Unless your book has some appeal specific to a bookstore, it is very difficult to get a self-published book onto store shelves. An example of “specific appeal” would be a book about Harry Truman in the bookstores of Truman’s hometown of Independence, Missouri, or a book about NASCAR drivers in the Daytona Speedway giftshop.
If you’re a fiction author, keep in mind a few facts about physical bookstores:
- they have a limited amount of shelf space
- the need to stock items that sell if they want to stay in business
- items that sell typically include books by famous authors, timely non-fiction (such as books about current political figures) and helpful non-fiction (how to invest, how to lose weight, etc.).
- there are literally millions of fiction titles in print and unless you’re already a famous author, there’s little to differentiate your title from others
- books are displayed spine-out on bookstore shelves, so unless a reader came looking for your title, they’re not likely to “discover” it by its riveting spine
- except for a few bestsellers and some classics, titles typically last 3-6 weeks on bookstore shelves
- bookstores typically return merchandise they cannot sell
All this means there’s little chance for self-published authors to sell through traditional stores, except in cases where the author has local recognition, gains extensive publicity, or is able to draw readers into a store through readings, book signings, or other events.
If you want to try get your book on store shelves, you will have to offer it on “stadard terms,” which means:
Your distributor (Amazon, Ingram, or whoever) sells the book to stores at a 55% discount off the list price.
Your book is “returnable,” which means stores can return unused copies to the distributor for a refund.
Note that the 55% discount cuts deeply into your royalties as an author. If your book’s list price is $14.99, bookstores pay the distributor about $6.75 for each copy. Your print cost may be $5.00 per copy, leaving you a profit of $1.75 per book. And you will lose that profit (and more) on each copy returned by stores.
If you want to do your own cost calculations check out Ingram’s Publisher Compensation Calculator
If you want to try to get your book into physical stores, the resources below can help.
IndieReader InStore / Edelweiss
Many bookstore buyers (those responsible for choosing which titles a store will stock) do look for good indie titles. IndieReader InStore maintains a specially branded section of the Edelweiss catalog that buyers use to read advance digital copies of forthcoming titles.
You can submit your book to IndieReader weeks or months before publication and have it appear in the catalog buyers rely on for previews. Remember that, like clothing stores, bookstores make many of their buying decisions a season or two ahead of time, so you’ll want them to see your book well before it’s published.
Even when buyers choose not to stock your book, they may like it enough to post reviews on Goodreads, Library Thing, or their own blogs, helping to generate buzz and awareness before your book goes on sale. Their recommendations often carry weight and can get you into the hands of the right readers.
New Pages offers a number of free resources for both readers and writers, including a list of all the independent bookstores in the US, complete with addresses, phone numbers and descriptions of their special focus. This can be very helpful for authors planning book tours as well as those in search of Christian, LGBTQ or other specialty stores.
Shelf Awareness offers email blasts to bookstores around the US as well as an in-store reader’s newsletter. See their indie partner newsletters page for details.
NetGalley is the largest and most well-established site for distributing advance review copies and for garnering reader reviews. As with Edelweiss, many bookstore buyers look to NetGalley for advance copies of titles they may choose to stock later in the year. Librarians and film industry scouts also use NetGalley. Major publishers use it routinely for new releases, often giving select readers access to titles 3, 6, or even 9 months before publication.
NetGalley is open to indie authors. You can contact them through their submission form for information on how to list your title and how much different packages cost.
When you do list a title, you’ll have the choice to make that title available to all readers, or only to readers who request it. If you make readers request your title, you can check their profile before agreeing to give them a copy. You probably want to avoid giving your book to a reader who just wrote six bad reviews of books just like yours. If they didn’t like those books, they won’t like yours, and they’ll say so. You don’t need that.
On the other hand, a reader whose reviews show they love books just like yours is right in your target audience, and is someone you’d want to approve.
Unfortunately, most self-published authors have no name recognition, and no one is clamoring to get their books. This means if you make your book available by request only instead of available to all, most readers will skip it. Why should they bother requesting it when there are thousands of other titles free for the taking?
This is where big publishers and big name authors have an advantage. People are clamoring for their books, so the publishers can choose who gets them. They typically choose readers whose profiles indicate they will like the book. While the book still has to be good to get good reviews, it avoids the trap of getting bad reviews from readers who were guaranteed to dislike it before they even picked it up. (And readers will pick up things they don’t like when those things are free.)
My Experiences with NetGalley
I first used NetGalley several years ago. I wanted to send advance copies to a few bloggers who I thought would like my book. Most of them had posted notices saying they no longer accepted submissions. They now got all their advance copies through NetGalley.
So I posted my book on NetGalley and got a good response. About 420 people downloaded the book, and more than 80 reviewed. Most of the reviews were positive, averaging about 4 stars, which is quite good for a genre title pitched to a general audience.
A few years later, I posted a second title, picking up only a dozen or so reviews despite promoting the book in a NetGalley newsletter and in a weekly feature. In the long run, I found that second book was less popular on every platform than the first. But I noticed a few things about NetGalley as well:
- There were way more readers than there had been a few years earlier.
- Many of the readers who downloaded by book reviewed fewer than 3% of the titles they downloaded. Some had downloaded thousands of titles and posted zero reviews. This was different from years earlier, when many readers had posted 20 or 50 or 100 reviews, and some reviewed 80% of the titles they downloaded.
- The general ratio of downloads to reviews seemed to have dropped across all titles. While it’s hard to tell how many people have downloaded other author’s titles, I could gauge general interest in a book by the number of cover likes. Years earlier, a book with hundred of cover likes often had a hundred reviews. Now books with hundreds of cover likes had only 20 or 30 reviews.
I like the staff at NetGalley. They’re among the most friendly and helpful in the industry. But I got the sense that too many freeloaders had discovered the platform and treated it as a place to get free books without returning anything.
Once again, established authors and big publishers have an advantage in being able to distribute books by request, weeding out the freeloaders. Indie authors don’t have that advantage.
On the plus side, if your book really does hit a nerve with readers, it can still get a lot of attention on NetGalley. The two titles I listed each got multiple inquiries from film studios. They reached out to me. I didn’t go after them. In addition, the second title generated interest from a European publisher who also contacted me. That’s pretty good exposure, considering that in both cases I just threw the book out there and sat back to see what would happen.
NetGalley listing start at $399, but you can get steep discounts if you’re a member of the Independent Book Publisher’s Association. More information about IBPA’s partnership with NetGalley is available here.