A year after celebrating the release of her first novel, Amanda Barber, a private music teacher, observes, “It’s easier than ever to get published, but it’s not easy to be successful. Publishing is a piece of cake, but to actually sell books—that’s the hard part.”
The challenge recently took her to Banner Books Parable Christian Store in her hometown of St. Joseph, Mich., for a book signing to promote her Christian historical fiction title, The Pursuit of Elizabeth Millhouse (Axiom, 2012). Though she sold only a handful of copies there, and knows she can make more money selling copies online, Barber believes that “for long-term success, it’s better to have a presence in retail stores.”
She is not alone. A growing number of self-published/indie authors are recognizing the importance of cultivating connections at bricks-and-mortar bookstores; at the same time, Christian retailers are warming to a category they have historically been cool toward.
Lorraine Valk, owner of the independent St. Joseph store that hosted Barber, has a cautious approach to such titles, but she sees advantages. “Authors love being able to tell their friends where the book is available, it creates goodwill, and it gets the author back into the store on a regular basis to check their stock,” she says. “And they have family and friends that are also gaining a positive image of our store.”
CBA, the Christian retail trade association, sees the self-publishing explosion as a way for member stores to connect with their local communities and establish themselves as places where readers can discover good new authors. The organization has focused on the trend at its recent trade shows, with special workshop sessions on how writers can get their books into stores.
“There are opportunities, but with a word of caution,” says CBA’s president, Curtis Riskey. “The opportunity is discovery of new voices and different ideas, but that must be balanced with good reads, and busy retailers can’t always personally vet titles on their shelves to determine that.”
Local authors wanting to see their books on the shelves at one of CLC Bookcenters’ three locations in the Philadelphia area have to complete an application form and provide a review copy. Jim Pitman, director of retail operations, currently has a pile of titles awaiting assessment, with seven in-store signings taking place in seven weeks. “Local authors bring in family, friends, and people from their church. It’s new traffic for us,” he says. “They might sell only a few books, but if they bring in three or four new people who haven’t been here before, they have the potential to become lifetime customers, which could mean a lot of money over a long period.”
That long-term view is important for retailers who might dismiss as a bust a signing where only a few people show up and sales are minimal. “It’s not just about the [immediate] sales,” says Darren Henry, president of Advocate Distribution Solutions, part of Send the Light Distribution LLC, which serves Christian stores. Seeing promotion of self-published authors as an opportunity for retailers to tap into the “buy local” groundswell, Henry notes that if Christian retailers don’t want to go that route, others will. He points to Barnes & Noble frequently hosting local author signings.
A case in point: Amanda Barber recently scheduled seven events at B&N locations in her area, in addition to her visit to Banner Books, to promote her book. “It’s a really good opportunity, and I will continue with them,” she says of the B&N opportunities, “but I have to figure out what else I can do. It’s a lot of gas money running around to all these signings.”
Bookstores still leery about carrying self-published books might be encouraged to consider the category more seriously by the way some established authors with traditional publishing histories now are also taking the indie route. Among them is award-winning thriller writer Brandilyn Collins, who decided to go independent—turning down offers from other traditional houses—after the recent folding of B&H Publishing Group’s fiction line left her without a contract.
Says Collins, “Stores’ historical resistance to self-published books is and will continue to change as more and more well-known, bestselling, and award-winning authors choose to take this route. I know numerous names in this arena doing self-pub now, either turning to it full-time or going hybrid.” Hers will be one of the banner names on a new initiative adding further credibility, if it’s needed, to self-published books’ in-store potential. Collins’s new work of suspense, Sidetracked, will be one of the first titles featured in the new Jerry B. Jenkins Select Line of self-published books to be promoted to Christian retail in the spring.
They will arrive in stores through 1Source, a partnership between Jenkins’s Christian Writers Guild Publishing, Believers Press, Bethany Press, and Anchor Distributors. It launched in October to offer author services from editing to marketing and distribution. “Every channel is crucial for success these days,” says Jenkins. “The problem with self-pubs in the past is that they haven’t been considered ‘real’ or ‘legitimate’ because they have been so hard to find in bookstores.”
Jenkins, coauthor of the blockbuster Left Behind series and Christian publishing’s top-selling writer, founded CWGP in 2012, though he had long been a critic of the substandard writing, editing, and design of much self-publishing. Now even he has some of his backlist titles earmarked for self-publishing someday. “Eventually I saw the light,” he explains, recognizing that technology was making self-publishing more economical while at the same time “even good writers were finding it harder and harder to get traditionally published.”
Because of new technology and a growing number of providers—from traditional publishers launching their own self- and co-publishing divisions to former big-name publishing professionals offering independent services—indie authors are producing more quality work. But they still need to sharpen their business skills to connect with retailers.
One big problem is pricing, says Shawn Kuhn, a longtime retailer who, with his wife, Suzanne, coaches new authors on the book business through Suzanne’s Suzy Q promotion company. Some self-publishing programs set their retail price based on page count, “but an $18.99, 240-page Christian fiction trade paper doesn’t do well in the bookstore,” he notes, with books in that format traditionally selling for $14.99 in Christian stores.Then there are self-publishing enterprises that offer less than the usual 40% discount for stores. Suzanne Kuhn worked with one author who signed with a service that gave no discount to retailers. “The book was full price,” says Suzanne. “Well, guess what that meant for her sales? She had none, and couldn’t figure out why.”
Many stores that do work with self-published authors want to take the books on consignment, like Baker Book House in Grand Rapids, Mich. Store manager Sue Smith, recently elected chairman of CBA, notes that on such terms, carrying some self-published books can be “low risk.” Smith is very selective in the self-published titles she accepts, and her experience is that self-published authors can be “very unrealistic about their sales” and quite demanding. But when there is a good connection they end up “being champions for your store,” she says. And as part of a tight-knit writing community, they might send more self-published authors the store’s way, she adds.
Pete Nikolai, director of publishing services at Thomas Nelson’s WestBow Press self-publishing division, advises authors to develop a long-term strategy for working with local stores. “Get to know the manager and staff months before your book will be published,” he says. “Buy your books there, and bring in friends and family members to shop. Get on their e-mail list.” He suggests that rather than propose basic book signings, authors should put together talks that will educate and entertain, and work with other area writers to organize “an informative and entertaining program.”
“Consider forming a local authors’ association that does events throughout the year to help support the local store and local authors,” Nikolai says. “Actively promote your book by speaking at other events and doing other publicity—mention the store where the book is available, and keep the store informed of the publicity. Ask the store which wholesaler it prefers so you can make sure it is easy for the store to purchase your book.”
That’s the kind of approach Jeff Dixon, a pastor in Sanford, Fla., has taken with his Disney-themed books, The Key to the Kingdom and Unlocking the Kingdom, both published by Deep River Books. “I have created events where we have done a night of Disney history, stories, and how we learn spiritual lessons from it, then spent some time talking about the books themselves,” he says.
One challenge for smaller stores is that self-published books make a demand on already limited shelf space and can mean time-consuming paperwork, says longtime independent retailer Rick Lewis, who, with his wife, Sue, owns Logos Bookstore of Dallas. While “generally not a fan,” he carries some self-published titles, seeing the most success with books by local pastors, counselors, and spiritual directors. “I think their books did well because their occupations have trained them well, they tend to be older with more life experience, and they are all readers themselves,” he says.
Consignment ‘Pretty Rare’
Some Family Christian Stores locations might accept a local author’s book on consignment, but currently “it’s pretty rare,” says Clark Miller, chief marketing officer for the Christian retail chain, with 280 stores in 36 states. “Self- and indie publishers often don’t have the press run sizes and ability to accept returns and honor other terms that we require,” he says. “In addition, there’s no way for us to know whether these books have been professionally edited and vetted, and that they would be appropriate for our stores and our customers.” However, as the publishing landscape continues to change, “we want to offer great content no matter where it is produced,” Miller adds.
But not everyone sees the self-publishing boom opening doors at Christian retail: Jeff Gerke believes stores would be making a mistake if they carried his Marcher Lord Press science fiction and fantasy titles. The niche publisher of “speculative fiction” has won two Christy Awards and four American Christian Fiction Writers Carol Awards, with his recent release, Amish Vampires in Space, optioned for a movie. Gerke says Christian stores have “done such a good job of catering to their core clientele that they’ve driven off everyone else in a breeze of potpourri and Amish cotton.” Carrying MLP books “would be the equivalent of a candy store starting to carry lawnmowers. The best place to buy and sell Christian speculative novels is still online.”
For those who do want to pursue retail sales, Barber has some closing advice: “You had better be prepared to work really hard.”