Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing,  On Writing,  publishing

Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Indie Publishing: #1… Can’t Get Indie Books into Bookstores

Myths ignore facts. Myths are beliefs built from fear or past actions.

In this series, and in the previous series of Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing, I call the myths that control writers “Sacred Cows.”

Writers hold onto myths like lifelines that are keeping them from drowning in a raging river of information. Sometimes sane people in the normal world will follow a publishing myth that makes no sense at all because it has something to do with the publishing business. And they follow the myth without thought.

So this new series is an attempt to help the new world of indie publishing with the growing list of myths that plague it.

And the biggest myth to hit indie writers (because traditional publishers repeat this over and over) is that indie writers can’t get their books into bookstores.

Truth: You can.  And if you are already doing some things correctly in your indie publishing, there’s a big chance your books are already in bookstores and you don’t even know it.

And, of course, in this new world, you don’t even know what it means “to have your books in a bookstore.” Not kidding.

So here we go with chapter one, sacred cow number one. Stay tuned, nine more to come over the next few months.

The Myth

Indie writers can’t get their books into bookstores.

Fact: Of course indie writers/publishers can. But some things must be done correctly and the bookstore owners or buyers must know your book is there. And it also must be something that fits what they are selling.

I’ll lay it out below and in even more detail in a lecture that is now available under the lecture tab called “How to Get Your Books into Bookstores.”

But let me say this here. Traditional publishers don’t have magic wands that ship their books into bookstores. They simply know how to do it and indie publishers have yet to learn. Or at least some indie publishers. Some of us already know how and are making great money on paper books.

First Some History

As with all these publishing myths, to really grasp the myth and get past it, an indie publisher must know where the myth came from and why there used to be a little truth to the myth. Not much, but a little.  Myths in publishing are often formed from half-truths of the past. But just as if you don’t need a buggy whip to start your car, you don’t need an agent to sell a book, or a traditional publisher to make a living at fiction writing.

And traditional publishers can’t magically block you from going into bookstores. They can’t even try, to be honest.

So where did this myth start? Most of it came from the old days of warehouse publishing and vanity press publishing. Writers (often horrid writers, but not all) would spend thousands and thousands of dollars through a scam vanity press to get a garage full of really ugly books. Then these poor writers would wander the roads and the streets peddling their books to any unsuspecting store who let them in the door.

Store owners hated these vanity-press people almost as much as they hated a young traditionally published writer with a handful of bookmarks. Sometimes a vanity press book had a local interest and the bookstore owner would take a few. (Young writers with bookmarks who demanded to have a signing were just flat annoying.)

Also, in those vanity press days, traditional publishers seemed to have a stranglehold on the book distribution network.

Of course, that wasn’t true either, but it seemed that way.

In 1987, Kris and I started an indie publisher (called a small press back then) named Pulphouse Publishing.  We got our books and magazines into traditional distribution systems just fine. Our magazines were on newsstands. And the company lasted for nine years selling to bookstores. Go figure.

Why could we do it? Simple, actually. We spent the little bit of time and energy to learn how to slot our books into what are called “the trade distribution systems.” No one in the distribution system seemed to care that Pulphouse wasn’t in New York City. Or that when we started we only had two books our first year.

Some Terms Before Moving Forward.

POD means Print on Demand printing. Createspace, LightningSource, and others are printers, not publishers. You (your publishing business name) is the publisher.

DISTRIBUTORS are the companies that take your book from one place and sell them to another place. Baker & Taylor and Ingrams are two of the biggest distributors. There are thousands of smaller distributors that function in many areas, from regional to gift shops to books only on a certain topic. You name it, there’s a distributor for it.

BOOKSTORES are places that sell your books to readers. Susy’s Local Gift and Bookshop is a bookstore. Amazon is a bookstore. Kobo is a bookstore.

INDIE BOOKSTORE is a bookstore that is not associated with a chain store, or Amazon. Indie bookstores can be a chain, so the line is pretty vague most of the time. Powell’s Bookstore based in Portland is considered an indie store, but it is owned by a corporation and has many stores and a major online web selling site. Go figure.

ABA is the American Booksellers Association, a group made up of bookstores and publishers. (Yes, you can join as a publisher for around $300 bucks, give or take.) Their focus is to help bookstores learn new methods of selling and be a connection between publishers and bookstores. The ABA has many, many programs that help bookstores discover new books coming out. Some indie publishers can get into the programs, some a new indie publisher can’t get into.

INDIE PUBLISHER. A writer or group of writers who have a real publishing name and imprint and act like a business using a business imprint name such as Teddy Press or CAT Publishing.

SELF-PUBLISHED WRITER. A writer who publishes under his or her own name, with no business publishing name. This will block you from most bookstores I’m afraid. (If you don’t know how to get a business name, read my “Think Like a Publisher” articles under the tab above. It’s scary simple.)

So What Has Changed in the Last Ten Years?

When looked at in cold, hard terms, not much I’m afraid. I know those of you with no sense of history in publishing will scream at that, but sadly, it’s the truth.

The real question, as Passive Guy has continually pointed out, is what will the disruptive technology hitting publishing change in the future. The big change has yet to come. And from what I can see, legacy (or big traditional) publishing is not reacting well so far.

So what hasn’t changed? Let’s look at history.

Pulp magazines came in around the last part of the 1800s and changed distribution of novels and stories to readers.

Then in the late 1930s, but mostly into the late 1940s, mass market paperbacks came in and changed distribution of novels and stories to readers.

And electronic books have now done exactly the same thing once again starting in 2009.

Nothing new, just the standard cycle of a new form of distribution of novels and stories to readers coming in. These changes tends to happen to allow overpriced books to find a less-expensive way to the general public. Pulps did that around 1900 and paperbacks did that in 1950 and now, sixty years later, history repeats yet again.

For those of you who are history challenged, the articles you see about what electronic books are doing are almost word-for-word from articles done about the advent of pulps. And word-for-word about the advent of the mass market paperback.

And those of you who don’t like Amazon, they own very, very little of the sales market compared to the old American News Company, that basically controlled all magazine, most comics, and most book distribution in this country in the first half of last century. Then one day in 1957 they just shut their doors.

By the height of the pulps in 1940, about 50% of all novels published were only published in the pulps. In the height of the mass market paperbacks, around 2005, about 50% of all novels published were only published in mass market paperbacks. It’s a safe bet that will be the number for electronic novels as well in a decade or so.

History can teach us a lot in publishing.

But how about indie publishing?  That’s new, right? We’re all out in the great unknown, right?

Uhhh, no. Writers were publishing their own books for a very long time before “Vanity Press” scams made it a bad thing in the 1950s. Before the 1950s, publishing your own work or starting your own press was an accepted part of publishing. And the list of authors from that century who self-published their own books could fill a large book in very tiny print. It was perfectly accepted, as it is becoming yet again.

Nothing new. Goes around, comes around, and all that.

Let me give you just one minor example. Arkham House, run by August Derelith, the writer, started to reprint a few Lovecraft works. But almost half of all Arkham House books for the first thirty years were Derelith books. You really would have fun studying the real history behind some of the major traditional presses now and how they got started and why. Like Simon and Sons.

And folks, if you really go back and look at old books from a hundred years ago, you will see almost no sign, if any, of the publishers of today. The publishers you all think of as huge now were small press or solo shops, indie presses, back 50 or 100 years ago. The indie presses grew up to replace the old, slow legacy publishers of that day. And that’s what is happening now as well.

In 1987, Kris and I started an indie press. And many small indie presses came and went while we were in business, and I still collect books from some indie presses in the 1950s and 1960s. (Arkham House shut down in 2005, lasting from 1938.)

In other words, there is nothing new happening.

Except… No, let me make that EXCEPT!!!!!!

— More people now think they can do it, and thus more people are starting their own publishing companies.

That will have an impact. The full type of impact is yet to be known. Too early.

But with more people doing this, discoverability is a problem growing area that Kris is talking about now in her great blog.

Is this discoverability problem actually new? No, not really once again. The results of books not easily found is that this trend is returning publishing to a time where blockbusters didn’t exist. (Yes, I know… but the modern “blockbuster novel” that supports most of traditional publishing didn’t really come around until the late 1960s and early 1970s and didn’t become part of the traditional publishing business plan until the 1980s.)

So even this flattening of sales across more products has happened before.

I personally think it’s a healthy correction, but I haven’t been getting millions per book in advances.

So more writers jumping into the mix as indie publishers is the one thing that is different from any time in history. At no time in history has so many writers in such a concerted form, moved to indie publish as a mass.

My honest opinion… For a time that might have some interesting consequences, but I kind of doubt any consequence will be very long term, since most indie publishers will drop away given time, leaving, as normal, only the survivors who can adapt and hold on through the technological-impact changes that are coming.

It’s Easy, But It’s Not.

In the second Killing the Sacred Cows of Indie Publishing, I’m going to deal with the fact that so many people call this indie publishing “easy.” I’ll deal with that next chapter. It is, but it isn’t.

But for the moment, I want to stay focused on the subject of this chapter. Getting Your Books into Bookstores.

It’s easy, but it’s not.

Remember that.

What Does It Mean in 2014 to Have Your Book in a Bookstore?

Way back, again looking at history, bookstores were often the publishers as well. (Yeah, I know, publishers have been talking about vertical structures for some time, looking to see if it is possible to produce books and sell to readers at the same time. Harlequin springs to mind.) And Amazon is playing in that area and Barnes & Noble has had their own publishing arm now for decades (I wrote a bunch of books and stories for B&N).

But back then, way back, before this modern era, bookstore catalogs consisted of what books the bookstore itself had printed, what books they were going to print, and what books they had in stock in their store, and maybe a few other books from a few other bookstore/publishers.

(And by the way, Print on Demand (POD) is also not new…it was being done in the 1800s in the backs of bookstores. We did it in 1987 at Pulphouse because we owned our own press. We printed to order, as did old stores a hundred years ahead of us.)

So what about today?

In today’s modern bookstores, a book is considered to be “in the store” when…

1) it is on the shelves, or

2) in the bookstore catalog.

So to get your book into a bookstore, it needs to make it to a bookstore catalog or onto a shelf.

If you are dreaming of having a shelf full of just your book or books in a bookstore (like used to happen ten years ago), you need to change that thinking.

Most bookstores don’t operate that way anymore.

Ten years ago, a bookstore would order ten copies of a book to sell five. The other five would get destroyed and credited by the publisher to the bookstore. So a publisher would have to print ten copies to sell five, so the five sold had to carry the weight of the costs of the extra books. That was called “Ordering to Stock” among other terms.

Today, smart bookstores “Order to Replace.”

Distribution systems have gotten fast, so a bookstore owner will often take only one or two copies of a book, then when one sells, they order to replace it quickly. No returns and a ton safer.

ABA has been teaching bookstores this method for six years now, plus cash register systems and website book-selling design. That’s why, for the last five years, there have been more bookstores than the year before. I know, another myth shot about bookstores going away. Head out of the sand, folks. Numbers of bookstores are increasing. Fact.

Using Ordering to Replace system, bookstore owners who are smart can get more titles in the same shelf area.

Think about that…

THIS IS A GOOD THING for all authors, because more authors actually have books in physical form in bookstores for readers to find. Instead of ten of the last Patterson, there are two of the Patterson and eight other authors’ books in the same shelf space.

That is a good thing for all readers and writers.

Traditional bestselling mega-authors hate this new practice, however, because so much of the old system was based on books shipped, not books sold. That’s right, big advances were based on having 100,000 books shipped, even if only 30,000 sold. That second number wasn’t seen for months and months. The first number caused books to be on major bestseller lists.

But bookstores don’t “Order to Stock,” they now “Order to Replace.” That’s a HUGE CHANGE. (Nothing really new, just back to the pre-return system days of book selling.)

That’s why you hear idiots like Scott Turow going on about how bad this new world is. He would rather return to the old returns system that destroyed five-out-of-ten books produced so his books-shipped numbers could be high. (And it was that old system that caused bookstores to collapse for eleven straight years of fewer and fewer stores, which is where the fewer bookstore myth comes from. Under the new Order to Replace system, bookstores are increasing every year and becoming stable.)

Today, in this new system, the returns system is drifting away and is now under 18% standard and still dropping. (Returns hovered between 50% and 55% at one point.) Many large publishers are even offering no-return choices for higher discounts and bookstores are learning to order smarter.

Give us five more years and the returns system will be around 10%, if that. Nothing more than a sales tool as it started off to be in the depression.

So How Do You Get Your Book Into A Bookstore?

Some basics first. All are critical, but most of you will just glaze over these looking for the secret, and these basics are the secret.

So let me be clear here. The Secret to Getting Your Books into Bookstores is:

1… Great cover, branded to genre.

2… Great sales blurbs. (Not your plot, sales blurb…if you don’t know sales copy writing, learn it.)

3… A publisher name. (Can’t be your writer name as publisher. Bookstores will shy away from that just as they were afraid of those authors with a fist-full of bookmarks coming through the door.)

4… A publisher web site. You also need an author web site. Treat your publisher web site like it is Bantam Books.

5… A major dealer/bookstore discount schedule on your publisher web site. You can copy the WMG Publishing discount schedule if you like.

6… Your paper books need to be priced correctly. Easiest way to figure this is go on CreateSpace to their price calculator, put in your trim size, your page count, and then experiment with prices. When the amount you make in the “extended distribution” program is above $2.00, your book is priced correctly.

From the Bookstore Side

So back in Spring of 2013, things changed in the two major distribution companies and most small distributors are following slowly. Ingrams and Baker & Taylor, for the longest time, had code in their monthly catalogs on the books that were produced with a POD printer. And they limited the discounts bookstores could get on POD books.

Then very silently in March and April of 2013, that code vanished.

The reason is simple. POD books have reached a level of quality that is often above a web press printed book quality. POD books could be done faster. And most importantly, major traditional publishers were using POD for short-run books, for second printings, and so on. So by having the code on there, the distributors were hurting their main clients.

So the code vanished. Poof.

What does that mean? Now your paper book, with your publisher imprint on it, is in the same catalog right beside any of the books from the hundreds of imprints from Random/Penguin. And since readers don’t buy for publisher, but for author, any indie book was suddenly sitting beside any traditional book in the big discount catalogs.

And playing with the same tools. And the same field of sale.

So bookstores could order your book if they wanted… if the book looked good… if they knew about it… and if the indie publisher had set the price correctly to allow for enough discounts through the chain of custody for a book.

The key, of course, is that the bookstore owner must learn about your book through the normal trade channels. Granted, some store owners are on Goodreads and watch other reader review sites, but most still find their information through the trade channels.

Can an indie publisher get a book into a trade channel?

Of course. No magic keeping you out, honest there isn’t.

A trade channel is simply letting the bookstore know the book is coming. For example, the major trade review magazine for bookstores is Publisher’s Weekly. All bookstores look at it every week and get it for free. So send your books to Publisher’s Weekly for review. (Act like a publisher. Don’t use the paid side of PW and never buy a review anywhere.)

(I talk about all this over six weeks in the Promotions workshop. Both how to sell to readers and how to sell in the trades, and how to do your catalog copy. And more.)

The ABA has a bunch of fairly inexpensive programs so that you can let a thousand bookstores know your book is coming.

You can send things (not bookmarks), AS A PUBLISHER, directly to the bookstore. Bookstore mailing lists are free on the ABA web site.

Does this all take some time and learning? Yes.

As I said. It’s easy, but it’s not.

But chances are if your book has a good cover, a publisher name, a decent price, and is being carried by any standard entry distributor, it’s already making its way to bookstores. The owner might not have a copy on the shelf yet, but it might be in the bookstore online catalog.

CreateSpace extended distribution is a service they provide as an entry point distributor. LightningSource (caution with their terms of service) is not only a printer, but can provide standard entry point to distribution channels.

Or you can have your book printed in any number of POD printers, or small presses in your local area and make a deal with an entry-point distributor and get your books out there.

There are hundreds and hundreds of entry point distributors. As a publisher, you will need to figure out what works for you and what is easiest.

It’s easy, but it’s not.

If you want really easy, just use CreateSpace and their extended distribution. Scary easy. But they are not the only way into the distribution system by a long, long ways. And with any printer and with any entry distributor, they have their drawbacks.

Make decisions as a publisher for yourself. Think like a business person.

I had my own printer in Pulphouse for most projects, for others I used a press only an hour away and a bindery only an hour away. My distribution was also fairly close when we jumped products into the channels. I found being local and close helped me work tighter with the printer and binder.

But the discount the bookstore is getting is wrong…

Sigh… I have to talk about this just to head off the thousand comments and questions on this one topic.

When a bookstore, and indie bookstore, gets books from distributors, the store tends to have only one or two or three major distributors it uses. This is normal. Think about how they only want to pay three bills per month instead of a dozen and you’ll understand.

A distributor (both large and regional distributors) sets a basic discount for a bookstore on a number of factors.

1… How much the bookstore orders from the distributor.

2… The bookstore’s credit rating.

3… How fast, over time, the bookstore pays its bills.

So a bookstore who only orders a few books from say Baker & Taylor per month, or who doesn’t have a good credit rating, or who often pays late, will be sent the bottom (library) catalog.

If you, the indie author, go in there and convince them to try to order your book and they can only get a 20% discount, then chances are that store doesn’t order much from that distributor. Or has credit issues. Or pays bills late.


Or offer to sell them copies at your publisher discount.

Let me say this again to be clear… All those factors of bookstore discounts, once your book is priced correctly, are out of your control in almost all distribution channels and through all distributors.

And remember, if you have a good publisher web site, bookstores can order from you for up to 50% free shipping on ten assorted books. If you are thinking you don’t want to pack books, you need to really think it through. You don’t have to. Duh. You drop-ship the books direct from your printer to the store, just as any traditional publisher drop-ships books to bookstores from their printers. (I used to do this with some Pulphouse magazines from my printer in 1990. Nothing new.)


You must do some things correctly to get bookstores to order your books. Covers, blurbs, correct pricing, and so on. Those are the secrets.

And as a publisher, you must have enough product to make it worth a bookstore’s while to order from you.

But even more important, a bookstore needs to know your book exists. And that’s the tough part.

Getting your books into bookstores is easy, but it’s not.

But you, as an indie publisher, can absolutely get your books sitting right beside any book from any traditional publisher in a bookstore if you want.

There is no magic roadblock.

If you want, and are crazy enough, you can even get your books to Costco. (Go in there next time and notice how many books in Costco are regional presses. If they can do it, so can you, but I’m not talking about how to do it here. If you have to ask, you aren’t ready.)

One of the keys is that you, as the publisher of your own indie publisher, must decide if paper books are worth it, if having your books in store catalogs and on bookstore shelves are worth it.

And that’s a business decision only you can make.

WMG Publishing has books in bookstores and has over 200 titles in paper. For example, take a look at a simple search I did for Kristine Kathryn Rusch at Powell’s Books, an indie bookstore.

Or a simple search of Kristine Kathryn Rusch books in Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore.

We didn’t approach either store. Yet WMG books are right there with Kris’s traditionally published books just fine. We put the books into the system and let the system take care of itself and we are now working slowly to let bookstores know the books are out.

You know the decision we made three years ago. It’s clear.

Getting books into bookstores is easy, but it’s not.

But it can clearly be done, and anyone who tells you it can’t be is just spouting a myth.

Have fun.


Copyright © 2014 Dean Wesley Smith


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