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The Bookstore Manager’s Perspective on Retail Sales

When I hear from retail bookstore managers across the country, they often tell me about the misperceptions many customers have about the book selling process. Due to the general confusion about how a book makes it from a publisher to a store’s shelves, they must spend time explaining the store’s protocol to self-published authors who hope to have their book stocked.

Most managers have at least one horror story of an unprofessional self-published author arriving at their store with a stack of books and a “won’t take no for an answer” attitude. With a better understanding of how retail book stores function, AuthorHouse authors can avoid this situation, breakdown stereotypes about self-published authors and achieve greater success in gaining cherished retail shelf space.

The Business of Books

Booksellers, especially the large chain retailers, operate on a tight budget just like any other business. Based on negotiated agreements with publishers and distributors, corporate buyers and planners select 90% or more of the books you’ll find in your local bookstore chain. While many local managers would love to stock a wide variety of local authors and eccentric titles, they are constrained by inventory caps, regional requirements and constant re-shelving and shuffling of titles. The key to getting your book stocked in a local retail store is an understanding of how to appeal to store managers who are given discretion of less than 10% of shelf space.

Right from the start, two things that every manager will look for in a self-published book are returnability and quality writing. Since nearly all books ordered in retail come with a returnability option—the ability to return all unsold copies to the publisher for a full refund—most manager’s hands are tied if your book is not returnable. Managers often review advance copies from publishers and process hundreds of books every week, so they have a keen eye for quality writing that sells. To be shelved in their store, your book must be closely edited and professional, free of any obvious spelling or grammatical errors.

The Approach: Planned Placement, Volume Orders and Professionalism

Knowing the best placement for your book within a store is also important before approaching a manager. “The best place to sneak into prominent placement with high levels of inventory is through the local interest section,” said Matt Monroe, a Publishing Services Associate who managed a large retail bookstore for over 5 years before coming to work for AuthorHouse. The local interest section is generally near the front of the store, and there is usually at least one main display either in a window or on an end-cap left to the discretion of the in-store managers for placement of local authors and books about the local area. “Per-title, the local interest section is almost always one of the best selling sections in the store,” said Monroe.

Although a manager may be able to place your book in the local interest section, it’s not likely she’ll be able to order many copies, at least not at first. If you look around you won’t find more than a couple copies of any book in the store, unless of course it is the current New York Times best seller. One way to generate volume orders is creating a regional marketing campaign rather than focusing on one local store. “Finding a market niche and approaching an area’s regional representative about having their book featured in multiple stores, with events to back it up, is a good idea,” said Monroe. Authors can boost their credibility with a regional representative by garnering local media coverage, creating public demand for their product and having a proposal for future events.

For the final approach, a few common sense details will always come in handy. Be open, polite and professional with everyone you contact in the store. “Managers of different locations often circulate
e-mails with a warning about an author coming around being pushy or being directly dishonest in an attempt to get a book stocked,” said Monroe. If the manager is busy or can’t make a decision about your book on the spot, make the best impression you can, leave a copy of your book and follow up within the next week. If you’d like store placement for the busy holiday selling season, contact them far in advance. “I would make sure not to approach a bookstore between Thanksgiving and Christmas, as they already have their hands full beyond what the average person can reasonably imagine,” said Monroe.

Securing placement within a retail store is not easy for any publisher or author. But with a returnable and well written book in hand, along with a plan for placement within the store, media coverage and a proposal for future events, you can approach every store with the confidence and professionalism necessary to have your book placed on their shelves.