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How to Optimise Books for Physical Bookstores

Indie authors have made great strides in the online bookselling arena. Together, we continue to flourish at the forefront of the thriving ebook and digital audio markets. Yet few of us have dominated print. In part, this is due to the costs. Producing and storing physical books is expensive. On top of that, we can’t reduce our paperbacks to 99c or free to compete with trad authors – a strategy that has always worked for digital products.

Other common indie practices also don’t work for print. Review copies are harder and costlier to distribute when you have to print and snail-mail them to readers. Likewise, many of us can’t afford print runs nor have the space to handle thousands of sale-or-return units. As a result, most of us stick to print on demand, allowing mega-famous trad authors like JK Rowling, James Patterson and Stephen King to reign unchallenged. They reign supreme in print, which:

  1. helps them to keep the attention of mainstream readers who only buy books in bookstores, and;
  2. brings in more revenue than ebooks, enabling them to massage online retailer algorithms.

To command the same power, you need to make a similar impact on the print-reading public. This means cracking physical retailers. Worldwide fame and an eight-figure income aren’t for everyone, but being featured prominently in high-street chains will certainly help if that’s your goal. It’s ambitious but, given the right circumstances, you can excel in this largely uncharted environment, providing you optimise your books in a few of the following ways.


Thirteen-digit codes, formally known as International Standard Book Numbers, are the backbone of print distribution throughout most of the world. Booksellers use them to manage stock and Nielsen uses them to track sales figures so media outlets like The Sunday Times and USA Today can compile bestseller lists. You can publish without them if you use KDP or its online competitors, but that’s only because they supply some for you which you can use exclusively within their ecosystems.

If you want wide distribution that enters the traditional retail space then, in most cases, you need your own ISBNs. You can get these from Bowker in the US or Nielsen in the UK, as well as their equivalent partners around the globe, with prices per ISBN generally getting cheaper for bulk purchases. This can seem like an unnecessary expense but it’s the only way to get your print books into shops and libraries. Without an ISBN, many book trade professionals won’t even consider buying your work because their systems can’t track the stock.

Wide Print Distribution

The “KU versus Wide” discussion has been debated since the first iteration of the Kindle Unlimited programme launched in 2014. Go exclusive with Kindle to get more royalties and exposure on Amazon or publish everywhere for a more diversified and potentially stable income; that is the question. However, the KU agreement only covers ebooks. Even if your books are in KU, you can still publish your paperbacks and hardbacks everywhere. In fact, it’s compulsory if you want to reach high-street chains, supermarkets and libraries.

This is because KDP Print’s “extended distribution” option is limited and doesn’t allow you to discount your books low enough to make them attractive to booksellers. By distributing through services like Ingram Spark, you can actually reach a far bigger audience and get your books catalogued on wholesaler websites with trade discounts for bookstores. Independent stores can have flexible book-ordering methods but most chains have policies that restrict purchases to certain wholesalers, who usually aren’t affiliated with Amazon. Therefore, if you want to see your books in your local bookstore, publishing wide is critical.

Printed Details

For ebooks, covers work purely as billboards for the words they contain. They catch readers’ attention and offer a sense of genre. Once a reader loads an ebook file onto their device and starts reading, the cover is rarely ever seen again. After that, only the words and formatting matter. Paperback covers, on the other hand, hold a greater significance because they are constantly on show in the physical world. They also can’t be clicked to reveal metadata. As a result, the ones that work well in a physical setting tend to feature a number of attributes that make them easier for book trade professionals to identify and organise.

A barcode, complete with ISBN, is the most important feature for booksellers, librarians and warehouse operatives because many of these individuals wield handheld scanners to keep a handle on stock. But barcodes aren’t perfect. That’s why more printed details are necessary. When a cover gets damaged or the scanner is on the fritz, staff run into problems and get frustrated. If you want these book ambassadors to see your books favourably then including a printed price on your cover is vital, just so bookstore assistants can quickly answer customer pricing queries without causing a line at the checkout. Making these people’s lives easier will make them more likely to reorder, champion and resell your books.

Trade Discount

Bookstores require a large chunk of a paperback’s retail price to keep their business alive. In most countries, standard wholesale discounts are around 40% of RRP. Some sales agencies require 55% to represent your book, giving them a 15% cut after they promote your book at its 40% wholesale price to book buyers. As for supermarkets, they can demand significantly bigger discounts because of the volume they shift.

Even the basic 40%, though, is more than the cut Amazon offers most KDP Print authors. That means trade discounts are practically impossible unless you use cheaper print-on-demand competitors like Ingram or run a private print run to reduce your unit costs. In fact, pre-printing thousands of units can bring the unit cost down to as little as $0.50 per book, leaving a huge profit margin.

The problem, of course, is that you have to foot the printing bill upfront and then warehouse the books – possibly forever if you fail to sell them. There’s no denying the risks involved. The bigger your trade discount, the better the profit margins and the more attractive your book becomes to retailers. Playing in this field is harder but it can be done. Plus it gives you a competitive edge. After all, not every author prints enough books to offer a massive discount. Uncertain whether they can sell in vast numbers, most compromise, offering a 30% trade discount though Ingram, using POD with a no-returns policy. If you want to dip your toe into the print distribution ecosystem to test the market, then this is the least risky way to get started.

Practical Design

A factor that many digital-first publishers overlook when they get into print is a book’s physical design, and I’m not just talking about the front cover. Retail assistants face practical challenges every day from books that have been designed with no consideration for the limitations of physical stores. It doesn’t matter so much on the internet because every product is given a uniform sales page where books of different shapes and sizes can exist on an equal footing. Look at a bookstore, however, and you can instantly pick out the ugly ducklings with snow white paper amid a sea of cream novels, or formats too big for the shelf.

Print size is a big factor, particularly between territories. For example, mass market paperbacks in the UK tend to be 5.06 inches x 7.81 inches (12.85 cm x 19.84 cm). Many chain bookstore shelves are designed to fit books snugly with those dimensions. They are often adjustable but their brackets either allow books to fit almost perfectly, or give far too much or too little room, leading to wasted space. In stores where every inch comes at a premium, workers get frustrated when a shelf of uniform novels is ruined by one book that stands slightly too tall. Likewise, in airports and other territories, the standard size is larger so a mass market paperback size will look too small. Hence, research is critical. Before you have a paperback cover designed, consider how you want it to be perceived by workers and shoppers in its intended sales environment. The better you can make it fit, the better it will perform.

Becoming a big name with printed books is a difficult task, but it isn’t impossible. Make wise decisions early on and you will put yourself in the best possible position to make a good impression, get stocked with the right wholesalers, attract buyers and reach mainstream readers. Only then can you reach a level of success that is left uncharted by the majority of authors.

Daniel Parsons

Daniel Parsons

Dan Parsons is the bestselling author of multiple series. His Creative Business books for authors and other entrepreneurs contains several international bestsellers. Meanwhile, his fantasy and horror series, published under Daniel Parsons, have topped charts around the world and been used to promote a major Hollywood movie. For more information on writing, networking, and building your creative business, check out all of Dan’s non-fiction books here.