How to Get Your Self-Published Books in Bookstores

Doug Landsborough
April 20, 2023

Growing up, I would spend countless hours in bookstores just browsing the thousands of different titles in my favorite genres. There’s something magical about rows and rows of books on shelves taller than you are (and I’m 6’3”, so that’s saying something).

Whether you’re in it for nostalgic, prestigious, or commercial reasons, it’s safe to say many authors want to get their books into bookstores and onto those towering shelves. For traditionally published authors, your publisher will take care of those logistics for you, at least when it comes to major retailers, so which stores you end up in will depend on their own distribution network. Even some traditionally published authors don’t end up in bookstores if they’re working with a smaller publisher.

But what if you’re self-publishing? How do indie authors get their books into bookstores?

Well, like most things when you self-publish, that task falls to you. But we’ll discuss everything you need to know, including:

  • Writing a book they can sell
  • Distributing your book
  • Working with bookstores
  • The pros and cons of getting into bookstores

Before we get ahead of ourselves, understand that this is more of an advanced topic. I’ll briefly go over best practices for making your book shelf-worthy and distributing your e-book, but I’ll be working under the assumption you know most of these basics already. If not, this article is a great place to start your journey.

Researching the Market

As a self-published author, you can write for two reasons: passion or profit. The best authors in the world have successfully combined the two. Unless you’re looking at writing as a career or supplemental income, there isn’t a wrong answer.

But bookstores don’t necessarily see it that way. To them, passion is more of a luxury than a necessity. To bookstores, the single most important element of your book is how much it will sell

If a store can’t make money off your book, they won’t put it on the shelves.

In other words, if you’re writing a book solely to get that story out of your head and onto paper, it’s probably not a great fit for a bookstore.

That said, you can still take your passion, research the market, and make a book that is fulfilling and sellable. We’re going to cover the elements you need to do just that.

Understanding Your Target Market

Before you even write your book—heck, before you even outline it—you’re going to want to understand your target market. Your book will never satisfy all readers. And it doesn’t have to. 

What you want is to write a book that is appealing enough to an audience that it can make money. Luckily, finding a profitable niche in a genre isn’t all that difficult.

Here are a couple ways to figure out your target audience:

Social media trends and groups - Look at groups and accounts on social media who comment or follow books similar to yours. Note demographic information like age, sex, gender, occupation, location, preferred genre, etc.

Connect with other writers - Join online or in-person writing communities and connect with writers in your genre. Learn from their experience about what works and what their readers love.

Use advertising data - If your book is already written and you have the budget to run ads, the information you get back can be eye-opening. There’s almost no end to the amount of demographic information you can get from advertisers like Facebook and Amazon.

This is just the beginning. Up next, we’re going to talk about how you can analyze your competition to better understand your audience.

Analyzing the Competition

It’s a bit mean to call other authors your competition, but when someone only has enough money to buy your book or someone else’s, then it’s a competition. And that’s how bookstores look at it: what makes this novel un-put-down-able compared to another.

Here’s what analyzing your competition means:

Study (and read) your genre - Take a look at the bestsellers in your genre and, lucky you, read them. Look for consistent threads throughout these books, like character arcs, tropes, word choice, pacing, tone, etc. Use those to your advantage when writing your book.

Analyze also-read/bought sections - While you’re looking at bestsellers and books similar to yours, take a look at the part of the sales page where retailers list what customers also bought or read. This can reveal some insights into your target audience.

Read reviews - I think it’s safe to say that, in most cases, people are more likely to leave reviews if they’re angry than if they’re happy. Readers aren’t like that. Readers want to talk about the book they just read, no matter how they felt about it. So check out the reviews of stories similar to yours. Look for what resonated with readers and what they hated.

Why does all this matter? Bookstores have limited space. Every book needs to help their bottom line. By writing a book that can hang with the best in your genre, you’re making it easier for bookstores to say yes when you approach them.

Publish Your Best Book

I don’t have enough room here to explain all the intricacies of publishing your best book. That’s why we wrote Let’s Write a Book to help you get the first draft done (and you can get that 100+ page e-book for free by clicking here) and why we continue adding tons of free to access articles every week over at DabbleU.

But here are some things you need to do in order to take your book from an idea to a bookstore-ready novel:

  • Write your first draft - This should be obvious, but you actually need to write your book in order to get your book into a bookstore. As I mentioned above, check out our free e-book for help writing your draft.
  • Revise your draft - Take a break from that draft before going back to kill your darlings. This could take multiple rounds of revisions to get your book to where you consider it perfect.
  • Get beta feedback - Beta readers are invaluable helpers in your journey to writing a marketable book. Learn all about them at this link.
  • Hire an editor - Don’t edit your own work. Don’t do it. Don’t think Grammarly will catch everything. Hire, at the bare minimum, a copy editor to catch all the typos, punctuation mistakes, and grammatical errors that will make you look unprofessional. If you have the budget, there are other editing professionals you can hire to make your book better.
  • Design an irresistible cover - “Never judge a book by its cover” is poetic but, unfortunately, books are always judged by their covers. So study what book covers work well in your genre and connect with a professional to make one that forces readers to pick it up. 
  • Pay attention to formatting - Depending on the bookstore and your distribution strategy, you could be formatting three different versions of your book at once: e-book, paperback, and hardcover. Odds are, bookstores will only sell your e-book and paperback, but make sure you triple check the formatting of your books, especially the proof copies you get before publishing.

This has been a very brief, high-level overview of preparing your story to become a full-fledged book.

But if you can say you’ve really put in the work to understand your audience, analyze your competition, and make your best book, you’re ready for what’s next: getting your self-published book out there.

Getting Your Book in Bookstores

Unfortunately, there isn’t a magic button that does all this hard work for you. Even in situations where distribution is made simple, the work doesn’t stop there.

But one step at a time.

Choosing a Distributor

First up, you should be choosing a distributor (or multiple distributors) for your book. It seems there are new options out there all the time, but here are the big players:

Kindle Direct Publishing - The biggest of the players, Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) is Amazon’s self-publishing platform. Among many of its benefits, like its advertising platform and community, distributing exclusively on KDP allows you to sign up for KDP Select. This can allow for higher royalties and enrolment in Kindle Unlimited, but would exclude you from selling your e-book in bookstores. KDP also allows for Expanded Distribution, which lets bookstores and libraries buy your paperback books at wholesale prices.

IngramSpark - When it comes to distributing your books to a wider web of stores, IngramSpark shines. Where KDP focuses on Amazon and some partners, IngramSpark offers many of the same formatting tools, courses, and community while casting a wider net, which includes distribution to Amazon and major bookstores. Unlike KDP, you must pay for each title you upload (including revised versions of the same title), which costs $49 USD to upload your e-book and paperback at once at the time of writing this article, although ALLi members get discounts

Smashwords - Smashwords was (and, at the time of writing, still is) one of the easiest ways to get your e-books everywhere. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Google, Kobo, and more are as easy as putting your manuscript through their system and clicking submit. Smashwords has a very popular online store for readers, too, but lacks any printing services for paperback or hardcover. In February 2022, it was also announced that Draft2Digital is acquiring Smashwords, and the combination of the two should make for some big ripples in self-publishing.

Don’t email me with angry words because I didn’t list your preferred distributor, but these are the biggest three in the industry right now. If you’re looking for more options, consider checking out distributors like Lulu, Draft2Digital, and Bookbaby.

Distributing E-Books vs. Paperbacks in Bookstores

Some of those distributors will do e-books, some give an option just for paperback, and some will do both. But how do you actually get those into stores and on shelves?

With e-books, it’s pretty easy. If you go with Expanded Distribution with KDP or publish through IngramSpark or Smashwords, your e-book will automatically show up in the online stores partnered with those distributors.

That’s the nice thing about e-books; you can get them distributed basically everywhere, since they’re just files.

Does that mean they will sell? No. You need to have a solid marketing plan in place to drive people to those marketplaces.

Paperbacks are a different situation, though. Physical copies of books take up valuable space on shelves. Think of every single book in a bookstore as an investment. If the store can’t get a return on their investment, they won’t stock a book.

So you have two options:

  1. Work on your marketing and community building until your book becomes popular or requested enough the store wants to stock it (and can buy it through your distributor)
  2. Develop a good relationship with bookstores so you can request they stock your book

The first option requires hard work, perseverance, and a little bit of luck. The second option, however, is what we’re talking about next.

Building Relationships with Bookstores

Even if you poured your heart and soul into your book, stores are under no obligation to sell it. That’s the mindset you need to go into relationship-building with if you want your books on shelves: it’s a two-way street. You scratch their back; they scratch yours.

Here are some tips for building your relationships with bookstores:

Start local - Don’t think you can go from being in zero bookstores to being on shelves nationwide in a week. That’s not how it works. Focus on building relationships with your closest two or three bookstores.

Get familiar with them - Here’s some difficult homework: go visit those bookstores. Buy something. Understand the vibe of the place. Most importantly, ask them if they do in-store events or consignments.

In-store events - If they do in-store events, speak to them about a solo book signing (lots of fun and potentially quite profitable), a book release/reading, or partnering up with other local artists, like a musician who will play while you’re signing. The last option there can help when there are lulls in traffic or if you’re nervous.

Consignments - There are two different types of consignments. The first is where the bookstore buys your books from you at a discounted/wholesale price and sells them, keeping the profits. The second is where a bookstore stocks your books, sells them, and periodically sends you a check for what they’ve sold, minus their commission. Most big bookstores have one or two people in charge of consignments who will act as your point of contact (and you may even need to call them to set it up).

It always helps to go into a conversation with sales and your personal story backing you up. The bigger the bookstore, the more they care about sales. If you have sold a lot online, have a notable social following, had a successful book signing elsewhere, or can think of anything to give you an edge, let them know.

Many bookstores love to feature local authors, too. The first few stores my books got into gave them a big “Local Author” sticker on the front, which makes for an easier in-person sale.

Offer a copy or two for the employees to read, too. You can’t be there all the time to promote your book, but an employee who loves your work will always be the first to suggest it to customers.

In one of the bookstores my paperbacks are in, the employee in charge of consignment absolutely loves my books (thanks, Tara!). Because of her passion and support, her location in a town of 21,000 people has sold ten times more of my books than stores in cities with hundreds of thousands of residents.

It pays to have a good relationship with bookstores.

Pros and Cons of Being in Bookstores

Realistically, I can’t write this article without pointing out how being in bookstores isn’t just sunshine and rainbows. To wrap things up, I want to point out why you might want to have your book in bookstores, and why you may consider avoiding it altogether.

Pros of Having Your Self-Published Book in Bookstores

  • Prestige: You feel good about seeing your book next to bestsellers.
  • Credibility: Some readers take you more seriously if you’re in bookstores.
  • Visibility: Get your book in front of more (or different) eyes than who might land on your sales page or website.
  • Income: While not as profitable as direct sales, there is the potential for increased income from bookstores.

Cons of Having Your Self-Published Book in Bookstores

  • Sales pitches: You have to pitch your book to individual bookstores unless your sales are already so great they choose to stock your book themselves.
  • Lower margins: For all the work you’re doing, you’ll realistically only be making a few bucks per book.
  • Different market: You have to think of physical marketability rather than an online sales page. How does your cover look on a shelf? The spine? Is your book sized properly for shelf efficiency?
  • Returns: The worst part. If you pay $4 to get a copy of your book printed and delivered, and the bookstore pays $8, you pocket $4. But if their customer then returns the book, the bookstore will want their $8 back from you. This can lead to headache-inducing cash flow and inventory management that might not be worth the benefits.

Self-Publishing Doesn’t Stop Once the Book is Done

Whether you want to get into bookstores or not, the journey of an indie author goes far beyond finishing your book.

To be successful—especially by bookstore standards—you must know how to market effectively.

And guess what? We’ve got you covered on that.

Learn from fellow writers at every stage of the journey over at the Story Craft Café, a virtual community for authors.

Brush up on marketing with our free resources and articles here, and take your author game to the next level.

And the best way to sell a book? Write it. Dabble gives you all the tools you need to write an amazing book in a modern, user-friendly program that automatically backs up your work, wherever you’re writing.

You can try Dabble for free, without even entering your credit card digits, by clicking here

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.