Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Selling Books To Book Shops (Part I)

The following article first appeared on my blog in October 2008, but thanks to my technical ineptitude it disappeared from view a couple of months ago. Here it is again. I hope it stays here this time!

Mainstream publishing houses employ sales representatives who work all over the country, visiting all the book shops they can find. Their publishers provide them with gorgeous colour catalogues to work from, which show all the books on their publisher’s lists; they use streamlined ordering systems which deliver books swiftly and efficiently, and usually the next day; and the book shops have accounts at their wholesalers or distributors, and so don’t have to pay for the books that they buy straight away, which gives them a chance to sell the books before they have to pay for them, and so gain a nice bit of positive cash-flow.

Independent presses often don’t have access to such sales teams. They might employ a sales agency to sell their books for them, and so increase their turnover that way—but there’s a fair amount of cost involved in this, and it’s not an option that the smallest independents can take. Once they’ve developed a good-enough reputation they are sometimes allowed to sneak in under a bigger publisher’s wing, which allows them to remain independent but still gives them access to the bigger publishers’ sales teams; this gives them that all-important nationwide representation, which invariably leads to a swift improvement in sales figures and, therefore, turnover (which is not the same as profit).

Self-publishers don’t have the option of employing a sales agency, or of persuading a big publisher to help them out with their sales (after all, if they could do that then they probably wouldn’t have self-published in the first place). The only way that they can realistically hope to get their books into bookshops is to sell them in there themselves, which means visiting each and every bookshop they can find. And even in a country as small as ours, that’s an awful lot of bookshops for one writer to visit, and a very unprofitable way to sell just one title.


Dan Holloway said...

Hmm, I feel like I been set up like a patsy:

"Self-publishers don’t have the option of employing a sales agency"
This isn't, of course, strictly true. One of the things I argue for in my articles about flatter business models a=is a strict outsourcing regime, and there's no reason at all why self-publishers can't do this - it gives us way more control. There's an established PR and plugging industry around the music business, and there are great opportunities for equivalent expert small consultancies to set up in the literary arena, working with small presses and self-publishers. In fact, I have noticed in the twitterverse music-based social media PRs have been laid off because there were too mnay of them. In the literary world there aren't enough. I might be penniless, but I hvae enough entrepreneurial spirit to do some talking :-)

By the way - and Jane, please feel free to delete my comment if this is out of line. My collective launched its free sampler Brief Objects of Beauty and Despair today, and I'm dead chuffed with them - it's proof writers are lovely, lovely people, if proof were needed. That, and the launch of Free-e-day are my contribution towards widening the interface between readers and writers without costing readers a penny. If that sounds too me me me I'll happily delete, but my point about the sales teams is a serious one.

Jane Smith said...

I've not set you up, Dan: I've just not made myself clear.

The reason that self-publishers can't use the sales agencies that the smaller publishers use is that those agencies require a minimum number of books in the publisher's catalogue, and a minimum annual turnover, in order to take the publisher on as a client: they don't consider publishers with one, two or three titles on their list, which effectively excludes most self-publishers.

Self-publishers could, of course, set up a collective to sell their works (and I've got a blog post in preparation which discusses this very subject); but they'd have to know how the mainstream publishing world works in order to make the most of that, which would be a hurdle for some.

As for your collectives, of course it's not out of line for you to mention them and I wouldn't dream of deleting your post because you did. So there.

Jane Smith said...

Ooops: I forgot this:

Here are neat little clickable links to those sites that Dan posted: Year Zero Writers, and Free-e-Day. There. That makes it a little easier to get to them.

Dan Holloway said...

Thanks :-)

At the risk of seeming to go way off track, I was showroom manager of a couple of luxury flooring showrooms way back when (whilst still convinced I could combine a job with the doctorate). I’m glad I’m out of retail now, but I loved working with some of the most beautiful products imaginable. And one thing the job taught me (coming back on track as quick as a turning liner) was the importance of logistics. The flooring trade was run through two parallel logistic lines – there was a national network of specialised wholesalers, and two massive logistics-only companies freelanced by manufacturers. And a few manufacturers who had their own small fleets in which they rented out spare capacity. 90% of complaints we had arose from logistics problems over which suppliers had no control. Again and again the top suppliers by customer satisfaction were those who worked with tiny fleets, only ever one phone call away from either supplier or customer. I think that was the place I really started believing what I’d read about in jargonese nonsense books about small, niche-oriented companies being more successful than bigger ones with economy of scale.

Translating to books, in 10 years time I think bookshops won’t be like they are today, as I’ve written several times (so I won’t rehash the detail, but I can do if people want) - not in a better or worse or should be or shouldn’t be way – just different. I don’t think there will be shops like Borders and B&N in their current form. I think there will be showrooms with one show copy of lots of books, and several POD machines (I think there will be these on the street corner and in supermarkets too). But there will also be specialist and independent shops (that’s how the flooring industry is moving, and I think it’s a transferable model) where knowledge is the USP. And it’s these that will be served by logistics companies (aside from this it will be big online operations – and the self-pubber can use these as well as anyone). So the logistics company of the future will be (again, no value judgment as to whether it’s good or bad) one that taps into this. Putting it all together, I see a real opportunity for smart, small-thinking logistics who will work with big and small alike, but because they service the independent sector, will be particularly happy to take clientele from the independent publishing arena

none said...

I remember Virgin tried the "one show copy" approach with music a few years ago here in the UK.

Funnily enough, none of those shops are around any more. An idea before its time? or just a duff idea?

I don't want to go into a bookshop and *wait* for a book. Any more than I want to go into the supermarket and wait for the hen toy lay.

none said...

*to* lay. sheesh.

Chris Kinsey said...

By Jove! I think Dan's onto something! Pretty much how I see the bookshop going as well.

Dan Holloway said...

Chris, "By Jove" always gives me an irresistible urge to come over all Rex Harrison and burst into song. It also remindss me of the dreadful joke we all learned in Latin about translating "templa Iovis" as "bread of heaven". Hmm too much Friday frivolity. I've just followee you on twitter. Delighted to meet. I see you're an indie bookshop person based in Oxfordshire. Have you come across the wonderful Albion Beatnik bookshop in Oxford?

Glasgow Writers said...

Hello Jane

Off topic I know and as such I apologise for this slight hijack, but can I just extend a belated thank you for wishing us well over at our new writers' group. I would have responded much earlier, but for a combination of being on holiday and an elderly computer powered by two small gerbils on a wheel who really don't like warm weather. I have passed on the details of Greyling Bay to our 119 members, so expect a few submissions in the coming weeks.

Thanks again
Alex @ GlasgowWriters

Marion Gropen said...

I'm sure most of your readers (let alone you, yourself) know this, but just in case:

Here in the US, self-publishers have access to the exclusive-to-the-trade distribution network, if they really do have books ready for prime time. One particularly good access point is the IBPA-IPG trade distribution program.

Or, they can get signed with a second or third tier distributor, of which there are many.

The problem is, of course, profit margins. This method only works if you really are SELF-publishing, rather than using a vanity press that calls itself a self-publishing service. And it works best if you're printing offset rather than POD.

(NB: the vanities would like you to think that you can't use POD printing without them, but it's ridiculous. You simply have to follow the rules on file prep. But in this game, you have to learn and follow the rules in ALL aspects, or you don't get very far.)

SharonM said...

I've got a book coming out soon, published by Matador (self-publishing imprint of Troubador publishers).

I thought you might be interested to know that they have just started using a sales representative company.

June said...

I managed to get my own self published book into almost 100 Waterstones by simply ringing them up. It took several months of work but was the best piece of marketing I ever did. The book is still in almost 70 of them nearly 2years on.

Jane Smith said...

SharonM, that's very interesting: can you let me know how the sales service works, and what it costs the author?

June, your efforts appear to have been very successful: congratulations. If you don't mind, could you tell us how much time and money the phone-round cost you, and how many books have sold as a result? I know that there are plenty of self-published writers who would like some hard data on the subject.

Richard Sutton said...

I had an interesting experience with selling my POD novel to my local Indie Bookseller, here in the USA. I made contact through a sales letter with a glossy book postcard, and was told, by phone, to leave a copy off for approval, and meet the person I'd be dealing with. It seemed pretty straightforward.

A week later, I was told the book was something they would be willing to carry, and I stopped by with a stack of 6, along with some point of purchase sales materials and a Letter-sized, color glossy poster advertising the book -- from my retail sales experience (20+ years behind my own counter) and my graphic design background, I assure you, the materials I was willing to provide were top-flight, attractive tools.

I was surprised that they would only accept the books on a consignment basis 50/50 with the author, which told me, that since it gave them a better margin than the distributors did, they'd work to sell the book. The formula I assumed they used, was more sales at higher margin yields more money.

A visit a week later, to check inventory revealed I was wrong. Despite their request for a color poster, my book was found, in the back, on a table covered with other "consigned" books. A few had sold, but nowhere in the store could my poster or any of my promotional materials be seen.

O.K. I get it. Since the book had not come through the door after an extensive book tour and collateral promotional campaign, on the hand truck of a BIG Distributor, then it really wasn't anything worthy of more exposure. I'm still a little surprised, as the margin on my book is better for the bookseller, so why the back-table treatment?