Forget about getting your books into Borders -- their stores look lousy, they're understaffed, the merchandising is poor-to-non-existent, and their systems are sub-par. Their returns rate will kill you if their co-op requests don't. Be careful at Barnes & Noble -- there are a lot of good book people working there, but it's a big, publicly-traded company which means they can't take risks. You only want your books distributed into their better stores in key markets -- they've got oodles of books-as-wallpaper out there in the hinterland. And remember: nobody shops in their distribution center. Amazon, of course, is the big Kahuna these days -- your titles have to be up there early, correctly listed, with compelling content, constantly monitored. Just don't think that Amazon'll generate significant sales through its marketing programs, or that its efficiency will necessarily guarantee your profitability.
Focus on the independent booksellers. All of your outreach, your promotions, and your marketing should be directed at them. They are the only ones who see the intrinsic value of carrying your books and they need all the support they can get. They are your indispensable allies in reaching browsers who might be persuaded to take a chance on your books. Like you, they live and breathe books. If they have POD capability, grant them access to your files. If they do great events, send them your authors. Give them as much material as you can for their websites and in-store promotions. Get to know them as individuals, for you and they should be partners.
There may be selling opportunities elsewhere among the retail channels, but be extremely careful. As long as they have the privilege of returning unsold books, why sell to anyone serviced by distributors? Unless you think you have a sure bet (and can afford the risk). On the other hand, specialty retailers buy non-returnable, which means they are definitely worthy of serious attention, especially if you publish into a well-defined niche category. Just remember: the economy is in the toilet and margin is everything to them.
Whatever you do, never try to force distribution into any account that hasn't read at least some of your books and given you honest feedback.
Take care of your sales reps, whether in-house, a distribution group, or commission guys. Respect them. Listen to them. Reward them. Give them as much information as you can as early as you can. Your reps are the first, and most sympathetic, audience for your books. They may not always be right, but their initial reaction is always helpful.
Reach out to the reviewing and book-chat community wherever it is -- on-line, libraries, print, blogs, radio, TV, whatever. Get these people reading copies as soon as you can and thank them when they write about one of your books. Read what they write, respond to them, understand the communities they serve, and get to know as many of them as you can on a personal basis.
Most importantly, connect with your readers. Ask them questions. Listen to their suggestions. Bring them into the publishing process as much as you can. Give them access to your authors. Make sure your website and advertising is clean, up-to-date, and personal. Let them see the personalities behind the books. Give them things to read and respond to. Find out where they buy their books and why. Remember -- no one has ever devised a better advertising campaign than strong reader word-of-mouth. So make it easy for them to advertise your books for you.
You'll find that these constituencies, taken together, form a continuous circle, based on trust, taste, and mutual interest. Everything you do, you should do in the awareness that you, your authors, reps, booksellers, librarians, reviewers, reporters, and readers are one community.
Keep your prices as low as you can. Choose affordable formats. Don't expect e-books to produce enough revenue to keep your publishing program going, unless you're a vanity press selling services to would-be authors. Hire good people and do as much work as you can in-house -- you need a creative, consistent, honest, and collaborative team to support your books and authors.
Publish books that you love. Don't try to fake it. Leave that to the big guys. And good luck. Even if you do everything right, you'll need it.