[This post had to be updated and revised in March 2017 and again in August 2019 due to numerous changes in the industry.]
The question came up recently asking which retail store is the most important to a CBA publisher for selling print editions of their books? And to which store are the most books sold?
CBA is a label to describe the Christian book market. It used to be an acronym for Christian Booksellers Association, an association that is no longer in existence. The ABA used to be an acronym for the American Booksellers Association but came to be a label to describe the general market.
I wish the answer was simple and we could point to one place and say “that one” and forget the rest. But that isn’t a smart response.
The first thing we must do is define terms.
Retail means stores or accounts, either physical or online, that sell direct to the consumer.
Wholesale means accounts that buy from the publisher but sell to the retailer, not to the consumer.
The word “distributor” can be synonymous with “wholesaler” but not always, which only confuses things.
Let’s start with retailers. These are accounts that sell either online or in physical locations direct to the consumer. I worked in a bookstore (retailer) for 11 years at the beginning of my career.
A “store” or “retailer” can have one location or many. We call those with many locations, “chain stores.”
The major “stores” or “retailers” (not in any order) in the USA are:
— Amazon.com (More about them later.)
— Choice Books (The spin racks you see in grocery stores and airports are very likely supplied and managed by Choice Books. Another industry term to describe them is “rack jobber” meaning their job is to fill the “racks” or displays. According to their web site they service over 11,500 displays. Technically they are not a “bookstore” but place displays in retail outlets that serve the consumer.)
— Christianbook.com (Also known as CBD or Christian Book Distributors. Here is an example where the word “distributor” doesn’t refer to a wholesaler.)
— Mardel (A unique chain that also sells office and educational supplies with 35 large store locations. Stores size is usually 25,000 sq. feet. – owned by Hobby Lobby.)
— The Munce Group (A marketing group serving over 500 independent CBA retailers. The group can provide buying power to their members as if they were a chain.)
— The Parable Group (A digital marketing group of over 100 independent CBA retailers – many of them larger sized stores.)
— Barnes & Noble (A general market chain of 640 stores – as of June 2019 when they were sold to a private equity firm that also owns the British bookstore chain, Waterstones.)
— Books-a-Million (A general market chain of 260 stores in 32 states.)
— Indigo.ca (The largest general market chain in Canada with 212 stores as of 2017.)
— “Big Box” stores (Wal-Mart, Costco, Target, Sam’s Club.)
From that list you can see that for print copies there are about 10 major retail outlets (with thousands, of locations). I may have left some out. Note that I have intentionally not included any of the wonderful independent bookstores other than those included in the “Groups” mentioned. This post is not meant to list all the great stores, but to explore the largest retail accounts. You can view a map of Christian independent bookstores in August 2019 at the “Get Local” web site (click here.) The map is discussed on our blog called “A Retail Renaissance?”
Obviously Amazon.com is a key “store” for book sales. But they are one store, albeit a large one. For some publishers Amazon can be 50% of their sales. For other publishers it is as small as 10%.
The lesson here is that if you are a publisher (or an Indie author) and only sell your paperbacks on Amazon you might very well be leaving a lot of potential sales behind.
Another lesson is regarding Amazon rankings. While Amazon is a major player, never forget they are one “store.” When a book rises in the sales ranks on Amazon it is a picture of what has happened in one store during a specific period of time. I’m not minimizing the importance of a book getting into the top 100 of all books sold (that is significant) on Amazon. But if your book suddenly moves in the ranking from 15,433 to 10,312 it may mean only one copy sold. Or it could mean 10 copies sold…but there were 10,000 others that sold more during that period of time.
Amazon is one, very large, “store.” But there are a bunch of other places where books are sold too.
Wholesalers are companies with massive warehouses that carry a lot of titles and ship to retailers who then sell to their customer. They specialize in quick turnaround on orders and often have multiple warehouses so the books can get to the retailer faster than a publisher can because the publisher usually has only one warehouse. Independent authors usually have to work through a service (like Ingram Spark) to get their books listed with Ingram.
There two major wholesalers in CBA are:
Ingram/Spring Arbor (Ingram is the largest of all book distributors. Many years ago Ingram bought Spring Arbor Distributors which focused exclusively on CBA products.)
Anchor Distributors (In business since 1970.)
So What? Why Should I Care?
The best answer to that question is so that you have a better understanding of the entire publishing eco-system. If your book isn’t selling then maybe a key account above did not chose to carry your title. Or maybe they carried it but the book didn’t sell so the stores returned their copies.
Some of our clients have been asked to meet with key retailers by their publisher. They’ve been flown to sales presentations where they get to talk directly to those retail buyers and their managers. If you don’t know who the main accounts are you might brush off the invitation not knowing how important they are.
The more you know about the industry the more comfortable you become when it comes to business conversations with your agent.
In case you are wondering, for ebooks Amazon (Kindle) has 70% or more of the market. ITunes (Apple), Nook (B&N), Google Play, and Kobo (the main vehicle for Canadian ebooks) are the majority of the rest. There are other ebook retailers too, but the above five account for 99% of ebooks sold.