How important are bookstores to business authors?

Sherman’s Maine Coast Book Shop

If you’re a business book author, you are probably imagining your book on the shelf in the local Barnes & Noble, independent bookstore, or airport bookstore. But before you pursue that vision, you ought to think it through, because attaining bookstore placement comes with lots of challenges.

As context for this discussion, consider two sales concepts: push and pull. Push is selling through distribution power, that is, placement in bookstores. Pull is selling through marketing — publicity, advertising, web search, events, and other means of creating awareness.

So the question regarding bookstores boils down to: can you succeed based solely on pull, or do you need push as well? And if you need push, what is it going to cost you?

How did you buy your last business book?

The last time you bought a business book, how did you end up purchasing it? It was probably one of the following:

  • Heard about it from media or a friend, then purchased on Amazon.com, BN.com, or bookshop.org.
  • Did a web search, then purchased it online.
  • Purchased it directly from an author’s website, or a link on some other website.
  • Downloaded an ebook or audiobook copy from a website like Amazon.com or Audible, or from a “store” on an ebook device or app.
  • Got a copy for free at an event, or for participating in some sort of training.
  • Bought a copy at an event’s bookstore.
  • Got or bought a copy at an author’s book event.
  • Saw a copy at a bookstore and bought it because it looked interesting. (Or went to the bookstore because you wanted to buy a copy.)
  • Saw a copy at an airport or train station bookstore and bought it because it looked interesting.

Only the last two items in that list are push-based bookstore sales. The rest are pull-based, and are available to any author regardless of whether they have bookstore distribution.

For authors that are already famous and well-known — either established authors like Daniel Pink or celebrity authors like Mark Cuban — a lot of sales go through those last two bookstore channels. Bookstore distribution pays off big-time for those authors. I’m guessing here, but I’d bet that about 25 to 40% of sales of such books go through physical stores. And they may even get carried in stores like Wal-Mart.

But for the vast majority of business authors, the pull channels are far more important. If your book is about content marketing, artificial intelligence, investment strategy, managing engineers, or some other more specialized topic, then people are going to find out about it one way or another and make a quick purchase online, whether the final format is print book, ebook, or audiobook. For less well-known authors who are available in bookstores, I’d estimate that no more than 10% of sales are push-based bookstore sales.

If you’re in that last category — authors that are not already famous and well-known — then the availability of your book in bookstores is far less important.

About airport bookstores

Airport bookstores are important channels for business books. They’re the one physical place where somebody may pick up a business book and buy it on impulse. That’s pure push.

However, shelf space in airport bookstores is limited. An airport Hudson News store has far fewer titles than the average full-sized bookstore.

As a result, every book you see in a store like that is a paid placement. Somebody — the publisher or the author — paid to put it there. Typical placement programs would start at $10,000, depending on the number of stores you want placement in.

How to get into bookstores

The easiest way to get into bookstores is to work with a major publisher. Publishers like Harper Collins, Hachette, and Harvard Business Press have sales forces that call on bookstores months in advance of publication.

Some hybrid publishers (that is, publishers for hire) also have sales forces that call on bookstores. They get less attention than the big publishers, but they might be able to score you a spot on the shelf. But when you work with a hybrid publisher, that sales force comes at a cost, likely adding thousands of dollars to the money you’re paying to be published.

The shelf space allocated to business books is limited, because bookstores know that there are not that many impulse purchases of business books. And as you might guess, most of the space goes to books by authors with a track record and those with a celebrity following.

So what kind of placement are you looking at? For a typical business author, if you get placement at all, it’s going to be one or two copies in each bookstore. If those sell, they’ll stock more.

Barnes & Noble stores have a business books section. But for most truly independent bookstores, the business section is extremely limited.

What about the books featured on endcaps or in piles on tables? The sell more. But once again, as with airport bookstores, those are paid placements, also known as “co-op” placements.

Can self-published books get into bookstores?

The answer to that question is “Yes, but it’s very hard.”

If you publish through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, your book will not appear in bookstores.

If you publish through IngramSpark — either on your own, or with the help of a self-publishing service like Gatekeeper Press — then your book will be available through the distributor Ingram. Any bookstore can order such a book. But that doesn’t mean they will order the book. If you can generate lots of demand in some other way — say, by being all over cable news — then some stores might order the book. But it’s a long shot.

You can also make an arrangement with a local bookstore to carry your book in exchange for a promotional appearance. That’s one store. It’s not likely to set your sales on fire.

Popular books get into bookstores eventually

Regardless of how you choose to publish, if your book sells a lot through online channels, bookstores will become interested in it. And by “a lot,” I mean tens of thousands of copies every month. Such a book is hard to ignore.

How can you sell that many copies? Sorry, I don’t have a formula for that. And anyone who tells you that they do is trying to take advantage of you.

What this means for your publishing options

If you are an established author or a celebrity, then you want to make sure you are available in the bookstore channel. That means you’re probably better off getting an agent, shopping your book to publishers, and publishing in the traditional way. You’ll get an advance. And you’ll maximize sales with the help of bookstore push.

If you are not already established or famous, then as I’ve explained, the bookstore channel is far less important to you. If you want an advance, a prepackaged solution for publishing, and the prestige of a well-known imprint, you may still find a traditional agent and publisher to be an attractive option.

But traditional publishers take a year or more to get your book out. If you want to publish faster, consider a hybrid publisher or self-publishing. True, you’ll give up the chance for bookstore placement unless you find a way to sell a whole bunch of books.

But you may find that, for your business, selling fewer books to the right people — people who can buy your products or hire you to provide consulting or give speeches — is more valuable than maybe getting one copy of your book on the shelf of the local chain store.

In the end, the novelty of seeing that book in the bookstore pales in comparison to seeing it, dogeared and loved, on the shelf of somebody who got it online and loved it to death.

One response to “How important are bookstores to business authors?

  1. Love this! Great information for aspiring authors or authors who don’t fully understand all the options for marketing their books. Because authorship and public speaking often go hand-in-hand, I talk with many people through my speaker bureau, Innovation Women, about how they can move books through speaking. (There are speakers who write books to improve their speaking careers and authors who speak to increase their book sales…and some variations on these general themes.) One way to increase book sales through speaking is to persuade the event to give each attendee a book. You can also marry books with the ticket sales process so attendees can buy a ticket, or buy a ticket and a book.

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