For me, as an author, there are few greater joys than seeing my books on the shelves of my local independent bookshop. For many of us, it’s the dream we see in our mind’s eye when we start putting pen to paper. But if you’re self-published, it’s often not an easy dream to achieve. And for booksellers, it can be hard to know which books are a good fit for their limited shelf space.
A note to booksellers
I’m an independent bookseller too, and I know what it’s like out there. We’re busy, we’re exhausted and residually stressed from the last two years, and we’re hungry to do our jobs well and make sure that quality books are put in the right readers’ hands. Time is at a premium and so is our energy. Sifting through requests for shelf space or author events from self-published authors can feel like the proverbial straw on the camel’s back — especially when it seems like these authors are often not all that well informed about how the business works.
But there are all sorts of reasons people self-publish. Yes, some people aren't as informed as they could be. I’m not going to deny that. Some people go blindly into self-publishing without researching best practices, and quite possibly without ever writing anything beyond a first draft. There are terrible covers, badly written cover copy, and stories that are poorly crafted.
But there are also many, many serious writers and entrepreneurs in the indie author business. Some people, for many valid reasons, prefer self-publishing as a business model. And others of us, our hearts having been repeatedly broken by traditional publishing, see it as an opportunity to get our book in readers’ hands rather than languishing in our metaphorical bottom drawer.
I can’t speak for every self-published author, but here’s my story: I’ve been writing seriously for 13 years. I have read dozens of craft books, done an MFA, and been on countless courses. I’ve been longlisted for a prestigious award in the UK. I’ve had two agents get excited about and pitch two different novels to publishers. Those publishers have been so kind and enthusiastic, saying all sorts of nice things about my writing, comparing me to authors like Jojo Moyes, and then politely declining to publish me for reasons that have, often, nothing to do with the quality of the book.
To then have a bookseller at an independent bookshop — which I love, which I champion — eye me suspiciously or even sneeringly breaks my already very bruised heart. It also means I probably won’t ever spend money there or recommend anyone else does.
So my number one piece of advice for independent bookshops is this: please don’t make assumptions, and please extend grace. You’ll have to say no often, but please do so kindly.
Advice for indie authors
Long before you’re published, make friends with your local independent bookshop
The shop whose staff will be most excited to support you is the shop where you are known. Maybe you spend money there. Maybe you bring your friends and recommend books and get them to spend money. Maybe you regularly post beautiful pictures of the shop on social media.
Follow instructions on their website
Before approaching a bookshop with your book, have a look at their website. There is likely a process to go through, and the people deciding which books the shop stocks are usually not the people you’ll encounter at the checkout counter. Follow the instructions. If the website says that consignment is currently on pause, then make a note to check on the website again in a couple of months — don’t just go in and hope that the booksellers on shift will be able to overrule that.
Know the right language to use and the right information to give them
Most bookshops get their books primarily from a source like Ingram. They pay a wholesale price on sale or return, which means that if they don’t sell the book, they can return it without fees. Like or loathe the system, it’s what enables bookshops to take risks and stock all kinds of books rather than just the surefire bestsellers — they don’t lose money if those books don’t end up selling.
That means that, in most cases, your book needs to be available through Ingram, on sale or return, at a standard 55% discount, if you want your book stocked in bookstores. And telling the staff that your book falls into that category lets them know you have done your research and understand how the industry works. It also tells them that the process of ordering your book is going to be relatively easy, which is another point in your favour.
Some bookshops also take books on consignment, but that’s more admin for them and for you, and sometimes there’s a fee for shelf space. It’s one way to go if, for whatever reason, your book isn’t available via Ingram. But it’s also one more hurdle to overcome in the process, and if there’s one thing no author or bookseller needs, it’s extra hurdles.
Whether or not your book is available on Amazon is irrelevant to your conversation with them — bookshops aren’t out there buying their books from Amazon and then reselling them. That’s not how the model works. And mentioning Amazon at all is absolutely not going to endear you to them — Amazon is not just the competitor; it’s seen by many as the single biggest existential threat to independent bookselling. For some booksellers, even an Amazon link in an initial email you send them is a giant red flag.
Make the information concise
The best way to ensure that all the information the bookshop needs to decide whether to stock your book — and how to sell it once they do — is to create an information sheet (sometimes known as an AI sheet or a one-sheet). In bullet point form if possible, outline basic information like the cover price, the wholesaler where the book is available, your social media accounts, and any great reviews or press your book has had, as well as the basics like your cover, book description, and author bio. For bonus points, include some details on your marketing strategy. Booksellers will want to know that you have a plan beyond getting the book on shelves, because sadly, selling a book takes more than that.
Drive sales to them once your book is in stock
Once a book is available in a local indie bookshop, make sure you regularly tag them in social media posts about your book and mention the shop wherever you talk about your book. If they see you using their shelf space and then exclusively telling people to go to Amazon, they will… let’s charitably say, not be thrilled. Depending on the bookshop, they might like the idea of you signing stock for them, or including swag or goodies with pre-orders.
Like authors, booksellers take pride in doing our job well. They have a million different things to balance to do that. Be respectful of their time — if they ask you not to call, for example, don’t call — and, if no is the answer, politely accept that. It’s hard not to take it personally, I know. But there’s always the next book.
Want more on this topic? Check out how our beginners' guide to finding great self-published fiction and some recommendations for great self-published books.