Maximising Your Book Sales with Merchandising
At first glance, it’s easy to confuse merchandising with marketing, but there are clear differences; namely, marketing is a long-term activity that can happen anywhere while merchandising is typically short-term and conducted on retailer property, be it in-store or on their website. Customers who encounter it have already crossed the threshold and are ready to buy. Merchandising is the final push that converts them into buyers, and that’s what makes it powerful.
Historically, book merchandising has happened in physical stores, sometimes curated by employees but other times bought by publishers. Walk into any Waterstones or Barnes & Noble today and you will see traditional merchandising in action. The promotions at the ends of shelf stacks? They’re merchandising. The spinners stationed around the registers? Merchandising. The tables around which customers flow to enter the store? That’s merchandising, too. Arguably, so are the chart walls – the top spots are often pre-booked by publishers at national chains, which then act as self-fulfilling prophecies, making books bestsellers only after they’re posted on the list.
You may believe online retail has democratised the playing field, but it’s still prevalent. Instead of shelf edges, spinners and promo tables, however, websites now feature curated recommendation lists, home page banners and deal promotions. One major difference, though, is that indie authors can now apply for many of the free and paid merchandising options that have been controlled by publishers for decades.
As an author, merchandising should be a part of your promotional strategy, particularly around book launches when it can reach many readers that common advertising methods miss. If you’re interested in learning how to merchandise your books, here is a selection of options available to any author, no matter your budget or audience size.
Ask Company Reps
Each retailer has preferred methods and channels put in place to handle merchandising. Apple Books, for example, favours personal relationships with select authors. As a result, they typically reach out via email to those that interest them to discuss merchandising options. Amazon used to share this approach until recently, when they created a standard form on the KDP dashboard that any author can complete. Kobo Writing Life, meanwhile, have long offered indie authors a range of merchandising options every month on the marketing tabs in their dashboard. And certain audiobook outlets exclusively take merchandising recommendations from aggregators like Findaway Voices.
Without insider knowledge, working out how to secure a coveted merchandising slot isn’t always obvious. Hence, it’s wise to consult retailer reps. That way you can find out the company’s preferences, which will make you more likely to get accepted. If you have the time and means to travel, many reps attend events like The London Book Fair and NINC. However, some participate in popular Facebook groups for authors or display their contact details online and welcome emails from authors. If you can’t find the person you need, email the company’s support address and an assistant will normally put you in touch with the merchandising team for guidance.
Work in Advance
Merchandising is relatively new to the self-publishing ecosystem. This is partly because retailers like Apple Books, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble haven’t put the infrastructure in place to handle a tsunami of individual applications from indies. If an author did get offered a slot, it was because the retailer reached out after spotting a potential opportunity. This was even true of Amazon. As such, merchandising negotiations more frequently came from corporate entities who had more access, curated their applications and worked to schedules with far-flung timescales – terms the retailers could handle.
Planning your merchandising pushes far in the future like corporations may seem alien if, like many indies, you’ve grown accustomed to short launches, but doing so can help you secure a promotion. Retailers need to fill merchandising slots every day and schedule ahead to avoid leaving gaps in their stores. Look for a slot tomorrow and you’re likely to find everything full. Further ahead, however, there will be more spaces. Generally, the more lead time you give, the more likely you will be to get an offer from the merchandising team, who still have slots available far in advance.
The most tempting offer you can use in a pitch to a merchandiser is exclusivity. Retailers want it for two reasons:
- Exclusivity guarantees you will direct readers to their store because they are the only place that stocks your book.
- It makes it easier for the retailer to convert interested readers into buyers because they know they can’t shop around elsewhere to compare prices.
Amazon likes authors to opt into their Kindle Unlimited programme for the same reason. It’s also why Netflix pays out millions to ensure they are the only place viewers can stream popular movies and TV shows. If you can offer exclusivity, do it because it will make merchandisers far more likely to grant you a promotion.
You don’t have to make your book exclusive to one retailer forever, nor do you have to do it for all formats. Remember, merchandising is a short-term tactic to maximise your book’s exposure on a bookstore website or in their physical stores. Going exclusive can amplify the merchandising results, but many authors still succeed limiting their exclusivity to a pre-order or a special edition with retailer-exclusive content. In the latter case, a free short story included in the ebook file is usually enough to sweeten the deal. Exclusivity comes in many forms and building a strategy that factors in a few of them could even score you staggered deals on multiple platforms during the course of a launch.
Offer a Discount
Not wanting to upset a subset of your readers by forcing them to miss out unless they buy from a specific retailer is understandable. Fortunately for you, though, exclusivity isn’t the only offer merchandisers love. They also salivate at the chance to offer a book at a discount that isn’t available anywhere else. Picture this scenario: JK Rowling releases a new novel priced at $20 everywhere, except one outlet that can sell it for $10. Does that outlet have a competitive advantage? You bet! Price-sensitive Rowling fans would flock to the store while the discount lasts, knowing they can’t nab a better deal anywhere else.
Admittedly, we don’t all have Rowling’s readership to entice a merchandising professional, but the principle remains the same. If you can promise them a discount that isn’t available on other stores, you will be far more likely to receive a coveted slot. What’s more, if you can offer the first discount after the book is published, it will make their job easier to score more sales during the mania of a launch. Retailers will gladly help an author that favours them over their competitors. Being a household name will help your cause, but it isn’t necessary to make this happen.
Pursue Trad Merchandising
Much of the book trade might have moved online, but that doesn’t mean bricks-and-mortar bookstores are dead. On the contrary, indie outlets are currently undergoing what The Bookseller describes as, “a pretty incredible come-back story.” Shoppers love the tangible aspect of an independent bookshop – the smell that no e-retailer can synthesise and human interaction that no algorithm can replace. As such, physical merchandising is flourishing and many indie authors aren’t capitalising on it.
Admittedly, the average self-published author, who generates a modest living and uses print-on-demand technology to fulfil paperback orders, probably can’t afford to plonk their latest novel front of house in a giant chain. But indie bookstores are another story. If you can afford a small print run then you can drastically reduce your unit costs and offer individual managers a deep discount, providing they merchandise your book. Given the incentive to make a good profit, many will happily place your book next to the cash register for a week. Trad publishers have benefitted from such tactics for years and even paid bookstore chains to recommend their new release to every customer at checkout to increase their conversion rate during key sale periods.
Getting your book merchandised can hugely impact its sales at individual retailers. You shouldn’t rely on it exclusively to grow your readership because, without paying out thousands, gaining coveted slots usually requires some luck. Having said that, applying for them in tandem with a balanced marketing strategy can take your pen name to the next level. Remember, as good as you might be at selling your books on a certain store, nobody can sell them better than the retailer itself.
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