The New Frontiers of Bookstore Distribution

Jul 15, 2016


It amazes us that physical bookstore distribution – once the most standard way of getting books to market – is no longer a critical part of a book’s success story. Some authors and publishers can devise a winning publishing strategy based on online bookselling and alternative market channels. For example, New York-based OR Books sells its books directly to consumers from its website, and booksellers can order copies directly from them too, without going through a distributor. And of course authors and publishers can sell books online through major retailers such as Amazon, both by uploading ebooks and by using print-on-demand or vendor programs to sell to consumers.

But physical bookstores are still in great demand, both by aspiring authors and publishers, and from the perspective of consumers. Publishers Weekly reported that 2015 saw the first increase in bricks-and-mortar bookstore sales since 2007. We’ve recently seen well-known authors and independent presses opening bookstores. And even Amazon has jumped on the bandwagon with the opening of retail locations across the US.

It’s undeniable that significant opportunities for exposure and authentic browsing experiences are hard to replicate online. The thought of random, spontaneous purchases and the hand-selling abilities of experienced booksellers are appealing to anyone seeking to achieve success in publishing. Many authors feel that traditional bookstore distribution is the holy grail of publishing experiences, so they’re surprised to hear us express words of caution around a distribution opportunity.

Deciding whether physical bookstore distribution is a good opportunity for a book is not simple. Here are a few reasons why:

If you build it, they won’t necessarily come

Getting books into stores is one thing. Getting them off the shelves is another. A book won’t sell itself just through exposure and availability in physical bookstores. It requires a great deal of marketing investment, strong ongoing promotional efforts and – in some cases – bookstore signings and appearances. You need to build buzz around your book that will drive people into stores to seek it out.

Risky business

Distributing books to bookstores involves a lot of risk on the author/publisher’s part. You need to determine a print run based on projected sales, and even the most experienced publishers are sometimes off-base and find themselves with huge returns and tons of excess stock. The nice thing about print-on-demand and ebook sales is that no inventory means less risk for everyone involved.

Tricky timing

For authors, one of the upsides of self-publishing is being able to get your book to market quickly, on your own terms. Traditional bookstore distribution relies on the infrastructure and timelines of the traditional publishing process. So that means you must build in a long lead time for the release of your book – typically at least 6-12 months from when you pitch your book to a distributor. If you elect to have your book distributed in bookstores, you’ll need to follow the timeline of the distributor, and not the other way around.

To those of us who love books, the appeal of physical bookstores is obvious. So the joy an author might feel in seeing their books available in stores is understandable. The key is knowing what kinds of potential challenges lie in the process, in addition to the wonderful opportunities.

Do you have questions about book distribution? Let us know; we’d love to help.