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How to get your Self-Published Books into Bookstores

For a lot of self-publishing authors, getting their books into big-chain bookshops can seem as impossible as hitting a space station with a sling-shot.how to get self-published books into bookstores

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.

This Post Has 38 Comments
  1. I’m in Wellingborough, Northants. We have no specific bookshops in the town center, 1 small WHSmith, and a tiny Works. My nearest Waterstones is in Kettering. I don’t drive so it makes it rather hard to build a relationship with the store. I published through CreateSpace (24th Jan) so I have an ISBN and I selected the option for extended delivery, but it told me it would take 6-8 weeks before it would be available. I was informed (by Waterstones Uxbridge) that being self-published like this would make it hard for stores to stock my book, but not why. I can’t help but feel I was being fobbed off. Can you tell me why they would tell me this when you have been able to get it into a shop by asking?

    I have also donated a copy to my local library.

    1. Waterstones told me they would consider only an exclusive deal for supply as a self published local author. I informed them the book was available through Lightning Souce and already on their online catalogue; they then suggested I submit a “consideration for stock submission” through their website. I have to wait 30 days for my official rejection now…

  2. Hi all. Just finished my first book called ‘Iron cereal’. I wondered if I could get book stores to sell the book and it appears it could be a promosing thing, only problem at the moment is getting an ISBN number…. Any thoughts?
    Thanks.

    1. There is just one seller of ISBNs in each country, so you need to approach whichever one serves the country you are in. The prices and sales policies vary from country to country, i.e. in some countries they are free (subsidised by the government), in others they are relatively low cost, and in some you can only buy in certain number blocks e.g. 10 or 100 at a time. Search “ISBN” and your country and you should find something helpful.

  3. When you are planning a work of fiction, scheming the plot, falling in love with your characters and visualizing locations and actions,
    let ‘er rip. Think about how people pass buckets down a
    line to put out a fire. Here are some of the important rules,
    which can be used to write the top fantasy books for the audiences:.

  4. Hi, I’m just starting on the self-publishing journey with my book called TURNER TREES in which I have links to the artist JMW Turner. I also have an ancestor called Mrs Constance M Pott, who was an author and the founder of the Francis Bacon Society 1886. The lady dedicated her life to research and was an advocate of the theory that Francis Bacon was actually Shakespeare. The first president of the society was W.H. Smith the stationary supplies mogul who created a book underlining the Shakespeare authorship debate.
    The moral of the story is that I can get W.H. Smith into my book but I can’t seem to get my book into W.H.Smiths. I just hope that on-line book stores and Kindle do it for me because:
    Family history and biographies,
    A really good read is Turner Trees.

  5. I had a different experience. I live in Newport and tried Bristol and Newport. Both branches said no without even giving me the chance to show my book(s). I gave up on that point. I was making enough from the extended distribution sales through Createspace that I thought it wasn’t worth fighting that attitude. I would say maybe it was because it was non-fiction but they just said no before finding out and that I have to go through head office.

  6. I want to launch my website to let people create their ebook, but I need to learn about wide distribution, I mean to have books written by my future users on book store chain like Amazon, Apple Store, B&N etc.
    Do I just need to submit it to Ingram?
    Thanks

  7. I recently tried to get my book in Waterstones, but there was no talking to a ‘live person’ in store…it had to be done through ‘head office.’ They declined to accept it as well, despite it having a strong local interest. It was a bit gutting, as, since sending it out to them, I have had some really top names in their field praise the content and appearance of the book. Oh well, will keep plugging at it; maybe the next book will find a more sympathetic reader. After all, in the next town to me someone got them to take on a novel that was the classic stereotype of self-published books–photo cover with huge red letters for the title (along with exclamation point!!), and some of the most interesting (shall we say) turns of phrase including a 7th century lady ‘wowing the olfactory senses’!
    I have had a bit of luck, however. Two specialty bookshops have taken a few copies, and there may be one or two others.

  8. I am a published author. My first book ‘Shattered Lives’, is only available on line, in both paperback and ebook format. It is selling well enough, espically in USA, and so far every reader who have left reviews, have all given it 5* rating. My problem is getting my book on the shelves in store. I am more or less housebound and no longer have youth on my side. I have a few copies on the shelf in my local WH Smith, but I need to reach more outlets. I have almost finished my second novel, and readers of ‘Shattered Lives’ are staying in touch on Facebook, etc, eagerly awaiting it’s publication. I would really welcome any advice you can give me on marketing my work. I used the local press, and Facebook for my first novel. I need to get it on the shelves. Thanking you in anticipation, for any help and advise you can give me.
    Kind regards
    Marian Phair.

    1. Hi there – well done! but how did you get on to WHSmith … thru head office?

      Good luck with the rest of your endeavours – I am just starting this journey.

      I would value any tips from you – or anyone!

      Best,

      Lance

  9. Hi Ben, this is fascinating, thank you.
    I just wonder if there has been any change recently with the change in W’Stone’s policy towards signings for self-published authors?
    Calum

  10. This is comforting as I was planning on doing exxactly this with my local store. The school where I teach has 1400 kids, so I figure the local bookstore should have some of my books in stock.

  11. One of the problems that self-publishing authors face is distribution of their book to retailers. Like all retailers, bookshops are businesses and they want to work with their tried and tested and trusted suppliers, and for a self-publisher with one, maybe two books, to sell, you can understand why a retailer large or small may be reluctant to stock a book. Retailers are understandably suspicious of self-published titles, as historically they haven’t always been well produced. 😉 But put a well edited, well designed book in front of any bookshop manager and if they feel it is right for the market they’ll have no problem in selling it. Ben produced his books to an industry standard and that is half the battle to getting retailers to stock it. The other half is distribution, having it available to buy to a retailer from their usual supplier takes away any issues for the retailer in stocking it. 

    To illustrate… we publish around 300 books a year for authors, but we have proper retail distribution, bricks and mortar not just online. As a result, each week we have various authors doing signings in at least 10 bookshops around the country. Most get invited back because the retailers get increased numbers through the door and increased sales. A quality product that’s available to retailers easily is key to getting books on shelves. Matador authors sell far more books through high street bookshops than online by a ratio of around 2:1. Being self-published or not doesn’t come into it, being what retailers want is what counts.

  12. Ben, congratulations on your success; and thank you for sharing it.

    Could you please write up who did your book binding and cover so that your books looked very professional when you took them to the local book stores?

    Thank you.

  13. Hi all! Apologies for the late reply, as I’ve only just returned from France! Thank you for all your kind comments, and really glad that you found this post both helpful and inspiring.

    Roz – I use LSI UK, which automatically have a distribution affiliation with Gardners. The Expanded Distribution package you can buy for around $25 on CreateSpace seems to only distribute to Blackwell and Ingrams catalogues. Makes no mention of Gardners directly, but am sure it is possible to ship to Gardners directly as a publisher, and therefore fulfil orders in that way. Complicated, but still possible 🙂

    We self-publishers are nothing if not persistent problem solvers!

    1. Hi Ben, thanks for a great post. Like you, I use LS UK, but could I ask what discount you’ve set up with the printer/distributor? My book is set at 40%, and although available to bookshops through Gardners, the bookshop can only receive 20% – a rate at which they are unwilling to stock. If I set the discount any lower, the cost of POD would mean me operating at a loss.

      1. Hi Joanne,
        I am new to this and recently set a limit 0f 50% to encourage Waterstones (if I ever get in) to stock it. Can you explain what you meant by “…the bookshop only get 20%…” I though that the rate, 40 or 50% was their cut of the sale; am I wrong?

        Good luck.

        Best,

        lance

  14. Terrific post. Like Roz, I’ve tweeted it! This is one of my concerns I’ve felt during my research about self-publishing. I haven’t made my decision yet, but this is extremely helpful. Thank you.

    1. Alison whatever you decide please please stay away from Publish America they promise you the earth and deliver bugger all they count on you and friends and family buting it so you dont get royalities they over price it on amazon and sent you twenty emails a day telling you to buy this deal and that deal i wish i had have done my home work before i signed with them. keep positive and someone will sing you just not them.

  15. I self published the book David Norris: Trial By Media in 2011 and got it into all bookstores in Ireland via Easons and Argosy so it can be done!

  16. Hi Ben  / all – this is a great post and mirrors my own experience.  In fact, I am back in Waterstones Chiswick tomorrow for a signing of Eeek! from 11-3pm! Like Ben I have self pubbed through my own press (Well Said Press) and have my own ISBN and bar code. I print via Lightening Source here in the UK (CreateSpace in the USA).  So the book comes with barcode in place.  I offer a 40% discount which makes the book attractive to the bookstores – I doubt they’d be interested at any less.  So both The Secret Lake and Eeek! are in stock with Gardners and I’ve managed to persuade them to hold them in small stock (50 at a time) on a no return basis – on the back of sales from my early signings of The Secret Lake.

    Back to the relationship with Watersones – my experience is very similar to Ben’s.  I started locally (and, for now, continue to operate that way).  The branches very much encouraged to support local authors (though a very recent change to ops means the local branch managers can generally no longer order books they want direct – they have to go through a central hub, which is a bit long-winded. In my case they’ve had between 10-20 in stock when I arrive and I take along extras which I’ve sold when the in-house stock has run out – they will then order in to replace whatever you sell….). 

    I provide marketing A3 posters, flyers which all help ahead of time – and usually manage to get some sort of local press coverage.  At my signings I’ve not had queues at the door – it’s much more informal than that. But during the course of the 3-4 or so hours I’ve been there have sold all of my books each time simply by chatting with the parents/kids who come in.  (|Thee number sold has varyied from 25 – 47 books, depending on venue and how many extra books I had with me on top of the Waterstones stock…. One of the evnets I did at Teddington was during their late nigh shopping week in the lead up to Christmas and the Mayor even came in to shake my hand! It was very funny 🙂

    As Ben says, word spreads between branches.  I’ve already done three lots of signings in Putney (for the 3d a few weeks ago they invited 2 schools along ) , two in Teddington and Chiswick tomorrow will be my second there. 

    I have also this week received an email from Ealing asking me to do an event (now booked in for July) and Clapham is next on my hit-list…  As Ben says, as you gradually build up a track record it becomes easier to sell yourself to other stores…

    In my case I think there are some stores that lend themselves better to the children’s market so I’m concentrating on those….

    Do check out my marketing page over at http://www.kareninglis.com/marketing for more details. It’s late and I better get to bed!
    Was at the day job until late this evening! 🙂

    All the best,

    Karen opps – I’ve posted under my secretlake twitter address – you will find my main twitter account at @kareninglis 🙂

    1. Absolutely, my self publishing cost me a lot and Grey Faction is available in lots of online retailers but no stores, I’m hoping this will provide me that opportunity. I’m sick of being skint, yet working round the clock.

  17. Absolutely agree – if you do things properly the thing about bookstores being hostile to self-publishers is something of an urban legend. I’m lucky that I’ve always had the support of my local independent, The Albion Beatnik in Oxford (I’m now in the 3rd year of holding what’s turned into a successful festival there, and tonight they are letting me record my first spoken word album there), and I’ve found Blackwell’s to be wonderfully supportive, letting me run riot instore with a spoken word event, putting me on a “top literary newcomers” panel as the only self-published author alongside luminary prizewinners like Lee Rourke, and even making one of my books one of their top staff choices last year. Professionalism and passion are key when you first make contact – an as you say, rounding it off with the  3rd “p” of platform in terms of being able to bring them a crowd in return for what they’re doing for you is the last pag in the whatnot

    1. i got caught up in the dont do self publishing hype and am truley paying for it, i so wish i had of self published. i opted for Publish America and have been well and truely shafted.
      i have a friend whos family run a printing co so ive ordered 1000 books printed in the uk and am going to tour with Black Sabbath in December selling them at gigs. Sorry the books called Sabbath The Deliverance of Evil. as you can probably tell its a dark thriller described by one reader on amazon as Seven (bradd pitt film) with a musical twist. i know its a long shot now but reading what you guys have done has really inspired me to go for it, bloody hell it took 3 years to write and twenty years to find the courage to do so.

      thanks to all on here my name is Christopher T O’Hara i would not dare ask anyone to buy it but check out the two reviews on amazon and post something on here if you think i should persist with my dream to have it in stores across the uk

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bengalley

Ben Galley is a best-selling purveyor of tall tales and dark fantasy from the UK. He is the author behind the gritty and epic Emaneska Series, as well as his new western fantasy series, the Scarlet Star Trilogy.

Aside from writing and dreaming up lies to tell his readers, Ben works as a self-publishing consultant and Guardian Masterclass tutor, helping fellow authors from all over the world to publish and sell their books. His guide Shelf Help will tell you all you need to know about DIY self-publishing.

Ben can be found at his website www.bengalley.com.

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