< back to full list of articles
Sell Direct to Nonbook Retailers

or Article Tags

by Linda Carlson

NONRETURNABLE. If you’re a book publisher, that’s probably your favorite word. “The Rep Route to Nontraditional Sales” (January) focused on selling nonreturnable through gift and specialty reps and distributors. What follows shows what publishers can do when these reps are reluctant to take their books.

•Here are three strategies PMA members suggest for getting your books into nonbook retail outlets, whether bricks and mortar, catalog, or online:

Take a booth at a wholesale gift show. It can be pricey, but it’s an opportunity to introduce your books to gift and specialty retailers.

Sell direct with a rep contract as your goal. If you can convince your target retailers to carry your books, and if the books sell well, the retailers may provide valuable contacts and information you can use to get an appropriate rep to take on the titles.

Commit to selling direct for the long term with your own salespeople.

Here’s some guidance on implementing these strategies.

Be Ready to Pitch the Benefits of Your Book

One of the first lessons in advertising and sales is: Sell product benefits, not attributes. Perhaps nowhere in publishing is this more important than when you’re approaching nonbook retailers.

“Their first reaction will be, ‘We don’t sell books,’ or ‘We can’t sell books,’” says Michael S. Kuderka, whose New Jersey–based MC Basset, LLC, publishes The Essential Reference of Domestic Brewers and Their Bottled Brands. “You need to get around this very quickly; you must know very well what niche your book fills and how the nonbook seller can profit from it.”

Wendy Dingwall, who handles sales and operations for Ingalls Publishing Group in North Carolina, adds, “I sell the old-fashioned way: I ask a lot of questions about their store and their customers. Then, because I know my books inside out, I can fit the books to those needs.”

And, Dingwall says, “When necessary, I am not averse to name dropping about where the books have sold well.”

Recognize What Sells in Nonbook Retail Outlets

“For us, targeting the gift/boutique and travel sales channels required a whole new way of looking at design, packaging, and production as well as marketing, distribution, and sales,” says Robert Brekke of the Sacramento-area Publishers Design Group. “Take a walk through a Hallmark store and look at the booklike products,” he advises. “They would never make it on a typical bookstore shelf, and the typical bookstore book would not do well in a Hallmark or gift boutique.”

For The Fitness Boutique, a client that was developing a compact travel exercise kit with illustrated guide and stretch band, Brekke recommended a custom-designed package instead of a trade paperback with a glued-in envelope for the stretch band. Because Publishers Design Group also determined that gift and specialty retailers like consumables, The Fit Traveler series included replacement stretch bands in three resistance levels with the prepack. The book sold for $17.95, and many customers bought an extra band for $4.95, upping the total sale by 25 percent.

At Write Now Publishing in a Detroit suburb, Ebony Christian’s outlets for How to Be an Irresistible Woman include hair and nail salons. “Our book sells well in such shops,” Christian explains, “because it’s for women who are interested in beautifying themselves and gaining the interest of men.”

Use a Gift Show to Introduce Your Books to the Trade

“We have had excellent results by attending regional trade gift fairs,” says Catherine Hansen Strange of Mississippi’s Fearless Entertaining Press. “Our Fearless Entertaining sold just over 5,000 in the first three months in a very small market area, mostly because we attended the shows and followed up with the buyers on lists provided by the show organizers.”

Besides these excellent sales for a first book, Strange reports a bonus: “We found that gift fairs exposed us to other retailers: interiors/furniture, gourmet/cooking, stationery, even bakeries and clothing stores. These unexpected areas might have been overlooked by a rep.”

Nancy Heinonen, publications director for Louisville book producer Crescent Hill Books, was impressed with the importance of gift fairs when she marketed the 64-page I’m Just a Cat Mattress. “Most of the small gift shops are mom-and-pops,” she notes. ‘‘It’s hard for even the largest company to pay sales reps to call on these accounts when the largest orders will be a few hundred dollars. The big trade shows are crucial: your one chance to get your product in front of these small store owners.”

Despite the value of the shows, PMA members report two significant downsides: cost and follow-up.

This year, a booth at the Seattle Gift Fair costs at least $1,700; exhibitors can expect thousands of attendees representing about 7,500 stores. At February’s Craft & Hobby Association winter show in Anaheim, a first-time exhibitor will pay CHA dues, which start at $400 a year, and a $300 fee plus booth or table rental costs, which start at $650 for a two-by-eight-foot table.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing like a BEA or ALA show in the gift trade, as Brekke points out, adding, “With 14 independent regions, that means 10 to 14 gift trade shows.”

Since Heinonen had only one product to sell, she decided it was not worth the cost to rent a booth. “I inquired about sharing a booth,” she says, “but the trade show organizers let me know very quickly that was a faux pas.”

Strange suggests two possible alternatives: “Advertising in the gift-market magazines is very effective, and many states now have their own, less costly gift fairs.”

The follow-up issue is highlighted by Becky Wilson Gagliardi of Clearbridge Publishing and Mary Wilson of Miracle Publishing, both in western Washington. “We did very well at the San Francisco Gift Fair a few years ago,” Gagliardi reports, but, because it takes so much time, “we have not been good at following up.” And followup is one of the reasons Marty Wilson hasn’t yet cut a deal with a rep for her baby-name book. She met several reps when she rented a booth at the Seattle gift show, and some seemed very interested in her book. As the author and the sole employee of her publishing company, however, she was unable to find the time to pursue all those potential leads.

Sell Direct to Get Started

Because the timing of financial event schedules means that Econoday can’t publish its personalized Investor Diaries until December, the Lafayette, CA, publisher doesn’t try to market to retailers. Instead, it distributes primarily through financial firms like Fidelity Investments and Bank of America, which buy its calendars for employee use and client gifts.

Occasionally, chief executive officer Cynthia Parker reports, it gets orders through gift reps. “Our experience is that reps are more inclined to sell a product if their clients ask about it,” she says, adding that she wants to increase her work with reps because of changes in corporate purchasing policies. “Today an increasing number of companies want to buy only through reps—it’s easier for them.”

Commit to Selling Direct

If you publish only a few titles appropriate for the gift or a specialty market, it’s unlikely that a sales rep will consider taking you on. Reps show the most important lines to customers first, as Margot Tohn, the suburban New York publisher of Park It! NYC 2008, notes. “By the time they get to my book with a retailer, the buyer is done.”

But—depending on your titles and your resources—selling direct may be profitable and an excellent way to increase your sales volume. Linda Lauby of Outer Banks Press in Kitty Hawk, NC, reports, “Gift shops and specialty stores do an absolutely tremendous job of selling our books, especially our high-end coffee-table books (which retail at $39.95). Some of our highest sales are in art galleries, restaurant gift shops, and wine stores. Another reason we love our specialty retailers is that they usually receive only a 30 percent discount, which is a nice boon for our bottom line.”

Strange of Fearless adds: “We find that gift and specialty stores are very loyal and anxious to make commitments as far out as a year once a relationship is established.”

Darden North, a Mississippi obstetrician-gynecologist who writes medical thrillers for his Ponder House Press, agrees. “Even in cases where gift shops do not commonly carry books, the stores have been receptive to inventorying my books—even advertising them as a special. Once they see sales and profit, they contact me for additional orders or news of the next title.”

There’s another advantage to selling direct: your customers are more likely to have an exclusive in their geographic area. The upscale Seattle gift merchant who sells my handcrafted cards says that by the time a rep is showing a product, it may be “everywhere.”

Be Prepared to Do a Lot of Work

Unable to find a rep to take on I’m Just a Cat Mattress, Heinonen turned to aggressive publicity and sales prospecting. “I turned myself into a PR person for an entire summer and got my author on three TV stations, and the book mentioned, reviewed, or featured in every local newspaper and magazine. The result: six wonderful weeks when the book was on the Louisville-area bestseller list. One local bookstore sold 55 copies in five days!”

Another triumph for Heinonen occurred when, after eight weeks of pitching, the local Hallmark franchisee ordered 100 copies for his 11 stores. “A few weeks later, I stopped by one of his stores, and the manager said the book was flying out the door,” Heinonen recalls, but her euphoria was short-lived. “When I called the main office, its inventory tracking was so poor that the company didn’t even know the book was out of stock!”

At Write Now, Christian does the store displays and collections as well as the prospecting and pitching. For How to Be an Irresistible Woman, she starts with telephone directory listings for businesses that cater to upscale women—shoe boutiques and spas, for example. She visits each retailer with a copy of the book, asks for the manager or owner—and reports that she makes a sale 80 percent of the time. Then she sets up a book holder atop a stack of books that is strategically located to catch customers’ attention.

“For each book the stores sell, they retain $2,” she explains. “It’s perfect for these businesses because they don’t have to do anything to earn this.”

Michael and Carol Dutton burn a lot of shoe leather pitching his novel, Christmasville, and they echo Christian’s comments about the receptivity of gift and specialty stores. Although their Linden Park Publishers, Ltd., in Newport, RI, has done both direct mail and email to independent New England booksellers, they have been much more successful with personal visits, which generated many sales to nonbook retailers.

In part because Christmasville is perceived to be seasonal, the Duttons sell on consignment. “It works very well for us,” Michael Dutton says. “We have books in fine chocolate shops, gift shops, lingerie boutiques, Only in Rhode Island stores, hotel retail shops, railroad museum stores, and, of course, bookstores.”

Consider Geographic Limitations

Many titles that sell well in gift and specialty stores are regional. That fact, along with a limited budget for travel, may limit the size of your geographic market if you sell direct. As Christian notes, “One downside of doing business this way is that I always collect in person, restricting this approach to Michigan.” On the plus side, though, Tena Fanning of Playdate Kids Publishing in southern California reports, “Our regional authors’ books often do better in gift stores than in bookstores because there is less competition.”

Sales promotion resources also may force you to market regionally. “Since I’m Just a Cat Mattress was for cat-lovers, I sent copies to every editor at every national pet and animal magazine, but got zero response,” says Heinonen. “So I focused on my immediate area. Because some of the proceeds went to a local animal shelter, the media here was very welcoming, and for more than six months the shelter had a story on its home page along with a link to the book’s Web site. I’d hoped the buzz would spread to surrounding areas, but it did not.”

Understand Financial Terms—the Gift Trade’s and Your Own

At gift fairs, the buyers expect at least a 50 percent discount. “Giving them less, and then expecting them to pay the cost of freighting heavy books, creates an obstacle,” says Strange, who also notes that gift merchants are accustomed to setting their own retail prices, often increasing prices to pass on their shipping costs. “This is difficult when the price is preprinted in the book.”

North, of Ponder House Press, has found he’s more successful when he can be flexible about payment arrangements. “However, it is absolutely necessary to have this issue worked out in advance!” says the novelist, who has self-published two titles, sells to some gift stores on consignment, and has found that some of the smaller stores are the quickest to pay.

Carol White, whose Live Your Road Trip Dream travel guide is sold through such nonbook retailers as the American Automobile Association, recommends carefully researching retailer policies before even submitting a proposal. “Make sure you can and will meet their criteria,” the Wilsonville, OR, publisher says; “Often business insurance is required, there may be specific shipping requirements, and discount and return policies may be preset.”

Offer Promotional Help

Retailers are more likely to carry your books when you offer to make an in-store appearance, issue press releases that mention them, and list their stores on your Web site, on a “Where to Find Our Books” page. When I published job-search guides for the Puget Sound area, I traded a question-and-answer column in three regional papers for an ad, which listed the local retailers. Today, my Web pages have links or contact information for retailers. Providing this information is useful partly because it gives publishers an excuse to contact every retail customer on a regular basis: “I’m calling because I’m updating my Web site and . . . ”

Never Give Up

North reminds us of the importance of persistence in selling. Even if a store is not currently selling books, or not selling fiction, like his titles, “It never hurts to ask—and nerves approaching the strength of steel come in handy!”

William Gordon, who publishes the Ultimate Hollywood Tour Book in southern California, adds, “A number of shops that turned me down changed their minds years later because a friend of mine recommended the book. If you are turned down, try again after a while; chances are that three years later, there’ll be a different buyer.”

Linda Carlson (LindaCarlson.com/cards.html) sells handcrafted note cards to Seattle gift and card shops when not writing for PMA Independent or dreaming up promotional ideas for book publishers.



Connect With Us

1020 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Suite 204 Manhattan Beach, CA 90266
P: 310-546-1818 F: 310-546-3939 E: info@IBPA-online.org
© Independent Book Publishers Association