Why You Can’t Find Indies In Store

Just a few years ago, readers paid little attention to books published by independent (indie) authors. Self-published books were considered second rate, not worth the investment of hard-earned cash. Today, with attractive eBook prices and quality that rivals that of books published by New York houses, readers are turning in droves to indie-authored books. In fact, more than half the top 20 books on Amazon’s current Kindle “Movers and Shakers” list—hot books rising fastest up the Amazon sales ranks—are indie or small press published.

Why then, given their popularity, are so few indie books available on bookstore shelves?

In the old days, it was nearly impossible for self-publishers to attract the attention of major distributors like Ingram or Baker and Taylor. If a book was not listed in the distribution catalogs, unless the author brought his or her book to their attention, buyers had no way to know it existed. Now, Createspace, Amazon’s self-publishing arm, Lightning Source—a publishing resource for printing, distribution and digital fulfillment—and some self publishing companies offer distribution services for indie authors, making availability less of an issue.

Still, the problem persists. In 2011, Barbara Freethy, a #1 New York Times bestselling author of thirty novels, began self-publishing her backlist. Freethy has sold an amazing 1.5 million books. While she’s currently in talks with distributors, bookstores do not yet stock her self-published titles. It may be tempting to chalk it up to a conspiracy to marginalize indie books—conspiracy theories are fun! In reality, it comes down to dollars and cents.

In the traditional model, publishers offer a healthy discount and books are fully returnable. Many indie publishers offer less than the standard industry discount (55%) and most can’t afford to allow stores to return unsold books. With diminishing profits and limited shelf space, the majority of bookstore owners can’t or won’t stock books that cannot be returned.

Some companies that cater to self-publishers—Llumina Press, for example—now offer a returns option, often in partnership with a distributor like Ingram. However, the cost of the programs can be high and books placed in their distribution chains must be published under a house ISBN number (as opposed to the author’s). The bigger problem: while traditional publishers employ a sales team to market their lists, self-publishers are on their own, fully responsible for marketing and selling their book to bookstores—an uphill battle at best.

Price is another factor. Large publishers print thousands of books in a run, vastly reducing the unit cost. Most indie authors and small publishers cannot afford large offset print runs; instead, they rely on print on demand technology (POD). With POD, books are printed to fill orders, individually or in short runs. To compete with large publishers, authors must slash earnings, which reduces funds available for marketing and is not always viable. POD, as Freethy points out, “just makes books available so that readers can order a print book.”

For all these reasons, most bookstores prefer to work with traditional publishers. Who can blame them? Weak profits have forced the closure of even large chains like Borders. To stay in business, owners must be mindful of cost and make the most of their limited real estate.

Getting Indie Books Into Stores

Savvy indie authors do get books into stores, by using grassroots tactics. In other words, they develop relationships with owners and employees at bookstores in their area. By hosting signings and participating in literary events, they attract the attention of the local press and develop a following. To solve the problem of returns, some authors offer books on consignment. These smart tactics work well on a small scale; with the high cost, in both time and money, hand-to-hand selling is not a feasible option for large-scale distribution.

John Locke, bestselling author of the Donovan Creed Series, Emmett Love westerns, and Dani Ripper novels, has beaten the odds by taking distribution into his own hands. Locke recently struck a deal with Simon and Schuster whereby he publishes through his imprint, John Locke Books, and Simon and Schuster distributes to bookstores and retailers across the country. “This was a perfect solution to getting my book Wish List into stores,” Locke says.

Nevertheless, the deal is not the panacea he’d hoped it would be. “Getting books into stores is only the beginning,” Locke points out. “Getting good placement in stores is even harder.”

With limited shelf space, choice placement goes to well-known authors and books expected to be hot sellers. And therein lies the rub. Building a broad-based audience—becoming well known—requires media attention, and, for the most part, the traditional media ignore self- publishers. Despite Locke’s being a wildly successful indie author, no traditional press has ever reviewed or written about his books. As Locke is quick to point out, he’s received wonderful press in online editions. But their readers generally buy eBooks, not paperbacks.

“I thought once the Simon and Schuster deal came out, this would change for me,” Locke says. “As it turns out, I’m still taboo when it comes to newspaper and magazine reviews.”

To build an audience among paperback buyers, Locke’s only tools are word of mouth, online advertising and interviews, and placement on bookstore shelves. “While my book Wish List is in bookstores (a major achievement) very few people know about it or have heard of me.” In a scenario where his books must compete for placement against books by famous authors, it makes sense, he says, that his are the ones relegated to the back racks.

Changes on the Horizon

As the market for indie books continues to expand, the situation is bound to change.

Barbara Freethy is currently exploring her print distribution options.  “This is a huge untapped market,” Freethy says. “I personally have many, many readers clamoring for my books to come out in print . . . [now] if they don’t have an electronic reader, they’re out of luck.”

For authors [like Freethy and Locke] with many successful eBooks, partnering with a publisher for print distribution makes a lot of sense, says literary agent Jenny Bent, founder of The Bent Agency in Brooklyn, New York. “But I think this will only be attractive for publishers in scenarios where there are a lot of successful books to distribute—so it won’t be an option for an author who only has one or two books.”

Literary agent and publishing consultant Joelle Delbourgo, founder and president of Joelle Delbourgo Associates, Inc., agrees that individual author distribution clients are rare. Publishers are unlikely to take on a writer as a client, she says, unless the author has proven high level success. To one publisher, success may mean selling 5000 books, to another 20,000. Another measure a publisher may use to evaluate a prospective client is velocity of sale–meaning the book is selling quickly, over a sustained period of time.

To serve clients who wish to self-publish, Delbourgo has made an arrangement with ARGO Constellation, the electronic distribution arm of Perseus Press. Constellation offers a la carte services to agents and small press clients, which include converting and uploading eBooks, as well as managing vendor relationships. Delbourgo facilitates a client’s relationship with ARGO Constellation and offers publishing advice.

This arrangement allows a writer to self-publish, but there are fewer administrative hassles, the author has a seasoned agent as a partner in the venture, and authors retain a whopping 50 – 60% of their earnings minus agency commission. ARGO Constellation does not work directly with authors, though, so a literary agent is a necessary part of this equation.

Authors without an agent must find other avenues. Jenny Bent believes such avenues may open soon: “In the next few months we will see more options for print distribution opening up as smaller companies figure out ways to solve this problem for e-pubbed authors.”

Once current distribution issues are resolved, the next step will be finding a way to attract the attention of traditional media. It’s hard, says Locke, to “get the media to recognize your book, so that readers know how to look for it.” Don’t get him wrong: he’s not complaining. “This is part of the equation,” he says. “The part I have not been able to solve. Yet.”

Traditional media may be tough to crack, but the walls are falling down. One day soon, popular, groundbreaking indie authors like John Locke and Barbara Freethy will get their due notice—and their fans will find their books prominently displayed on bookstore shelves.

NB: John Locke has just completed a new novel titled Bad Doctor.  The ebook version should be out in less than two weeks and will be on sale for 99 cents.


Terri Giuliano Long is a contributing writer for Indie Reader. She has written news and feature articles for numerous publications, including the Boston Globe and the Huffington Post. She lives with her family on the East Coast and teaches at Boston College. Her debut novel, In Leah’s Wake, has been an Amazon Kindle bestseller since August 2011. For more information, please visit her website.

22 replies
  1. Max Tomlinson
    Max Tomlinson says:

    This is very informative – thank you. I printed my debut novel through CreateSpace and am having no luck with local bookstores, despite a low-as-possible price (i.e. almost no profit through CS’s extended channel for bookstores) and waiting until I had a positive Kirkus review to add to the cover, thinking that that might help a physical book display well and sell. Even though I have testimonials from a local, established author, and offered to do readings and bring people in, I could not get a response. I thought about the price of POD and returns but also suspect it might just be basic old prejudice against self-pubbed novels and Amazon too. I have also heard having your books for sale through Amazon on your web site annoys local bookstores and don’t know if that’s true. But I need to sell my book. It’s a shame. I want my local bookstores to do well (with my book in them, of course!) and think they will have to eventually embrace Indie books in the long run if they want to offer something other stores don’t. I notice they don’t mind my referring customers to order through stores rather than Amazon (where I DO make a profit). I am not planning to add my next book to the extended channel since this has not been a success. This will allow me to offer it for an even lower price online.

    • Rosalie Marsh
      Rosalie Marsh says:

      I read this article with interest. I clicked on the web link to indiebound and to my amazement found my current [paperback] titles listed! Although I am I the UK I have a large US following through social media. This link will be well used!
      Thank you!
      Rosalie Marsh

      • Terri Giuliano Long
        Terri Giuliano Long says:

        Fantastic, Roasalie! IndieBound is a wonderful resource. Even if bookstores don’t stock our books, readers can order from – and support – their favorite store. In many cases, the books are available for shipment or pick up the next day. I’m glad you found your book!

    • Harriet Schultz
      Harriet Schultz says:

      While browsing in a JFK airport bookstore, I came across John Locke’s book and was blown away to see that it had his own imprint. I wondered how he was able to place a self-published book in a high traffic location like that. Thanks for the explanation of his distribution deal with S & S. The paperback of my self-published book is being sold in four local indie bookstores, but there’s little chance of placing it in stores outside my area. Frustrating! Thanks for the link to indiebound. I found my book there! http://www.indiebound.org/book/9781467910538

  2. Michael Burns
    Michael Burns says:

    In the future, all books will be eBooks. There will be no paper books. Indie authors should not follow the John Locke model. I believe it’s just a matter of time before Barnes & Noble closes their doors, permanently. Then the scramble to have paper books placed on a shelf, as John Locke is doing now, will have been a waste of time. I can’t say when this will happen, but it will happen—ten years from now, perhaps even twenty years from now, maybe sooner. But it’s inevitable.

    In Japan it’s been the recent custom to read books on cell phones. On an Android system books actually read very well and page turning is a breeze.
    The transition to eBooks is well under way. Kudos to Jeff Bezos—he has more vision than all of the publishers in New York combined.

  3. Adam iWriteReadRate
    Adam iWriteReadRate says:

    Hi Terri

    As always, a very insightful and meticulously research piece.

    There’s still a lot of disruption happening all around in the publishing world – indie or not.

    My catchphrase at the minute seems to be “it’s truly an exciting time to be a writer and a reader.” We’ve got circa 400 years of publishing ‘tradition’ and structure to bring into the 21st century to make what becomes a successful story more democratic, more personal and more social.

    I love bookstores, but can’t help feel that they can’t cater for the ebook revolution and the indie authors it is enabling an opportunity to find their audience out in the global www. world.

    Interesting news articles today about the ebook price fixing by major publishers…not very democratic or reader focused – both of which are things that ebooks and indie actually focus on and often do well.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Best regards


    • Terri Giuliano Long
      Terri Giuliano Long says:

      Thank you so much for your kind words, Adam! I could not agree more – this is a very exciting time for writers and readers! I’m not sure if it’s the same in the UK, but US bookstores have begun to sell eBooks.

      Here’s a link to bookstores that sell Google eBooks: http://www.indiebound.org/google-ebooks

      Here’s info from the American Booksellers Association and IndieBound:

      “ABA has partnered with Google because of its open and accessible platform so ABA member bookstores can provide an easy way for their customers to discover, read, and buy ebooks at competitive prices. Google eBooks work with myriad devices — tablets, smartphones, computers, even most e-ink devices.”

      An exciting time indeed!!

  4. Maryann McFadden
    Maryann McFadden says:

    I agree it’s a hard battle getting a self-published book on store shelves, however I did just that with my first novel, THE RICHEST SEASON, which went on to land a major deal with Hyperion Books (who also took my second novel, SO HAPPY TOGETHER). I use my publishing journey as the backstory for a struggling writer in my new novel, THE BOOK LOVER, which debuts May 1. In it, I detail how this author finally gets the attention of booksellers (and of course there’s lots of drama and intrigue!). It’s being called “the most honest story about the world of books I’ve read,” by Rob Dougherty of Clinton Books, and has already been selected as an Indie Next Pick.

  5. ellen
    ellen says:

    Yes, indie books are a problem for booksellers for all the reasons you mentioned above, especially returnability. We are barraged by self-pub authors, and it’s time consuming to distinguish good from bad. Unfortunately, there are more bad indie books than good, leading booksellers to generalize and exclude all but the rare exceptions on the shelf. The e-availability will never make it attractive to booksellers, at least the independents. Maybe we are going the way of the dinosaurs, particularly with the approval of the Michaels of the world. But when everything is on e-book, indie authors will be back in the same boat, vying for attention in a crowded field without an authority to run interference and recommend their books to readers. Remember, the easiest way to ingratiate yourself to a bookseller is to BUY a book while you are promoting yours. You’d be surprised how few indie authors remember this.

    • Terri Giuliano Long
      Terri Giuliano Long says:

      You make very good points, Ellen! I think we sometimes forget that if we want support we must give support.

      I also understand your point about the difficulty in finding and selecting good books. With traditionally published books, you can rely on traditional media for reviews and so on; to date that has not been the case with indie published books. Fortunately, this is changing quickly. Prestigious awards – like the Indie Discovery Awards, whose judges are prominent in the publishing industry – along with reader sites like Goodreads and the reviews and recommendations of book bloggers will give stores – and readers – a guide to the best indie books.

      While I’d love to see bookstores carry indie books, I very much hope for a healthy future for bookstores!

  6. Diana Stevan
    Diana Stevan says:

    Thanks, Jenny, for the informative article on the ever changing business of publishing and marketing. Lots of food for thought. This will be one article I refer to time and again as I continue my writing journey.

  7. Molly Greene
    Molly Greene says:

    Once again, Terri, you are keeping Indie authors informed about our options – and looking for solutions. We are fortunate to have you working on our side. On behalf of self-pubbers everywhere, I’d like to tell you how much I appreciate your hard work.

    • Terri Giuliano Long
      Terri Giuliano Long says:

      Thank you so very much, Molly! Your kindness and support mean a lot to me!

      As you know, I truly believe in indie authors and the indie movement. I’m grateful to Amy Edelman for giving me the opportunity to get the word out!

  8. Patricia Goodwin
    Patricia Goodwin says:

    I wasn’t thrilled with the terms my local bookstore offered for consignment for independent authors. I put my CreateSpace paperback When Two Women Die in the local grocery store. I’m getting reasonable terms and great placement. Not to mention, I’m a Local Market Bestseller, as folks can pick up one of my books with their groceries instead of making an extra stop. I’m also in a local art gallery with great foot traffic. Also available on Amazon in Kindle format http://www.amazon.com/dp/B005D4U4HC  and Paperback http://www.amazon.com/When-Two-Women-Die-Historical/dp/0615587240/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1328455162&sr=1-3. I also gifted my book to libraries and other strategic individuals. Not ready to deal with remainders yet. I love the freedom of on demand publishing. Thanks for this article!

  9. Mariann Regan
    Mariann Regan says:

    Thank you for being a valuable source of information for those of us publishing “indie” books. It is clear that the entire book marketing scene is in transition, and ten years from now we’ll know more about how things will shake out. Although I’ve published with University and commercial presses in the past, this time I went with AuthorHouse. They did a great job on the cover and layout of the soft cover, and they offer Kindle, Nook, listings on Amazon & BarnesandNoble, as well as a Social Media Consultant who introduced me to the Facebook-Twitter-BookBlog Nexus. Since my book is a family memoir, I get to be in a twitter community of many friendly and smart genealogists, some of whom are reviewing/have reviewed my book. I’m learning a lot and having fun. When I published scholarship for Cornell U. Press, I just had to wait (two years!) for the scholarly review mill to grind to its conclusion. This way is faster and more companionable.


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