Just a few years ago, readers paid little attention to books published by independent (indie) authors. Self-published books were considered second rate, not worth the investment of hard-earned cash. Today, with attractive eBook prices and quality that rivals that of books published by New York houses, readers are turning in droves to indie-authored books. In fact, more than half the top 20 books on Amazon’s current Kindle “Movers and Shakers” list—hot books rising fastest up the Amazon sales ranks—are indie or small press published.
Why then, given their popularity, are so few indie books available on bookstore shelves?
In the old days, it was nearly impossible for self-publishers to attract the attention of major distributors like Ingram or Baker and Taylor. If a book was not listed in the distribution catalogues, unless the author brought his or her book to their attention, buyers had no way to know it existed. Now, Createspace, Amazon’s self-publishing arm, Lightning Source—a publishing resource for printing, distribution and digital fulfillment—and some self publishing companies offer distribution services for indie authors, making availability less of an issue.
Still, the problem persists. In 2011, Barbara Freethy, a #1 New York Times bestselling author of thirty novels, began self-publishing her backlist. Freethy has sold an amazing 1.5 million books. While she’s currently in talks with distributors, bookstores do not yet stock her self-published titles. It may be tempting to chalk it up to a conspiracy to marginalize indie books—conspiracy theories are fun! In reality, it comes down to dollars and cents.
In the traditional model, publishers offer a healthy discount and books are fully returnable. Many indie publishers offer less than the standard industry discount (55%) and most can’t afford to allow stores to return unsold books. With diminishing profits and limited shelf space, the majority of bookstore owners can't or won't stock books that cannot be returned.
Some companies that cater to self-publishers—Llumina Press, for example—now offer a returns option, often in partnership with a distributor like Ingram. However, the cost of the programs can be high and books placed in their distribution chains must be published under a house ISBN number (as opposed to the author’s). The bigger problem: while traditional publishers employ a sales team to market their lists, self-publishers are on their own, fully responsible for marketing and selling their book to bookstores—an uphill battle at best.
Price is another factor. Large publishers print thousands of books in a run, vastly reducing the unit cost. Most indie authors and small publishers cannot afford large offset print runs; instead, they rely on print on demand technology (POD). With POD, books are printed to fill orders, individually or in short runs. To compete with large publishers, authors must slash earnings, which reduces funds available for marketing and is not always viable. POD, as Freethy points out, “just makes books available so that readers can order a print book.”
For all these reasons, most bookstores prefer to work with traditional publishers. Who can blame them? Weak profits have forced the closure of even large chains like Borders. To stay in business, owners must be mindful of cost and make the most of their limited real estate.
Getting Indie Books Into Stores
Savvy indie authors do get books into stores, by using grassroots tactics. In other words, they develop relationships with owners and employees at bookstores in their area. By hosting signings and participating in literary events, they attract the attention of the local press and develop a following. To solve the problem of returns, some authors offer books on consignment. These smart tactics work well on a small scale; with the high cost, in both time and money, hand-to-hand selling is not a feasible option for large-scale distribution.
John Locke, bestselling author of the Donovan Creed Series, Emmett Love westerns, and Dani Ripper novels, has beaten the odds by taking distribution into his own hands. Locke recently struck a deal with Simon and Schuster whereby he publishes through his imprint, John Locke Books, and Simon and Schuster distributes to bookstores and retailers across the country. “This was a perfect solution to getting my book "Wish List" into stores,” Locke says.
Nevertheless, the deal is not the panacea he’d hoped it would be. “Getting books into stores is only the beginning,” Locke points out. “Getting good placement in stores is even harder.”
With limited shelf space, choice placement goes to well-known authors and books expected to be hot sellers. And therein lies the rub. Building a broad-based audience—becoming well known—requires media attention, and, for the most part, the traditional media ignore self- publishers. Despite Locke’s being a wildly successful indie author, no traditional press has ever reviewed or written about his books. As Locke is quick to point out, he’s received wonderful press in online editions. But their readers generally buy eBooks, not paperbacks.
“I thought once the Simon and Schuster deal came out, this would change for me,” Locke says. “As it turns out, I’m still taboo when it comes to newspaper and magazine reviews.”
To build an audience among paperback buyers, Locke’s only tools are word of mouth, online advertising and interviews, and placement on bookstore shelves. “While my book Wish List is in bookstores (a major achievement) very few people know about it or have heard of me.” In a scenario where his books must compete for placement against books by famous authors, it makes sense, he says, that his are the ones relegated to the back racks.
Changes on the Horizon
As the market for indie books continues to expand, the situation is bound to change.
Barbara Freethy is currently exploring her print distribution options. “This is a huge untapped market,” Freethy says. “I personally have many, many readers clamoring for my books to come out in print . . . [now] if they don't have an electronic reader, they're out of luck.”
For authors [like Freethy and Locke] with many successful eBooks, partnering with a publisher for print distribution makes a lot of sense, says literary agent Jenny Bent, founder of The Bent Agency in Brooklyn, New York. “But I think this will only be attractive for publishers in scenarios where there are a lot of successful books to distribute—so it won't be an option for an author who only has one or two books.”
Literary agent and publishing consultant Joelle Delbourgo, founder and president of Joelle Delbourgo Associates, Inc., agrees that individual author distribution clients are rare. Publishers are unlikely to take on a writer as a client, she says, unless the author has proven high level success. To one publisher, success may mean selling 5000 books, to another 20,000. Another measure a publisher may use to evaluate a prospective client is velocity of sale--meaning the book is selling quickly, over a sustained period of time.
To serve clients who wish to self-publish, Delbourgo has made an arrangement with ARGO Constellation, the electronic distribution arm of Perseus Press. Constellation offers a la carte services to agents and small press clients, which include converting and uploading eBooks, as well as managing vendor relationships. Delbourgo facilitates a client's relationship with ARGO Constellation and offers publishing advice.
This arrangement allows a writer to self-publish, but there are fewer administrative hassles, the author has a seasoned agent as a partner in the venture, and authors retain a whopping 50 - 60% of their earnings minus agency commission. ARGO Constellation does not work directly with authors, though, so a literary agent is a necessary part of this equation.
Authors without an agent must find other avenues. Jenny Bent believes such avenues may open soon: “In the next few months we will see more options for print distribution opening up as smaller companies figure out ways to solve this problem for e-pubbed authors.”
Once current distribution issues are resolved, the next step will be finding a way to attract the attention of traditional media. It’s hard, says Locke, to “get the media to recognize your book, so that readers know how to look for it.” Don’t get him wrong: he’s not complaining. “This is part of the equation,” he says. “The part I have not been able to solve. Yet.”
Traditional media may be tough to crack, but the walls are falling down. One day soon, popular, groundbreaking indie authors like John Locke and Barbara Freethy will get their due notice—and their fans will find their books prominently displayed on bookstore shelves.
NB: John Locke has just completed a new novel titled Bad Doctor. The ebook version should be out in less than two weeks and will be on sale for 99 cents.
Terri Giuliano Long is a contributing writer for Indie Reader. She has written news and feature articles for numerous publications, including the Boston Globe and the Huffington Post. She lives with her family on the East Coast and teaches at Boston College. Her debut novel, In Leah’s Wake, has been an Amazon Kindle bestseller since August 2011. For more information, please visit her website.