This is the third post (and conclusion) in a series on writing and publishing. It stands on its own but for more context you can read about the book’s latest sales & royalties report and traditional publishing versus self-publishing. Check the end of this post for an eBook announcement!
Bookstores in military exchanges
Three years ago when I finished the manuscript of “The Military Guide” I wanted a publisher who could get it into bookstores at military exchanges.
I’d already learned that self-published authors have a tough time getting their books into physical retail stores. Most bookstores can’t reach out to individual authors, so they sign up with distributors. Distributors don’t want to manage a catalog on their own, so they contract with traditional publishers. The publishers presumably buy what people want to read, which is based on what’s already on best-seller lists. Occasionally a popular self-published book breaks into this model, but it’s less than one in a thousand.
Selling online may be easier for individual authors, yet you have to market your book aggressively. If you want to sell thousands of copies (not just your mom and a few friends) then you’ll need to reach the top of your category. Even if you’re a raging success online, brick & mortar bookstores may still not carry your book because it’s not part of the publisher/distributor system. Publishers regularly troll websites looking for popular books that they can republish for distribution, but an individual author can’t count on that when they start writing. If you’re a successful self-published author then you may not even want to talk to a traditional publisher.
Three years ago I wanted to see “The Military Guide” sitting on the shelves of the Pearl Harbor Navy Exchange bookstore. I figured that would make it more accessible to overseas servicemembers & families, and would boost sales. To me, that was the a concrete example of a military author’s “success”.
The servicemembers & veterans who helped with the book also knew people who managed military exchange bookstores. When I tapped into this network I learned that the military exchanges did most of their buying at the national level. The managers of the individual exchanges didn’t even want to talk to individual authors.
Unfortunately, despite my research, I’d overlooked a declining spiral in military bookstores. Ten years ago the (then brand-new) Pearl Harbor Navy Exchange had a stand-alone bookstore. (It was right next to he video rental store…) A few years later the real estate changed: the video rental store closed due to Netflix, retail bookstore sales declined due to Amazon.com, and the NEX “bookstore” was downsized to racks on the floor of the main exchange. Today it’s been moved to a 20’x20′ corner of the exchange by a side entrance. It’s completely deserted self-service, it’s poorly lighted, the racks are too close together for comfortable browsing, and the shelves are a cluttered mess.
Last year my publisher reported that he was struggling to sell his catalog to exchange bookstore managers because… he was running out of exchange bookstore managers. The exchanges were still selling books, but they were letting the national distributor decide what should go to each exchange. The bookstore managers were assigned to other departments or laid off.
The magazine shelves won’t be messy much longer, either. This summer Military Times reported that AAFES is pulling adult magazines from their exchanges, but that’s just part of the story. AAFES actually announced that they’re pulling nearly 900 magazine titles from the exchanges. The magazine racks will be replaced by shelves for selling electronics. Customers may only see magazines in the checkout line.
I predict that the rest of the exchange’s bookshelves will be gone before 2018. “The Military Guide” might never be sitting on them.
Where the pocket guide and book are really selling
When I sold the manuscript to the publisher, the first thing he wanted was a condensed version for a 4″x5″ 64-page pocket guide. Impact Publications has had a lot of success with other military pocket guides, which is why we published that version of “The Military Guide”.
While the military exchange bookstores are nearly obsolete, the biggest buyers of the pocket guide have been military base family support centers. Sales are also brisk at state veteran’s centers and job fairs. Individual commands and Reserve/National Guard centers buy them for their personnel, and individual leaders even buy 25-50 copies to train their troops. It’s just another distribution channel for the book’s material, but it’s a very cheap one with higher margins: a lot like eBooks.
Pocket guide sales have stumbled during the last year of sequestration funding restrictions, but we hope that will improve next year as the military continues with drawdown programs. The publisher knows these customers well and can sell to them far more easily than to military exchanges.
Who’s buying the book now? Where? When? What’s the best price? I have no freakin’ idea.
I get the totals twice a year with the royalty check, and the national distributor doesn’t break down the numbers.
During the last year more books have been sold direct from the publisher than from the distributor, which tells me that the bricks & mortar stores (including military exchanges) aren’t selling the book. The publisher can report sales data for their individual buyers but my book is just one product among hundreds. (Publishers leave the marketing to the authors, so authors don’t get much sales analysis from the publisher.)
Amazon Author Central attempts to track sales reports from individual retail stores and online sales, but they only capture 10%-25% of the total. Amazon knows exactly how the book is selling through Amazon.com but they don’t get much data from the rest of the retail system. Amazon’s weekly sales data is certainly better than “semi-annual”, and there’s an attempt to break it down by U.S. regions, but it’s hard to correlate the regions to major military bases or large Army deployments… or overseas customers with APO/FPO addresses.
I’m grateful for everything the publisher has done with the book, especially the pocket guide. I really appreciate the time they took to show a rookie how to use the system, and it’s wonderful to have that support system for the very first book. But if this is as good as it gets with a great publisher, then what is the rest of the industry doing to their authors?
Selling the next book
Today, if I was writing my first book then I’d be tempted to self-publish. I’ll write a second edition of The Military Guide for the publisher, but my next book will be self-published.
Yes– I’m writing the second book. It’ll be a short eBook on making military insurance decisions.
You’ve already had to navigate most of these cryptic acronyms: SGLI, VGLI, CRSC, SBP, RCSBP, Tricare, TRS, TYA, TRR, TFL, FLTCIP, and even DIC. This eBook is not just another acronym decoder but rather a guide to the issues and pitfalls surrounding the various choices. I’ll sell the eBook for $3-$4 (through the blog) and later add that material to the 2nd edition of The Military Guide.
Just like the book & pocket guide, all of my eBook revenues will go to military charities. I’m seeking contributors who want to share their advice & stories, and I can use proofreaders for the draft(s), too. If you’ve learned something from an experience with any kind of military insurance and want to share your advice, then I’d love to hear from you. If you contribute to the project then you get a vote on which military charities get the income. E-mail me or leave a comment below if you want to be on the list for the first draft.
Book sales and blog revenue for The Military Guide
Should you self-publish or use a publisher? (My latest thoughts)
Writing and publishing
Very interesting read, Doug. And you’re right, so much is changing in the publishing industry right now. With the way things are going, I am currently looking at the self-publishing model. It’s not right for everyone, but it certainly has its place.