Avid readers know that there’s nothing like curling up with a good book. The weight of its pages, the library smell, and the anticipation of being transported into another world. Have you ever imagined a life where you could be surrounded by books every day, delivering your joy of reading to the masses?
Opening a bookstore in the age of Amazon and massive retail chains might seem like an impossible feat. But despite the perception that independent booksellers are diminishing in the shadow of these giants, there’s still plenty of room to make it in the world of books.
Niche bookstores offer something that massive retailers could never replicate—and customers are even willing to pay more for the same book because of the personal touch.
Clever book business founders who discovered a gap in the market, a unique value proposition, or a way to create personalized customer experiences have found success—even during a pandemic. Niche bookstores offer something that massive retailers could never replicate—and customers are even willing to pay more for the same book because of the personal touch.
Turn your hobby into a business by launching your own bookstore and selling books online. Or, circumvent publishers to transform your manuscript into a real book to sell directly to your fans. With books being such a wide-ranging product, there are infinite ways to differentiate yourself.
Whatever your angle, let’s turn the first page on the story of your future.
How to open a bookstore and sell books online
In this guide, we’ll focus primarily on the steps to opening an online bookstore. We’ll look at how to sell books online through multiple online business models from resale vintage to subscription boxes. But, there’s something here for everyone, including authors looking to self-publish and those considering a brick-and-mortar book business.
We spoke with thriving independent booksellers and a self-publishing expert to get their advice on everything from working with publishers to providing winning customer service.
Meet the experts
Dominique discovered the power of books while she was working as a youth advocate, supporting high school students who needed help graduating. “I watched them light up as they read books they could see themselves in,” she says. “It was like magic.” The experience inspired her to imagine a bookstore that celebrated underrepresented voices and stories. When her dream became “too loud to ignore,” she launched Itty Bitty Bookstore in 2020—in the middle of a pandemic.
Dominique’s leap made history and the business became the first Black-owned brick-and-mortar bookstore in Madison, Wisconsin.
Kerrie scoured the web to find the perfect book-themed subscription box—and came up empty handed. On a road trip with her husband, Mark, she mused about starting her own. That dream quickly became a reality for the couple, and Sweet Reads Box was born in 2017. Each box combines a book with lifestyle and food items that complement the story. The business has grown from the basement of their house to a third-party fulfilment center, shipping monthly to customers across Canada. With the massive growth, Kerrie still personally reads each book and picks every item in the box.
Joanna is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of over 30 books, selling more than 600,000 copies in 162 countries and five languages. Her catalog includes non-fiction that helps aspiring authors write and publish books, and thriller fiction under the name J.F.Penn. She is also an award-winning podcaster, entrepreneur, and professional speaker.
We’ll also be featuring examples from other successful booksellers, including a children’s bookseller and publisher focusing on South Asian themes and a trio of women creating a new comic book series.
“My learning curve was everything!” says Dominique. She, like many entrepreneurs before her, started her business with little more than a dream and a lot of ambition. Though she says networking and community building were among her skills, the rest was a mystery. “I had no idea how to open a bookstore.”
Google became Dominique’s best friend as she built her business. We’ll save you the searching with this step-by-step guide on how to sell books online. First, let’s decide what corner of the book market you’re going after and how you can differentiate yourself.
Book selling business ideas
Aside from the traditional bookstore model, where many genres are represented with a little something for everyone, there are many other ways to launch a business in the book space. Here are a few:
- Write and self-publish your own book, selling to your fans directly.
- Sell used, vintage, rare, or out-of-print books online or IRL.
- Offer a specific type of books (e.g., text books, comic books, coloring books).
- Build a business around a specific theme (e.g., food, sea life, outdoor living).
- Sell ebooks or audiobooks online through digital delivery.
- Cater to a niche audience (e.g., children, LGBTQ+, Black women).
- Focus on a niche genre (e.g., romance novels, Afrofuturism).
- Start a book-themed subscription box or bundle.
- Consider a book adjacent business (e.g., book tote bags, library themed fragrances).
Kerrie carved out a niche for Sweet Reads Box by focusing on Canadian-made items and handpicking the box contents to match the theme of the book—something she says other subscriptions boxes don’t do as consistently.
Dominique chose to focus on books by and about underrepresented people. “I am continually on the hunt for new books, new authors, new series, and new characters that bring joy into the Black and brown communities,” she says. In staying true to this niche, she’s built a loyal customer base of those looking for a curated experience.
Similarly, mothers Sadaf Siddique and Gauri Manglik launched their own online bookstore, KitaabWorld, when they noticed a lack of representation of South Asian characters and authors in the US market. “Amazon is a jungle,” says Gauri. “Until you know something exists, it’s not always that easy to find it.” The women would later become ambassadors for book diversity, working to bring South Asian stories to libraries and classrooms, and eventually published books of their own.
Competing with massive booksellers
“I don’t want my books to come with my toothpaste,” says Kerrie. There’s no question that Amazon is a convenient solution for consumers who want a one-stop shop for books and pretty much everything else.
While it’s tough for small businesses to compete on price and shipping speed, those who want to succeed in the market need to stop considering massive retailers as direct competition. “Honestly, I pay them no mind,” says Dominique of the likes of Amazon.
Instead, like Dominique, lean into what makes you unique—especially if it’s something the massive retailers could never achieve:
- Differentiate your brand. Work on having a solid brand story, mission, and set of clear values that attract customers looking to support businesses that care about the same things. Consumer trends during the pandemic saw a shift in favor of brands with a social mission.
- Be hyper focused. A bookstore that offers everything for everyone often lacks depth on one particular genre or theme. By sourcing rare and independent titles and staying in your lane, you can build customer loyalty.
- Offer a curated experience. For online businesses this may include niche book collections that go beyond genre, quizzes, or tools to help recommend books based on interests, or 1:1 virtual shopping consultations. Physical bookstores can offer a warm experience with community-focused spaces and events.
- Focus on customer service and relationships. Small businesses benefit from having a small pool of loyal customers with whom they can build relationships. Offer loyalty perks like exclusive events and invest care in a customer service strategy.
- Build community. Connect with your biggest fans by building online communities, running in-store events, and hosting virtual book clubs.
“I choose every day to focus on my shop, my community, my employees, and my readers’ experience, without comparison,” says Dominique. “I strive to curate the best collection I can and I stay humbly honest about what our store provides and stands for.”
What’s an ISBN? (and other publishing terms you should know)
As you begin your bookselling journey, you’ll encounter some trade terms that you should become familiar with before we proceed:
Advanced reading copy (ARC): This is a copy of a book printed before the first official publication. It may not be complete, may lack final cover art, or may still be awaiting a final proofread. ARCs are circulated to book buyers, critics, and press in advance of a book’s official release.
Antiquarian books: A term to differentiate collectible books from used books. Vintage, antique, rare, and out-of-print books may fall under this category.
Backlist: A publisher’s list of books published prior to the current year or season that are still in print.
Book distributor: A business that warehouses and sells books directly to retail stores, libraries, and sometimes wholesalers on behalf of publishers.
Book wholesaler: A company that buys large quantities of books from publishers and sells them to bookstores, institutions, and libraries. Wholesalers usually get volume discounts from publishers and can pass on a portion of that savings to their customers.
First edition: Any book copy printed in the first print run of that particular title.
International Standard Book Number (ISBN): A numerical code used to identify a book. Publishers, retailers, libraries, and other businesses along the book supply chain use this unique number for inventory management and ordering. Books published up to the end of 2006 have a 10-digit ISBN, while all books after that period have a 13-digit ISBN.
List price: The cover price or retail price of a book, generally printed on the back cover or sleeve.
Out of print (OP): A book title that is no longer being printed or distributed from the publisher.
Print on demand (POD): A term to describe a product being printed upon order. There is no inventory of the product, but it will be printed and shipped to each customer after the purchase is made. Many self-published books or books sold by large online retailers are distributed in this way.
Trade bookseller: Another term for a retail bookstore or retail bookseller. Trade booksellers sell to the general public and include independent bookstores, large retail chains, and online stores.
Developing your book brand
Establishing a clear direction, story, and visual treatment of your brand is important in any industry. Your book brand should take a unique perspective that answers the question: Why would customers buy from you?
Once you’ve honed in on your business model and your niche, do the exercise of writing your brand story. This should include your personal journey to entrepreneurship, your “why” for starting your business, the values that guide you, your mission statement, and the value you bring to the industry, your customers, and the world.
Also consider bringing your ideal customer persona into sharp focus. Honing in on what makes your customer tick helps you build your brand around their needs. This also connects your personal “why” to a real audience, helping you translate your brand in a way that resonates with others. When your values match that of your ideal customer, it’s a win-win.
Your brand “bible” will be developed through this exercise and should include clear guidelines around voice and tone, marketing strategy, hiring practices, and a visual system for your branding.
Branding comes next. This is where you’ll develop a logo, design packaging, produce visual assets, and establish the elements like fonts and colors that will be consistent across websites, social media, and anywhere your brand is visible.
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What does it cost to open an independent bookstore?
The cost of starting a book business will vary considerably depending on your business model. Opening a bookstore in a physical location could require significant funding upfront, while self-publishing and using a print-on-demand model allows you to start a book business on a very low budget.
For authors looking to self-publish, costs for editing and cover art should be factored in. “Costs depend on the experience of the author, as well as the genre and length of the book,” says Joanna. Shorter non-fiction books may only cost around $1,000 for editing and art, she says, but longer fiction books may require additional editing steps and the total cost may be several thousand. Other costs include website fees and marketing budget.
Itty Bitty Bookstore started small in a 120-square-foot office space that I turned into a bookstore. If you are looking to go all in right away, you should set aside $20,000 to $30,000.
If you are looking to start an online bookstore that sells a variety of titles from other authors, you’ll need to consider the cost of inventory. Luckily, most publishers don’t have minimums for orders, so you can start small with a few copies.
On the other end of the spectrum, opening a brick-and-mortar bookstore will come with the highest startup costs. “Itty Bitty Bookstore started small in a 120-square-foot office space that I turned into a bookstore,” says Dominique. She has since upgraded to a large storefront. “If you are looking to go all-in right away, you should set aside $20,000 to $30,000.”
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Funding options and business plans
How you decide to fund your business will depend on your budget and needs. Consider bank loans, VC funding, grants, or crowdfunding. “Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms allow for special fan-funded print runs,” Joanna says of self-publishing. You may also qualify for Shopify Capital after you launch your online business, to help you with ongoing costs.
A business plan is a great tool to help you answer the questions that you might expect from lenders and investors.
Generally, new books bought from a publisher will have a set list price (or retail price). Your profit margin will depend on how much you paid for the book—and this number can vary. Large retailers and chains can win business this way because they enjoy volume discounts.
A small business shouldn’t try to compete on price. Big-box stores often offer discounts on bestsellers and new releases—sometimes resulting in retail prices lower than a small business’ cost for the same book.
“I tend to shy away from trendy or most popular lists, so I don’t usually have the same books that people see in Barnes & Noble,” says Dominique. If she does carry a hot book, she reads it herself so she can provide knowledgeable service. “That experience alone makes my customers willing to pay to purchase from me rather than a big-box store.”
When pricing used or vintage books, list price is no longer a factor. Your retail price may be much higher or lower than list depending on a number of factors: age of the book, condition, demand, rarity, out-of-print status, and cultural relevance.
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2 book-selling business models explained
While there are a number of ways to open a bookstore or sell books, we’ll look at two options and specific advice for each: self-publishing to sell your own books and selling used and vintage books.
About self-publishing and selling your own books online
“The independent creator community is increasingly empowered, as more opportunities emerge to reach readers and make an income,” says Joanna. Authors can circumvent traditional publishing channels and produce and sell books via print on demand or in digital formats.
While going the traditional route has its advantages, like leaving the business tasks of publishing and marketing to the pros, many tools have emerged to help authors navigate the process seamlessly. Influencers, journalists, and other creators who have built audiences on social media platforms can monetize those relationships through self-publishing and selling on an owned channel.
Then, Joanna says, if you’re successful with your first self-published book, publishers will be more eager to work with you on either expanding your reach or backing your next project. Keep in mind, though, that publishers will take a cut. “If you publish as an independent author, you can earn a higher royalty percentage. For example, 70% for ebooks and up to 90% if you sell directly from your own site.”
The independent creator community is increasingly empowered as more opportunities emerge to reach readers and make an income.
Author, activist, and artist Vivek Shraya circumvented traditional publishers for her book God Loves Hair and other projects, and she believes that self-publishing is helping to elevate diverse voices. “Getting published in any genre is a huge challenge, especially for writers of color,” she says.
Self-publishing allowed the comic creator trio of Lynly Forrest, Lisa K. Weber, and Kelly Sue Milano to make their own rules and maintain creative control over HexComix. It was also an inroad into a male-dominated industry. They launched cautiously on a 150-copy print run for their first issue—and sold out by the second day of their first comic convention. “The power has come back into the hands of the creator,” says Lisa. “It makes more opportunities for everyone.”
About selling used and vintage books
Thrift businesses have increased in popularity as more consumers become conscious of waste and sustainability. Though audio and ebooks have emerged to address some of this issue of consumption, many people still prefer the feel of a paper book.
Used and vintage booksellers will need to contend with a very high number of SKUs and product listings, as each item will be one of a kind. Online booksellers, therefore, may choose to hone in on a specific corner of the market and seek out rare or unique titles within a genre or time period.
Used and vintage books can be found through a number of sources, including:
- Thrift stores
- Library clearout sales
- Garage or estate sales
- Local buy-and-sell listings
- Other used bookstores
- Online marketplaces like eBay
Unless the used book is rare, vintage, antique, or out of print, it would generally retail for less than the list price. As such, you may want to be selective about the used books you carry, especially if you’re selling online. Consider the effort required to list the book (a one-of-a kind item) on your website and storage. If the book is easy to find elsewhere or doesn’t have much demand, your retail price may be too low to justify carrying it.
Books should be stored away from high humidity, out of sunlight, and in a manner that prevents them from warping or bending. When listing used or vintage books for sale, be sure to include additional information about the edition, including print date, condition, and any damage.
Sourcing books from publishers, distributors, or wholesalers
If you’re opening an online or brick-and-mortar bookstore and are planning to sell new books, you’ll need to find a supplier. You may choose to work directly with a number of publishers or buy books from a wholesaler or distributor. In some cases you may even get better prices on books and you save the hassle of managing multiple relationships.
While you may find that, as a newcomer to the space, it’s easier to work with one wholesaler, Kerrie found that, in Canada, it was simple to set up accounts with publishers directly. “I literally just called them and asked who their sales reps were in the area and then connected,” she says.
Managing publisher relationships
As you build relationships with publishers, you will begin to get more flexibility. As Kerrie’s business grew and she proved herself a valuable client, the publishers would send ARCs earlier and earlier.
While some publishers may have minimums, many do not. “I think it would be really common for a small, independent bookstore to only order five copies of a book,” says Kerrie. She adds that it’s possible to order as little as one copy of a book, say in the event that you get a customer request.
Through the publisher, authors will write a custom letter to our readers. They wouldn’t offer that up as a new client, but we’ve built relationships over the last four years.
Quantities and terms of the order do affect the cost to you as a customer, however. If you have asked for the copies of the book to be returnable to the publisher, for example, you will pay a higher cost for each book. There has been some flexibility, though, says Kerrie. “We buy them as non-returnable to get the bigger discount, but then we’ve been able to return some with special permission.”
Publishers may also provide you with little extras, like signed bookplates and letters from authors as your relationship grows. “Through the publisher, authors will write a custom letter to our readers,” says Kerrie. “They wouldn’t offer that up as a new client, but we’ve built relationships over the last four years.”
How to open a bookstore online
It’s never been easier to sell books—or anything else—with tools and platforms that make setting up your own store a painless process. Social sales channels, print-on-demand tools, and commerce platforms like Shopify let you get set up in minutes.
Set up your online store
Now that you’ve done your branding exercise and honed in on your business model, you can set up your ecommerce store and website even before you’ve bought inventory. There are a number of benefits to getting a website and social pages live pre-launch. You can build excitement for your brand, get early feedback, and grow your audience and email list so you have eager customers waiting once you officially launch.
Start a business selling books online and try Shopify free for 14 days
Plug your logo, visual assets, and copy into a theme that complements your brand. Many are fully customizable, allowing you to update colours and page elements to suit your layout.
Here are a few preset themes we’ve picked for booksellers:
Remember that beyond tweaking the themes yourself, you can also hire a Shopify Expert to help you build additional customizations.
Power up your online bookstore with apps that integrate seamlessly with your Shopify store. Here are a few apps designed for online booksellers:
- Lulu Direct is a print-on-demand service for books.
- GoodreadR Book Reviews imports reviews from Goodreads and displays them on the product page for each book.
- Kodbar: Barcodes & Labels will generate bar codes for products and is compatible with ISBNs.
- Crowdfunder lets you run a pre-order crowdfunding campaign to self-publish your book.
- Easy Digital Products is perfect for those looking to sell digital book formats like ebooks, PDFs, and audio books.
Other bookselling sales channels
Alongside your website, you should be considering additional sales channels to expand your reach. Depending on your niche and genre, there are multiple options:
- Online vintage marketplaces (for vintage booksellers). Handmade marketplace Etsy also supports vintage resellers. If you sell vintage or antique books, this channel has a built-in audience looking for this type of item.
- Bulk sales (for self-publishers). “This can be a profitable model for entrepreneurs and non-fiction writers where books are sold in bulk to companies and sometimes specifically branded for the client,’” says Joanna. “A good example of this is Honoree Corder, who sold her books to lawyers.”
- Crowdfunding sites (for self-publishers). “A lot of authors are selling print books directly from Kickstarter now—basically raising the money to do a print run,” says Joanna. “Many also include ebooks and audiobooks as part of that bundle.”
- Bookshop.org. “Bookshop is a nonprofit that supports indie bookstores by paying us a commission of book sales on their site,” says Dominique. “This gives bookstores the ability to stick to our niche and curate our collections around a store’s mission but serves as a way for our customers to order books that we do not currently carry in-store.”
- Pop-ups, markets, and retail. If you operate online only, there are ways to dabble in retail to see if IRL selling is worth it for your business. Pop-up shops and applying for a table at a local market are low cost and low commitment options.
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Marketing your bookstore
Marketing continues to be reported as the biggest mystery for new business owners. It’s no wonder—with changing algorithms and trends around how customers find and interact with brands, it can be difficult to keep up.
As with any other business, it’s important to find out where your ideal customer is hanging out. Facebook ads might be best for you if you cater to kids and their parents. TikTok is a great place to invest if your book business caters to a Gen Z audience.
With zero budget as a new bookstore owner, start with a few organic marketing tricks to help you build buzz and an audience for your business:
- Set up social accounts and post consistently with content that brings value to the reading community.
- As you build social audience, push them to a landing page or your website homepage and offer a perk or discount for subscribing to your email newsletter.
- Invest in learning SEO and content marketing. If you can establish yourself as an expert on a subject (through a blog or other content on site) and rank for key terms, you can push that organic traffic toward purchases. “A free ebook that provides excellent and useful content encourages readers to try your other books,” says Joanna.
- Run free virtual or IRL events like author readings, book clubs, speaker series, or children’s storytime. Dominique also says it’s important for local business owners to be visible in the community. “I make it a priority to travel to venues and events around Madison to reach more and more people,” she says.
- Start a loyalty program with incentives for referrals to have your best customers become ambassadors for your brand.
- Leverage influencer marketing. Top influencers will be out of your league in the early days, but emerging niche influencers in the book space may have affordable rates or be willing to shout out your brand in exchange for product. “To help market the first box, I sent a preview box just to influencers I knew,” says Kerrie.
Getting creative with marketing in tough times
For Dominique, launching in the pandemic posed challenges, but forced her to get creative. She started the business as a by-appointment-only model. Though it was designed as a way to adhere to COVID protocols, the personalized format resonated with her first customers who shared their experiences with friends. “I realized this was a niche that has gone underserved for years and years in our community,” she says.
Kerrie suggests engaging authors in your marketing, as they may help amplify your brand. “When we tag authors in a post and they see that a box has been curated around their book, they’re very excited about it.” The pandemic has shifted the way that authors engage with readers too. That’s been a good thing for online brands like Kerrie’s. “Authors are moving away from that bookstore launch or reading. I think they realized that doing Instagram Live really helps,” she says. She’s currently experimenting with more formats to bring author access to her customers virtually.
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Back office for booksellers
The logistics of opening and running your own bookstore will vary depending on what you sell and how you sell it.
A common challenge among booksellers, though, is inventory. Book businesses (unless you are self-publishing one book and printing on demand) generally carry a large number of SKUs and have a ton of inventory to contend with. “Without a solid grasp on inventory,” says Dominique, “things can get out of control quickly.”
We went from packing boxes in our basement to our living room to a friend’s basement and then to a warehouse in town, and then we’ve now moved to a 3PL for packing.
Shopify allows you to sync your inventory across sales channels, and there are several inventory management apps like Stock Sync and Inventory Planner Forecasting that integrate with your store to simplify your operations.
As you scale, consider outsourcing warehousing, packing, and shipping to a third-party logistics (3PL) company. “We went from packing boxes in our basement to our living room to a friend’s basement and then to a warehouse in town. We’ve now moved to a 3PL for packing,” says Kerrie. The move will also help Sweet Reads Box enter the US market. “We can get help with the customs clearance because they can clear a whole shipment.”
Sweet Reads Box also brought on more help to manage the back end of the business so that Kerrie could stay connected to sourcing the products. “Mark’s daughter was our first employee,” she says. “We’ve since hired employees that help us manage customer service emails, ordering, shipping, and the behind the scenes.”
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Start a new chapter in the story of your life
As you start your journey as a bookseller, both Dominique and Kerrie suggest sticking to your plan. If you build your business on a unique niche or format, that’s what’s going to win you loyal customers and help you stand out. “It is so easy to get sidetracked without a business plan and mission,” says Dominique. Your business plan and brand exercise will become the basis for how you move forward.
“Be true to what you love,” adds Kerrie. “I’m not a sci-fi reader. We could do sci-fi boxes, but I wouldn’t know what to put in it.” For both women, their passion shines through, and that resonates with customers looking to cut through the noise of massive retailers with millions of books.
There’s never been a better time to be an independent bookseller. Find your niche, wield the power of storytelling, and build a future by spreading the magic of reading.
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Feature image by Pete Ryan