There once was a time, not so long ago, when book buyers had bigger budgets and publishers and distributors could reasonably count on being given a not-so-insignificant amount of shelf space in what was a very large and spread out network of competing bookstore chains. If a particular book was not well-received by the buyer at one chain, you had options for moving big numbers in a small amount of time through the decision of another buyer with another big retailer. By the same token, if the buyer at one chain absolutely loved the book, that information could be leveraged in a major way with the buyer at another chain. Strategies like this could often lead to even bigger buys and sometimes a spot in the highly coveted co-op space in the store.
We recognize the important role that indie stores, nontraditional outlets, and online retailers like Amazon are continuing to play in our industry but we are not going to address those accounts here. This is about giant bookstore chains in the brick and mortar world. And in that part of our book-selling world, things have changed. Smaller is the order of the day and that begs the question, is bigger really better?
Back in the day of bigger buys and big-time bookstore distribution, prepublication efforts were rightfully targeted heavily at the retail buyers. After all, those individual buyers held a ton of power in regard to the potential for sales success of any book. Now that the number of chains has dwindled, that power is even further concentrated and potent. Or is it?
If you think your only shot for success is to get massive amounts of product placed on bookstore shelves, then a retail buyer’s power is more potent than anything else you’ll be up against. If, however, you consider the new retail reality and learn where you should be focusing your efforts—on you—it won’t really matter what that buyer does or doesn’t do with your book.
The reality of this retail landscape is that you cannot put the emphasis on bookstores because, frankly, their numbers are dwindling, their budgets are shrinking, and their buys are getting smaller and smaller. Besides, simply the act of placing books on their shelves alone is not the answer. Never was. (More on that here.)
It is always easy to get excited about a really big buy from a really big retailer, and there are still many reasons to get excited about it. It shows that your book impacted the buyer so strongly that they are willing to spend lots of budget on it and they ultimately believe in their qualified opinion that your book has what it takes to sell. So, what’s the down side?
The flip side of the big-time buy in scenario can be a big-time return scenario down the line. Don’t forget that this part of our industry is essentially consignment so any book that doesn’t sell fast enough is subject to being returned for a full refund, and sometimes comes back damaged to boot. When you put a ton of inventory out there, there is a high risk of returns and if you are solely focusing your efforts on impressing the retail buyer instead of your reader, you may be setting yourself up for this outcome.
These days, we have fewer buyers to impress and they have less money to spend. The unavoidable outcome, therefore, is smaller buys. Less exciting at first glance, but could this really be in our collective best interest?
Smaller buys mean lower risk for everyone involved. Let the bookstores start small, sell what they buy, and order more. It’s a long-term strategy that will help you immensely in building something much bigger than one book that gets its 30-90 day run on a bookstore shelf.
What is this bigger thing an author should be pursuing, then, if not sales of his or her book? We’ve always known that creating demand among your audience was paramount to all other pursuits in order to sell books, but the socialization of the web and the ease with which your competitors can get content out there for sale right next to yours has changed the game. It’s no longer just about your book. It’s about you.
You have to focus your efforts on your audience, your reach, your visibility, your brand, your expertise, and your content in all its various forms. You have to focus on you and sales of the book and your other services will follow. You have to build a platform and make that, not a spine out position on a shelf, your primary target.
So, what is an author platform and why do you need one? Learn about that in our three-part series on platform development.