Here’s another one from the “probably not a good idea” department. Self-published writer Brendan Leonard had a bright idea: he might see if he could get his book more exposure by planting it in a Barnes & Noble store. All that was necessary for it to ring up was to have an ISBN bar code on it, which it did. He then had the idea to use it as an Instagram promotional gimmick: place books in various stores and post their location to Instagram so people could go buy them. Granted that he was giving money away by giving his book away for free, it was still a way to promote it, wasn’t it?

Well, probably not the best one. As some of the comments on the article point out, he’s taking shelf space he hasn’t paid for. Not a lot, but still some. And, as it turns out, it’s not exactly a new idea. Angela Hoy wrote about it in Writers Weekly back in 2011, providing a number of reasons why it is a bad idea. Just a couple of them:

4. Trying to give away copies of your book in this manner isn’t likely to create future sales for your book. Even if the reader is successful in getting your book out the door of the bookstore, chances are that one reader’s interest isn’t going to result in any significant press for your book. You’ll be lucky if they tell a friend or two about it. Tricking stores into stocking a free copy of your book isn’t an effective way to generate publicity.

5. Trying something so many other desperate authors have tried in the past will make you look like…a desperate author. That’s not the impression you want to give bookstores or book buyers. You are a professional author and professionals don’t try to trick bookstores by sneaking free books onto their shelves.

Hoy recommends spending your time and money promoting and interacting with potential readers online instead.

It’s easy to understand why self-pub writers would want to get their books into bookstores. After all, “showrooming” being the thing it is, I have little doubt a lot of people go online to buy books after thumbing through them in a brick and mortar store. But thanks to the way that the large chain brick and mortar bookstores work, indie authors tend to get short shrift there; the big publishers pay the bookstores money to stock and promote their books. Any shelf space they might devote to indie books is shelf space they can’t sell to big publishers for more money. (Indeed, a dispute over those promotional fees was probably behind the dispute that B&N had with Simon & Schuster last year that led to reduced visibility for S&S books in B&N stores until it was resolved.)

But big chain stores aren’t the only stores out there. Indie writers might have better luck approaching the management of their local independent bookstores. These stores often look for ways to differentiate themselves from the big chains, and stocking locally-written books is one such method. They might even have a special shelf devoted just for them, where the book could stand out from all the others. It might not be the Barnes & Noble, but it’s something, and it will earn you a few bucks too.

And if you want to give some books away to promote yourself, you can do better than just squirreling them away in a bookstore. Slap some BookCrossing stickers on them and put them in places like doctor’s or dentist’s office waiting rooms, laundromats, and other places where a little reading material might come in handy. (Not post offices or other government offices, though; they have regulations against that.) In such places, the book won’t compete with other books, and it may well even be read…and then passed on to someone else to be read again.

Either way, it doesn’t seem likely that giving physical books away will necessarily lead to more sales. Promotionally speaking, you would have better luck promoting yourself through a blog, or making appearances at heavily-attended conventions such as GenCon to meet people who are actually fans of your genre.

There are plenty of other things you can do to promote yourself besides sneaking your books into a bookstore, and a lot of them even work better. Really, it’s just not a good idea.


  1. Actually, this idea is considerably older than 2011. Before bookstore ordering systems were as sophisticated as they are today, authors would leave a book like this, and, when it was bought and didn’t come up in the system, the cashier would add the ISBN into the system so the book might be reordered.

    If authors want their books available now, they should have friends order the book from the bookstore when it is not on the shelves. The book must have an ISBN and be available from Ingram for this to happen. This advice probably won’t help much unless you have LOTS of friends.

    According to several pro writers of my acquaintance, the best way to help an author’s career is to PRE-ORDER a book via your bookstore to give it a quick lift before it hits the shelf. Unfortunately, this tends to only work for books from traditional publishers.

    Free books do have their value as promotional tools– reviews, give-aways on your website, etc., but most writers who self-publish or write for small presses aren’t given a box of books for this purpose so they take a big financial hit with this method.

  2. It’s funny how paying a retailer to carry your product is fine, but paying a radio station to play your music is illegal.

  3. Mike, in a bookstore you are renting shelf space which is perfectly legal.

    The same thing happens in major grocery store chains which rent prime space to major food manufacturers.

  4. Oh I know its legal, I just was making a comment how with Radio this practice caused a legislative backlash, but with physical stores it is perfectly acceptable. The enforcement of “shelf neutrality” would go a long way to foster increased competition in traditional retail settings.

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