While many indie authors have mastered online sales, even strong-selling writers tend to see distribution to libraries and bricks-and-mortar stores as difficult to impossible. However, they should consider giving it another go. Industry experts and indie authors who have tried to get wider distribution have recently found surprising success—both in expanded availability and greater awareness of their work.
“If a library truly commits to your title and plans to not only make it available to patrons but also include it in library marketing materials, then authors can expect a nice discoverability boost,” says Jane Friedman, the former publisher of Writer's Digest and an expert on self-publishing. “Library collections are highly curated, and so the discoverability is better than if you’re available through your average online outlet where millions of titles are stocked.”
Getting this sort of support from both libraries and bookstores is not the impossible task that many self-published authors imagine. But it does take a careful approach, speaking to the right people in the right way, and working to build relationships over the long term, rather than just making a few quick sales.
Talk the Talk
Often, the first step to getting into a library or bookstore is to go speak to someone in person. Laura Rossi Public Relations founder Laura Rossi Totten, whose 24 years as a book publicist include in-house stints at publishing houses like Viking and Penguin, urges authors to get face time with potential outlets.
“My number one piece of advice for self-published authors is to use the tried-and-true method of hand-selling the book,” Totten says. “By this I specifically mean personally visiting libraries and bookstores with copies of your book. Load up your trunk and hit the road. Make carrying your book easy and fun.”
Totten urges authors to call ahead to make an appointment with the librarian or bookstore owner rather than just appearing unannounced. In addition to books, authors should bring sell sheets that demonstrate the marketing potential of their books, including online sales numbers. (Authors who are struggling to make any sales should focus on that before looking to expand distribution.)
Laura Lahm, who has published two coloring books that encourage kids to explore the cities of Seattle and Tokyo, respectively, has found success in what she calls a “two-pronged approach.” She begins by determining an area buyer and sending an email with a general introduction and sales sheet. Then she personally delivers a copy of the book, along with a hard copy of the sales sheet. “This has been working very well for us, as folks love a local book,” Lahm says.
R.M. Willis brought his self-published speculative fiction book, Power Rises, to the collections manager at the Mesa County Public Library in Grand Junction, Colo.
“I told her that I was a local author and showed her my book,” says Willis, who acknowledges that this direct approach might be uncomfortable for some authors who aren’t accustomed to cold-calling purchasing agents, though as a former salesman Willis is at ease in making such pitches. Willis also distributes his book through IngramSpark, giving him expanded channels to get his book out to interested libraries and stores.
But Friedman cautions that just getting distribution through a large company that libraries use, such as OverDrive or Ingram, does not ensure that a title will be added to a library’s collection or get noticed by librarians.
“You have to be visible to the library in other ways—through reviews, word of mouth, and major blogs in your genre,” she says. “In some ways, making your book known to libraries isn’t that different from promoting your book in general. A library needs to see some evidence or social proof that will help persuade them to add your book to their collection.”
Friedman also points to a pair of services aimed at helping librarians discover self-published titles: Self-e (a joint venture from BiblioBoard and Library Journal) and eBooksAreForever (launched by indie author J.A. Konrath). If authors can work to get their books noticed via these services, they might provide another way—in addition to reviews or strong online sales—to catch a librarian’s eye.
“For most librarians, just knowing your title exists is the biggest challenge of all, since current distribution methods aren’t necessarily helping them focus attention on the most worthy titles for their collection,” Friedman says.
Join the Community
Beyond demonstrating strong sales, authors can catch a librarian or bookstore owner’s eye by deepening their connection to stores and libraries by being part of the community. For example, the librarian Willis spoke with in Colorado agreed to carry his book if he would be willing to take part in some other activities such as teaching writing workshops and reading to local kids.
By offering their services, authors offer value to the outlets, but also ingratiate themselves with the individuals who decide which books to stock. More importantly, the authors come into contact with people who might buy their books, check them out, or recommend them to others.
“It is important to get involved with your local community and library,” Willis says. “You will find them to be a huge support structure: they love the fact that an author is living in their hometown and will publicize that fact widely.”
Lahm found success in hosting in-store coloring events, inviting readers to experience and interact with the books and potentially buy or check them out. “The Japanese bookstore Kinokuniya is hosting a two-week coloring event using a few of our illustrations,” she says. “This helps their business and ours.”
The publicist Totten urges authors to build their ties to communities long before books come out so they won’t be strangers when the time comes to ask for arranging author events and distribution.
“Book communities support one another—especially at indie bookstores and local libraries,” she says. “When you make an effort to engage with store owners, library staff, other authors, and even fellow readers, both online and in real life, you will reap the benefits when you launch your own book.”
Such events bring an influx of people—including friends, family, and colleagues—primed to buy books or patronize the library. It serves as a way for an author to impress the venue’s book purchaser by guaranteeing sales of a dozen or more copies of the book. If an author event proves a success, the bookstore will be inclined to carry additional copies.
Driving promotion and local media coverage about one’s books or book events is another way that authors can raise their chances of getting shelf space in libraries and bookstores. Gisela Hausmann used a write-up about her self-published email-etiquette book, Naked Words 2.0, in the national magazine Success to secure a Barnes & Noble appearance.
“I purchased a copy of the magazine at the store and asked to speak to the event manager,” Hausmann says. “I showed her the article and asked if she did not want to invite me. She immediately signed me up for a book signing even though I publish through CreateSpace.”
Lahm’s coloring event points to another tip: authors should look further than their own neighborhoods. Going beyond local libraries and stores, authors should encourage friends, family, and fans to ask about their books at local spots where they live. Authors also might consider offering an incentive—such as a special bookmark or sticker—to fans willing to ask local spaces about carrying a book.
Events and the higher profile they create for authors and their books can also generate interest from other outlets. Distribution tends to work in a snowball effect: once one outlet carries a book, it becomes easier to convince other outlets to carry it.
An author should work to get referrals whenever speaking to a library or bookstore representative. Willis says that when a library declines to carry his book, “I always ask if they know of any other libraries that would be interested.”
Many states also offer interlibrary loan programs and book borrowing arrangements statewide to which authors can donate their books, increasing availability and exposure.
Kimberly Causey has used the snowball effect to remarkable success in her distribution efforts for books like The Furniture Factory Outlet Guide and The Insider’s Guide to Buying Home Furnishings, beginning first with hosting events on furniture bargains at local bookstores, backed up with media appearances. By bringing in solid-sized crowds, she made the pitch to Barnes & Noble stores to allow her to host events, following the same publicity strategy.
“Most stores were willing to take a chance on ordering fully returnable books through Ingram for a one-time event,” Causey says. “I publicized the events heavily, which usually drew in good crowds and made good sales.”
Once she had established a track record, Causey approached Marcella Smith, head of Barnes & Noble’s small press department, to make the case that the company would profit from carrying her books nationwide. She spent “the better part of a year” working to make that case, building up sales in B&N’s tracking system from one event to the next.
“When I asked her, ‘What else do I need to do to prove to you that my book will sell well?’ Marcella said, ‘You already have. It’s right here in my computer. I don’t know why the category buyer hasn’t picked it up already. I’ll give her a call,’” Causey says. “It was one of the happiest days of my self-publishing career.”
Soon after, Causey was able to convince B. Dalton, Sam’s Club, and independent stores to stock the book because a competitor was selling it all over the country. Causey has gone on to sell some 150,000 copies of her books.
Specialize for Success
Authors might also want to look beyond bookstores and libraries for distribution opportunities. Alder Yarrow, who runs the wine blogging site Vinography and earlier this year self-published the coffee-table book The Essence of Wine, knew that his book might appeal to food-oriented outlets.
“I tried my hand at the big guns like Williams-Sonoma and Dean & Deluca, but their book programs seem to be shrinking all the time,” Yarrow says. “The next tier—individual retailers, not chains, that focused on books and gifts like mine—were more interested.”
When speaking with these specialty outlets, Yarrow ensured that the pitch was tailored to their particular needs.
“Speak intelligently about why it is a fit for their store,” Yarrow says. “That means you have to know the answer to that question on a philosophical level—for example, that ‘this is a cooking store and my book is a cookbook’—and at an economic level: ‘your books are generally priced at this level and are of this type, so my book will fit right in with that program.’”
Another advantage with specialty shops is that if they like the book, there is a chance that they will buy more than just one or two copies. Yarrow says some of his biggest successes have come through high-volume specialty retailers in the food and wine gifting space, including some of the larger tasting rooms in Napa.
Correction: A previous version of this story identified Jane Friedman as the CEO of Open Road Integrated Media. The Jane Friedman quoted in this story is the former publisher of Writer's Digest.