Here’s a story I’ve published first over at Christian Book Shop Talk. I’ve reposted the article here with some additions.
The story weaves around early mistakes, exposes the scene between publishers and distributors, and highlights how that relationship informs what booksellers purchases, and ultimately what customers buy.
First, let’s go back to late 2015. The rush of adult colouring books stormed the market. Around Thanksgiving I got the idea to create a bible version since at the time there were only half a dozen related titles available in a market selling millions of books. When popularity swelled during Christmas I took a serious look at whether the idea was viable. Step one (read about that in my first instalment), I bought all related adult colouring books and looked inside. What I saw surprised me—they were terrible. Photocopied or photoshopped images printed onto pages to make a colouring book. Even the ‘top’ books were merely using fonts and stock images converted to illustrations. The market generally reflected one kind of book: attempts by big publishers to quickly appease market demand. Some found success taking a utilitarian route. One such book sold 1/4 million units, not because it was beautiful, but because it was both practical, and had the backing of the most critical piece to book success—distribution.
Despite my disappointment with the quality, it meant opportunity: the market had room for a premium book that focussed on beauty. After all, adult colouring revolves on creativity and artistic expression. A beautiful book would stand on its own against the competition (faith based or otherwise). Long story short, I pulled the trigger and turned around production of a book, from concept to printing to bookshelf, in about 5 months. Soul Coats was available well in advance for Christmas, but there was a problem that wasn’t immediately obvious to me as a newcomer to the book selling world, that critical piece to book success—distribution.
Little did I know at the time, beauty and quality are not major selling points to distributors or bookstore owners, and therefore book buyers. Make something of lasting value that will stand the test of time is a good mantra for any product, but that product (book) still needs to be marketed well, and in the book industry, distributed well as well. In fact, the latter is more important in my estimation. A below average book with great distribution will sell more copies than a beautiful book with great marketing but little distribution.
June is a good time to start raising the profile of a book to wholesale buyers in order to hit the shelf for Christmas. The problem you, as publisher/author, have to overcome or your book is dead, are the gatekeepers of the book industry. Distributors, wholesalers, and bookstore owners, as I discovered, have little interest in the best books, rather they want the books that have the best chance to sell. Makes sense, but doesn’t quality count?
Not in my experience.
So what has value? Success seems to revolve around one thing: volume. For new publishers and self publishing authors distribution is the critical lynchpin to success and getting your book picked up by all the potential distributors will open the door to success. The few wholesale book distributors have a monopoly on serving the physical bookstore, but getting your book there is almost impossible.
For Soul Coats, only one distribution source, apart from shipping out of my garage, was available–Amazon. That’s a problem. Only the consumer, happy to pick up their books at their lowest price, likes Amazon. They are the ‘enemy’ to bookstores, and the bane to publishers who have little control of the never ending fees to sell books on the platform. That means a physical store will never carry your books if it’s distributed by Amazon. But if you want the cheapest method to distribute books, and for some the ONLY method, Amazon is the answer.
This is a critical problem to the book industry: gatekeepers reject books, those books go to Amazon, Amazon’s product offering strengthens, which means booksellers miss books that are not pushed by major publishers. Gatekeeping does serve a purpose to filter through the glut of books, but also creates a system where wholesale books are streamlined by highest margin/profit, not quality. This is why so many books are from the same publishers who push the same authors.
The non-Amazon book industry is faced with the proverbial ‘rock and a hard place’. Risk carrying an unknown title, sell less because ultimately the end consumer has been trained to purchase what’s familiar. Don’t add new titles, distributors become purveyors of a monotony of near imitation books. This strategy is proving to be less and less successful for the town bookstore. But that’s not because people aren’t buying books, those numbers seem flat. Consumers are changing their behaviour to shop in a place where they can find both cheapest price and the most titles they simply can’t find at their local store.
Amazon, for their part, will take anything from anybody who wants to pay to store and ship (they are particularly well suited for ebook self-publishers where fees are less and marketing opportunities great compared to physical books).
Despite a cycle in the book buying industry that’s resulted in steady closures the local bookstore, there still exists a stubborn inflexibility from both distributors not named Amazon, and booksellers. The inflexibility by booksellers in both sourcing and selection means they’re caught in a cycle that’s both unchanging and very difficult to survive in. The environment sees bookstores continuously feature a handful of titles from a handful of the same authors, by an even smaller handful of publishers, of which includes an almost exclusive American voice. What bothers me is how many bookstores, and of course customers, don’t really care. What should bother bookstore owners is this environment doesn’t seem to be working for them either.
Booksellers without a connection to their customers will simply listen to what the distributor has to say and in turn push what they’re told can sell–those same authors from the same big publishers. To be fair, booksellers want to make money, and face extreme pressure from online selling, which means books that make the shelf are the ones with the highest chance of selling. But that’s not leading to a growth in the local bookstore bottom line. There needs to be a different system (or at least a softening to how books are selected).
Good bookstores have curators (essentially librarians) who expose good books. Bookstores that are closing are merely the showroom for Amazon, stacking bookshelves as they would tin cans at the grocery store. One has value, the other is merely a purveyor of goods sent by the 1 or 2 distributors.
So what about you, as new author, want to enter the foray? For one, don’t expect to ever get on a shelf. That’s reserved for mega-pastors and Beth Moore, and that will never change until someone dies.
What you can do is two fold. 1) Continue blogging great content and start growing your tribe. Your tribe is your market. The people who love your content and will buy it. Start a newsletter to mine emails and build a fan base. 2) E-books are a good mechanism to get your book out, and that platform, particularly with Amazon, has a number of essential features that can help you grow your reader base. The same does NOT exist in a more competitive physical book market, one that has so many hurdles and barriers. It’s a sure way to lose money, unless you’re very careful with the POD (print on demand) service and you put out only enough copies you’ve already sold. Then you won’t be stuck with a garage full of books.
You also won’t make it to the best seller list either, but who does on their first try?