I originally wrote this article for Writer’s Weekly in 2003. It can be seen in its original form on their website. A lot has changed in the last 20 years, but most of this advice still applies.
Print-on-demand (POD) is the latest alternative to self-publishing or vanity presses. Traditional publishing requires a significant investment to produce the first print run, which must be paid either by the author or a publishing house. With POD, books can be produced in very small quantities, as they are needed. Thus, less up-front money is required to launch a new book.
Per-book royalties for authors are higher with POD than with traditional publishing. The tradeoff, however, is that authors must do a great deal of the marketing work. POD books are usually offered for sale on the publisher’s Web site, and the publisher will sometimes take care of listing the book with other online venues, such as Amazon.com. Everything else is the author’s responsibility.
If you want your POD book to be sold in traditional “brick and mortar” bookstores, you first need to understand a little bit about how bookstores operate. Like any retailer, they make their money by purchasing products at a discount, and then reselling them at a higher price. With books, the standard discount is around 40%. This can be leveraged higher by purchasing in quantity or by dealing directly with a publisher rather than going through distribution, but it rarely goes higher than about 48%. On the low side, some university presses offer discounts down to 20%, but those are rarely stocked in stores.
To encourage bookstores to experiment with new titles, publishers and distributors allow bookstores to return books that don’t sell. The stores still have to pay shipping both ways, but at least the stores know that they won’t be stuck with un-sellable products. Ingram, one of the largest book distributors, limits returns to 10% of what a store buys, and only refunds 50% of the purchase price, rather than the 60% the store typically paid: the equivalent of a 10% restocking fee.
Bookstores find new books in a variety of ways. The buyers watch the news, read publications like Advance Magazine, take recommendations from trusted distributors and publishing reps, attend book shows, and read promotional materials.
As the author of a POD book, you have three hurdles to overcome in selling to bookstores: discounts on POD books are generally less than 40% (sometimes as low as half that), POD books are usually non-returnable (which discourages experimentation), and the publisher isn’t promoting your book to the bookstores. Here are some ways that you can overcome these hurdles and get your book into the stores:
- Make sure your book has a good cover. This means an attractive design and quality paper that won’t curl up after a month. Books that are face-out on the shelves sell significantly better than books that are spine-out. Bookstores generally won’t turn ugly covers face-out or put them in the window, so spend the extra time or money to do a good-looking cover.
- Follow standard publishing rules. Make sure the book has an ISBN and that there’s an EAN barcode on the back cover. Use the back cover as a sales pitch. When people in a store pick up a book, they flip it over and look at the back to see what it’s about. Some bookstores will mark the book up above the cover price if the discount is short. If your POD publisher will be offering bookstores less than 40% discounts, consider leaving the price off of the cover and including a “90000” barcode, which lets the stores set their own prices.
- Get some press. Send out press releases to local newspapers, radio stations, and regional or special-interest magazines. Call the radio stations and try to get on their news shows or talk shows. If you can arouse people’s interest, they’ll go ask for the book at the bookstores. Bookstore owners listen to their customers. If you can get the customers to ask for your book, the stores will start carrying them.
- Donate a copy to your local library, and offer to do a reading.
- If appropriate, take your book into local schools and talk to the school librarians about it.
- Visit your local bookstores. Take copies of the book with you, and offer to leave a copy for them to read if they’d like. Explain why the book will do well in their store, and offer to do a book signing. If you can’t get your book on their shelves any other way, offer to leave a handful of copies on consignment, so they don’t have to pay you unless the books sell.
- If a store agrees to a book signing, do your part to promote it. Call everyone you know in the area that might be interested. Share in the cost of a newspaper ad. Put up flyers around town. Call the radio stations. If you are providing the books, bring plenty, and offer to sign store stock after the book signing is over.
- Send out a promotional mailing. A postcard will do if you’re on a tight budget. A brochure lets you provide more information. There are plenty of places to find mailing lists of bookstores, including the American Booksellers Association (www.bookweb.org). Focus on the independent stores, as they tend to experiment more than the chains. Make sure the promo piece has a picture of the cover, and explain why this book is worth trying out. If you were successful with local bookstores, ask them for quotes that you can put in your promo piece.
When dealing with bookstore owners and book buyers, stay positive. Be persistent, but never pushy. If you can take “no” gracefully, the door is still open to go back in later. If you get angry or argue with the store owner or buyer, you will never get back in.
POD books represent a very small percentage of the stock on a typical bookstore’s shelves. If you have a good book that sells well for them, though, they will stock it.
Great advice, Gary. Nice website as well. My name is Daren Doucet, author of “The Supermarket Guy”, a fictional comedy from Dog Ear Publishing.
Keep up the good work!