Paperback Distribution: Bookshops

Image courtesy of Vitaisy/Pixabay

When you purchase an ISBN, your book is automatically listed on a database, accessible to all online and high street bookshops.

This doesn’t mean it’s going to appear on their shelves. However, once the publication date has been reached, if a customer walks in and requests the title, the bookshop can order a copy for them. Equally, it should be listed on sites such as WHSmith and Waterstones online, from where anyone can order themselves a copy.

When this exciting event occurs, you’ll receive an email at the address you provided on your ISBN application form. You’ll then need to contact whoever made the order (quite possibly a third-party distributer, such as Gardners or Bertrams) and check their terms and conditions. In all likelihood, they’ll include a commission (known as a trade discount) of around 50% of the cover price.

If you agree to this, you simply post your book to the address they provide, along with an invoice. You pay postage. You’ll receive payment (minus the trade discount) by cheque or BACs within a couple of months (check the purchaser’s terms and conditions for the exact timescale).

You’re not obliged to fulfil an order if the terms and conditions aren’t suitable. However, it’s a good idea to be aware of trade discounts and decide if you want to register on Nielsen’s database beforehand, in order to avoid customer disappointment.

Can you make a profit receiving only 50% of the cover price minus postage and printing costs? Let’s look at the economics of this:

bookshop economics.JPG

Yes, that’s right: on a standard book you’d actually lose around £1.50. If you’re wondering how anyone makes a profit selling this way, the answer is mass production. Bestsellers are produced in such large quantities that printing costs per copy reduce to a fraction of what the average self-publisher pays on a smaller digital print run. Furthermore, the books are dispatched in bulk, by big scale distributors who have huge batches of books flying around the country on a daily basis, so postage and packing overheads per book become negligible. With these two big costs vastly reduced, they can afford to sell books at much less than £7.99 and still make a profit.

Where does this leave the small-scale self-publisher? I would never suggest printing on a large-scale. Ending up with 10,000 unsold copies is no fun, either financially or psychologically. You could, of course, artificially inflate the cover price but then no one, other than your mum, is going to order the book in the first place.

This leaves the only other variable as postage costs. The above is based on sending one copy of your book as and when it’s ordered. The dream of most self-publishers, however, is to see their books on the shelves of their favourite bookshops. In this case, you’ll send the books in consignments of however many the shop agrees to stock, which will significantly reduce postage costs per copy.

However, getting your book into shops doesn’t guarantee a sale. Unless it’s prominently displayed with the bestsellers at one of those 4 for 3 tables, the chances of someone stumbling across it, tucked away, in an obscure corner and deciding to buy it, are slim. There are random browsers in every bookshop but the majority of people are either looking for a specific book they’ve already heard of or don’t make it past the bestsellers at the front.

What happens if your book doesn’t sell? When a bookshop agrees to take X number of copies, it doesn’t actually buy them but accepts them on a Sale or Return basis. This means that you only get paid if a customer buys the books. The bookshop retains the right to return unsold copies, as late as six or nine months later. By this stage, they could be in any condition and to add insult to injury, you’ll be invoiced for the return postage.

Even if you decide you still want to go ahead and try this method, it’ll be an uphill struggle to get stores like WHSmith and Waterstones to stock your book. Large chains have their own distribution networks which are very hard for the average self-publisher to penetrate. Regional managers at Waterstones do have some discretion and a small budget to stock local titles. Given this, you might just stand a chance of getting your book into a regional branch but you’re unlikely to get it stocked at a national level.

All this seems to leave self-publishers in a fairly hopeless position and may force you to conclude it isn’t worth purchasing an ISBN. If your book is likely to garner either local or specialist interest, though, read on.

Supplying Local Bookshops

If your book has particular local interest, it may well be worthwhile trying to get it physically onto the shelves of local bookshops. Two important factors make this economically viable. Firstly, independent shops often take a smaller commission of around 35–40%. Secondly, being local, you can hand-deliver the books and eliminate postage costs altogether. In this case, the royalty looks a lot healthier:


If the shop decides to sell your book at a discount, don’t worry: it won’t make any difference to your profit. Assuming the trade discount is 35%, they’ll always pay you 65% of the original cover price, whether they go on to sell your book at £7.99 or £2.99. The same is true for national chains, Amazon or CreateSpace: any discount they impose comes out of their commission, not your royalty.

So, how do you go about getting your book into local bookshops? The simplest answer is, you go into the shop and ask. Make sure you pick a quiet time, not while the manager is trying to serve a queue of people in a Saturday afternoon rush. Ask if it’s a convenient moment and if not, if it would be OK for you to come back later or make an appointment.

Take two things with you:

  • A copy of your book so they can see it’s professionally produced and not the pile of pants they might have come to expect from a self-publisher.
  • A well designed Advance Information (AI) sheet containing all the relevant data on your book. I’ll provide instructions on how to produce one of these when I discuss marketing.

It’s also a good idea to bring along a sample of any promotional material you may have, such as bookmarks or flyers but don’t take too much. You don’t want to bombard the manager on your first meeting.

Always be civil and professional and don’t badger. If they don’t want to stock your book, you can politely ask for feedback as to why. This might help you approach other shops or reassess the focus of your distribution efforts.

At the end of the day, if they don’t think your book will sell in their shop, it’s not in either of your interests to force the issue. Remember the sale or return rule. If your books don’t sell, you’ll only end up with tatty copies sent back to you in six months’ time.

If they do take the book, ask if they’d like a stack of bookmarks, flyers or perhaps a promotional poster, if you have one. They may not have room for any of these but it’s worth asking. If you’re really lucky, the addition of attractive marketing materials might just get your book more prominently displayed.

Another way to make the prospect of stocking your book more attractive is to offer to bring in trade. For instance, in your publicity material, you could mention that the book is available to purchase in their shop.

If they accept your book, present them with the number of copies agreed upon and an invoice. To produce a professional-looking invoice, download a template in Word, much as you did with your packing slip. On most versions of Word, select File (Office Button in Word 2007) -> New. On a Mac, the command is File -> New from Template. 

Look for a box which reads Search for online templates, Search for templates or something similar, type Invoice into it and press Enter. You’ll be presented with a dozen or so options. Choose a simple one: nothing says amateur more than an overly fussy design. Once you’ve made your selection, press Create or Download (the exact command varies depending which version of Word you’re using). Your invoice will open in a new window.

Personalise the invoice, completing all necessary fields. Include your address. Unlike packing slips, this is exclusively designed for a business contact who will expect information on where to return the books, if necessary.

Ensure you also complete the billing and delivery address of the bookshop (usually the same), the date, the invoice number (maybe start at 100 so you don’t have the embarrassment of revealing the bookshop is, in fact, your first customer), say how you prefer to be paid e.g. payment by BACS (include account number and sort code) or cheque and your preferred contact method e.g. an email address.

After editing, you should have a professional-looking invoice containing all relevant information:

random invoice.jpg


I presented this invoice to my local bookshop and the owner was impressed by my professionalism. Personally, I think that’s more a worrying comment on the methods of other self-publishers rather than my ability to effectively print out a simple, template-based invoice. Whichever it is, though, it clearly gave the impression of professionalism, which is what you want to achieve.

Very occasionally the bookshop will pay upfront. For instance, the generous manager at my local bookshop paid straight away, circumventing the usual sale or return policy, saying he liked to encourage local authors. This is highly unusual. You’ll normally have to wait 30 days or more after a book has sold to receive payment.

Specialist Bookshops

Another instance in which it might be worth purchasing an ISBN is if your book is of interest to particular group. For example, if you’ve written a book about birds and bird watching, there may be a number of specialist bookshops and other outlets where you could try to get your book stocked. You can search for these online.

Approach them by sending a copy of your book, along with a covering letter and an AI sheet. You’re unlikely to get the book back and may never hear from them. For this reason, be selective about where you send it. That said, it’s definitely worth the loss of a few copies to get your book placed at a location where your target market gathers.

This sort of selective book placement is what self-publishing is all about. You can’t compete, either economically or for attention, with bestsellers in big bookshops. Instead, get your book to specifically targeted, smaller-scale locations, whether they be online or in the real world. Here, it can be presented more prominently, directly to the sort of people it might appeal to. Hopefully the quality of your product and writing will do the rest and you’ll slowly build up a following in your niche market.

Supplying specialist shops, may, again, be more economically viable than national chains. Independent shops often have smaller commissions of 35–40%. Also, there’s a higher probability of making sales as you’re specifically targeting your customers. This means fewer returned unsold copies and the possibility of sending your books in postage-saving bigger batches.

Using All-In-One Package Providers

One final point while we’re on the subject of bookshops. If you’re really serious about getting your book physically onto their shelves, it’s worth checking out Matador’s services. They have strong trade and distribution links and many years experience in traditional publishing so know exactly how to present your book to buyers within the book trade.

They’re also practical and realistic and won’t try to sell you the dream of having your book on those Waterstones bestseller tables. Instead, they focus on local and specialist shops and target their efforts where they’re more likely to find success. Furthermore, because they have a large distribution network and are more often than not already sending a book to wherever yours is destined, they usually cover the cost of postage.

More on all-in-one providers in later posts.


Next time: Selling through Amazon




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