Sometimes, it ain’t easy being indie
Publishing Perspectives contributor Tanja Tuma recently opened up the topic of the average independent publishing or self publisher’s ability (or rather, lack of) to sell in mortar-and-brick bookstores. The topic, found in the ‘Discussion’ section of the website, has garnered amongst the largest amount of user comments of any of the topics available for discussion. Clearly, this is something that all parties (bookstores, traditional publishers, self publishers) all want to get involved in.
For self publishers, it’s a tough nut to crack. To use another metaphor, it’s a double edged sword, being an independent or ‘self published’ author. You have so much freedom, but that freedom makes you a risky investment. Mortar-and-brick bookstores are reluctant to take a chance on self publishers because they aren’t a sure thing. These copies could be taking up retail space for years – there’s absolutely no guarantee that this book is worth more than a stick of gum. Often the book covers are poorly designed, meaning that customers are unlikely to be attracted to the title at face value, which, despite a decline in the rule of the mortar-and-brick, is still a large part of the book discovery equation.
The fact that they are self-published is a real cause for booksellers to pause – chances are, they have not received the same care, attention and rigorous editing that a book from a traditional publisher has. There might not even be full stops, for all they know. Personally, I think that this is an unfair generalisation with the market. It’s like assuming that every book that has ever been published traditionally is literary gold. Definitely not.
Dealing with self publishing individuals also means that if they want to order hundreds of books, it will be through hundreds of people, rather than one distributor. The chances of a return in profits just don’t seem that appealing to mortar-and-brick bookstores. Many independent authors tend to have a ‘no returns’ policy, so booksellers would be stuck with boxes of books they probably won’t be able to sell.
The costs and risks in general are higher if you want to deal with an independent or self publisher – some bookstore owners on the discussion thread actually brought their opinion to the table. Commenter “E Nicholas” explained that they order the majority of their stock through a large book distributor, who rarely carries self published work. When they do, it’s heavily discounted, which might sound good, but usually indicates that the distributor is having trouble moving stock themselves. This means that the bookstore just won’t take the risk – if the middleman can’t move it, how will a bookstore move it at a profitable price? Another bookstore uses a consignment method – the author is required to pick up the books themselves at the end of the consignment period, or else the books might end up donated.
Perhaps it’s the fact that dealing with authors brings the transaction away from the business side of things – you are rejecting their baby, potentially years of hard work writing that book. Normally bookstores are separated by at least two links in the chain – the publishers and the book distributors – so it’s easy to be detached when dealing with book titles.
It may seem like I’m using this blog to show all the negatives of self publishing, but if you are reading this as an independent author, please view this as constructive criticism summarised from (what I hope are) experienced commenters on Publishing Perspectives, or “Things to Avoid when Trying to Make Friends with Bookstores”. Don’t stress – most likely, if you’re going to the effort of trying to get your book in a bookstore then you’ve already applied the prerequisite polish that most booksellers are after. Some of the comments in the discussion suggested that independent authors make use of book distributors to try and get their book out there, rather than walking in off the street and begging a shop assistant to stock your book. Also consider the audience that will be browsing the shelves on which you hope your book will sit – would your book be better suited in a themed indie bookstore or a vintage free-for-all? The consignment method also seems to be a successful way of getting your book out there – at the end of the period, the bookstores have a minimised loss if you have to take back unsold copies.
Generally the consensus surrounding independent authors getting their books into bookstores seems to be to act as much like a traditional publisher as possible – make sure your book looks professional and is well-edited, make friends with a book distributor and do one hell of a job marketing your product, especially if you are a local author willing to participate in bookstore-based events. Oh, and make sure you have your “marketing and sales” cap on, rather than your “I’m so offended that you won’t stock my very first indie novel” beret. It seems like this is kind of defeating the purpose of going independent, if you ask me – but the market outside of Amazon and Barnes & Noble is warming to independent authors, slowly. Give it a bit of time.