Why Self-Publishers Should Avoid Bookstores

Recently I was asked to write a sort of factsheet that would act as a starting point for Irish writers considering self-publishing their work. It was a really interesting experience for me because since I signed a traditional deal back in 2015 – Distress Signals was published in May of last year and my second thriller, The Liar’s Girl, will be out next March – I haven’t really spent too much time thinking about self-publishing. So it had been a while since I had to commit to paper (or screen) my feelings on it. Would my advice be different with the benefit of these past two years? Is there such a huge difference between sneaking a peek behind the curtain and getting to go play behind it that my views would change completely? Is there anything I said three, four or even five years ago that I would never even dream of saying now?


Shakespeare & Company, Paris. 

Well, not really, no. The factsheet turned out to be a very (VERY) condensed version of my ‘how to’ guide, Self-Printed.* But while once upon a time I might have said it’s probably not a good idea to aim to get your self-published books into bookshops, now I’m saying don’t. Don’t do it. At all. Because I can tell you, from what I’ve seen over here on the other side, bookshop shelves are a battleground even for the biggest publishing houses, and it makes little to no impact unless you’re on a lot of them. As an individual, you and your book just can’t compete there.

And if you try to, you are negating the biggest benefit of self-publishing as it is today: the fact that you can sell hundreds or thousands (or even millions) of copies of your book without having to invest in stock. That’s why self-publishing exploded like it did back in 2009(ish): because POD paperbacks and e-books came along. Before that, self-publishing meant sourcing a printer who’d take your money in exchange for a print run of your title – hundreds or maybe a thousand books – which would then live in boxes under your stairs and whisper despair to you every time you passed by, the layer of dust on them growing thicker and thicker. When you decide to self-publish with the aim of getting your book stocked in physical bookstores, you are rejecting this wonderful technological advance and saying you want to go back to the not-so-good old days when self-publishing meant digging yourself a hole of debt with no guarantee you’d ever get to climb out of it.

It just doesn’t make any business sense. Anyone I know who managed to get their book into physical stores didn’t make enough of a profit to justify the time it took to do it, and they all spent months – years, some – waiting to get paid. Some never got paid, they just got the books back. If your goal is to sell books, why spend your time and money so inefficiently? (And hey, your goal should be to sell books. Novels need readers. Getting readers = selling books. If you’re writing just for yourself, or purely for pleasure, or as a pastime, stay doing that. To publish is to start a business, and why bother if you don’t care about whether or not it’ll succeed?)

In my experience, it’s very hard to convince newbie self-publishers of this – and I totally understand why. I often say I didn’t grow up dreaming of seeing my book on a Kindle. We have this idea that it’s not really publishing unless it’s publishing as we know it. But to think this way is a mistake. Self-publishing can do so many wonderful things for you as a writer. You need to embrace what it can achieve and focus on that, instead of trying to force it to do something it wasn’t designed for.

Anyway, the point of this post is that this morning I came across one that makes this point so much better than me, and it’s written from the point of view of the person standing between you and the bookshop shelf: the bookseller. Anyone who tells me they want to get their self-published book into brick-and-mortar stores will be pointed in the direction of this in the future.

You may bristle, but remember, this is based on this bookseller’s own experience with self-published authors. They may not be like you, but they’ve pretty much ruined it for you already. You can say it’s not worth my while even trying to overcome this or you can say I’m going to do everything I can to overcome each of these hurdles but either way, you need to know what’s up. Have a read.

Self-Published Authors – 20 Tips from a Bookseller:

You’ve written a book.

Congratulations, I mean it, and that’s coming from someone who:

  1. is completely incapable of writing a book and
  2. counts eating a whole tube of Pringles in one sitting as a typical life achievement.

However, if you are thinking of bringing your self-published book into my bookshop, you might like to consider the following:

→ Read the rest on The Secret Bookseller.

*Self-Printed is no longer available. The last edition was published in 2014 and as I am totally against people giving advice on things they themselves have not done, I haven’t updated it since and won’t be again anytime soon. Rather than charge money for something out of date, I pulled it. All the blog posts it was based on are still around here somewhere, on my blog. 


12 thoughts on “Why Self-Publishers Should Avoid Bookstores

  1. writerlyderv says:

    I wonder though, do people expect your book to be on a bookshop? It seems to me that even if they buy it online, they still expect the book to be sold in a bookshop in order for it to be credible? When I brought out my ook (admittedly it was 2011), you could see the lights go off when you said it was available online.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      This is part of the problem. What people? Usually friends and family. This pressures self-publishers into the bookshop thing. (I think.) I would ignore them and focus instead on the people who WILL buy online. The first group is infinitesimally smaller than the second.

  2. Amber says:

    Thanks for this post!! With my book, I never even considered the bookstore option because it is all about the virtual world, namely Instagram. However, I think I would have been really conflicted about it if I had written something in the fiction genre. Like you said, when I was a kid, I always imagined writing a book and then seeing it on bookstore shelves for the first time! It’s an appealing idea.

  3. Crissi Langwell says:

    I haven’t really bothered with putting my book in the bookstore. The few times I have, they did exactly what I expected it to do – sat there and died a slow death of boredom on the shelf. It just seems like I’ve had to jump through way too many hoops for nothing to happen unless I push people to shop there – and I’d rather devote energy toward online retailers where my rank and use of keywords will put me in front of way more people. I hate that I can’t support my local bookstore, especially since I do love visiting them. But my book isn’t going to make them any money, and their shop is not going to pay my bills (pretending here that my books do pay the bills, lol). Btw, I listened to a presentation from a local bookseller at a recent conference that was incredibly similar to Secret Bookseller’s post. I was just as turned off by it then as I was by that post. I get it. It’s a business, and they need to make decisions that will support their business. But so do I.

  4. deepstorypress says:

    Hi Catherine, I enjoy your witty phrasings. The Secret Bookseller just made it to the ALLi Facebook page recently, and it’s been well dealt with at this point. I’m interested in making an audio book out of my title. Do you know of any such production company in south Dublin? I live in Co Wicklow so south Dublin would work best for me. Thanks

  5. victoria946 says:

    I think too many people forget that business relationships are two-way streets. They’re focused on what the bookstore can do for them. I sell more print books in indie bookstores than online because I have built up relationships with them.

    I am a member of two bookstores. I volunteer at one. I spend money at a lot of indie bookstores. I even bought my Kobo e-reader at one. I also offer programs that may appeal to their customers.

    Because of building relationships, several of them are eager to host book launches for my next book in the spring. They invite me to sit on panels with other local authors.

    That’s not to say there aren’t bumps in the road. One indie bookstore reluctantly agreed to look at my books because they don’t carry self-published books (they thought mine “looked good”). But they decided no exceptions. When I picked up the books they admitted that customers had come in asking for them. They gave them my website info instead. Apparently reader interest wasn’t enough for them to change their policy.

    All of this takes time and effort. I focus on the stores whose customer base is the same as my reader demographic. I have conversations with the owners about how I can help them. I’m in this for the long haul, rather than a quick burst of activity. I think of them as part of my marketing team. Because they are.

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