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.