Rejected: Real Reasons Bookstores Refuse Self-Published Titles

It’s no secret that getting a bookstore to stock your book on their shelves can be difficult as an indie author—but it’s not impossible.

Authors using more traditional models of book distribution (we call it expanded distribution at Mill City Press) can have their books and marketing materials sent to book buyers, like those at Barnes & Noble Small Press. Getting an audience with book buyers increases the possibility that your book gets picked up for bookstores.

But getting in front of book buyers isn’t enough—these book buyers must be convinced that your book has the potential to sell. What helps make the case for picking up a book? Well, to figure out what works, sometimes it’s best to look at what doesn’t work.

Every few months, Barnes & Noble Small Press sends us a list of Mill City Press books that have been picked up—or not—and for the first time ever, we’re sharing the reasons why. Here are our takeaways.

Your Book’s Most Likely to Be Rejected Due to Content

And no, that doesn’t mean “explicit” or “hateful” content, either. The top three content-related reasons why a book got rejected are over-published, fiction rejects, and narrow market.

Over-published and narrow market may seem like opposing issues, but they’re different sides of the same coin: not understanding your target audience and the current market for your book. Who are you marketing to? What other books exist on the market that are similar to yours?

If the market is flooded with your type of book, chances are, your book won’t be picked up unless you have a unique selling point that others don’t. (Which makes having a strong author platform before you publish and solid marketing plan that much more important.)

On the other hand, if your target audience is extremely small, it doesn’t make business-sense for a bookstore to pick it up for its shelves. Who would buy it? A bookstore wants to know it’s putting out books its customers want to buy.

And the “fiction reject” reason? It’s non-genre specific and similar to the “over-published” reason. Here’s a secret that plagues most fiction authors: It’s harder to market fiction. Current events, a strong author platform, and relevant topics to readers make nonfiction books a better gamble for bookstores. Fiction books don’t always have those legs to stand on.

Marketing for fiction, then, becomes vital. If you want your novel in stores, start promoting yourself and your book as early as possible to show book buyers your book is a risk that will pay off in the end.

Appearance Matters

When it comes to appearance-related rejections, the number one reason is an unappealing cover. Book covers represent the first (and possibly only) impression your book will make on potential readers. If the cover design doesn’t wow them, or have them reaching for the book to read your back cover copy, the buyers for bookstores likely won’t be choosing your book either.

A common complaint about self-published books is quality, and book covers are often (literally) on the forefront of that complaint. Attempting to fit every element of a book into a cover, not paying attention to genre conventions, and not having a professional design are all common mistakes self-published authors make with their covers.

Be sure to do research and check out bestselling books in your genre. What elements do those covers have? Note what makes a cover successful, then communicate those requirements to a professional book cover designer. Your book will be competing against other books, both traditionally published and self-published, and your cover has to be as good as (or better than) others in your genre.

The Key to Success May Lie in Understanding Your Audience

Other reasons books were rejected from bookstores include overpriced, bad title, and "unclear what category book falls into." These oversights are easily fixed—as long as they’re addressed before the book moves through production phases.

Fixing an overpriced book might involve more than simply dropping the price. What’s the cause of high retail price? It could be having book specs that lead to higher book printing costs.

A hardcover is more expensive to produce, which could potentially price a book out of the market, especially if other books in the genre are paperbacks. Will readers pick up a hardcover book when competing books are less expensive?

Even “bad” titles can be addressed in research. How are books titled in your genre? What are the trends? If a title is vastly different from bestselling books, the risk is that readers will pass over the outlier and choose something from the pool of books that fits their expectations.

While penning a book that defies genre can be thrilling, marketing it is troublesome. Who’s most likely to buy it? If buyers for bookstores don’t know the answer to that question, they’re not going to be able to sell it. Genre is your friend when it comes to getting your book placed in bookstores (and marketing your book in general). A clear category makes it easier to sell your book to interested readers.

What You Can Do to Set Your Book Up for Success

  • Research your target audience
  • Research bestselling books in your genre
  • Hire a professional cover designer
  • Get quality editing from an editor who understands the book market and what readers want (then follow his or her advice)
  • Build an author platform now
  • Write appealing back cover copy that showcases your book’s unique selling point

Does that list sound like a lot? You bet! But simply publishing a book doesn’t guarantee success. Hard work combined with smart positioning and strategic marketing will carry your book further—perhaps even to a bookstore shelf near you.

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