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Q: Is it Worth Trying to Get My Book into Barnes & Noble?

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by Mel Corrigan, Business and Visibility Director, Scribe Publishing Company —

Mel Corrigan

It’s time to develop a relationship with your neighborhood Barnes & Noble store manager.

For many small, independent publishers, attaining national distribution can be a big win. But every book in a given catalog might not have national appeal or garner attention from a distributor’s salesforce. In order to get the most out of any book, positioning is key, and oftentimes for small publishers and author-publishers, local and regional markets are most relevant. Given Barnes & Noble (B&N) CEO James Daunt’s vision for the evolution of their stores throughout the US, there’s no time like now to develop a relationship with your neighborhood B&N store manager.

When Daunt began as B&N CEO in August 2019, one pillar of his vision for the international bookstore chain was captured by The Wall Street Journal : “The company is empowering store managers to curate their shelves based on local tastes.” Upon reading this, independent publishers around the country rejoiced. (I did!)

Daunt reiterated this point during his keynote conversation with IBPA Board of Directors Chair Karla Olson at IBPA Publishing University on April 8, 2021. Daunt said one of B&N’s core principles is to give “much greater freedom to individual stores to determine what is best for them.”

Under Daunt’s leadership, B&N is more than a year into a corporate-wide transformation. Daunt said, “We are … now a bookstore that we would hope [is] enjoyed by our customers, a place in which to discover books …. One of our roles is to bring books to readers.”

This is indeed a transformation from the days when B&N tried to pack their big-box stores with as many bestsellers as possible. Olson and Daunt discussed the need for B&N stores to rely heavily on perennial sellers and less so on the latest and greatest bestsellers, which points back to localizing content and allowing store managers to match inventory to local interests.

While B&N stores are generally large, they can carry only a small fraction of published books. The role of a bookseller is to decide what they want in their bookstore and what will appeal to their customers. This makes curation a highly selective process, which largely hinges on availability and quality. Book buyers need an established, reliable mechanism for ordering books. Daunt explained that store managers “need to be able to order the books easily and sensibly.” This means publishers “need to have proper access to distribution channels.” Publishers need to offer the standard bookstore discount (50%-55%), and titles need to be returnable. Returns can be unpredictable and cause small publishers much grief, but it’s important to know that while B&N store returns are presently greater than 25%, Daunt aims to change that.

Returns are bad for business (and rough on publishers’ cash flows). Daunt plans to get returns down to 10% and then ultimately into the single digits (Waterstones, a UK bookstore chain that Daunt also manages, achieved a 3.5% return rate as of December 2020 under his leadership). Daunt went so far as to say, “A return is simply a measure of failure,” capturing the essence of his philosophy that booksellers need to be engaged with and accountable for the books they are selecting and selling. Something that was (and is!) music to independent publishers’ ears.

As for quality, Daunt said, “Standards have to be high: the cover design, the texture of the book, the paper, the feel as well as, of course, above all, the content.” With all this in mind, here are some questions to ask yourself:

If all three of these things are true, it might be the right time for you to walk into your local B&N and present your title(s) to the store manager.

“Talking to booksellers in stores is always sensible and hopefully enjoyable,” Daunt said. Let that serve as encouragement to independent publishers to polish up those marketing plans to pitch to a store manager.

A tip sheet (or sell sheet or AI sheet) that shows the cover, description, and publication details is a good place to start. Also of importance is an understanding of genre and how a particular title can be positioned in the market and in a given store. A bulleted list of key selling points should be captured in the tip sheet and can be a jumping off point when speaking to a store manager about a title you’d like to introduce.

“What does a bookseller want to see? Ideally, they just want to see the book,” Daunt said. “There’s no better way to judge a book than to hold it in your hands.”

An advanced reader copy (ARC) will suffice, but nothing beats a finished copy, if available. The quality of a book will speak for itself. If you recall Amanda Gawthorpe’s article “Reducing Bookseller Bias” from the March/April 2021 issue of IBPA Independent are of bookseller quality standards. Daunt agreed with this when he said, “There are a lot of people, particularly self-publishing, who are producing books that are not actually, frankly, at the standard we want at our stores. That is simply a brutal reality.”

A brutal reality to be sure, which can be remedied by developing the skills and tools to publish titles in accordance with professional publishing standards.

More Resources

Apply IBPA’s Industry Standards Checklist to your books before shopping your catalog to prospective bookstores. Download it here.

Mel Corrigan is the business and visibility director at Scribe Publishing Company. Read more atscribe-publishing.com/mel.

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