Every store, no matter what it’s selling, has certain places that get more attention from customers than others.
Typically, those are the “endcaps”—the ends of an aisle—as well as special displays at the front of the store or between the shelves. It might even include the shelves right at eye level, where you’re naturally going to spend most of your time looking.
Obviously, these are highly coveted spots—the people producing products want them displayed there, and the store wants to make the best use of the space.
Which usually means charging extra to display things there.
This general principle works for both cereal in a grocery store and books in a bookstore. In both cases, producers—cereal manufacturers or publishers—do their best to pay for a slot that consumers will be sure to notice, therefore increasing their chances of buying that product.
In the book world, this is done through a process called co-op.
What Is Co-Op?
Co-op is short for “cooperative advertising,” a technique in which stores and producers share the costs of advertising and promoting a product.
It all started, as so many things in publishing did, back in the Great Depression. Bookstores were struggling to make sales and couldn’t promote the new books they were getting in, so publishers agreed to chip in some money for print ads, store displays, and more.
In these early days, a publisher might give a bookstore $500 in return for having one or more books featured prominently in an ad in the bookstore’s local paper or $1,000 in exchange for having a particular book displayed standing tall on a table right at the front of the store.
Publishers sent fixed amounts of money and bookstores did particular things with that money, so that everyone could see where their advertising and promotion dollars were going.
Today, things are a bit different.
Now, it’s all much less specific—publishers contribute a percentage of their annual sales with a particular bookstore (usually 3–5%) and the bookstore does “marketing,” with no real definition of what that means.
For a huge chain like Barnes & Noble, that might mean taking out ads in print and online, placing books on endcaps or special table displays, or including a publisher’s books on a “best of” list or display.
For a small indie bookstore, it might mean hosting an in-store event—one that hopefully features a book published by the contributing publisher—or taking out local media ads, putting a book by the publisher near the register, or displaying it face-out on the shelf instead of lined up with all the other books.
Some publishers argue that, because co-op advertising is so vague, it’s really just an added discount given to bookstores. Bookstores keep 3–5% of what they owe the publishers and are supposed to use that money to help market the publisher’s books, but there are conflicting agreements and expectations for what that marketing involves.
Bookstores, meanwhile, argue that they still need help from publishers to market books effectively, especially in an era when more and more people are shopping online rather than in physical bookstores.
Which Books Get the Star Treatment?
Just because a publisher pays into co-op doesn’t mean that their book will be displayed at the front of the store, on the endcap, and on a special table.
Bookstores still have the final say in how they present books, and which books get the star treatment will depend on the bookstore’s target customers and their feelings on the current crop of books available.
Big publishers—and smaller publishers who have a good distributor—will present a list of “nominations” for special display to store accounts they have co-op with.
Let’s look at an example.
Publisher X has 25 books out this season, 10 books of which it really wants to promote hard. So do Publisher Y and Publisher Z.
Meanwhile, Books R Us has a special table at the front of the store that can hold 20 books, all displayed face-out and standing up so that you can really get a good look at the cover right when you walk in the door.
All three publishers have sales reps that visit the Books R Us buyer and present their preferred lineup for the season.
The Books R Us buyer takes a look at each publisher’s catalog and decides what to buy. She figures she can stock about 50 new titles and selects the ones from each publisher she thinks will do best with her customers, usually relying on a combination of good reviews from trade journals like Publishers Weekly and gut instinct that comes from knowing her audience.
She ends up ordering 10 books from Publisher X, 25 books from Publisher Y, and 15 from Publisher Z.
Now it’s time to figure out special display.
Obviously, each company would nominate the 10 books it really wants to push for co-op special display.
But Books R Us only has 20 spaces available, and the companies are pushing 30 books.
So the buyer has to choose what she wants to display.
Publisher X pays 4% co-op, so she’s pretty strongly inclined to feature their books—they add to her store’s bottom line nicely. Publisher Y only pays 3% co-op, so she’s got an incentive to feature them, too.
Publisher Z doesn’t contribute to co-op, so the buyer doesn’t have any financial incentive to feature their books…but she’s learned that her customers really love Publisher Z’s books and if she features them, they’ll probably sell well.
Plus, there are other publishers out there, including a few local indie authors that the buyer likes and wants to support.
So in the end, the Books R Us special display table ends up featuring all 10 “star” books from Publisher X, 5 books from Publisher Y, 3 books from Publisher Z, and 2 indie books.
At the start of the ebook explosion, Amazon offered a range of co-op-style options to publishers. They could buy featured listings, “buy X and get Y at a discount” promotions for pairs of books, and other special features on the site.
But just like the bricks-and-mortar system, there were complaints.
Customers didn’t like that they couldn’t tell which books were featured because they were sponsored, not because they were popular or good. And publishers didn’t like that they were being asked to pay more on top of regular discounts, without really being able to see if they were getting a return on that investment.
Amazon changed its policy to state that it would disclose which featured books were sponsored—but even that has changed over the years, with different labels and disclosures coming and going.
Today, there are a number of programs that are only available to big publishers, where they can pay Amazon either a fixed fee or a percentage, just like in standard co-op, to more prominently feature certain books.
But at the same time, there are also programs that indie authors can use, like Amazon Marketing Services (AMS), which will let you pay to feature your book more prominently in search results and recommendations.
This really democratizes the co-op process for indie authors, allowing you to take part in the same kind of paid “star treatment” display programs that big publishers have enjoyed since the Depression.
Other Ways to Highlight Books
Of course, co-op displays aren’t the only way bookstores highlight special books.
Every bookstore, even big chains like Barnes & Noble or Waterstones, has some independent control at the store level to choose which books to display.
Many will highlight books by local authors, particularly if you have a good relationship with the bookstore manager or events coordinator.
Going in with a professionally produced, well-edited book with a great cover and a strong marketing plan and introducing yourself to the store manager or events coordinator will go a long way to helping you get stocked—and featured on a special display or endcap.
You can often arrange a book signing, even at your local B&N, if you develop a good relationship with the folks at the store and prove that you can get people in the door.
Of course, this depends on the bookstore being able to order your book easily—you need to be sure that you’re listed for wholesale with Ingram and/or Baker & Taylor so that the buyer at the store can simply add your books to their regular order, no muss, no fuss.
Many bookstores also have a section where they feature employee picks. These books aren’t necessarily the big star books selected by their publishers—though sometimes they are. Instead, they’re a mix of old favorites, great new reads, and underrated gems that shop employees personally love.
These sections offer a great service to both shop customers and indie authors—they highlight books that might otherwise be ignored through the “gatekeeper” system of trade reviews and co-op where only certain books are nominated or considered for special treatment, and they also give self-published or small press authors opportunities to get their books featured.
Again, the best way to land on these shelves is to make friends with store employees!
Drop off free advance copies of your latest book, along with a sell sheet that includes pricing and order information. Offer to do a signing event (and provide some refreshments—that always helps get people in the door!). Explain your marketing plan and how you’ll help drive traffic to the store through your network and audience.
Anything you can do to help the store sell more books will increase your odds of having your book stocked—and featured.
Publishers pay into bookstore co-op programs to advertise their books and to suggest which books should get special display treatment in stores.
Indies can get similar treatment by building good relationships with local stores.
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For more on print book publishing and offline book sales, check out these articles:
- How to Get Your Self-Published Books Into Bookstores and Libraries – The 8 Key Steps to Retail Book Sales
- How to Sell More Books Offline
- How You Can Tap into the $1.22 Billion Librarians Spend on Books Each Year