A Quick Tour of Book Sales Possibilities

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March 2013
by Eric Kampmann and Margot Atwell

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Not every book is meant to be sold through book wholesalers and book retailers, and even books that should and do sell in “the trade” can also sell elsewhere. What follows is a quick look at options you may want to consider when planning your book-sales strategy.

Direct local sales. If a book will be sold only to the author’s community—in the back of the room at speaking engagements, say, and/or at conventions and the like—then selling it directly may be the best option. Many successful publishing programs start out with direct local sales. Some eventually transition to include full-scale distribution to wider markets.

Sales through a book distributor. Book distributors represent the interests and activities of book publishers to bookstores, wholesalers, and online retailers in exchange for a percentage of net sales. A good distributor will help even the smallest publisher operate on a level playing field with the largest publishing houses, providing them full access to key buyers, data systems, and marketing programs, and meeting book retailers’ and wholesalers’ requirements for data entry, EDI ordering, and shipping.

Sales to online retailers. In addition to the two major Internet booksellers, Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com, many other sites sell books. Virtually every retailer—including independent bookstores, specialty stores, Walmart, and Target—has a presence on the Internet, and a good distributor will have a direct relationship with many of these accounts as well as relationships with the wholesalers that service them.

If a book doesn’t have a distributor, it is still possible to make it available on Amazon (either through the CreateSpace program or through a relationship as a seller) and to make it available at various other retail sites.

The beauty of sales to online retailers comes from acceptance and speed. There are no “key buyers” who decide whether a book will be bought. Rather, there are “editors” whose main task is to ensure that all data pertaining to a book is featured on their Web pages.

When a reader is drawn to a book through a review, word-of-mouth, promotion, or browsing, and clicks to buy the book, it can theoretically be shipped within 24 hours. Major Internet booksellers have warehouses across the country, use national and regional wholesalers as backup when they need to, and generally stock a minimum quantity of every title.

It is important for publishers to monitor their own online presences with these accounts, offering as much information as possible, making sure that final covers are posted and that any price or other informational updates have been made.

Sales to national wholesalers. People often confuse book wholesalers and book distributors. Both can play vital roles in a publisher’s success, but they differ greatly in the services they provide.

Book wholesalers such as Ingram and Baker & Taylor are service providers for a wide base of customers, including bookstores, Internet retailers, and libraries. Basically, they aim to respond efficiently to demand, whatever the cause and whatever the title.

A wholesaler’s main objective is to get Product A to Store B in the shortest possible time and at the lowest possible cost. Publishers need to work closely with their wholesalers to monitor stock levels, review postings and bibliographic data, and participate in marketing programs.

Sales to regional wholesalers. Regional wholesalers such as Bookazine help fill in gaps and offer coverage for special markets, such as health food chains, wellness centers, and outdoor recreation chains. Many of them ship for Amazon and B&N as well as for local retailers in their markets. It is important to keep these accounts up to date on all new titles. They are a necessary part of the overall sales picture.

Sales to national bookstore chains. The landscape for national bookstore chains has changed dramatically over the past few years. With many of the mall-based stores gone and Borders out of business, Barnes and Noble, which has slightly more than 700 stores, is the only major national bookstore chain in the United States.

B&N has dedicated the front of its stores, which used to be prime territory for promoting books, to its Nook e-book program and accessories. Instead of carrying a deep backlist of books on physical shelves, it now carries top-selling titles and provides Internet access for special orders.

Sales to regional bookstore chains. Regional chains such as Books-A-Million and Hastings continue to do well in the markets they have established over the years. Books-A-Million, which has been operating primarily in the South, recently expanded through the acquisition of more than 30 Borders locations in other parts of the country. Hastings stores are located primarily in Texas and the Southwest and thrive in smaller markets where there are no superstores.

Both these chains and other smaller chains moved into the nonbook market early, supplementing shrinking book sales by selling greeting cards, plush toys, collectibles, and educational materials.

They have category buyers, order from distributors and from wholesalers, need to be sold well in advance of publication dates, and offer some marketing opportunities. And they are very selective. Being considered for placement in their stores requires following their specific guidelines.

Sales to independent bookstores. While many independent stores have closed over the years, there has been a resurgence of savvy independent bookstores that provide superior customer service and develop customer loyalty through personal connections and in-store activities. Many independents focus on a specific category, such as mysteries or children’s books.

Excellent independents include The Tattered Cover in Denver, Malaprop’s in Asheville, and Powell’s in Portland, which have grown stronger as competition increased. Stores like this can “discover” writers and often help make a book a bestseller by talking about it to each other and their loyal customer base, so that word-of-mouth produces a groundswell.

Sales to wholesale clubs. Getting books into Costco, Sam’s Club, and other wholesale clubs can be exciting, but a great deal of risk is involved. The clubs require a substantial commitment of inventory and a steep discount, and the window for sales performance is small. If a title does not meet specific unit sales targets, the entire inventory and any backup inventory will be returned.

Whenever possible, publishers should opt for a test in specific markets before launching nationally. A successful test will provide some level of confidence for successful sell-through with a national rollout. Publishers should also consider how placement with these accounts will affect a book’s position in other stores. Since wholesale clubs discount heavily, sales may decline at other retail locations where the publisher is receiving a better margin.

Sales to mass merchandisers. Walmart and Target, the largest mass merchandisers, stock books very selectively, focusing on bestsellers, seasonal titles, and titles in categories such as romance, children’s and young adult, cooking, and pop culture.

If a book works in these outlets, it could mean sales of thousands of units, but many mass merchandisers require minimum weekly per-store sales rates, and they return titles that don’t reach these thresholds. Proceed with caution; a big up-front buy will require a large, costly print run and may lead to substantial returns and much-reduced profitability.

Sales to supermarkets and drugstores. Supermarket chains, such as Safeway and Kroger, and drugstore chains, such as Rite Aid and CVS, work closely with regional distributors to determine what books to carry. Sales are limited; returns can be high, and books returned from these locations are damaged relatively often.

With that said, the right book in the right market can sell very well. Some chains sell books in health and wellness sections in their stores in addition to selling typical mass market paperbacks, children’s books, and magazines.

Sales to college bookstores. Along with college bookstores operated by B&N College and Follett (an education-oriented wholesaler), there are college bookstores that are run independently. Publishers should work with buyers at the national level (at B&N, Follett, and National Association of College Stores) as well as with national wholesalers to make sure that titles are presented. For a fee, titles can be highlighted in NACS topical catalogs.

Sales to library wholesalers. The library market is a significant one for Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Brodart, Bookazine, Blackwell North America, and other wholesalers. Data submitted to libraries through them must be correct and timely.

Public libraries constitute the largest segment of the library market and make purchases based on reviews in publications such as Publishers WeeklyLibrary JournalKirkus Reviews, and Booklist. School libraries serve kindergarten through high school readers, and they vet books stringently to make sure that they are age-appropriate. Academic libraries, found on all college campuses and in research institutes, generally buy only serious research works, books written by their faculty, and titles requested by faculty members.

Many libraries compile category-specific suggested reading lists based on reviews and their own circulation information.

Sales to book clubs. Direct Brands, Inc., with its affiliate, Bookspan, operates more than two dozen different direct-to-consumer clubs, including Book-of-the-Month Club, History Book Club, and Crossings. The clubs are very selective; books presented for nomination must fit a club’s category, and deep discounts are required.

Book clubs sometimes license the right to print a book themselves, paying an advance and royalties.

Sales to consignment wholesalers. Consignment wholesalers sell to their particular markets, offer quick order turnaround, and meet customers’ specific requirements (proper reference coding for libraries, for instance). Gazelle for international sales and Quality and Unique for library sales are examples of consignment wholesalers.

Unlike wholesalers that purchase books up front with the right to return them, consignment wholesalers do not pay for books until the books are shipped to customers.

“Special sales.” The publishing industry uses the phrase “special sales” to describe selling books to a wide variety of nonbook retailers, wholesalers, and premium companies. This requires a great deal of research, outreach, and follow-up.

Customers include warehouse clubs, airport stores, supermarkets, department stores, drugstores, gift shops, home-shopping networks, online retailers, museums, zoos, parks, and many others. Many of these customers cater to specific niches, including kitchen-supply stores that carry cookbooks and hotel stores that carry travel books. In these markets, books can sometimes tie in to specific sections or events. Think, for example, of a barbecue cookbook in the grills section of a housewares store.

The premiums and incentives segment of special sales involves selling to corporations, associations, the government, the military, and other organizations that use books as motivational tools for their employees, as gifts for their customers, as premiums to lure new customers, or as thank-you gifts. Premium sales also require a great deal of work, but they can be very lucrative.


Eric Kampmann, who started his career in book publishing in sales at Viking, St. Martin’s, and Simon & Schuster, has worked with independent publishers since 1981, and has taught book publishing courses at Harvard, Columbia, Hofstra, and New York University. Margot Atwell has worked in book publishing for almost 10 years, producing four national bestsellers in that time. Her writing is featured in such publications as Publishers Weekly, Publishing Perspectives, Movifone, and Five on Five. This article is derived from their new book, The Insider’s Guide to Book Publishing Success. To learn more: beaufortbooks.com.

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