Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door, so goes the long-held aphorism. A corollary would be, write a better book and the world will be clamouring to read it. Neither of these is true if the world doesn’t know about your mousetrap or book. Many authors try to solve this problem by seeking a publishing house to take on the task of promoting your book and distributing it to retailers, including the on-line behemoth, Amazon? Failing this, the striving indie author has to get his books into bookstores himself. But is this a viable strategy if bookstores themselves are a failing business model when, we understand, 80% of books are now sold through Amazon. Surely bricks and mortar stores are dead.
In this post we want to explore the problem the indie author faces in getting his books into retail outlets. But that too takes a lot of stamina.
The Indigo Empire
Even before on-line Amazon, big box bookstores were spelling the demise of small bricks and mortar stores. Chapters (remember them?), Canada’s largest big box bookstores, drove the first few nails into the small book-stores’ coffins, especially in the bigger cities and towns. Chapters was no friend of indie authors, but it wasn’t really their fault. They are in business to make money selling books and most customers want to buy books by name authors, living or dead, not unknown aspirants. Chapters devoted about two small shelves to Indie Authors, but only local authors or books with local interest. Two small shelves, space for about 70 books. There are, perhaps surprising, hundreds of authors competing for those two shelves. One Chapters’ manager told me he’d love to stock my book but the waiting list was about two years. Chapters has now been completely converted to Indigo Books. But look what is happening to Indigo: they are re-inventing themselves as trendy home décor stores of which books are becoming mere décor. I doubt there’s even room for two shelves for local authors’ books.
Coles Books is a nationwide chain of small bookstores located in big city shopping plazas, not on Main Street, Smallville. Coles is owned by Chapters/Indigo but each Coles Store operates much like Indie bookstores in small towns: the store manager decides what local authors they will stock, and for how long; they even will schedule an author book-signing day. All of which means, that, as an Indie author, you have to contact every Coles store you can find and ask if they will stock your book. This is done by email, possibly by phone if the store manager is in and the clerk answering the phone will put you through. Store managers get thousands of these requests. You can feel the exhaustion in her voice if she even answers her phone (a phone call just distracts them from her email); these managers spend more time in their offices than they do in their stores. I don’t envy the jobs of retail owners and managers.
The Search for Independent Booksellers
Despite the alarm bells, we hear that bricks and mortar bookstores refuse to die (Kenneth Whyte on Shush – A Bookselling Miracle), and there is a sense that there may be something of a comeback for that shopping-in-person browsing experience now that pandemic fears have abated. It’s no coincidence that most indie bookstores are found in small towns, beyond the reach of Chapters/Indigo, but these small community stores still need enough traffic to remain viable, so many of these have adopted a complimentary on-line ordering system. It also seems indie bookstores often are more receptive to presenting indie authors work in their stores. But these too mostly limit their acceptances to local authors and local settings.
So in seeking retail channels for our book, The Treasure of Stella Bay, we abandoned the Indigo empire and sought out local independent bookstores instead, especially those located in Ottawa (local author angle) and the Lake Ontario/Kingston region (to exploit the Amherst Island/Stella Bay locale angle). We hoped the indie angle would find a more receptive audience than Indigo.
There is no financial risk to the retailer for stocking your book – books are carried on a contingency basis, meaning the indie author pays the printing and shipping costs and the retailer keeps a share of the selling price (usually a 40/60 split) when books are sold. The retailer’s only cost is overhead and ‘warehousing’ your books, which is ‘no cost at all’. But, as we’ve previously discussed, at a 40% share to the retailer the indie author barely covers his own print, shipping and handling costs. For this reason I don’t place my books in stores which won’t agree to a maximum commission of 30%; luckily, many indie operators will agree to that rate, or even lower. Even at 30%, the margins obtained selling his books in indie stores is not much better than selling on Amazon. For either channel, the only way to make anything like serious money is to sell in volume, drawing customers to your selling site through social media like Vivian Boyko (see last post).
Turns out there are a number of receptive, even altruistic, indie operators willing to carry your book if you make a good case for it. But there is a limit: there are thousands of indie authors clamoring for the privilege of having their books on retailers’ shelves. Even if the dealer agrees to terms with the author, the term is usually only 6 – 12 months unless the book sells well; they don’t want to warehouse your unsold books indefinitely, they want you to take them back.
There are still quite a lot of local bookstores in Canada. They have a loose affiliation through the Canadian Independent Booksellers Association, and they all seem to use the same inventory management and on-line customer ordering system. Each one has to be contacted separately – after all, they are independent. By using google searches and CIBA’s own ‘Find a Book Store’ map, (go ahead, check it out) I gradually built up a network of local retailers who agreed to carry my book.
[In my various internet searches for independent booksellers in Canada I also stumbled upon indie booksellers in the US. (I even gave some thought to seeing if some retailers in upstate New York might be interested in carrying The Treasure of Stella Bay but that seemed a reach and I haven’t pursued the idea further – and besides, there’s damned few indie bookstores in economically stressed upstate New York). In any event in my on-line travels I came upon Bookshop.org – an on-line bookseller with this mission: To help local, independent bookstores thrive in the age of e-commerce. Every Purchase Supports Local Bookstores. A Better Way to Buy Books Online. Bookshop.org operates in the USA, UK and Spain (for some reason), but not Canada. I wrote to them to enquire about their plans for Canada. They hope to open a Canadian division in the near future. There may be hope for indie bookstores yet. And a role for the CIBA.]
Despite all these obstacles I count myself fortunate that I had managed to build up a network of retailers to carry my books, though curiously, some of them are not even bookstores. Five stores are in Ottawa, levering the local author angle (Books on Beechwood, Singing Pebble Books; even Coles in Billings Bridge Plaza, plus two Boomerang Kids stores); ten stores are in the Kingston/Lake Ontario region, levering the local interest angle. One is in Williams Lake British Columbia via the agency of my brother who lives there, but by coincidence, levering the sentimental angle because the owner of The Open Book (Angela Laird) once lived on Amherst Island! A few of these retailers have sold a couple of dozen copies of my book; most have sold maybe one. Understandably, though discouragingly, I couldn’t get traction with any bookstores in the rest of Eastern Ontario: Perth, Almonte, Arnprior, Campbellford, Peterborough, nor North Bay (!): I was neither a local author, nor was my book of local interest. (I even tried the rather famous bookstore in Uxbridge (Blue Heron Books) but my application went a week before the store was blown away (literally) when the derecho blew through Ontario last May.)
You can see my strategy here: if my book could get traction with these parochial stores, I could then lever this reputation into indie stores in the ‘big smoke’ (i.e., Toronto).
So, as an indie author, you feel great when a retailer agrees to carry your book. You feel even better when he sells a few copies. But it’s still up to you to promote your book. And the clock is ticking.
Sustaining interest and commitment
An important principle for effective relationships is to sustain interest and commitment. When the initial bloom is off the proverbial rose, commercial or romantic, how do you keep the relationship going? This is best obtained by sufficiently frequent contact and communications. (I suppose the hidden strategy is to turn the commercial relationship into a personal one, making it slightly harder for the retailer to dump you.)
I seek to cultivate the relationship progressively: the initial contact and discussion is usually via email (these days that is almost the only way) but email is rather soulless and easily ignored. In most cases I follow that up with a phone call, and then, where not too inconvenient, by actually visiting my retailers, initially to deliver the books, and subsequently, just to drop by to see how things are going. I visited all my retailers in the Kingston area, some of them 2 – 3 times (made more complicated because of intermittent pandemic restrictions); time and travel expenses made visiting the bookstores further afield (Brighton, Cobourg, Port Hope, and of course, Williams Lake) limited contact to correspondence and phone. The Ottawa retailers, of course, in person.
I followed up regularly (more or less monthly) with a newsletter to my retailers (and all my loyal followers and supporters) about the challenges of being an indie author, and progress in marketing my book. I supplied them with promotional bookmarks. I produced shelf signs to draw attention to my books.I wrote to my retailers seasonally inquiring about sales, and, optimistically, restocking
Be careful what you wish for
One of my retailers, The Weasel and Easel in Stella Bay, which only operates in the summer, reported they had sold another five copies of my book in 2022 (after having sold a dozen in 2021) and would be pleased to carry more for the 2023 summer season. The Woolshed at Topsy Farms on Amherst Island had a good season and will be stocking more copies of The Treasure of Stella Bay this coming summer. Boomerang Kids in Kanata and Barrhaven continue to sell a couple here and there. Note, none of these are actually bookstores.
Of my bookstore partners, Books on Main in Bath have by far sold more books than the other indie bookstores, but even there, sales in 2022 slowed to a trickle, or dry. I suppose everyone living in Bath have bought their copy. We hope for more sales from tourist traffic come summer.
From most of my other retailers, crickets, which may be a case of no news is good news.
Or maybe not.
Two of my retailers have called for an end of our engagement – could I please come by and pick up my unsold copies. Ouch. I’m thinking of asking them to sell them off at half price to save me the trouble and further expense of retrieving them myself; or giving them away to local church bazaars. I’d hate to see them become landfill.
The last word
One of my retailers, (Bridget, of Books on Beechwood) wrote me a poignant response to my remarks on the plight of indie authors in Canada (and for that matter, indie bookstores). Here’s the correspondence:
DJ: I’m quite sure this is a common dilemma for Canadian Independent Authors – how to get books in the hands of readers. Canadian buyers, and even borrowers, are evidently risk-averse and are reluctant to take on a book from an unknown author. I am the Treasurer of Canadian Authors Association (CAA) and an architect of our 2021-26 Strategic Plan. One of the key intentions in our strategic plan is to find ways for our Members to promote and sell their books. Indie Bookstores have to be part of that process but it's a difficult nut to crack. We know there are thousands of aspiring writers in Canada trying to find shelf space and get seen by readers, and they have to compete with [mostly American] recognized authors promoted by big publishing houses. They can’t all make it to booksellers’ shelves. We will need to team up with Indie Publishers and Booksellers to develop other ways to gain exposure. I wonder if you have any thoughts on this thorny problem.
BBB: We do our best to support local authors and Canadian publishers. As to the plight of the self-publisher, it is indeed a tough slog. We take in almost all authors who approach us to carry their book and we urge them to do promotion of their title in order to a) tell potential customers where the book can be bought and b) drive them into the store. Clearly you know all this but most don't. At present we have upwards of 1,000 consignment books in our store and I think it is safe to say that the sell rate is about 30%, not a good percentage and otherwise unacceptable with regard to the rest of our publisher obtained inventory. The number of consignment books is admittedly higher than normal as we really haven't had the time or inclination to go through the very time-consuming task of contacting authors to come and get paid and take the leftover books away. Sometimes we feel like a warehouse for forgotten books. Authors bring them in and never come back again or even inquire about their sales. Of course there are many authors who do their best to support their book and keep tabs on sales.
Did you find some of her remarks alarming, as I did? More than a 1000 consignment books in the store. Only a 30% sell rate. It is very time-consuming to contact authors. Some authors never come back. She feels like a warehouse for forgotten books.
Evidently, bricks and mortar bookstores have a host of problems making a go of it. And they’re not there just to help indie authors. Once again, the indie author has to make his own way.
We’ll investigate these other ways in future posts.
Doug Jordan, reporting to you from Kanata, Canada.
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