Every author wants to see their book on a bookstore shelf.
Sure, the Amazon.com and Kindle stores are awesome (and it’s where most authors make the majority of our sales), but there’s something about seeing your book on an actual store shelf that just gets the ol’ heart pounding and drives home that you’re really a professional author.
But how books end up in bookstores anyway?
If you want to get into a major book retailer, beyond just your local indie shop, it’s a complicated, confusing process.
We’ll try to make it as simple and easy-to-understand as possible.
Let’s take a look inside and find out how it’s done.
Retail Book Sales
“Retail” is where sales are actually made to customers.
Retailers are in the business of selling books. They want books that their customers will snap up and they want to be sure that they’ll sell everything they put on the shelves, rather than being stuck with a book that sounds great but that sells only one or two copies.
Any place you can personally buy a book is a retailer—Amazon’s a retailer, as is your local indie bookstore. Same goes for Barnes & Noble. And guess what? If you sell your books on your website directly to readers, you’re a retailer yourself!
Retailers purchase their books at a discount, then mark them up to match the list price printed on the cover. Sometimes they’ll offer a sale or discount price, but for the most part, you as the reader will pay what the publisher suggests for a newly released book. The bookstore, however, pays about 60% of that, and keeps the difference as profit.
Many retailers other than bookstores sell books—think about Target, Wal-Mart, certain specialty grocery stores, gift shops, museum stores, wholesale clubs like BJs or Costco, and more.
So where do all these retailers get their books in the first place?
Well, it’s not directly from the producers—authors or publishers. It would be far too difficult for a bookstore to keep track of every book produced by every author or publisher in the world, then order the interesting ones and figure out how to pay a thousand different small vendors.
Instead, they get their books from a middleman called a wholesaler that sells lots and lots of different books in bulk.
Wholesalers are companies that buy books in bulk, at a discount, and resell them to retailers.
They act as a middleman, and they’re not particularly loyal to anyone in the process—they’ll buy books from anyone who will give them a good discount and will sell them to anyone who’s interested.
Wholesalers make their money on volume, so they’re typically only interested in books that will sell many copies. However, some wholesalers will stock books by small publishers and even indie authors as long as they can guarantee that they’ll have the physical copies needed when they’re ordered.
You don’t need to have an exclusive agreement with a wholesaler—you can use two, three, or even more if you want. This is a good way to make sure your books are available to be ordered no matter where a bookstore prefers to shop.
Wholesalers put out a catalog of available titles on a regular basis, usually either every month or every quarter, and send it to all the bookstores that buy from them.
The bookstore purchasers go through the catalog and pick out what they want to order, then place one big bulk order from the wholesaler that can include books from a dozen publishers or more.
Now, this is not a big, pretty illustrated catalog of books with eye-catching covers and full descriptions. Basically, it’s just a list containing title, author, and ISBN.
So your listing in a wholesale catalog isn’t really going to catch a bookstore buyer’s eye and convince them to buy your book on the basis of its amazing cover or gripping description. The buyer has to already know about your book and be interested in it—or be looking through your category specifically for a new book in that area to round out their stock.
Either way, it’s not likely that you’ll make many brand-new bookstore sales just from being listed with a wholesaler.
The wholesaler doesn’t push your book actively—it just fulfills orders that come from bookstores. You’ll have to do the heavy lifting of making sure bookstores know your book is out there, available, and something their customers will love.
Some wholesalers do offer additional promotional opportunities for an added fee—an enhanced catalog listing, for example, or placement in a special catalog just for your genre—but for the most part, wholesalers are passive middlemen.
In other words, wholesalers don’t market your book. They wait until an order comes in, then send out the book, allowing bookstores to place orders for many publishers’ books in one batch.
This is beneficial to you as an author—remember, bookstores don’t want to deal with a thousand small accounts, so they prefer to order everything from one or two major wholesalers. So having your book listed with a wholesaler is pretty much essential if you want to make bookstore sales. But it’s no substitute for marketing.
Wholesalers buy books at about a 55% discount from the list price. So if your book is priced at $15 retail, the wholesaler will pay you $6.75.
The Major Book Wholesalers
There are several major wholesalers, each with a particular specialty or target market. Most sell primarily print books, but they are increasingly offering digital wholesale services as well, particularly to the library market.
One of the largest and best-known wholesalers in the world is Ingram. They sell into basically every market, from trade books to library books and schools. They also wholesale audiobooks, ebooks, and even tie-in merchandise.
If you want your book on store shelves, you should be listed with Ingram.
If you publish through Lightning Source or Ingram Spark, you’re already listed with Ingram in their wholesale catalog, because Ingram owns these companies!
Baker & Taylor
Baker & Taylor is the other top wholesaler. Again, they sell to just about every bookstore, library, and school, as well as other large retail accounts all over the world.
If you publish through CreateSpace and use a CreateSpace ISBN, you can be listed in the Baker & Taylor catalog by selecting “expanded distribution.”
This is the biggest wholesaler of textbooks in the world, selling into the educational market from K–12 all the way to the university level. They also sell books of interest to school librarians, like middle grade and YA books and select other fiction.
Brodart is a powerhouse for selling into the library market. They help librarians develop their collections and take care of major library orders.
They’ll often work with small publishers and indies who have books requested by librarians, but you’ll have to do the fulfillment yourself—they’ll send you a purchase order and you send the book to their warehouse. Once the library pays Brodart, they pay you.
They also offer various digital wholesale and subscription options.
A huge bookstore based in Portland, Oregon, Powell’s stocks more than 2 million books—and now offers wholesale services to other bookstores. They mostly specialize in nonfiction titles.
Like the name says, Bookazine wholesales both books and magazines, with a specialty in magazines.
The largest of the independent wholesalers, Bookazine welcomes children’s titles, indies, and comics and graphic novels—so they’re a great option for an indie author with about 10 books they want to put into wholesale, particularly because of their targeted expertise and smaller catalog.
If you write new age or spiritual books or books on natural health and wellness, you may want to list with New Leaf for wholesale. Because New Leaf specializes in these types of books, as well as Tarot cards and other related products, bookstores are more likely to be looking for exactly your type of title in their catalog.
While wholesalers simply accept orders from bookstores, then fulfill those orders, distributors act as a sales force for a publisher.
They charge a lot for this service—often about 30% of your list price, though it can go higher. And that’s in addition to the 55% discount required by the wholesaler doing the fulfillment of any orders the distributor gets for you!
But if you have multiple books with strong retail potential, it can be worth it to hire a distributor.
Unlike wholesalers, distributors work for you—though not exclusively for you. They have dedicated sales forces and reps for particular stores or chains who will go out and present groups of books to retail buyers, hopefully increasing your sales.
A wholesaler still does the final sale—either the retail buyer, having learned about your book from the distributor, places a wholesale order, or they place an order with the distributor, who passes it on to a wholesaler to be fulfilled.
Essentially, what you’re paying for here is a sales team. Unless you have 50 titles or more coming out every year, you probably can’t afford to keep a sales rep on staff—and even if you could, there’s no guarantee they’d have a foot in the door with a major chain like Barnes & Noble or Wal-Mart.
Distributors have reps specializing in different genres, as well as reps with good relationships with various regional and national stores. They’re able to promote your book to buyers and get you access to retail accounts you might not otherwise land.
Distributors are exclusive—if you sign a contract with one, you can’t work with another one as well. Think of it kind of like KDP Select, which is essentially an exclusive ebook distribution agreement. So when choosing a distributor, you’ll want to make sure they have a strong record of success with the kinds of books you publish.
You’ll also want to read the contract carefully to see what the terms are. Some distributors demand that you distribute both your print and your digital books exclusively with them—meaning you can’t sell your books directly through KDP, much less enroll in KDP Select. That can really affect your overall sales results, especially when you factor in distribution fees and wholesale discounts.
Some larger distributors also warehouse and fulfill orders in addition to acting as a sales force. This often adds more fees to the agreement, but can streamline the process so you don’t have to store or ship books yourself. Smaller distributors will only represent the books, passing orders to you or to a wholesaler to be completed and shipped. Be sure to ask about warehousing and fulfillment options to know what you’re getting into.
Most distributors won’t accept a client who has less than 10 active titles currently available for sale, and you have to apply to be accepted, presenting your sales stats, marketing plans, and more. A distributor will help increase your sales, but they won’t do it all—you still have to have a solid marketing plan and ongoing marketing campaigns yourself.
Major Book Distributors
There are quite a lot of distributors, ranging from small specialty sales forces up through huge international groups.
Choosing the one that’s right for you will depend on what genre you publish, where you want to make sales (small indie bookstores, large chains, alternative retailers, etc.), and what terms you’re willing to agree to.
In addition to being a wholesaler, Ingram is also a distributor—one of the largest in the world, having acquired several prominent distributors like Perseus in the past few years. Working with them can streamline your sales and fulfillment process, because you can get everything done all in one place.
Just be aware that you’re going to pay for the privilege—between wholesale discounts, distribution fees, and other costs, you may end up only receiving $1–2 for a book that retails for $15!
Still, it may be worth it if you end up making 10 times the sales. Do the math carefully and take your time deciding.
Bookmasters offers an array of publishing services, including distribution—but they can also print your book and take care of warehousing and fulfillment. It’s really a one-stop shop for the indie publisher!
In most cases, your book will be one of several dozen presented in each buying session, so you may not get a lot of tailored special attention. However, Bookmasters does offer specialty teams that can present your book in more detail to particular accounts like gourmet food stores or Christian stores to help you make additional sales.
Bookmasters will represent print books, digital books, or both.
Midpoint is one of the more flexible distributors when it comes to working with small or independent publishers. Unlike larger distributors who might want to take over both your print and your digital distribution, Midpoint will make print-only agreements, meaning you can still sell your ebooks through KDP, KDP Select, or direct to consumer.
Although they prefer to work with publishers who have several books available, they may consider taking on just a single top-selling book—or they might represent only one book out of your entire list, using that to judge demand before agreeing to distribute more of your titles.
Midpoint is very hands-on and is often willing to tailor an agreement to best represent your sales needs.
Diamond Book Distributors
If you write graphic novels, roleplaying game books, media tie-ins, or sci-fi and fantasy books, you may want to consider Diamond Book Distributors.
These guys are the undisputed kings of titles with nerdy appeal, selling into not just bookstores but comic shops, novelty shops, and gaming stores across the globe. They’ll also warehouse and fulfill orders for you, streamlining the whole process.
Publishers Group West (PGW)
Publishers Group West represents more than 100 independent publishers across a range of genres and topics, selling into both general and bookstore accounts, gift shops, museum stores, and more.
Like most good distributors, in addition to having targeted sales reps for certain account types, they’ll also present your titles at major book fairs like BookCon or the Frankfurt book festival.
They prefer clients with 10 or more active titles.
Independent Publishers Group (IPG)
Independent Publishers Group is the biggest indie distributor in the United States. They sell to every account type you can imagine, and they’ll represent print, digital, audio, and more across a range of topics and niches.
IPG only accepts publishers that have more than 10 titles currently available. If you have fewer, consider working with their small-press division, Small Press United.
Small Press United
Small Press United, a division of IPG, specializes in helping indie publishers expand their sales and distribution. They know a lot about the specific challenges that small presses face and their dozens of reps are able to give your books the push they deserve. They can also handle gift and specialty accounts and tie-in merchandise.
They’ll accept applications from self-published authors who meet a few specific criteria. The most important elements are that you have to own your own ISBN (not buy through CreateSpace or Lulu), have books readily available to ship at any time, and have strong sales potential in your niche.
In addition to their distribution fees, SPU charges a one-time $200 setup fee.
These are just a handful of the distributors out there. You can find specialty distributors for children’s books, Christian books, cookbooks, regional interest books, and more.
Google for your genre plus “distribution” to get a jump-start on research for a small distributor that might be a perfect match for you.
How Getting a Book Into Bookstores Works for Indies
While it’s not easy for an independent press or a self-published author to get on bookstore shelves, it is possible.
First, make sure that your book is available in print, obviously! One easy way is to publish through CreateSpace and select the “expanded distribution” option to list with Ingram (and Baker & Taylor if you have a CreateSpace ISBN). You can also use Ingram Spark to get automatic wholesale representation in the Ingram catalog.
If you’ve chosen another print publishing option, you can still get listed with a major wholesaler. The easiest way is to join a trade group like IBPA, which offers discounts on premium wholesale listings with some services.
You can also apply directly to specialty market wholesalers like Brodart and Follett if you think your books would appeal to their library or educational clients. If you have a good marketing plan written up and can show interest from librarians or schools, you may be able to get into their catalogs and increase your sales.
If you’re interested in getting distribution for your books, research the various distributors to find one that specializes in your genre or niche. Then download and fill out their application, or email for more information.
Although most distributors don’t work with single-title authors, some will represent ambitious indie authors who have a solid marketing plan for their work. If you can show strong current sales and a lot of growth in your platform, you may be able to interest a distributor who can help you grow your sales in new markets.
Other Ways to Get Your Book on Bookshelves
You can also find other ways to get into bookstores. While being listed with a wholesaler is pretty much essential, you don’t have to have distribution in order to make bookstore, library, or school sales.
Instead, consider hiring a part-time sales representative or banding together with some other indie authors who write in your genre to hire a sales rep.
Spend money on great marketing campaigns that target bookstore buyers in addition to readers.
Focus on getting as many prominent trade journal reviews as you can, because bookstore buyers read publications like Publishers Weekly and Library Journal—a glowing review of your book could lead them to place an order with their favorite wholesaler.
And above all, just keep writing! Write great books with good editing and eye-catching design and build your audience. As you grow your platform, ask your readers to request your book at their local bookstores. As word of mouth spreads, you’ll start getting more wholesale orders and finally see your book on store shelves everywhere!
Bookstores buy their books in batches from wholesalers, but learn about those books from distributors. Choosing the approach that works best for you is critical to increasing your sales and profits.
Getting your book into bookstores usually requires several steps and a bunch of fees, but can be worth it for increased exposure and sales.
For more on how the book business works, read on:
- P&L Planning: How Traditional Publishers Use Educated Guesswork to Evaluate Books
- Pre-Publication Copies: Galleys vs. ARCs and Why You Should Care
- How Advances and Royalties Really Work
Kate Sullivan is an editor with experience in every aspect of the publishing industry, from editorial to marketing to cover and interior design.
In her career, Kate has edited millions of words and helped dozens of bestselling, award-winning authors grow their careers and do what they love!