Stocking the store

A woman working on a dissertation on cozy mysteries asks:

What are the rules (if any) in your bookstore regarding purchasing self-published books? Does your bookstore purchase any self-published books? How do you make this decision? I'm also wondering if there are any rules that apply to books produced by small presses. Are they less likely to be purchased by your bookstore, more likely, or is there no difference between small press books and large press books when it comes to placing them in your store?

Here's my response:

At The Mystery Company, the rule on self-published books is that we look at them one at a time.  We will stock intriguing, well-produced and properly priced self-published books that are offered to us on competitive terms.

The sad fact is that setting criteria like this -- 1) well-produced, 2) properly priced, 3) competitive terms -- virtually insures that self-published books eliminate themselves from consideration, even before we get to the question of "intriguing."  Let's face it: most self-published books aren't intended to be stocked in stores and we know this because most self-publishers have made little or no effort to figure out what being stocked in stores means.

I think you're asking the wrong question, though.  The real question is not whether stores will carry these books but whether readers will buy them.  Like any business, we are responsive to our customers.  Will our customers be interested in a self-published title?  If yes, then we have to be interested.  If no, then we don't have to be interested.  Are readers interested in most small press titles?

In fact, we stock and sell many titles published by small presses -- and some presses that were small in the recent past but aren't so small today.  Poisoned Pen, Rue Morgue, Crippen & Landru, my own Crum Creek Press/Mystery Company, Felony & Mayhem, Ramble House and others have supplied titles that in the past 12 months have outsold many, many titles published by the big guys.  Among the most fun titles we've had to sell in the past year are self-published: Mark Schweizer's choir mystery series.  By MWA's rules, he counts as self-published.  Of course, rules that label someone like Schweizer a self-publisher are bizarre to start with -- but that's a different discussion.

At one level, there's no difference between stocking and selling titles from self-publishers, small press companies and the multi-national conglomerates; if we didn't sell these books we wouldn't be in business at all.  But at another level, there's all the difference in the world: dealing with a plethora of authors and/or small companies, many of whom have idiosyncratic if not outright whimsical ideas about what it takes for a bookstore to successfully sell its books, makes this a very difficult landscape in which to make decisions.