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 love of reading to the masses?
Clever founders who discovered a gap in the market and a unique value proposition have found success in the book industry—even in the shadow of massive retailers. That’s because niche online bookstores offer something their large competitors can’t: personalized customer experiences.
Ready to turn your reading hobby into a business by selling books? Start your own online bookstore or bypass publishers to sell your own story directly to your fans. This guide will take you through everything from how to source books to where to sell them online.
How to start an online bookstore
In this guide, we’ll focus primarily on the steps to opening an online bookstore. We’ll look at the process of selling 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 successful booksellers and a self-publishing expert to get their advice on everything from working with publishers to providing winning customer service.
Getting started: first steps for booksellers
“My learning curve was everything!” says Dominique Lenaye, owner of Itty Bitty Bookstore. 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 start a bookstore business. First, let’s decide what corner of the book market you’re going after and how you can differentiate yourself.
Business ideas for booksellers
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.
- 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 as digital products.
- Cater to a niche audience (e.g., children, LGBTQ+, Black women).
- Focus on a niche genre (e.g., romance novels, Afrofuturism, non-fiction).
- Start a book-themed subscription box or bundle.
- Consider a book-adjacent business (e.g., book tote bags, library themed fragrances).
Kerrie Hansler, founder of subscription book brand Sweet Reads Box, carved out a niche 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 and start your own business, you’ll encounter some trade terms that you should become familiar with before we proceed.
Online bookstore glossary
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 released 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 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.
💡 Tip: When setting up your business, check with local governments to see if there are any legal requirements. This could include a federal tax ID number, permit, or a business license.
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 potential customers 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.
📚 Read more:
- How to Start Your Own Brand Identity From Scratch in 7 Steps
- How to Build a Personal Brand
- How to Design a Logo in 8 Steps (We Make One From Scratch)
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 bestselling author and entrepreneur, Joanna Penn. 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.Dominique Lenaye
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.”
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 the best price. Big-box stores often offer discounts on bestsellers and new releases—sometimes resulting in retail prices lower than a small business’s 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 things: age of the book, condition, demand, rarity, out-of-print status, and cultural relevance.
📚 Read more:
- Pricing Strategy Starter Guide: Common Types & How to Choose
- How to Price Your Product: What You Need to Know About Pricing Before You Launch
Bookselling 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.
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.
Success story: HexComix 📚
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.
The women 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 creates more opportunities for everyone.”
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,” says Joanna. “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.Joanna Penn
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.
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 sales or estate sales
- Local buy-and-sell listings
- Other used bookstores
- Online marketplaces
Unless the used book is rare, vintage, antique, or out of print, it would generally retail for less than the listed price on the book. 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.
💡 Tip: 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 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’ll 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.Kerrie Hansler
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.”
Setting up your store and selling books online
It’s never been easier to sell books online 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 help 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 a Shopify 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.
Plug your logo, visual assets, and copy into a theme that complements your brand. Many are fully customizable, allowing you to update colors and page elements to suit your layout.
Here are a few preset themes we’ve picked for booksellers:
- Label theme in “Books” ($$$)
- Foodie theme in “Grind” ($$)
- Icon theme in “Christian” ($$)
- Context theme in “Chic” ($$)
- Effortless theme in “Trend” ($)
- Publisher theme (free)
Remember that beyond tweaking the themes yourself, you can also hire a Shopify Expert to help you build additional customizations.
💡 Tip: Need help picking the right template for your store? Take our theme-picker quiz.
You can also power up your online bookstore with apps that integrate seamlessly with your online platform. Here are a few Shopify apps designed for online booksellers:
- Lulu Direct is a print-on-demand service for books.
- 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 own website, you should consider additional sales channels to expand your reach to more customers. 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. Tip: You can use a pop-up as a great grand opening idea for your online store launch, too.
📚 Read more:
Marketing for online bookstores
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 older customers. TikTok is a great place to invest if your book business caters to a Gen Z or Gen Alpha audience.
With zero budget as a new bookstore owner, start with a marketing plan that employs 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 a 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 on your website that includes 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.
📚 Read more:
- 12 Proven Marketing Strategies To Try (+ Examples and Tips)
- How to Build a Marketing Plan That Actually Works
- 5 Organic Marketing Ideas for Entrepreneurs
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. We’ve now moved to a 3PL for packing.Kerrie Hansler
Shopify allows you to sync your inventory across sales channels, and there are several inventory management apps like Stocky and Thrive by Shopventory 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. That move also helped 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.”
📚 Read more:
- 6 Tips to Reduce Shipping Costs for Small Businesses
- How to Create an Operational Plan You’ll Actually Use
- The 7 Best Ecommerce Fulfillment Services
- Bookkeeping 101: How To Keep Records for Your Small Business
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.
With new tools emerging every day, there’s never been an easier time to be an online independent bookseller. Find your niche, wield the power of storytelling, and build a future by spreading the magic of reading.
Feature image by Pete Ryan
How to start an online bookstore FAQ
How do I start an online book business?
The best way to start an online bookstore is with these steps:
- Choose a bookstore business model and niche.
- Define your audience and brand.
- Source books through publishers or authors (or, in the case of vintage books, check thrift stores, yard sales, and marketplaces).
- Build a website.
- Create a marketing plan to attract potential customers.
- Start selling and making book sales.
Do online bookstores make money?
Any business can make money with the right strategy. You can compete with retail book giants if you understand your niche and don’t try to compete on price. Discover what makes your bookstore special and lean into it. Set a pricing strategy that ensures you profit from book sales. You can also find other sources of income through book merch, live events, and subscriptions.
How much money do you need to open a bookstore?
The amount of money you need to start your own bookstore will depend on your model. An online bookstore will require much less startup funding than a brick-and-mortar bookstore. You will still need to account for costs such as inventory, software and website fees, marketing budget, and other fixed costs, like rent and utilities. You can start your own business with just a few hundred dollars if you choose a model like print-on-demand books or dropshipping books that require no inventory.