"Terry, the release date for my book was two weeks ago. I have been to 12 different major bookstores, and I haven't seen my book in any of them. What are you doing to promote my book?"
Let me answer that question with another question: why are you so hung up on the 20th Century way of selling books?
I don't know if you have noticed this or not, but bookstores are in trouble. Borders has filed for bankruptcy and closed 200 stores nationwide. Barnes & Noble is relying more and more on digital content, specifically for its Nook e-reader. In 2009, major chain bookstores accounted for just 27 percent of all book sales in the U.S. While that is nearly one-third of the market, where are the other books being sold?
The rest of the books were sold through other types of retailers, online, mail-order book clubs and through other niche market venues. The average bookstore can hold about 10,000 titles, and the superstores may be able to stock as many as 100,000 titles. Last year, more than one million titles were released in the United States, when self-published titles are taken into account. That means a lot of titles are not going to make the cut and get stocked in a bookstore.
The decision to stock a book in a bookstore is completely up to the buyers for the various bookstore chains or the manager/owners of the locally-owned independent bookstores, not the publishers. They stock books that either already have a track record of sales or are written by authors who have a track record of sales under their belt. Bookstores are taking less risks with new, unknown authors, especially in today's economy. It is up to the authors to prove themselves by bringing in crowds to their book signing events and selling a lot of books.
Bookstores will give a title a certain amount of time to sell, and if it doesn't it's getting sent back to the publisher. The photo you see at the beginning of this article shows the books in my office that have been returned by bookstores. These are the books that did not sell, and they are just a small portion of the books that were returned by the bookstores last month. Returns cost the publisher and that author money. That is not good.
I think there are three main reasons authors want to see their book prominently displayed on a bookstore shelf:
1. They believe it will help them sell a lot of books. As we have already seen, there are no guarantees this will happen. Unless the author is actively pushing their readers through their platform to go to specific stores to purchase their books, those books are merely being displayed, not sold.
2. They believe they aren't a "real" author unless their book is in a bookstore. This is nonsense. You became a real author when you published your book.
3. Vanity. They want to be able to tell their friends and family "my book is in the XYZ bookstore!" That's great...if the book is actually selling. If not, it won't be in that bookstore for long. It will wind up in that pile you see in the photograph.
I am not downplaying the importance of bookstores. I happen to sell a lot of books to bookstores, as does my company. I was disappointed and saddened to see Borders file for bankruptcy. This is not a good thing for readers or for the publishing industry. When a bookstore fails, it gives publishers fewer sales avenues and readers fewer choices.
However, one thing I always try to stress to authors is when it comes to selling their book, bookstores are not the only choice they have available. Bookstores should be a part of every author's marketing plan, but it should not be the only part. Authors should be doing book fairs, book festivals, speaking engagements, connecting with their readers via social media, making appearances at other types of retailers, contacting the media, blogging and many of the other activities that I have mentioned here frequently on this blog. If you are concentrating only on bookstores, you are only going to potentially reach 27 percent of the book-buying public...maybe.
During the 20th Century, bookstores were the main way of selling books. As we move further ahead into the 21st Century, that is no longer true.