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Direct selling | Inside Publishing


Direct selling

Chris Holifield 2017

An earlier Inside Publishing dealt with Book clubs and Mail order. The other half of the non-retail market is called ‘direct selling’, sometimes known as display marketing. This encompasses selling at home, in the workplace and door-to-door. It has become much more important in the UK and in the US, although it is still relatively rare elsewhere.

Non book-buyers

The theoretical basis for direct selling is that many people never go into bookshops, because they find them intimidating or they do not habitually buy books. The intention is to reach them directly, often in their place of work, and to show them the books, selling them on the spot or taking their orders to be fulfilled on a future visit.

Low prices

Two factors are important in relation to selling books in this way: the pricing and the visual appeal of the books. The direct sellers usually negotiate very good deals with the publishers for large volumes of books, which are often specially printed for them with the seller’s logo. They get a ‘run-on’ price, as the start-up costs of the book have been set against the main ‘bookshop’ edition. This enables them to offer the books at very low ‘bargain’ prices, which are attractive to the impulse purchaser and also encourage gift purchase.

What kind of books?

The books which work best for direct sellers are highly illustrated colour titles, although reference also sells well, especially if the books are being sold to a market concerned about children’s homework. Children’s books in general do well, as do Cookery, Health, Mind, Body and Spirit, Gardening and other popular hobby areas. Gift books can do extremely well and offer real value-for-money appeal if they look attractive and expensive.

The books that don’t sell well through direct sellers are fiction, which is pretty dull to look at, and more serious non-fiction which is not in an illustrated format. Both of these need a readers’ market and sales are driven by the author’s name, the subject matter and the bestseller lists or sometimes reviews and press coverage.


There is much less door-to-door selling of books than there used to be, now that encyclopaedia salesmen no longer ply their wares from street to street but sell on the Internet, on disk or by providing access to an online database. The increasing sophistication of mail order lists and the opportunity to sell on the Internet have made the old sales approaches seem a bit hit-and-miss. Targeted selling is much more in vogue now.

Selling from home

Selling from home is rather like Tupperware parties used to work. It has also now fallen out of fashion, but there was a time when firms such as Dorling Kindersley employed a large army of sales people who worked from home in this way.

What about the author?

From the author’s point of view, the problem with direct selling is that the author only gets a small royalty, which is based on receipts, i.e. the amount the direct selling operation pays for the books, rather than the published price. To balance this, there is the fact that large numbers of books may be sold. Another factor the author must take into consideration is the anxiety that the sales of books at very low prices may affect sales from bookshops, on which the author gets a higher royalty.

Very cheap books

There is continuing great concern that the availability of very cheap books is starting to affect the public perception of the price of books. If you can buy a big colour book for £5 or £10 ($7.99 or $12.99), why should it cost three or four times as much from a bookshop? This is particularly the case in the UK, which is thought to have the deepest book discounts in the world. It’s nice that consumers get cheap books, but less good for everyone else involved, particularly the authors, the publishers and the bookshops, who are all finding their share is squeezed.

But do books sold at a large discount through non-book outlets affect the perceived value of all books? If you subscribe to the idea that the direct sellers are selling books to people who don’t usually buy them, you will not be concerned about this. But if you think, for instance, that the catalogue distributed through the Sunday papers by the British direct sellers the Book People is actually reaching a lot of book-buyers and making other books seem expensive, than you might feel differently about this. In either case direct selling and heavy discounting have radically changed way the book market works and they are here to stay.

Chris Holifield