The article, “The Basics of Marketing to Borders,” in the September 2002 PMA Newsletter caught my eye. “There’s a place for titles from small and independent publishers in the big bookstore chains, and marketing your title to them may be easier than you think,” the article said. Judging from my experience and observations as an independent publisher, this statement is true. However, it’s still not that easy to cross through Borders’ doors, and getting on the inside does not necessarily mean success.
One key to success for both bookseller and publisher–amongst a host of other factors–is having a defined process coupled with performance (i.e., satisfactory execution). Borders is willing to state the process but there are trouble spots when it comes to performance.
The Newsletter article spelled out the “how to” of marketing to Borders or any major chain bookseller. “Cover design and interior text should be of competitive quality,” it said. “…use wholesalers or an exclusive master distributor.” If you submit your book to Borders, “include a complete list of all your distribution channels, plus a detailed description of your marketing plan.” After you send your submission package, “Borders will acknowledge your submission within 90 days of receipt.” A postcard will note the decision from the buyer at Borders.
In March 2000AAA I established MF Unlimited to publish work under my penname, Lawrence Christopher. Following instructions on a recorded message at Borders’ New Vendor Acquisitions Department, I submitted a press kit and book for consideration, shipping them FedEx Ground (thanks to a PMA member discount program) to insure delivery confirmation. Ninety days came and went; no postcard. I spoke with several other independent publishers who said they’d had the same experience with Borders.
Publishers (small or large) are subject to the booksellers’ first-moves process. It’s easy for large publishers to get their books through the process because of established relationships, but small publishers must gamble that the investment of time and materials will pay off.
If a publisher’s book does make it onto the shelves of a Borders’ store, the burden of promotion is still on the author or publisher. Because I know the value of demonstrating demand and title availability to the major chains, I was dismayed by the results of a little market research exercise at a Borders store
I found two titles by local independently published authors on the local interest shelf. When I used the Borders’ in-store search system, MUZEâ
Book Sleuth, to look them up, the “availability” for both came up as “order,” and the explanation of “order” was “This title is temporarily out of stock or is not stocked at this store. To order for store pickup, please ask for assistance at the Info Desk.” So I did.
The Info Desk clerk also said that I would have to order the books that were sitting right there on the shelves. Instead, I picked up one of the titles from its shelf, took it to the checkout counter, and purchased it. Then I reviewed the sales receipt. In the “book title or description” line, it said, “Asst Special Orders.” The BINC, or Borders, Inc., identifying number, which the Newsletter article said, “helps in-store staff locate information on your title” was 9999993. Why not use the ISBN? After all, the ISBN is the industry standard; publishers invest in ISBNs and in having them placed on their books.
These experiences clearly demonstrate that if an independent publisher gets a Borders store to stock its titles, there is no guarantee of proper inventory controls. How key is the inventory control? Very. Borders has a new policy requiring pre-paid orders on some non-stocked titles that could apply to a large percentage of independently published books. And since the Borders’ MUZEâ
database is their source for Internet inventory searches, books like the ones I found on the shelves may be returned to the publisher because they did not move even if it was database information that prevented them from moving.
Reasonable Routes to Success
One definition of success is “when preparedness and opportunity meet.” Independent publishers and small presses must be prepared when approaching major bookstore chains and distributors. Learn the publishing industry and the booksellers market when developing everything from your book to your business plan. Utilize how-to books, mentors, networks, and publishing support organizations to prepare a quality product, an impressive press kit, and an outstanding marketing plan. We should be held to the same quality standards as the big houses, yet not be discounted because of size.
Another definition of success is “when a defined process is executed through satisfactory performance.” Once an independent publisher or small press demonstrates adherence to the guidelines and standards of the publishing industry, the reasonable expectation is that the major booksellers and distributors will give them an opportunity. According to Wired News, “It’s just smart business to pay attention to self-publishing successes. If an author, on his/her own meets with reasonable success, a larger company has reason to believe it can build on that success and find a more significant audience.”
Independent publishers and small presses only need for professional consideration and courtesy to successfully meet the goals of both the publisher and the bookseller.
Michael L. Faulkner’s MF Unlimited is an independent publisher of author Lawrence Christopher and his Mick Hart Mysteries. He has 20 years experience in writing.
2002 By Michael Faulkner