Bookstores: The Holy Grail

One of our favourites: Munro’s Books, Victoria, BC (photo ©Wayne Templeton)

One of our favourites: Munro’s Books, Victoria, BC (photo ©Wayne Templeton)

The most asked question we get (after "How much will it cost to publish my book?") is "How can I get my book into bookstores?" And we get it. You want your book to sell, and traditional retail seems like the most effective way to do that. But it's important to know the processes that precede this step and that there are other (sometimes better) ways to get your book into readers' hands.

If you're dead set on bookstores, the best way to get into them is with a distributor. Distributors, with their widely circulated catalogues, seasonal book fairs, and teams of sales reps, will get your book into a wide network of stores across the country. In Canada, there are only a handful of reputable distributors that specialize in small press and independently published books, including Sandhill, Red Tuque, and Gordon Soules. Each has a different area of specialization, though, so be sure to check their lists before sending them a sell sheet for your book. Remember that, ideally, you should be lining up a distributor before your book is printed so that they can pre-sell it.

A fairly standard distribution agreement means you get 35% of the list price and they get 65%. To get your book into big retailers, like Chapters, Costco, or Walmart, you'll have  to give up even more. And, these discounts are still on a returnable basis (meaning those books that don't sell in stores will come back to you a few months later). And, caveat emptor: no one should charge you a fee in addition to a percentage of sales for distributing your book, unless they're offering some marketing and publicity support as well.

Think of your relationship with a distributor as a long-term partnership – they want your book to sell as much as you do. Talk to them about your needs, and if it is an exclusive contract, be forthcoming with them about other plans and arrangements you've made. If you don't have any luck finding a distributor for your book (and there's a good chance you won't), many authors work with Canadian book wholesalers and do just fine. Like a distributor, a wholesaler will get your book into bookstores, libraries, and schools, but they don't do any selling; they just fulfill store orders. Telling bookstores how and why to order your book will be your job. As a result, wholesale agreements aren't typically exclusive, and their terms are not as high as a distributor's. If you can't secure a distributor or a wholesaler, many bookstores (especially the indies) will take your book on consignment. Even Chapters has been known to make this arrangement on a store-by-store basis, depending on the community.

At the end of the day, your best return on investment is going to be selling your book yourself, either hand-selling it, one book at a time, or via your website. Even Amazon offers a payment structure of 70% to authors, keeping 30% for themselves (as long as your book is priced between $2.99 and $9.99). So, make sure you have a good website set up months before your book comes out, with an eCommerce platform or links to where readers can buy the book online.

And remember, no matter who is selling your book – yourself or a third-party vendor – you're still going to have to promote it to make readers aware of it. After all, getting your book into stores is only the first step; getting readers into those stores, through promotion, is the next (and key) step. But don't let that scare you. Have fun with your promotional efforts, and fortunately, there are tons of resources out there to help you do just that.