Think Like A Publisher #11… Electronic Sales to Bookstores

Just over a year ago now, Kris was standing at the end of an aisle in a Safeway grocery store as I came around the corner from the deli section. She was staring at one of those huge end-caps of gift cards that tend to fill all major stores these days. I figured she was looking for the iTunes gift card, since that’s how she controls her spending buying songs by doing one gift card at a time.

“Look at this,” she said and pointed at a gift card.

It was a beautiful gift card for the musical “Wicked.” It had the poster for the musical on the card and if you bought the card, you could download the entire musical by using a code at a web site.

I stared at it for a moment and then looked at her and I could tell she was thinking the exact same thing I was thinking.

“Put A Book On The Card!!!”

So that night I started into the research for the idea and found that it was simple and surprisingly cheap.

Over the next two months I talked to about a half-dozen indie bookstore owners, asking them if they would like to sell gift cards for electronic books in their store? All of them said “Yes!”

And all were enthused.  Especially when I talked about how little space they would take up and that I could give them a 50% discount and free shipping.

Of course they were excited, because it was a very, very simple way to make an electronic book into a physical product for an indie store to sell.

In fact, it’s the solution that just might save bookstores in this new electronic world.

How This Works Exactly

Step #1: Publish your book to electronic publishing, including Smashwords. Set up the book for free on a Smashwords code page. (There are other ways to do this, but this is basic and simple for the moment.)

Step #2: Have a plastic credit-card-sized gift card printed with your book cover on one side.

Step #3: On the back of the card print the free Smashwords code under a black scratch-off bar plus directions and other information.

Step #4: Either give the card away as a promotion at signings and such or put the card into a cardboard hanger with a price and sell to bookstores.

That’s it. Just about as simple as it gets.

What Kris and I Decided to Do

Kris and I thought about starting up some business to do this for us and others, then just decided to use the cards ourselves for promotion at signings and conferences and to sell through our own company. Why did we back away from a business model?

Because anyone, any indie publisher can set this up just as simply as we could do it.

I hinted at this idea early in this series because the more I got into the idea, the more research I did, the more excited about it I got.

In the meantime, a new start-up company, EnThrill, in Canada has decided to try the idea. If you want to see the nifty video about what this new company is planning, go to

But this company is brand new and very small and smartly moving very, very slowly, as they should. They are only in Canada and will be only doing a few test stores this summer with a very small catalog. And even next fall they will be taking only limited titles. In essence, they are becoming a publishing company with this as their main way of distribution.

But again, anyone can do this. Any author, any company. Anyone.

The idea of selling books like gift cards just like other companies sell gift cards is easy for any of us to do, and start-ups like Enthrill will only help knock down some barriers into stores.

But that said, I can’t imagine too many barriers.

Indie bookstores have been looking for a way to sell electronic books in their stories and this is it. The idea is simple, cheap, and every book takes up less room than a regular book, yet it is something the customer can walk out of the store with in a bag.

If we standardize the size of the cards, imagine in ten years parts of every bookstore being like a record store, with bins of books we can just thumb through like we thumb through albums.

First The Details

— Any book, fiction or nonfiction, that is in electronic format, can be sold this way.

— You can use Smashwords coupon codes on the back of the card or set up your own page on your web site for the download address. Right now the simple way is use Smashwords coupon code since Smashwords buyers can use credit cards and can download any format they want. Very simple.

(If you do not understand Smashwords coupon codes, please go to and read the instructions on discount or sales coupons.)

— Card printing is easy. All I did was Google “gift card printing” and found all kinds of places. Dozens and dozens and dozens of printing offers.

Prices range all over as is normal, but I tended to find printers that could use my cover pdf file, my back cover pdf file (full color front, B/W back), scratch-off bar, 30 ml (credit card thickness), and full gloss for under 50 cents per card if I went to 500 cards. More per card if I wanted to print less.

For example, go to All Time Print and check out the prices there. You can print 100 cards for $128.00 but at 1,000 cards you get them for about 36 cents each. (I have not ordered for them, so do not know for sure on quality. Just a price example.)

—Cards with cardboard hangers will cost more. For example, you can do a holder shaped like a book that folds over and has the card inside. You can print your cover on the front of the holder and blurbs and information on the inside and the cost will run about 50-60 cents per card, depending on volume. Again, shop around.

So if you do a decent volume per book, it brings your total for a card with folder to just under $1.00 per card with holder that could hang in a bookstore.

Say $1.00 per book to be high and safe. (A book is plastic gift card and holder with your cover and information printed on the holder as well.)

SHOP AROUND for best prices. Maybe even try your local printers.

Think Like a Publisher

How can a small indie publisher use these cards????

I am certain I haven’t even begun to figure out the many, many ways. But first let me talk simply about selling your electronic books through indie brick-and-mortar stores. Then I will talk about promotion.

Selling to Stores

First you will need to figure the profit margin.

— Novel online price is $4.99. (Or higher. If you are a discount 99 cent publisher, forget this idea and jump to the promotion section below. But I am certain traditional publishers will be picking this idea up quickly over the next few years at their sales prices.)

— You will want to sell your book into bookstores at the same price or less as your electronic book. So let me use $4.99, the price WMG Publishing prices novels at.  That will be an impulse buy for bookstore customers.

— On the hanger print the $4.99 book price.

— Offer the bookstore 50% discount plus free shipping if they order at least 10 books in this format from your catalog. (Shipping will be about 50 cents per card shipping priority flat rate.)

The Math

#1… Your costs: $1.00 printing plus .50 shipping = $1.50.

#2…You get paid ahead from the bookstore $2.50. (50% discount)

#3… Total profit per book is $1.00 per card or $10.00 per ten. (For you math challenged, that’s 20% profit.)

(On how to find the stores, reread Think Like a Publisher #9.)

That simple.

Without doing a POD paper version, you get your electronic book into brick-and-mortar bookstores.

And find more readers.

Who will then look up your other work.


One of the great values of these cards is simply promotion. If you don’t do the hanger and do large enough print runs, you can have a plastic card for around 35 cents or less per card.

On that card on one side is the full cover picture of your book. On the back is a free code to let the reader you hand the card to read your book for free on any device they may own.

And you can leave the free code open for as long as you want or close it when you want. (I would tend to leave it open to be honest to draw even more readers if the person you gave the card to gives it to another person. You know, like lending a book. Gets you more and more customers for your other work.)

Kris and I will have numbers of these cards with us everywhere we go in the future.

Giving a reader a free book by handing them an attractive, colorful gift card is about as good as promotion gets these days.

And note, you can even sign the card. Tough to sign an electronic book before now.


The new future of books is almost here. Books on gift cards.

But they won’t be called “gift cards.”  They will be called “books.”

Electronic books in a physical product, for the same price, can now get into brick-and-mortar bookstores and make bookstores a great mark-up.

Customers can easily buy they, give them as gifts, even wrap them up as stocking-stuffers.

It is easy for any publisher of any size to do.

Gift Card Books take up less of the very expensive bookstore shelf room. You can get a hundred of these in the space of ten paperback books.

So my challenge to you all is this:

Indie publishers, lead the way.

Authors, for promotion, lead the way.

The traditional publishers and chain bookstores will not be far behind.

In ten years you can imagine a bookstore with paper books and thousands of electronic books on cards on huge racks and in bins.

If you doubt that future, just walk into any major store now and look at the huge gift card racks.

And imagine those racks full of cards that contain books.

Have I said lately how much I LOVE THIS NEW FUTURE???


Copyright ©  2011 Dean Wesley Smith


I want to thank everyone who has supported this series, and at some point you will all get a full copy of this series. Maybe even on a gift card. Thanks!

As a professional, this series is part of the income streams. And, to be honest, donations keeps me going on these chapters. And anyone who donates a little to the Magic Bakery tip jar, I will send a free electronic book of all these chapters combined when I am finished.

And  speaking of the Magic Bakery, this chapter is now part of my inventory in my bakery. (Confused on that, read the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated over this last year. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

Thanks, Dean

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