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A Pipeline to In-Store Purchases

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interview by Alexa Schlosser, Managing Editor, IBPA Independent magazine —

Alexa Schlosser

DartFrog Books partners with bookstores to place self-published works on shelves.

In 2013, Gordon McClellan self-published a children’s book, but he quickly realized there was no clear path for self-published authors to gain bookstore distribution. He wanted to change that. He founded DartFrog Books a few years later to help self-published authors gain a presence in independent bookstores nationwide.

We caught up with Gordon to talk about the DartFrog process, as well as what it’s like to work with bookstores.

Tell me about your partnerships with bookstores. Do you find that buyers/owners of these stories are eager and willing to stock self-published works?

Bookstores are eager to stock vetted self-published books. Bookstores inherently want to support independent authors, but they are not in the business of evaluating books, and they don’t want to carry subpar books. They trust DartFrog to send them truly excellent independently published books and are proud to display/sell them.

What are your biggest hurdles working with bookstores?

I think the biggest hurdle was convincing stores, at the very beginning, that there are truly excellent self-published books out there. Now that stores are seeing that our vetting process identifies the best from all the rest, that hurdle is being reduced.
Another hurdle we faced was fulfillment of orders. Originally, we asked stores to order directly through us, but we quickly realized that was making it harder for stores, who want to streamline their ordering process as much as possible. So, we changed our policy to make every DartFrog book available through Ingram, which has made it much easier for stores to join our partner network, because they all already use Ingram.

What feedback do you get from bookstores about the books? Do they often tell you what they’re looking for?

DartFrog’s “Bless the Skies” by Julie Elise Landry

Bookstores are not looking for any particular title or author when it comes to self-published authors, because the majority of self-published authors are unknown. What they are looking for, I think, is an excellent product that can hold its own against the other professionally published books in their store. When we evaluate a book, one of the questions we ask ourselves is whether the book can compete on the same level as a book from a traditional Big 5 publisher. The answer needs to be “yes” for us to select the book. This is the quality that we believe bookstores are looking for, and with the access that today’s independent authors have to professional editors, designers, and formatters, there’s no reason for a self-published book to be any different than a traditionally published book.

What’s in it for the bookstores?

In addition to adding excellent independently published titles to their inventory and supporting the exceptional authors who wrote those books, DartFrog partner bookstores earn a guaranteed quarterly stipend. They also keep the full retail price of each “first copy” sold through their store. Additionally, when a bookstore refers an author to DartFrog, we pay the store a referral fee.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve come across in your business?

Figuring out a process that would benefit bookstores and self-published authors was the most important and difficult piece of building DartFrog. We spent a good amount of time tweaking the model to be sure that both bookstores and authors would be happy with what DartFrog is offering.

DartFrog’s “Between Worlds” by Jennifer Ridge

What criteria do you use to determine if a self-published book meets high-quality standards?

We assess the writing quality (grammar, punctuation, sentence structure), plot lines, character development, and overall continuity of the story. We also assess physical qualities of the book (paper, binding) and the exterior presentation (front cover design, back cover layout, spine design). If the book has illustrations, we assess their quality and how well they fit the tone of the story itself.

How do you see this model scaling? Are there others who do what you do in the marketplace?

We are the only company that evaluates and selects self-published books for bookstore placement. We have recently expanded our model to include books from small traditional publishers (those that produce fewer than 20 new titles per year) and hybrid publishers, both of whom have traditionally also found it difficult to get their books into stores. This greatly increases the pool of books we can consider for placement in bookstores.

We also recently launched our own hybrid publishing platform (called DartFrog Plus). In addition to editing, publishing, and illustrations (if necessary), our hybrid platform includes a Kirkus review (we want a distinguished third party to evaluate the work we do for hybrid authors), as well as guaranteed placement of the author’s published book into every DartFrog partner bookstore, and a signing slot at BookCon in New York City. We are highly selective of the manuscripts we select for our hybrid platform, but those that we do select enjoy access to all of our bookstore partners.

What other partners would you want to work with?

Major newspapers. Let me explain. Shelf Awareness recently approved our request to submit DartFrog titles for book review consideration. This is a wonderful step toward self-published books gaining mainstream acceptance by traditional (unpaid) book review outlets, and we are exceptionally grateful to Shelf Awareness for the opportunity. But, as it stands now, major newspapers don’t consider self-published titles for review. We hope to convince newspapers with book review sections to accept DartFrog titles for consideration, which would level the playing field even further for independently published authors.

By the way, why is it called DartFrog?

Once we had decided who DartFrog was going to serve, we began to brainstorm possible names. My wife said, “How about DartFrog?” Before I could ask what she meant, she continued, “The DartFrog has learned to thrive in an environment dominated by the Amazon.” And just like that, we had our name! DartFrog describes perfectly our mission of helping independent bookstores and authors thrive in an environment dominated by the Amazon.

What else should I know about DartFrog?

We have recently added a powerful marketing component to DartFrog, which is the result of a partnership with DYA, the company Doubleday turned to when they wanted to market John Grisham’s novel, The Whistler. DYA’s list of clients in the publishing and movie industries is long: Universal Pictures, Sony Pictures Entertainment, CBS Films, Lionsgate Films, St. Martins Press, DK Publishers, Penguin Random House, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Hachette, MacMillan, Dutton, Putnam, Doubleday, Berkley, Viking … and now DartFrog! This partnership gives DartFrog authors the ability to put Big 5 marketing power behind their books. It is, we think, a game changer for all the independent authors, hybrid, and small traditional publishers we serve, who can now market their books with the power and precision of Big 5 publishers.

The DartFrog Process
  1. Submit your book through dartfrogbooks.com.
  2. Choose between full submission (detailed, written evaluation of your book with the opportunity to re-submit a second time, at no extra cost, if your book is not initially selected) and limited submission (a simple yes-or-no response, lower upfront cost).
  3. If selected, a placement date is set (DartFrog places books quarterly); the book is added to the DartFrog website for purchase; a web banner and author page is created; and the social media team posts an announcement.
  4. The author sends DartFrog 20 books, and DartFrog places them front-facing in specially marked “DartFrog Approved” sections of 20 bookstores. Authors can buy additional placements in groupings of 10 stores.
  5. Once the initial copy is sold, the bookstore re-orders through Ingram.
  6. The initial copy (and any re-orders) are displayed in the DartFrog section for three months. At the end of three months, the bookstore can choose to keep a book in its inventory (and move it to a genre specific location) or, if the initial copy didn’t sell, the store may decide to donate it.
  7. DartFrog does not take any cut from bookstore sales (author receives 100 percent of the royalty from bookstore sales), and the author keeps 70 percent of the net income from sales through the DartFrog website.

Alexa Schlosser is the managing editor of IBPA Independent. Do you have an interesting self-publishing story? Contact her at alexa@ibpa-online.org.

For more tips for author publishers, check out this IBPA Independent article, “Notes to Self: There Is Hope for Selling Books

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