Self-Publishing and Indie Bookstores – Not a Good Match, Really

Self-Publishing and Indie Bookstores – Not a Good Match, Really

I’ve been trying to work with a local bookstore, to get them to carry a book by a local author. (It happens to be by an indie-press, my own Crickhollow Books, not self-published, but that’s sort of the same thing in the bookstore’s eye.)

The irony: the author is a member of a writing group that has met at that very bookstore for years. Still, the bookstore owner was resistant.

Why? Because the bookstore owner didn’t really know the title, was afraid it might be self-published, and didn’t think she could get the book through Ingram (which she can, in fact, as the book’s catalog sheet indicates.)

The point: if a good indie micro-press has this much trouble, what chance does a self-published author have with local bookstores? Not much. Is there a thorough review and consideration? Probably not.

It’s less a matter of the quality of the book, clearly. It’s more a practical issue: one of the time and trouble it takes to make the decision, vs. the potential reward. Let’s face it. Bookstores, large and small, survive on the sales of the most popular books by very popular authors: Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Sue Grafton, etc.

Then, they sell a good number of new books by major presses, mostly when the titles are new (and so haven’t tapped their audiences). After a few months, those are replaced by other new books by major publishing houses, with entirely fresh sales potential. (By the way, those publishers also often pay for shelf space and premium display, real money that the bookstore gets to keep regardless of how well the book sells.)

In contrast, self-publishing or indie micro-press strategies – going for niche audiences, which are better reached over the Internet, and longer-term involvement in fewer titles – just don’t match up well with bookstore sales goals and the need to be efficient about it, given the stores’ meager margins. (Trust me, bookstore owners are not getting rich.)

I doubt most bookstore owners would disagree. Although they keep a theoretical interest in local authors and regional indie publishing . . . in practice, they have a greater need to set up strong defensive mechanisms to ward off the truly wretched or poorly conceived self-published books, with weak covers, no marketing, priced too high, similar to other better things on the market, etc.

Given the easy access to publishing technology, there’s a glut of poor or mediocre low-budget POD titles. And stores need to fend them off.

Here’s an example of one such policy (note the concern about books priced too high, a real competitive weakness of most self-published POD books):

The policy is from the website of a Missouri indie-bookstore with the charming Twain-ian name, Pudd’nhead Books. (By the way, Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens was a gifted pitchman who knew how to promote his books in advance to potential buyers.)

Thank you for considering Pudd’nhead Books for placement of your book. Because we are approached several times each week by authors hoping we will sell their books . . . before you leave a copy for review please consider the following:

Technology has made publishing easier, often without traditional professional editing, proofreading, and evaluation of marketing and distribution. Consequently, the number of books we are asked to review continues to rise dramatically.  (. . .) Of principle importance is whether the book will sell in this outlet, with the audience of our customers. We consider the subject, production quality, retail price, and terms, as well as our judgment of the writing and editing.

We regret the need to be so blunt, but we simply don’t have the time to evaluate so many books. We decline many books, including those by well-known and award-winning writers, if they are not a good match for our store. It is never a pleasant task to decline when dealing directly with an author rather than simply reviewing a catalog, but . . . we only accept well less than 1 in 100.

While we are not saying this is the case with your book, many of the books we are asked to try to sell are overpriced compared to similar books, the content is of very limited interest to anyone other than the writer’s friends and family, and/or a lack of editing or even proofreading is obvious. A surprising number of writers acknowledge that they have never paid a similar price for a similar book from an unknown writer and an unknown publisher with no objective reviews, yet expect us to try to sell theirs…

We would love for your book to be the exception. . . . If you want to leave your book for review after considering the above, please carefully read the policies stated on the attached form. . . . If your book is available from Ingram, we will bring it in from them if we decide to carry it. If we decide to carry your book on consignment, we will contact you with the appropriate form.

Thanks for your interest in Pudd’nhead Books, and good luck with your book.

Nikki Furrer, Owner

The ABA (American Booksellers Association.) has been encouraging indie bookstores to set up such policies. They are primarily defensive. Yes, it would be nice if the occasional good micro-title got through. But honestly, if not, it’s not a big problem for the bookstore if they don’t.

Some of these policies are a bit one-sided. One I saw gave the bookstore the right to unilaterally mark-down the price. In theory, that could be to $1, in which case the author would get $.60. In my view, that’s a little extreme to include in a consignment agreement, asking an author to sign it to get their book into the store.

On the other side, indie bookstores aren’t really a great sales venue for the author or micro-publisher, either. There are too many hidden costs for slim possible revenues. Most micro-press sales happen through specialty shops (museum stores, gift shops, etc.) where books are narrowly chosen and displayed face-out. Or through “long tail” avenues like Amazon, where niche books can do quite well, and survive in print for a long, long time.

I love indie bookstores, and spend a lot of time and money in them. I just expect to find mostly a good, smart selection of titles by major publishing houses. That’s their bread-and-butter.

So if you are a self-published author, look at where books like yours are really sold. Through personal networks. Or events, where people get to meet you. A holiday gift fair at your church is as good as a bookstore. And probably, that non-bookstore site will be far more happy to see you!

In the case of that book I mentioned at the beginning (Patton’s Lucky Scout, a World War II memoir of amazing adventures by a scout for General Patton, working mostly behind enemy lines), great local venues are available through VFW posts, military history clubs, extended families of other members of the retirement home where the veteran now lives, etc.


  1. Great blog – any chance you’ll add an RSS component so I can subscribe to it?
    Best wishes,

    1. Author

      Thanks for the reminder about an RSS feed. I did go in and add one . . . I think! Hope it works.

  2. Good thoughtful advice.

    The self-published writer has to spend as much time if not more time promoting and selling his self-published book as he does writing.

    My own big adventure into self-publishing was a self-bust as I just did not want to spend the time necessary to market the book.

    I’m now sending it out to agents and editors hoping they don’t have a stigma about a previously self-published book.

    I live in a very small town in a desolate part of SW-OK and not near any large venue.

    I have to rely on the internet, blogging, networking, and such for any chance to sell my self-published book, and even that requires so much time, effort, and savvy that I don’t know if I have the time and talent or if I want to devote such time and talent when I can channel all of this energy into writing good tales and take my chances in the slush piles.

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