Open Letter to Indie Bookstores

At a lot of writer's and publisher's conferences, the discussion naturally centers around getting books into bookstores. Seeing that huge order for Barnes & Noble nationwide (or Waterstones, for you UK folks) is the dream. Obviously, that's a huge hill to climb, and almost impossible if you're not one of the Big 5 Publishers or have a contract with one of the 3 Big Distributors. Most indie authors and small presses don't bother to attempt that hill, because the odds are terrible.

Instead, everyone focuses on the indie bookstores, those scrappy survivors who made it through competition from Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. Everyone loves indie bookstores, and everyone wants to support them. Every content producer wants some purchasing manager at the indie bookstore to fall in love with their title, and give it prime placement in the store. Small content producers absolutely would love to partner with small retailers, and I think it's probably true that everyone wants to see that happen. It's a natural fit, right?

Not so fast.

The unfortunate truth about the current industry is that indie content producers and indie retailers are not a match made in heaven. In fact, they are very rarely at match at all. Indie bookstores primarily sell products from the big gorilla corporate publishers and indie authors have - BY FAR - the most success on the biggest corporate gorilla of them all, Amazon.

Step aside for facts: There are approximately 1,000 Indie authors/small presses making $100,000+ a year on Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing platform according to Jeff Bezos. Through Indie bookstores, I'd guess there might be 3 or 4 making that kind of money, and they probably all do it producing regional content instead of genre fiction. I'm not aware of a single independent SciFi or Fantasy author earning a living wage by selling books through indie bookstores. Think about that...

Why is that? Primarily, the big corporate producers have the scale to go sell individually to indie bookstores. They have sales staff in the hundreds, and publicity budgets in the millions. An indie bookstore knows that if they stock The Next Big Thing, the publisher and distributor will pour cash into promoting it nation wide and the title will sell itself. It's a push from upstream out to consumers, instead of the bookstore having to pull people in. That's why for indie content producers, they have a consignment model. Consignment means the indie content producer hands over the book - and some cash - and then the bookstore will bother to stick it on a shelf, probably in some weird "local shit" section that no one will check unless they're looking for children's books for a gift or bike trails.

It makes sense, except, that model leaves the indie bookstore with zero competitive advantage. They do not control pricing (the publisher sets that), they do not control release dates (publisher), they do not control the promotion (publisher), they have nothing to offer on that title that Barnes & Noble or Amazon cannot offer - and actually a lot less since those guys have enough power to influence the producers, negotiate better discounts, have some price control, etc. Aside from proximity to your house, or a desire to shop at an indie store, there's no compelling reason to visit them unless they do something B&N or Amazon does not do.

So, what can they do?

Step aside for facts: 3 of the Top 5 Epic Fantasy debuts in 2016 were indie published (as measured by number of ratings on Goodreads, ie, all ratings, not just success on Amazon. Those 3 beat every traditionally published EF debut on Amazon...). Those 3 include our 1st title, Benjamin Ashwood. So, said differently, 3 of the Top 5 debuts in the category were Not In Bookstores!

The first idea is obvious, right? If you are an indie bookstore, go find the content that is resonating with readers and put it on your shelves! If you sell Epic Fantasy, why are you not selling 3 of the Top 5 debuts?! And bookstores wonder why Amazon is eating their lunch...

Next, specialize! Find a niche, and do it better than any other bookstore in the area - including the big guy B&N (let's be honest, that shouldn't be difficult). Some stores do this, and they are the ones that are really finding success. Mystery focused stores are common - why aren't there Romance, SciFi, Fantasy or Thriller stores? ProTip: Romance, SciFi, Fantasy, and Thriller are the top selling eBook categories. Anyone stop to think it is because the only way to get to the most popular books in those categories is online, because the majority of the top sellers are not in stores? What if you could buy those books in a store that had knowledgable staff willing to direct you to something you'd enjoy? I'd shop there.

This goes hand in hand with specialization. Partner with authors! Host book release parties for new authors no one has ever heard of (let them bring people, beer, and wine!), have popular indie authors come and do talks - not just about their books but expand it to cover the genre, which will bring a wider range of readers. Put books on the shelves, and instead of asking for cash, ask authors to do a little promotion for you. Any indie author will shout recommendations from the rooftop for a store that has their book on the shelf. Authors have access to exclusive lists of thousands of readers, want us to send them your way? Local authors bring people with them. If a local author, even if they are not famous, shows up at the store with 20-30 friends for an event, that's 20-30 people Inside Your Store! And on that note, if an author is bringing people to you, don't charge them for that privilege...

Become an influencer, or partner with one! Have a blog with quality book recommendations. Steer readers to books they will enjoy, instead of steering them to shelves full of stuff they have no way to evaluate in timely fashion. This is Amazon's secret - the Also Boughts. That's why they sell books, because through their algorithms they know what that reader might like. Bookstores should do the same, push hot leads! This is easier of course if you're specialized. But, you say your staff doesn't have time to read through piles and piles of new books? Find someone who does. There are tons of blogs out there. Partner with them, and have shelves featuring their picks! Ie, Super Awesome Fantasy blog rated these as the Top 20 Books from 2017! There will be some standard fare in there, and some interesting choices. Choices that B&N won't be offering. Or, let the market decide, and feature Top Selling books instead of just Top Promoted By Corporations on that special table in the front... That's what readers want, quality recommendations - give it to them like Amazon does!

Take price control! What, you say the Big 5 Publishers and the Big 3 Distributors won't give you price control because you're not a big enough account? Guess what, indies would love to give you price control. Pay me a fair price, then do whatever you want with that title! I don't care if it's full retail or 50% off. You do you, and handle the retailing. That's the way it works in every other industry, but not in Books because retailers are not choosing to take the power that is sitting there and waiting.

Coordinate your purchasing decisions amongst your peers and step outside of the traditional supply chain. The distribution pattern for books is ridiculous, and makes no sense. That's because it's controlled by a very small group of players. It doesn't have to be! With pooled purchasing decisions, you could allow indie content producers to do print runs instead of print on demand, and with cheaper printing costs, the discounts offered could be vastly better. Want a 60% discount from suggested retail price instead of 40% - AND you get final determination on that price if you want to discount to the reader? There's nothing stopping that from happening...

At the end of the day, the book retail business IS being disrupted. eBooks, Amazon, etc have changed the face of how books are sold. If retailers do not adjust, they will not survive. Many - but certainly not all - indie bookstores are still attempting to live in the past. All we're saying, is step into the future with us indie content producers. We're already there! It doesn't have to be the scary, Amazon dominated future, if you don't want it to be. Make an honest effort to partner with indie content producers, and I think indie bookstores will be surprised by what is possible.