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.
(This was originally an article I wrote for “Writer’s Weekly” in 2003)
As both an author and the owner of a (very) independent bookstore, I have a different perspective on book covers. Despite the old saying, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” people have done exactly that since the first bookshoppe opened its doors centuries ago. Whether browsing the shelves of their neighborhood bookstore or paging through search results online, our customers’ eyes are drawn to book covers, and they make snap judgments based on those covers.
Good covers sell. Bad covers not only don’t attract customers, but can actively annoy the very people you count on to hand-sell your books. Authors who self-publish or go through a print-on-demand (POD) house often think that brick-and-mortar bookstores won’t sell their books. Granted, it takes some work to get in the door, but there are some POD books that sell well in my store. Sometimes, though, a mere look at the cover is enough to make me not want to carry a book: even a book from a large traditional publishing house.
Here are some of the cover design errors that drive me (and other booksellers) nuts:
Not leaving room for stickers
There’s a reason booksellers put stickers on book covers: they help to sell books. If you’re trying to make your book stand out from the thousands of others with which it shares shelf space, it’s tempting to make the title and author’s name gigantic. Fill the entire cover! Leave no space unused! As attractive as this idea may be, remember one of the first lessons of graphic design: white space is your friend. If you’re lucky, booksellers may want to put your book face out on the shelf, with stickers proudly proclaiming “Local Author” or “Autographed Copy.” If you’re really lucky, they may need stickers saying “Award Winner” or “Staff Pick” or even “Bestseller” (but hopefully not “Clearance” or “40% off”). If there’s no clear space on the cover, you miss out on the promotional opportunity, and some other book is placed face-out with stickers on it.
Ignoring the spine
Even though the vast majority of books in any store are destined to rest spine-out on the shelves, the idea may have crossed your mind to leave your spine blank, or at least unlabeled. “Then the booksellers will have to put my book face-out,” you think to yourself. Alas, it is not so. Your book will still probably end up spine-out, and the undecorated spine will not encourage customers to pull the book out and look at it.
Forgetting the genre
There’s a reason that so many fiction books have the words, “a novel,” on the front cover. Booksellers need to know where to shelve things. You may think that it’s blatantly obvious whether your book is a biography or a mystery; history or historical fiction; nature or poetry. You may think there’s no need to label the spine or top-left corner of the back cover with the genre or include a descriptive subtitle. It may not, however, be obvious to me or my employees. We just love having to run to the computer and look up each book before shelving it.
Let’s see, if every romance novel (or massage book, or dating how-to…) on the shelf has a cover picture with a shirtless hunk and a wispily-clad damsel, how can you make yours stand out? Maybe you could cross that line they don’t seem to want to cross. Make the title explicit! Pull that dress all the way down! Show how hunky that guy really is! You certainly can go that route, but you’d better be prepared to do all your sales from your own web site. Most booksellers won’t display books with explicit covers, many POD publishers won’t print them, and even major book websites may refuse them.
Movie tie-in covers
Here’s a little secret for you: booksellers don’t like movie tie-in covers. Wal-Mart customers may be drawn to book covers with movie stars on them, but people who frequent bookstores are usually more interested in the book itself.
Me, me, me!
Let’s just say that if your name and/or picture are the most prominent things on the book’s cover, then people had better know who you are.
Prioritizing art over readability
All that matters on the cover is its artistic appeal, right? So why not go ahead and use a trippy orange font on a red background? Why not hide part of the text behind part of the picture (why buy Photoshop if you’re not going to use it?). Why not use an illegible signature instead of printing the author’s name? A hint for you: if people have no idea what the title of the book is or who wrote it, they won’t really want to pick it up and look at it.
Messing with the barcode
Oh, those ugly black EAN barcodes on white backgrounds! They really do detract from artistic back covers. You might be tempted to make the barcode red, shrink it down really small, or leave off the white background and tuck it inconspicuously over part of the picture. What happens then? The flaky old barcode scanner at the checkout counter won’t read the barcode, and the clerk will have the joy of trying to read and type a 13-digit ISBN while a line of customers waits impatiently. Your back cover will look cool, but booksellers won’t love you for it.
Making series covers random
As a bookseller, I love it when series books have a number on the spine, and the front cover says something like, “Twitching Tails: #4 in the Space Squirrel series.” It saves me having to run to the computer when someone says, “I read the first three books in the Space Squirrel series, which one is next?” It’s also a big help if all of the books in the series have a common look or theme to the covers. And for goodness’ sake, if you have two different series going at once, make it obvious which books go in which series!
Making ‘em all alike
To carry that to an extreme, why not make the covers look almost identical? After all, it’s not you that has to deal with a customer who accidentally bought another copy of book one when they meant to buy book two. There are a lot of ways to keep a “look,” but make each book unique. Use the same font and similar pictures on each book, but change the predominant color. Or use a single color scheme throughout the series, and the same title font or logo, but change out the picture each time. Either way, you can make it clear that the books are different, but still part of the same series.
And, finally, misspelling the title
If your name is Stephen King, then by all means name a book Pet Sematary. Otherwise, your cute and/or clever misspelling is just going to make it difficult for people to find your book. Perhaps it doesn’t matter to you that customers and booksellers alike count on using online searches to find books. But generally speaking, if they don’t find it in the first couple of searches, they’re going to give up.
(This is a modified version of an article I wrote for Writer’s Weekly in 2010)