is a big sales factor, and thus allow their managers the freedom to take small risks on previously unknown books, provided they are profitable. And accessible.
I was local. I had ISBNs and barcodes. The booksellers liked my book. Thanks to my POD company, I was available through Gardeners, their wholesalers. Before I knew it, my book was suddenly on Waterstones shelves.
And once you’ve cracked one, the rest is easy…
(NB – Waterstones are reticent to buy straight from the publisher/author. An ISBN and barcode are essential. They will not stock you without them. You can get ISBNs from Nielsen in the UK, Bowker in the US, and barcode generators can be found via Google. They should be free or, at the very most, £20.)
I made sure the eight copies sold out within the first two days. Impressed, the Guildford branch then ordered some more. My books have been a permanent feature of their shelves ever since.
I then had an idea. If I could mobilise my local support – friends, family, Facebook and Twitter contacts – to quickly clear eight copies, then I could use that to guarantee sales at a signing.
2. BOOKSHOPS ARE BUSINESSES
This means they like making money. If the booksellers absolutely rave about your book, that’s great. But if you’ve got that AND you can make their branch hundreds of pounds in one afternoon, you’re a guaranteed hit.
I used the leverage of the initial success to book two signings at another local branch and the Guildford store. I managed to sell a decent amount of books at the first, and combining social media and local press, I managed to completely sell out at Guildford, making them around £200 for their trouble. Not only that, I drummed up exposure for them too.
Suddenly, I had a solid business case that I could take to other bookshops. Using the leverage of Guildford, and a small, yet proven track record there, I was able to pick up the phone and get my books stocked across branches in Surrey and in a few large branches in Hampshire. I could give them numbers and details that made my book sound lucrative. I offered to do signings, and when I did them, I made sure I sold out by using my marketing skills and local power. This appeals to bookshops as both book lovers and businesses. If you can sell out every time and make them money, they will be more than happy to stock you for the rest of your career. All self-publishing misconceptions, if any, will be forgotten.
3. BIG-CHAIN BRANCHES COMMUNICATE WITH EACH OTHER
In big chains, like Waterstones, there is a huge amount of communication between branches. Most of my signings have come from word-of-mouth or via emails of recommendation from store and area managers. In this way, spreading across a big-chain estate is a viral approach.
I started in my hometown by using the personal and local angles, and then moved slowly outwards. When the local factor began to fade, I had my sales figures and signing performance record, which are music to an event manager’s ears. This should be your approach. Start where you are most powerful, and then expand.
As I reached each new bookshop, I made sure I left an impression, asked if they would be stocking my books from then on, left marketing materials like flyers and free badges, and kept in touch. Thanks to that approach, I’m often asked to come back, have made some great friends, and now regularly receive emails beginning with: “We heard you did very well at X branch, and were wondering if you’d like to come to ours…”
I hope this article has inspired you. As self-published authors, reaching big-chain bookshops can seem an impossible goal. But it's not. There are lucrative opportunities. These bookshops can be shown that you, as an author, can make them money. All misconceptions will be thrown out the window.
What I hope this article has done is show you that, with a little hard work, business know-how, and a staged approach, even a giant nut such as Waterstones can be cracked by a self-publisher.
With the right nutcracker.