Book Marketing, Author Publicity, Branding

Monday, December 28, 2009

How Do Books Get Stocked in Bookstores?


Reader question:

Hi Terry. I was just curious...Is it common or helpful at all for an author to contact bookstores (local or not) and request that they order your book at that store? Basically, what is the regular criteria for why a certain store puts a book on their shelf or not?
Thanks! I enjoy your marketing articles! David

This is actually one of the most-asked questions we receive in the marketing department at Tate Publishing. To understand the answer to this question, you must first understand how certain titles come to be stocked in bookstores in the first place.

We have already explained how competitive and difficult it is to get a book stocked in a bookstore. With more than 560,000 titles released in the U.S. this year, there is no way all of those titles, or even a majority of those titles, are going to get stocked on a bookstore shelf. Let's take a look at the two kinds of bookstores and explore how the decision is made to stock the titles they do have on the shelf.

Corporate chain stores: These are the major chain bookstores like Borders, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, etc. The decision to stock books in these stores is not made at the store level. It is made by a buyer who works in the corporate offices of these bookstore chains (they only deal with the publisher. Authors should not contact them directly). Each company may have several buyers, and each buyer may have a particular genre of book they buy (such as Children's books, Christian books, etc.). Buyers take several things into consideration when deciding whether to add a title to their stores' stock: Has the author published before? What kind of sales did their previous titles have? How have similar books sold at their stores? Are they already overstocked on books with a similar theme? Books by previous bestselling authors and celebrity authors go to the front of the line. Does the store already have 49 different titles about gardening? They probably don't need a 50th. Also, some publishers pay for product placement in certain stores. This real estate, usually somewhere in the front of the store, is usually reserved for bestselling authors and is very expensive.

Store managers have very little say about the books stocked in their store. They can order books for book signing events and they may even stock a few select titles for their "local interest" section, but that's about it. So in this case, the answer is "no", it probably won't do an author any good to call their local corporate chain store to ask them to stock their title. Authors can call and ask to participate in a book signing event at the store, and if the event goes very well and customers continue to request the title, the store manager may locally stock the book in their "local interest" section. If the buyer at the corporate level notices growing customer demand for a particular title, they may eventually pull the trigger and decide to stock the book in their stores. Books handled by a distributor have the edge over books which are only available directly from the publisher. Buyers want books at a discount, and they want books that are returnable. This usually disqualifies self-published titles.

A word of warning: in the past, some authors have asked 300 of their closest friends to call their local Barnes & Noble or Borders stores and order a copy of their book. The problem with this is the friends don't go to the store to purchase the book when it arrives. Many authors mistakenly think the stores will then stock the book on their shelves. They won't. The books will be sent back to the distributor as returns. Now, not only has the author cost themselves money, but the corporate offices of these bookstore consider these to be "fraudulent" orders. What are the chances that this title will ever be stocked at these stores in the future (or that the author will get another book signing event)? Probably never.

Local, independent stores: I call these stores the "mom and pop" bookstores. They are locally owned and locally operated. The people who make the decision to stock a title work right there in the store. The decision might be made by the store's owner or manager (often this is the same person) or with feedback from all of the store's employees. These stores also stock the "hot" bestselling titles, but they also often stock titles by local authors. Authors can often get in touch with the managers of these stores, show them their books, and if the manager thinks the book will sell, they'll stock it. They may order the book from a distributor, or they may have the author leave a few copies and sell them on a consignment basis. If the book sells well, the store may reorder copies of the book. No, this won't get a book stocked in a major bookstore chain nationally, but it does make the book available in a retail outlet. In this case, it may very well pay off for an author to contact the store and ask them to stock their book (a step you may want to approach in person or via email, along with a photo of the book cover and a good description of the book.

Look at it this way: when any other product first comes out, no matter what kind of product it is, it isn't automatically stocked in every store across the country. There has to be demand for the product. If the Shamwow didn't have a stellar track record of sales, you would not see it in Walmart or Walgreens or any other retail outlet. The buyers for those stores stocked it because they had a reasonable expectation that it would sell. Bookstores operate the same way.

Getting published is the first step. Building demand for a title is a job that is never done.

Which bookstores are currently carrying your book, and how did it come to be stocked?

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