Even though many bookstores are embattled these days—interestingly chains may be getting it worse than independent stores for a change, since there are signs that indie stores are on the rise again—the influence of bookstores on both publishers and readers is still important for any would-be author to understand. Here are three things about the relationship between books and bookstores that every author needs to know.
How Books End Up on Display Tables
Bookstores offer what we call “co-op” opportunities to publishers. This means out of every publisher’s catalog for a particular season, Store X chooses which books they want to “push.” The publisher shares the cost of this, which includes setting up display tables, “endcap” displays (those featured on the aisle end of bookshelf rows), cardboard stands (floor-standing types are known as “dumps”), and even decorating store windows. Co-op can also include stores’ newsletters, social media, and author events. Many publishers earmark a certain amount of marketing dollars for co-op each year and will make offers to bookstores to entice them into participating.
But don’t let all this distract you from what co-op really is—paid advertising. The only difference is a publisher can’t just choose what they want to advertise before plunking down cash. Store X first must agree to or offer the co-op and they have a lot of control over which titles they’re interested in, though special programs can often help the two parties find an amenable middle ground. How they choose which books to promote is a combination of what they think is trendy and will sell and what they think is cutting edge and will sell. There is a dash of each store’s buyer’s personal taste in there as well.
And by the way, publishers, not stores, usually design and create the cardboard display elements as well as other items like promotional bookmarks and posters.
How Bookstores Decide Which Titles to Stock
Bookstores alone choose what to stock and what not to stock, though of course publishers’ sales reps do their best to influence this process. These days, with so many titles coming out every season from a wealth of publishers big and small, even the biggest chains must be pickier. Most stick with current and recent frontlist titles, which is why customers are sometimes frustrated that they can find an author’s latest book on the shelves but not earlier works.
In publishing, everyone thinks “frontlist,” “midlist,” and “backlist.” This can get a little tricky, here, so pay attention while I parse this out. Frontlist and backlist usually refer to the length of time a book has been for sale, but frontlist can also refer to those titles a publisher is putting the most muscle behind. So frontlist titles are the big bestsellers, books from established authors, timely nonfiction offerings, or any new book the publisher wants to push.
The midlist, on the other hand, is not time-sensitive. It includes books that aren’t expected to be huge bestsellers and therefore aren’t getting big marketing budgets or publicity pushes. A publisher’s midlist may encompass follow-up titles for authors who were previously frontlist but did not perform as expected, “smaller” books (not in physical size, but in expected audience), and sometimes even frontlist titles that fail to generate enough pre-pub interest from the chains and so are walked back a bit. In short, books the publisher thinks have a reasonable chance at good sell-through, but probably not landing on the NYT list anytime soon.
Backlist titles are older books still in print but no longer actively worked on, which can range from last year’s bestsellers to the classics. Some publishers consider any book out more than 6 months to be a backlist title while others will give it a year, which tells you something about the attention span of many houses. Don’t be so quick to judge, though—the bigger the house, the more books they need to divide their attention and resources between, so it’s necessary to move on quickly from season to season. One could argue it’s the attention span of readers that drive this distinction as well, since in most cases if a book isn’t selling in its first few months, it isn’t likely to ever pick up.
If the frontlist is the publisher’s big gamble on satisfying public appetite with something new and exciting, the midlist and backlist are the meat and potatoes of the industry. Backlist titles, despite their age, stay in print when they continue to sell all by themselves without any attention (or because the author is still generating momentum through new releases). Aside from classics and bestselling authors, chain bookstores have steadily cut down on the amount of shelf space devoted to backlist and midlist titles as compared to independent bookstores. Readers are less likely to discover your older books while browsing in a chain store. And forget about the big-box stores or other chains with book sections if you’re not a household name or publishing’s latest darling—these outfits rarely carry anything but the latest bestselling titles.
Why Chains Don’t Often Sell Self-Published Books
Authors have very little control over whether or not a bookstore, or any other kind of store, will carry their books. As described previously, the bookstores have all the power in deciding what they will stock and how many copies of each—if you’re with a publisher, this process is facilitated by sales reps who pitch each season’s catalog to the book buyers (buyers for the stores, that is, not consumers).
If you’re a self-published author or with a very small publisher, your fight for shelf space is more like a war. First, there’s the stigma against self-publishing, which is evolving but still exists, and frankly for good reason. An overwhelming majority of independent titles today lack professional book editing, design, and marketing; if a store doesn’t think a product will sell, it isn’t going to stock that product, plain and simple. But, even given a willingness to stock indie books, stores often don’t (independent bookstores, though, have been increasingly supportive of local indie authors). One major reason is the lack of access and ease of ordering: If the book isn’t available through the major wholesale distributors like Ingram and Baker & Taylor for at least 40% off the cover price, just forget it. Indie authors and tiny publishers often don’t know or don’t have the vehicle through which to offer their books according to these standards, which brings me to my second point.
As described previously, retail establishments mainly find out about products in two ways: catalogs and direct marketing. With books, stores receive catalogs from publishers each season highlighting upcoming titles. Bigger publishers also employ teams of sales representatives who travel the country, often meeting one-on-one with regional buyers for the chains and wholesale distributors. Small publishers and independent authors don’t have the budgets or substantial-enough lists for this. And if a store doesn’t know about a book, it can’t stock it.
Third and finally, you won’t often find self-published books in bookstores because they’d rather devote limited shelf space to better bets. It’s basic economics, really. Most focus on frontlist titles because historically they’ve generated the greatest sales. Remember, bookstores are most attracted to books that will be getting a healthy share of their publishers’ and authors’ marketing budgets. Stores fill in the gaps with strong midlist and backlist books—primarily classics and previous titles from bestselling career authors, since each time an author’s latest book comes out the stores have a chance to squeeze more dollars out of his or her backlist. Regional buyers will also fill shelving gaps with subjects relevant to local demographics and based on category sales histories (for example, bookstores in aging communities might stock more books on subjects like managing advanced health issues or popular children’s books for the grandchildren).
With all of that going on, it’s easy to see why a tiny publisher’s new list or a self-publisher’s first book can’t get a toehold. Again, indie authors have marginally better luck with independent bookstores, especially if they are local and community-oriented, but the basic economics still apply: Stores are businesses, and they need sales to say in business.
Next time we’ll talk about a few ways you can increase your book’s chances of finding a home on store shelves or tables, and also discuss why you might not care. In the meantime, if you’ve had an experience, positive or negative, with chain or independent bookstores, please comment below and help your fellow authors out!
Founder of The Writer’s Ally, Ally E. Machate is a bestselling book collaborator, award-winning editor, and expert publishing consultant who loves using her insider knowledge and experience with the publishing industry to lead serious authors toward success. She and her team live to help make great books happen, whether that means showing a writer how to improve a manuscript, get an agent, or self-publish; or coaching an author on growing her platform to sell more books. Since 1999, she has supported hundreds of authors on their publishing journey and takes pride in serving as their books’ best ally.