Getting stocked in bookshops

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I am just about to publish a new book and among the many decisions to be made, I am once again pondering the matter of the trade discount. Anyone who has been through the self-publishing process will be well aware of this dilemma. Do I offer a ‘standard’ trade discount of 45%-55% or shall I just keep the discount to a minimum and hope for the best?

The thing is, if you want to have any chance of getting your book into bookshops such as Waterstones, you really need to be thinking along the lines of a 55% discount. Remember, your book will likely be distributed via a wholesaler/distributor such as Gardners or Bertrams (in the UK at least) and they will take their margin out of this 55%. The distributor’s share will probably be a minimum of 20% which leaves just 35% for the bookshop. If you offer a minimal trade discount of, say, 35%, these calculations will leave just 15% for the retailer, which is not particularly appealing.

Although they may not admit it, any retailer with half a business brain is going to be swayed by the available profit margin on a given book, regardless of how good the actual book is. Bookshops have limited space and if they have the choice between sticking a book on the shelf which will make them £2.80 or one which makes them £1.20, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out which one they will pick. Even if the ‘£1.20 of profit’ book is superb, there are plenty of new books published every month which should make it an easy task to find an equally superb product which will return £2.80 of profit.

Unfortunately, even if you are happy to offer an industry-standard discount of 55%, it won’t work for most self-published authors as the cost of printing small numbers of books will mean that there simply isn’t room for this level of discount. For example, let’s take our £7.99 paperback example. Take the 55% discount off and you are left with a wholesale price of £3.60. Unfortunately, the printing cost, assuming a page count of 300, will be in the region of £3.50 – £4.00. Thus, the lucky author will make somewhere between 10p profit and a 40p loss per book. Terrific!

The alternative option would be to do as a regular publisher would do and pay to have a couple of thousand books printed up, thus reducing the print cost considerably, in the hope that you can then persuade bookshops to stock them. But this pushes the price of publishing a new title up from next to nothing to several thousand pounds. It also means that you could be stuck with box-loads of books if you fail to sell them into retailers.

Of course, offering a generous discount in no way guarantees that any bookshop will take your offering – it’s just one step on the path to being stocked. Bookshops also like the option of being able to return books when they don’t sell. For the self-published author, returns can get very expensive, very quickly. Not only will you pay for the book to be printed but you will also pay for it to be returned. If you ask for returned copies to be returned to you, you will be charged postage and a handling fee. Even if you agree that returns can be destroyed, there might still be an additional cost involved. In a nutshell, returns generally aren’t great for self-published authors.

All in all, I have come to the conclusion that, as a self-published author, it simply isn’t worth pricing books with the sole intention of getting them into bookshops. There is more than enough opportunity to sell online if one is prepared to make the effort. There are plenty of advantages to self-publishing: control, speed of getting a book to market, flexibility and so on. There are also a few downsides and the difficulty in getting your publication into a bookshop is one such negative but I suspect it is a negative that most will be able to live with. At the end of the day, you only really have two other options: cut your own profit drastically (and risk taking a loss on some sales) or spend a few years trying to get a traditional publisher to take on your book and hope that they can get it into the retailers for you. Neither appeals to me.

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