What Self-Publishers Need to Know about Virtual Co-op (Genre Categories, Pt II)

Co-op Money: The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

In my previous post I talked about the marketing struggles of The Physics of Star Trek. In short, Barnes & Noble had decided to shelve it in the science section instead of the Star Trek section, which meant a potential huge loss in sales for B&N, the publisher, and the author.

Luckily, the book was able to recover through co-op money. As Susan Rabiner explains in Thinking Like Your Editor, co-op money is given to bookstores from publishers to help sell their book. It can be spent several ways: “for example, to pay for print advertising . . . or to obtain better placement of the book within the bookstore” (such as piled high on the “New Arrivals” table or face out on the “Recommended Reading” shelf).

But not all books have such a happy ending. If the preorders for The Physics of Star Trek had not hinted at best-seller status, its publisher most likely would not have shelled out more co-op money. And even if the publisher had opted for more money without the surety of a best seller, B&N could have disagreed:

Even if lots of co-op money were set aside, such money would still not guarantee front-of-the bookstore display . . . . That space is valuable and limited: Booksellers will not devote any part of it to a title that cannot pay its keep there, no matter how much money a publisher offers.

The Virtual Co-op v. Self-Publishers

At first glance, it might seem like this co-op has little to do with self-publishing—after all, self-published books rarely appear in brick-and-mortar bookstores (and if one does, it’s probably selling very well, so bookstores are happy to give it prime real estate). Co-op, however, has everything to do with self-publishing because it’s also used by online bookstores and can be enormously detrimental to indie authors if not understood and handled well.

David Gaughran discusses co-op at length in his book Let’s Get Visible: How to Get Noticed and Sell More Books. (At the time of this writing, he’s offering his equally excellent first book for free: Let’s Get Digital: How to Self-Publish and Why You Should.)

Gaughran talks about how online retailers such as Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Kobo sell the most visible spots on their sites to the highest bidder—i.e., to large publishing houses. Thus, self-publishers have a very difficult time building momentum for their books. These retailers also close off other avenues for indies to find a following. Gaughran explains:

There are no Top Rated lists on Barnes & Noble or Kobo, so you won’t be able to put your book front and center on the strength of reader reviews alone. The big site promos for those two retailers tend to only include books from major publishers. Search functionality is poor on both sites too . . . Categories are a mess. All of this . . . serves to focus sales on the Best Seller lists and the books sold by large publishers, which are either handpicked for promotions or sold into co-op spots. 

Well, that’s all pretty depressing. What marketing is left for the cash-strapped self-publisher?

The Egalitarian Amazon

While Amazon isn’t completely co-op free, it has a far more meritocratic method for marketing books than the backroom deals of the other online booksellers.

Amazon gives self-publishers a much more level playing field; those all-important opportunities for visibility—those digital front tables—are open to anyone.

“The system is largely agnostic,” Gaughran says. “Amazon doesn’t care if the featured title is published by you, me, them or Penguin, and it also doesn’t care if the book is 99c or $14.99.” Simply put, Amazon will show the title most likely to be purchased by each individual reader.

But of course there’s a catch: Too many publishers, both traditional and indie, don’t understand Amazon’s genre categories, and therefore, fail to capitalize on its valuable free co-op.

In my third and final post in this series we’ll discuss how to optimize Amazon’s genre category system so that your book lands prime marketing real estate for free.

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Missed the first post in this series? Check it out here.

3 thoughts on “What Self-Publishers Need to Know about Virtual Co-op (Genre Categories, Pt II)

  1. Wow, can I really be the first, five days later? Maybe everyone’s waiting for “In my third and final post in this series we’ll discuss how to use Amazon’s genre category system so that your book lands prime marketing real estate for free”

    In the meantime, I’ll jump in with my answer to the invited question: No.

    What’s driven my decision to go down the self-publishing path is a couple of years of Hugh Howey waxing poetic on the topic. I don’t expect to make loads of money out of it, like he has. I don’t expect to be a best-seller. In fact, I think the book will probably tank, or at least sit around until the series (seven more to come) gains some momentum, and enough people notice that something’s happening. If it ever does. I’m not being pessimistic, just realistic. Hey, you never know, right?

    Anyhow, I’ve come to the realisation that traditional publishing won’t do anything for me. I already have a gun copy editor, and thirty beta readers across and outside my target demographic, and I’ve chosen each of them carefully, which gives me enough feedback to edit, rewrite and tweak so it’s the best I can make it. So what would a publishing house do for me?

    Well, best-case scenario: Let’s imagine I find a good agent, after a year or so of schlepping the book around to peeps who are too busy and make ‘no’ decisions too quickly. And I’ve found an agent. And then the book sits on someone’s slush pile for a year or two until another person who’s too busy and makes too many snap ‘no’ decisions decides to take a punt on me (remember the first Harry Potter? I have no illusions of being another JK Rowling, but it’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of the process). And this month there’s no Lee Child book or Stephanie Meyer book or Stephen King or, ok sit back down for a while Kids’ Fantasy authors, JK Rowling’s back.

    So it gets up, and then gets out to bookstores, where it sits on a shelf spine-out (because I’m not Lee Child or Stephanie Meyer or… ) and then after a month on the shelf we’re done.

    Would they promote the book? Nope. I’m not Lee Child, or…

    So here’s what IS happening. Self-publishing, the book will be out as soon as I get the cover done. Then it will be up on Amazon forever, where it will have time for a slow burn. Meanwhile, there’s a local bookstore in town that promotes local authors. So my book will be on that shelf. They might even do some promotion/a signing (which they do regularly), and there’s a convention in town in the next couple of months which should coincide nicely.

    Would traditional publishing do more for me at this stage of my career?


      1. That’s cool that B&N are coming around.

        Thanks for your response. I really only went into the full process because:
        a) I’m a long-winded wordy git; and
        b) Hey I don’t know what I’m doing, I might have this all wrong, and someone can point out the flaw in my reasoning!

        Have an awesome day


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