Barnes & Noble Should Carry Indie Books

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Barnes & NobleAn open letter has been making the rounds the last couple days that pits the self-publishing community against one of the banners of big corporate publishing.

Here’s an excerpt from indie author Cambria Herbert’s “An open letter to Barnes and Noble” (Emphasis is hers):

This isn’t just an angry letter because I got another form rejection. I’ve had many. I’ve also had many successes and my career doesn’t hinge on store placement. This is about change, and about asking for a chance to be equal.

I’ve been in this business a while now, I don’t know everything, but I do know some things. I know you have the capability of helping to lift up the talented writers who do ALL their own marketing, publishing and branding.

It’s time, Barnes and Noble. It’s time you step into the new era of publishing. It’s time you acknowledge there are good books out there that don’t just come out of big six [sic] publishers.

It’s time you recognize us.

What this all comes down to is respect. The self-publishing community is a passionate one, believing its authors have just as much of a right to publish a book as do authors who have traditional publishers. Moreover, many of them believe their mode of publishing is the right one.

At the end of the day, they just want to be treated as authors, not self-published authors.

As evidenced by the need for Herbert’s letter, there is still a significant stigma surrounding self-publishing and indie authors. Hell, I’ve been accused of perpetuating it myself.

But I don’t think that stigma is reduced when proponents of self-publishing say authors need to be writing several books a year. As one commenter on our interview with Hugh Howey wrote, “That’s not writing; that’s typing.”

What’s more, there are two types of self-published authors: those who write a manuscript, get the book proofread and professionally edited, have a cover professionally designed, create a marketing plan, etc; and those who don’t.

At a traditional publisher, the editor does not simply edit the book. She is instead a project manager, serving as a hub that connects all the different departments involved in the book’s production and guiding the process along. In self-publishing, the author takes on this role.

But, it must be noted, there are many self-published authors who don’t. And this is fertile ground for the stigma to breed. As Herbert herself admits: “There are millions of books published every year. Not all of them are good. The easy use and accessibility of publishing online today makes lots of people think they can write a book.”

True, traditional publishers produce a hefty amount of lousy books each year, but, as stupid as this may sound, they are at least professionally lousy. What’s more, there aren’t any scammers trying to make a quick buck by infiltrating publishing houses and tricking people to read.

So from Barnes & Nobles’s side, it’s much easier to simply dismiss all self-published books. Shelf space is finite, and why invest time and energy into sifting through the ever-growing catalogue of indie work?

But the retailer should.

There are two things I would like to see.

First, I’d like to see Barnes & Noble create some sort of mechanism for finding indie books that are worth putting on its shelves. The books without question exist, and the retailer is doing its customers a disservice and losing potential money by not doing so.

This could be as simple as creating a position within the company in which the person’s role is to research self-published books.

Second, and this one is perhaps a bit more unrealistic, I’d like to see the self-publishing community take more extreme steps to discourage poor publishing. I know that this flies in the face of what self-publishing stands for, but I think it has to happen. When a sizable segment of the community is producing such low-level work, in many eyes it reflects poorly on the entire community.

Perhaps authors call for self-publishing platforms to institute some sort of mandatory checklist along with proof that the book has been worked on by parties other than the author.

The stigma will not be dissolved overnight. I’m sure no one thinks it will. But I do believe there are steps that can be taken by people on both sides of the argument.

Finally, I think that what gets lost in us vs. them issues like this is that everyone involved has a passion for books. It’s why they got involved in the first place. So for publishing’s sake, I think it best that both sides clean up their act.

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12 thoughts on “Barnes & Noble Should Carry Indie Books

  1. Dave Bricker

    I’m an indie author and publishing coach, but I disagree with much of Herbert’s premise. Big publishers aren’t ignoring or stigmatizing us or refusing to acknowledge the validity of self-published work. They’re retailers who make smart business decisions.

    Most indie publishers, especially POD publishers, are not prepared to print and distribute thousands of books and then accept returns when some of them don’t sell. Retail space is expensive, and booksellers have the luxury of returning or destroying books that hang around too long. Big publishers are positioned to take those risks because even though a majority of their books don’t succeed, they’re able to rotate 90-120 new books into circulation every quarter. Over time, they build a collection of blockbusters, perennial favorites, reissued classics, and stories based on licensing the latest Disney princess that add up to profit. Indie self-publishers who feel shut out should consider the cost of entry that big publishing houses pay—and consider the risk you ask them to take on your first novel.

    Bookstore merchandise usually wholesales for 50% off cover price. If you want grocery store and airport distribution, be prepared to wholesale your books at 62.5% off cover price to a distributor. Now consider what you pay for POD-printing one book, or even 100. Unless you are prepared to invest in thousands of books produced via offset printing, and unless you own the storage facilities, your chances of producing a quality product at a competitive cost are about nil. Big publishers leverage volume. Indies don’t have that luxury.

    As for the stigma surrounding self-published books, Walt Kelly famously said, \We have met the enemy and he is us.\ Despite the fact that most trade books are only produced to \pretty good\ standards, the majority of self-published books fall well short of mediocre. Self-edited, self-designed books are almost universally junk, and those authors who invest the time and money required to exceed big publishers’ standards are routinely drowned by the flood of DIY books, many of which are written by the same authors who bemoan the fact that they can’t get table space at Barnes & Noble.

    I see many advantages to self-publishing. It’s not a consolation prize to me, and it’s not a route that Penguin has forced me to take. I use the same editors the big houses do to produce books of equal literary merit. I typeset books to much higher standards, and because my books are printed on demand, I don’t have to pack tiny type into tight margins to save on massive print runs. I get complete creative control, and I own 100% of my rights and royalties.

    Authors should do their homework and choose the publishing path that best suits their work and their goals—there is no one best way to publish—but whining about being shut out is a waste of time. Self-publishers are not a community of victims. Considering the business pressures publishers face, including the rise of Amazon (which draws little distinction between you and the big houses), they get my respect and admiration and a heartfelt \no thank you.\

  2. Michael W. Perry

    Thanks for an excellent, well-balanced article on such a heated topic. As Inkling Books, I’ve been wearing all the hats of a traditional publisher—editing, proofing, and doing the design work—since 1999. When I started, I purchased 1,000 ISBNs, which is a good indication that I had no desire to write most of what I published. Instead, I initially focused on creating value-enhanced editions of books by established authors that were in the public domain, such as G. K. Chesterton. In fact, one of my Chesterton books won an award from the G. K. Chesterton Society.

    In the last five years, however, I’ve had to change. It’s hard for my books, however well done, to compete with the free sources for those same books, however poorly formatted. I’ve turned not just to writing, but writing books that fit no established nitche. There are lots of books on medical topics, but there are no others I know of on the embarrassment issues hospital care creates. I’ve already written one for hospitalized teen girls (Hospital Gowns), and I’m now working on one for medical and nursing students and hospital staff (Embarrass Less). The downside is that I am having to create the market for such books, but in doing so I don’t have competition from industry giants or anyone else. It also keeps me away from the terribly flooded market for genre fiction. That’s my situation. Now my suggestions for others based on almost two decades of experience.

    First, I’d like to say that it’s unfair to equate bestselling books from major publishers with high quality and self-published books with low quality. Every few months I attempt to read one of the bestselling thrillers. I never make it more than few pages. They’re awful. For most, the writing is stilted, the plots unlikely, and the details inaccurate. I recall one where a major character, after docking his boat, dropped an anchor into the shallow water alongside the boat. Obviously, the author knew nothing about boats, much less anchoring them.

    In fact, I have a theory about why so many serialized bestsellers are awful. They’re awful in a peculiar sort of way that builds on the fact that people who read a lot (and thus buy lots of books) aren’t now and never have been doing much with their lives. That is why they have time to read three or four books a week. Having never had anything to do with boats, dropping an anchor alongside a docked boat sounds plausible to them. It’s like pulling the parking brake when you park a car. In another, the book’s hero simply jumps in his private jet and flits across at Atlantic. For someone whose travel never extends beyond driving to the mall to shop, that’s reasonable. For those who know anything about flying, that’s so ridiculous, they want to throw the book at the wall.

    In much the same fashion, these readers like books that take no effort to read. They want to see, ‘”I’m going to kill you,” said John angrily.’ They like not having to figure out that John is angry. I started a James Paterson book that was written that way and gave up in disgust after just a few pages. It sent me back to my dreadful first and second grade readers. I had visions of “See Spot run. Run Spot run.” It was that bad. But keep in mind that many readers want what they read to be that effortless. Not me. Much of my editing is to eliminate all the crutches that make my readers passive. I want them to engage with what I’m saying. My attitude is, “let lazy readers beware. I want to make you feel and think.”

    New self-published authors haven’t learned either the tricks that bestsellers use to reach the ‘do nothing but read’ crowd or the skills it takes to create a clear and smooth flowing narrative. They’re not so famous that they can ride roughshod over editors, no do they have enough money to hire an editor who will almost certainly help them to write better. In fact, the stark contrast between Harper’s Lee’s first (chronogical) novel, Go Set a Watchman and her marvelous later one, To Kill a Mockingbird, is probably due to an editor who forced her to bring out marvelous skills in character description that she didn’t know she had.

    Second, I think it’s unrealistic to expect many of these new authors, who’re barely managing their rent, to be able to afford to pay others to proof and edit them and to design a cover. I suspect several approaches would be more practical. One would be a labor pool where authors help other authors and, in exchange, get their own books similarly treated. Anoher would be for the various retailers (i.e the Kindle store), to divide up royalties. Instead of being paid a set sum in advance, an editor and a cover designer would get a slice of the book’s royalties without the author having to play bookkeeper. They’d also have a strong incentitive to make it the best possible.

    There are techniques to create appealing covers that don’t require great design skills. My attempts to play the cover designer have been so-so at best. But I have learned a technique that helps. My hospital series uses professionally done stock photos to which I’ve simply added the book’s title and author. The one about childhood leukemia shows a lovely little girl made up like a bunny who developed leukemia and the back cover shows here after her chemotherapy. The upcoming one for hospital staff about reducing patient embarrassment has a cover with two cute kids playing doctor. Turning an excellent picture into an excellent cover far easier than dealing with the complexities of a typical book cover design that,when not done professionally, looks awful. An author need only spend hours (yes, hours) looking through hundreds of stock photos to find the one that’s just right.

    Finally, I can understand why big chains like B&N shy away from self-published books. They’re afraid of getting stuck with inventory they can’t sell and can’t return. I see little good in beating up on a book retailer that, however large, is caught up in a host of larger struggles. At best, B&N stores might committ themselves to a table for local authors and expect those authors to promote the books and replenish the supply. That’d reduce the risk a store would be taking and perhaps ease the frustrations of authors fighting for visiblity. They’d have local visibility, and that’s better than nothing.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books

    1. Daniel BerkowitzDaniel Berkowitz Post author

      Great points, Michael, re: writing styles and need for retailers to clear inventory. And I do like the idea of stores having a table for local authors.

      I understand what you’re saying about the lackluster writing, and I agree pretty much 100%. I just think that there are indeed some self-published gems. How you go about finding them, though, is a different story.

  3. Barbara Freethy

    B&N does carry Indie books! I entered into a groundbreaking partnership with Ingram in 2015 and my Indie books are now sold and distributed throughout the country to all the chains, B&N, Books, Inc, as well as airports, Target, etc. Since I started with Ingram, I’ve seen several other Indie authors begin working with them as well.

    When we first started selling the books together, I was thrilled to see the national buyers at the book chains treat my books the same as they would treat books from any of the Big 5 publishers. There was absolutely no stigma, but I do have professionally designed covers and books that have a proven and large audience.

    Indie authors need to build a platform big enough to support the expense of both money and time to get print books into the stores around the country. Like ALL publishers, when you compete for shelf space, sales and author recognition come into play as well as money. If you want co-op, you have to pay for it, just like all the other publishers.

    There are a lot of excellent authors who have become their own publishers and who excel not just at writing but also at selling, branding and being completely professional. Of course, as in any business with a low barrier to entry, there will be scammers and hobbyists but they will become less and less of a percentage simply because the better competition is going to make selling books even more difficult unless you’re really good at being both a writer and a publisher.

  4. JAH

    “When a sizable segment of the community is producing such low-level work, in many eyes it reflects poorly on the entire community.”

    This right here, unfortunately, is why I find it difficult to be a cheerleader for self-publishing authors as a whole. I’m fed up with bad (or non-existent) editing and mediocre content.

  5. Lizzie Newell

    The cost of returning unsold books forms a barrier to self-published books in bookstores, but there are other barriers which might be e redressed. Currently to make books available to bookstores, authors go through IngramSpark which as a $50 set up fee. Additional fees are levied if the author makes mistakes in setup. Ingram refunds this $50 as a coupon provided the author orders a shipment of 50 books within a set number of months. The fee is paid before the author orders proofs. Costs can rise quickly depending on the number of errors in setup. The 50 coupon isn’t worthwhile for me since getting books through IngramSpark costs more than getting books through CreateSpace.The coupon comes out as a wash. I like to buy books in small batches, at least initially. Typically my first order is only 5 books. I then ramp up to10 then 20 per batch. This gives me confidence that can catch errors before putting out a lot of money. I like to do soft launch so this ramping up occurs before books got to bookstores. On top of the costs of setup, Ingram gives a lower amount to authors than what authors receive through other channels.. In order to make books available through Ingram while keeping costs equal for all channels, I have to raise the prices of my books across the board. This makes the books/price less competitive on other channels. Making books available to bookstores may not be worthwhile for many self-published authors. I do it only because I want to help bookstores. Another barrier is that IndieBound is awkward and unwelcoming to authors. IndieBound is an association of Independent books stores. On the IndieBound website, there isn’t a way to sign in as an author, provide an author’s page, track book sales, or provide promotional materials to bookstores. I’d like to see IndieBound have something like Amazon’s Author Central but set up for interaction with bookstores. Authors might have a place to post PDFs of posters and ad copy for bookstore use. s. It would also be nice if bookstores had a way of seeing and communicating with all the authors in their area. Possibly the authors could provide books on a consignment bases and have the stats of where their books are and when the consignment books need to be replenished. I recognize that such a relationship would cut out Ingram. Maybe IndieBound should reconsider their relationship to the distributor. It seems to me that current policies of Ingram and IndieBound hurt bookstores more than the authors. If the top new and self-published authors are only available on-line, that is where the readers will shop.

  6. Torsten Adair

    B&N has a Small Press department which does work with many independent publishers.
    There’s also \nook press\.

    Authors need to think like publishers. What’s your business plan?
    IF you are lucky to get your title in a bookstore, what are YOU doing to make that copy stand out, and get sold? Because if that copy doesn’t sell, the store is less likely to order your next title, you have to credit the store, and either: resell the book, heat your home with it, or shred it and eat it as a salad.

    Here’s a discouraging fact: Books get THREE MONTHS to sell in a store, regardless of publisher. Why? Because every week, there’s another wave of releases arriving, and if books don’t leave by the front door as sales, they leave via the back door as returns for credit.
    It’s rare that a hardcover sells consistently for a year until the paperback arrives. Even then, the store is likely to keep ONE copy on the shelf. Paperbacks are more likely to last as backlist, but, of course, that depends on what the author is selling NOW.

    (Posted as a former 8-year B&N employee at the NYC Lincoln Center store.)

  7. Tim Steele

    Interesting article. I just published my first book using Amazon KDP and CreateSpace. This is about as “self-published” as they come, right?

    Much to my surprise, I am seeing loads of purchases through CreateSpace’s “expanded distribution” route. Curious, I googled my book and found it is for sale at the Barnes & Nobel website.

    Is this common? Here I am:

  8. Jessica

    I work for a self publisher, although we are more of a hybrid publisher – all of our books are POD. Yes, it can be difficult at times for our books to end up on shelves, even though B&N carries all our titles online. However, the point of this comment is – it is not impossible for POD books to end up on shelves. We have many titles on shelves at various B&N all throughout the USA. A great deal of our authors also do book signings at many B&N locations. We have one author, who just this week submitted to us his 22 B&N book tour signing event schedule.



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