2-13 Get Retail Distribution and Sell to Bookstores

If the primary markets to sell your book will be bookstores and libraries, and you are or will be self published, one of your first hurdles will be in finding a distributor. Having a book distributed means getting it from your hands (or the publisher’s warehouse) into the hands of the buying public.

How Books Get Into Bookstores

It is no different for books. Most of us assume that books go directly from a publisher right into a bookstore but that isn’t true. It is actually just as hard to get a book into a bookstore as it would be if you created a beautiful piece of jewelry and then took it to a chain jewelry store and asked them to sell it for you.

Retail bookstores have shelf space just like your grocery store and they pick which products, which books they will sell. Only less than 10% of books published every year end up in bookstores.

Bookstores don’t buy books directly from publishers – they buy them from middlemen called wholesalers or distributors. Bookstore owners don’t want to buy 5 from this publisher and 10 from this one. They want to go to one place they can place one order for all the books they need. So companies, distributors, have set up whole businesses being the warehouse from where bookstores buy their books.

Wholesalers and Distributors

The book wholesaler is a company that serves as a one-stop shop for bookstores wanting to buy their books from one source (or just a few sources) rather than from each publisher separately. A wholesaler has a large warehouse (or multiple warehouses) with product, just waiting to be shipped as soon as it is ordered.

A book distributor is like a wholesaler, in that it has a large warehouse of books, but in addition it also has sales reps that go out to booksellers and actually pitch upcoming books.

The bookseller can place all orders in one place with either a wholesaler or distributor and not have to worry about which publishers are reliable, and they get the best prices by having one large order from one place rather than smaller orders from a variety of publishers.

Bookstores do not want to wait for books. They generally will order only books that are “in stock” at a distributor, not books that have to be printed when the order is placed. So the risk for the small publisher is to print a large inventory in order to have enough stock for orders, while expecting much of that inventory to ultimately be returned.

US Book Wholesalers

The world’s largest book wholesaler is called Ingram. The largest publishers do their own selling, so they don’t need a distributor, just a reliable wholesaler.

Two other important wholesalers are Baker and Taylor and NACSCORP. Baker and Taylor is the largest wholesaler to schools and libraries. NACSCORP is part of the National Association of College Stores and fills orders for college bookstores.

UK Book Wholesalers

Similarly, in the UK, two of the most important wholesalers are Gardners Books and Bertram Books.

Important Note

While getting real distribution with sales reps selling the author’s book to chain bookstores is a real problem for self published authors, getting into a wholesaler to make it possible for bookstores and other retailers to order is not.

Wholesale Pricing and Returns

Wholesalers and distributors take a percentage of every book they carry. It is not uncommon for distributors to “buy” books at 60 percent to 75 percent off the retail price and wholesalers to “buy” at a 55 percent discount. Then they sell these books to the bookstore for 50 percent off the retail price. The mega-bookstores then sell soft cover books to consumers for 20 percent off the retail price. Amazon.com sells books at various discounts, but commonly at about 30 percent off the retail price.

It is common industry practice for a bookstore to be able to return any book at any time for a full refund if they don’t sell in their stores. The books are returned to the wholesaler/distributor who refunds the money to the bookstore. The wholesaler/distributor then returns the books to the publisher who returns the money to the wholesaler/distributor. And as you might imagine, many if not most of these books are damaged in all the shipping and handling and cannot be resold.


The largest bookseller in the world is Barnes & Noble. It  has thousands of retail stores in the US and make most of their buying decisions at their corporate headquarters.

Other chains include Blackwells (UK) and Indigo (Canada).

Booksellers must read their markets well and decide which books their customers are most likely to buy. They make those decisions based on their perceptions of consumer preferences while looking at the various offerings of the well-known publishers. They know that customers are most likely to buy the books from the well-known authors and celebrities who are interviewed on the news and talk shows or who have their own television and radio shows. And the major publishers are the most likely to push their books to the media and get those highly coveted interview appearances.

If a book is selling well—for the chains, this is defined as selling at least a few copies a month at most stores—and “sells through,” meaning that enough books were sold and few were returned to make it a profitable book, it will be “modeled.” Modeling means that the buyer will place a continuous order to keep the stores stocked. Much more commonly, unfortunately, a book will sit on store shelves and not be sold, and then in sixty to ninety days, the stock of that book will be returned.

Online Booksellers Amazon is the largest online bookseller, but unfortunately shipping is expensive to countries Amazon doesn’t primarily serve. BarnesandNoble.com has the same problem.

Another good choice is www.bookdepository.com with free shipping to lots of countries, including Australia, NZ, most of Europe.

Getting Bookstore Distribution for Self Published Books

One of the biggest challenges for self-publishers is to get adequate distribution. This may be the biggest argument for working with a traditional publisher that has working distribution arrangements, particularly with bookstores.

It is almost impossible to get a national chain to order a self-published book because they know the odds of high sales are very low, and they worry about the author’s and publisher’s ability to pay them if and when the books are returned. But you can often persuade a local non-chain store to stock your book or host a book signing. See the local store manager for information on having an author event at your local store.

Approaching Independent Bookstores

But if your author has a book already published and wants to try to get into some local independent bookstores, here are the things you need to know. Bookstore managers are very busy and they are approached every day by authors who want to place books in their stores. They take very few of them and the ones they do take have a few things in common.

The first thing is that the book must be of professional bookstore quality. Bookstores don’t take wire-bound soft cover books or hard cover books without a dust jacket. Every book in a bookstore must have an ISBN and a bar code and be priced to fit the market.

Try to match the book with the right bookstore. If the bookstore specializes in certain types of books or the book will appeal to the store’s specific clientele, that makes a difference.

Your first job should be to get the email of the bookstore buyer and send a nice email with all the pertinent information and asking if you can send a book. If you don’t get a response the first time, send another in about 10 days and then call after that. Don’t keep hounding them if you don’t get a response.

Here are a couple of links to lists of independent bookstores:
– A free online list for the U.S. and Canada. Has address and telephone, but no contact names.
http://www.bookmarket.com/top700.htm – A U.S. list of 750 for $40 with contact names. Other free online lists (no contact names) for Canada, Australia, Europe, plus lists by book category.

Consignment Sales

The way a self published book will be sold to a bookstore is on consignment. If you want to sell at a particular bookstore, you should see their web site and see if they give any information on how they work with self published authors.

Consignment means that they take a few copies of your book to display in the bookstore. Some charge an upfront fee just to cover the expenses of listing and inventorying the book. If any books sell on consignment, they pay you 60% of the list price. They may agree to display your books for a specified period of time to give them a good chance to sell. They return unsold books or reorder if there are good sales.

Many bookstores do not have their own consignment agreement forms so you should be prepared to take one into the bookstore (download form by scrolling down to the bottom of this page). You should also be prepared to invoice bookstores if and when they let you know that books were sold.

You can use a similar form (also downloadable at the bottom of this page) to leave books on consignment at other types of retail stores, like gift shops.

To show you understand what the book is up against and to respect the time of the bookstore buyer, it is helpful to take in a sell sheet. The sell sheet should include:

  • Blurb about the selling points of the book
  • Title
  • Author
  • Publisher
  • Category
  • ISBN
  • Binding (soft or hard cover)
  • Number of pages
  • List (retail) price
  • Distribution (Ingram/Baker and Taylor)
  • Testimonials
  • Any local, regional or national marketing planned
  • Photos of book and author
  • Contact information

The sell sheet to sell the book on consignment through a book store is similar to the sell sheet you might use for other purposes, but in this case it is critical that you also list the wholesaler or distributor where the book can be purchased from, in this case Ingram.

If your author wants possible bookstore distribution, starting with Lightning Source is a good first step in that direction.

Approaching Libraries for Book Sales

Much of the same things are true with another great market for books – the library market. There is no central list of all the libraries in an area, but with a little research you can compile a list and reach a few every day.

Again, the most important thing is that the book must be of professional bookstore quality.

Send an email to the acquisitions librarian with all the pertinent information, especially letting them know they can order through Baker and Taylor if the book was printed by Lightning Source.

Libraries are good sales prospects because they will buy one or two copies of the book and very seldom return books.

Approaching Chain Bookstores

Although it is a long shot and can be both financially rewarding and risky, some authors do choose to have their books evaluated by the big chains for potential orders. To even have a possibility of an order, books must be professional quality and must be unusual enough that bookstores don’t have plenty of other books just like them already on their shelves. Look up the chain and “small press” to see what must be done for your book to be considered. See this link for what Barnes & Noble suggests:

The person in charge of making decisions on “small press” publishers at Barnes and Noble is:
Diane Simowski
Small Press Dept.

Book Fulfillment

So if books aren’t primarily going to be sold through retailers like bookstores, most books will probably be sold through online sources or by the author at events. This leaves the problem of how to get the book, once sold, into the hands of the buyer. For the first time author, at least to start out, Amazon may provide the ideal solution because Amazon takes care of the ordering and the order fulfillment and shipping.

But Amazon takes a 45% commission on the books sold (remember the 55% discount we talked about earlier) and if the author would like to keep more of the profits of the book, the author might decide to sell more aggressively on his or her own web site and take on the book fulfillment process. There is no reason the author can’t choose, with some help, to pack and ship books. But when that number gets to be 10 or more a day, the author may wish to have that process done by a fulfillment house, a business set up to take and fill orders, pack and ship. It can be hard to find a good fulfillment house that is both affordable and reliable.

Another issue for authors who do their own fulfillment is international orders. For instance, shipping a book from the US to Australia or Australia to the US can cost more than the book itself. Make sure and weigh both the book and packaging and get a good read on the international shipping rates before selling the book on the author’s web site.

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