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Many Authors want to get their book into hundreds (or even thousands) of bookstores across the country. It’s one of the most common dreams I hear from first-time Authors.

But there have been many changes in the publishing industry since ebooks made self-publishing accessible to everyone. Today, being in bookstores doesn’t guarantee book sales—and it’s not the best way to make money with your book.

Even if you can get your book onto thousands of shelves across the country (and most Authors can’t), you’re taking a huge financial risk—the kind that can bankrupt a self-published Author.

And there’s absolutely zero reason to expose yourself to that kind of risk.

You can publish a tremendously successful book and use it to make a lot of money without being on any bookstore shelves. It has already been done, thousands of times, by countless other Authors similar to you.

Now, if you want to know the joy of walking into a bookstore and seeing your book sitting on the shelf, you can still make that happen. You just have to go about it the right way.

This guide will tell you everything you need to know about getting your book into brick-and-mortar bookstores—while avoiding the risks that can come with it.

I’ll walk you through:

  1. Why bookstores are so risky, especially for self-published Authors
  2. What being in bookstores requires and what it won’t do for you
  3. How you can get bookstores to sell your book online
  4. A low-risk approach if you really want to see your book on a bookstore shelf
  5. How to approach bookstores to make that happen
  6. Other, MUCH better ways to make money with your book

Do You Really Want Your Book to Be in Bookstores? (Probably Not)

Before you get started, you need to know that getting your book onto bookstore shelves takes a lot of work. And that’s fine.

Most things that are worth doing take a lot of work—like writing a book.

But before you go through everything it takes to get your book into stores, you need to make sure it’s what you really want to do.

There’s a huge difference between trying to get a few copies of your book into one local bookstore and trying to get thousands of copies of that book into bookstore chains across the country.

That second one, being in bookstore chains, is a lot harder to do. But more importantly, it exposes you to a lot more risk.

And, believe it or not, there’s NOT a huge difference in the number of books you’re likely to sell from getting your book into all those stores. At least, not for most Authors.

In other words, there’s a huge risk with almost no upside.

I know that sounds counterintuitive. Usually, the greater the risk, the greater the reward.

But the way the publishing industry works and the way people buy books today make brick-and-mortar stores a bad bet for most self-publishing Authors.

You’re a LOT better off making money with your book in other ways. To understand why, you need to know a few critical things about how bookstores really work.

How Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores Actually Work (And Why They’re So Risky)

1. Wholesale versus retail pricing

When a bookstore sells your book, you split the money from that sale with the bookstore. That’s how bookstores make their money.

Let’s say your print book retails for $14.99. That’s the price listed on the cover.

If the bookstore gets a 30% wholesale discount, that means they’re paying 30% less than the retail price, or $10.49.

When the bookstore sells it, they get to keep the extra $4.50 (30% of $14.99.)

You also have to pay for printing and shipping out of your $10.49. That’s about $3.00 to print a 150-page book + $2.25 shipping, so you’ll get to keep around $5.24.

Since the bookstore is only making $4.50 per book, they have to sell a LOT of books just to cover their expenses (salaries, rent, electricity, etc.).

That’s why bookstores are struggling to stay open—a factor that affects your own risk, as you’ll see in a minute.

2. How and when books get printed

You have to print a lot of copies of your book if you want to be in a lot of stores. That might seem obvious, but it’s a huge downside for most self-publishing Authors.

Self-published books are usually sold as print-on-demand, which means that copies of your book aren’t printed until someone actually buys them.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Someone buys your book at the retail price of $14.99
  2. After they sell it, the retailer orders that book from the printer for $10.49
  3. The printer prints and ships the book, keeping $5.25 total
  4. You get $5.24

But if you want your book to be in bookstores, that order flips around.

Now, bookstores become your customers instead of actual people. And those bookstores order your book BEFORE they sell it, instead of after.

Also, because it costs more for books to take up their shelf space, bookstores want a better discount (usually 40%). Here’s how it looks now:

  1. The bookstore buys copies of your book at $8.99 each
  2. The printer prints and ships the book, keeping $5.25 each
  3. You get $3.74 each
  4. The store puts those copies on a shelf, hoping they’ll sell
  5. IF people buy the book, the bookstore gets $14.99, or $6 more than it paid

This doesn’t sound terrible—except that bookstores won’t buy your book in the first place unless they have the right to return it if it doesn’t sell.

3. What “returnable” really means

Here’s the problem:

If the bookstore doesn’t sell your book—even if that’s because the bookstore went out of business—you have to give them back the $8.99 they paid for every single copy.

There’s no way around it. Making your book “returnable” is the only way bookstores will order it for their shelves.

And, remember, you didn’t get $8.99 per copy. You got $3.74 per copy.

So you’ll owe the bookstore more than 2x what you actually got per book.

And it gets worse. If a bookstore returns your books, you only have 2 choices:

  1. Pay for shipping and delivery of the books
  2. Or tell the bookstore to destroy the books and give them their money back anyway

Now, imagine what would happen if bookstores across the country all returned your book at the same time (like because of a pandemic).

You would owe $8.99 per book—for potentially thousands of books.

If you wanted those books back, you’d also have to pay for shipping on thousands of books and then find a way to store them.

You can see why I said this can bankrupt a self-publishing Author.

In fact, I personally know Authors who were trying to get their books into bookstores and failed. But they ended up extremely grateful that they did.

Their books were only in a handful of stores when the pandemic hit, so they only lost something like $50 when those stores shut down and returned all their inventory.

But bookstores were already struggling before the pandemic, and today, they have less foot traffic than ever. If even a small chain goes under, it can cost you thousands.

The risk of mass returns is by far the biggest risk of being in brick-and-mortar bookstores, but there are other aspects of bookstore sales that you should be aware of too.

4. Distributing your book through Ingram

Most self-publishing Authors publish their books through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) system—formerly Createspace.

KDP claims it can distribute your book to physical bookstores if you choose that option, and that’s true, to a degree.

But VERY few bookstores will order your print book through KDP for its physical shelves because the KDP system won’t let you make your books returnable.

Why? Because Amazon doesn’t want to end up in the situation I just described.

It doesn’t want to eat all those returns, and it doesn’t want to tell its KDP Authors that they have to eat those returns. Amazon isn’t going to put itself in that situation.

So if you want your book to be in physical stores, you’ll have to distribute your print book through IngramSpark.

And the IngramSpark dashboard is a lot more complicated than Amazon’s KDP.

5. The reality of wholesale discounts

Here’s the good news: if you want your print book to be in ONLINE stores (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Walmart, etc.), you can set the Ingram discount as low as 30%.

Ingram keeps 15% for shipping, and bookstores get 15% when they sell your book (and you still pay for printing).

For a book that retails at $14.99, you’d get to keep about $7.49 per book.

But that doesn’t work if you want your print book to take up shelf space in physical stores.

For that, you need to give retailers a 40% discount—which means you have to set your Ingram discount at 55% (because of the 15% Ingram keeps for shipping).

And you can’t pick and choose between online catalogs and stores.

In other words, you have to set that discount to 55% everywhere, so you only get $3.74 per book—even for the books that sell online.

In other words, you’re leaving money on the table with every online sale.

6. Bookstores won’t sell your book for you

Based on those numbers, you have to give up about half of your revenue per online sale if you want your book to be in stores. So you’d have to sell just as many EXTRA copies in physical stores simply to break even.

That’s not very likely, not only because physical stores are seeing less foot traffic, but also because of this simple fact:

Bookstores won’t sell your book for you.

Putting your book on a bookstore shelf does NOT mean it will sell. Bookstores give high-traffic placements and prominent endcaps to national bestsellers and established bestselling Authors.

bookshelves illustration

Your book won’t get those. Instead, it will be sandwiched on a mass shelf between a whole lot of other books, most of which you’ve never heard of.

If bookstore owners and employees haven’t heard of you or your book, they won’t do anything special to sell it.

The only way to sell books is for YOU to generate that demand by getting your book in the right media and in the right places for your niche target market to get excited about it.

And if you do that, your book doesn’t have to be on physical shelves. People will look it up online and order it without any risk to you.

So being on a shelf isn’t actually doing anything for you. There’s no real upside. What’s actually helping you is that people can search for your book and find it when they want to buy it.

The Best Solution for Self-Publishing Authors

Here’s the bottom line—the best solution for indie Authors who want to sell books through traditional bookstores is this:

  1. Get your book into online bookstore catalogs
  2. Generate demand with a solid book marketing plan
  3. Approach a few individual stores with your book if you really want to

1. Getting into online catalogs

The first step is simple and direct. Distribute your print book through IngramSpark (with your own ISBN) and set your wholesale discount at the lowest discount the system allows.

Your book will be picked up by most online retail catalogs automatically: from chains like Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million, to mass retailers like Amazon and Walmart, to indie bookstores with their own online stores.

2. Generating demand for your book

Self-publishers can generate demand for their book through a lot of different channels:

For specific strategies, read my posts on book promotion and book marketing plans for indie Authors.

3. Approaching individual stores with your book

If a bookseller knows and believes in your book, they will sell it.

So it’s worth being in a FEW bookstores if someone in those stores will be excited about it, and if they’ll order it at a discount rate that works with your overall strategy.

Or if they’ll sell your book on consignment, which some will.

Some local bookstores make special concessions for local Authors—especially independent bookstores.

How to Sell Your Self-Published Book to Bookstores

Step 1. Be your own sales team

Traditional publishers have sales teams who go to bookstores with binders full of books that the publisher wants to promote, convincing them to stock those books.

You need to do the same thing, but with your own book. In short, you need to be your own sales team.

Step 2. Craft your pitch

Publishers’ sales teams don’t try to convince bookstore owners that their books are good. They try to convince them that the books will sell.

There’s a huge difference.

Occasionally, a bookseller will fall in love with a particular book and will try to promote the heck out of it. As an indie Author, that’s your ideal situation.

But the more you can do to prove that you’re helping them generate demand, the better. Include things like:

  • Awards your book has received
  • Notable reviews and blurbs
  • Bestseller lists your book has appeared on
  • Media your book has appeared in
  • And anything else a bookstore can use to sell your book to its customers

Better yet, leave them with a review copy and show them any marketing materials you can provide to help make their job easier.

Step 3. Consider a hybrid discount strategy

Wholesale discounts aren’t all or nothing. While bookstores won’t want to stock your book at a 15% discount, they don’t really need the full 40% either.

A discount rate somewhere in between might work best for your own sales strategy, especially if you have a way to bring people in the door consistently.

Step 4. Think local

When it comes to local bookstores, your book has a home-court advantage. Booksellers often dedicate shelf space to promoting local Authors.

Instead of a phone call, approach your local bookstore in person.

Bring them a review copy of your book along with marketing materials they can use to advertise the fact that you’re a local Author.

If you can combine that with a solid pitch for a local event that can bring people in the door, you’ll be an instant favorite.

Step 5. Bring a crowd

Book signings aren’t what they used to be. Just holding a book signing isn’t enough to bring people in the door.

But if you can pitch a book signing that’s coordinated with a local media appearance (to help the bookstore advertise the event), they’ll be a lot more interested.

They can stock books for the event and even have you sign a few extra so they can sell them later as autographed copies.

If you have a way to bring crowds into stores across the country, you can always reach out to buyers at the big chains—but that comes with all the risks I described above.

Don’t pitch it unless you’re sure you can sell enough books to make it worth those risks (and that 40% discount).

Other (Much Better) Ways to Make Money with Your Book

At Scribe, we’ve helped hundreds of Authors write and publish their book, and many of those Authors have used their book to make a lot of money.

But most of that money didn’t come from book sales.

Instead, it came from things like:

  • Increased awareness of their company, services, or products
  • Higher speaking and consulting fees
  • More clients, customers, and opportunities
  • Expanded personal and professional networks
  • New connections with media outlets
  • And much, much more.

So if you really want your book to be a success, you don’t need to focus on book sales. Instead, consider these 20 proven ways to make money with your book.

The Bottom Line

Look, I’m not trying to tell you what to do with your book. It’s YOUR book. I just want you to be able to make an informed decision about what you want to do and how to get there.

But if you want my bottom-line recommendations and takeaways, here they are:

  1. Most Authors shouldn’t worry about being in bookstores. You don’t need to be in bookstores for your book to be successful.
  2. If you do decide to focus on bookstores, being in a small number of local stores is a lot less risky than being in a lot of stores across the country.
  3. If you want bookstores to stock your book on actual shelves, you can put your print book on IngramSpark, make it returnable, and set the discount to 55%. But you’ll still have to convince bookstores to stock it.
  4. If you do manage to get your book into a large number of stores, make sure you have a contingency plan. There’s a significant risk that your books could be returned, leaving you in the red.