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Taking your self-published book into a bookstore


It happens all the time. An author comes into my bookstore and says, “would you carry my book here?” If they’re carrying a copy of the book, I ask to see it. If they’re not, I wonder what they were thinking. Who asks a store to sell their book without having one along to show the store owner? But I digress. When the author hands me the book, I take a quick look at it and then ask the author for the elevator speech. Authors, take note: If you don’t have an elevator speech for your book, come up with one. It’s a quick synopsis, typically 30 seconds or so, that sums up what your book is and why we should sell it. Here’s what I look for in an elevator speech and my first glance at the book:

  1. Is it relevant? Your typical indie bookstores is a lot smaller than a Powell’s, Tattered Cover, or Barnes & Noble. We can’t carry every book that comes out. Not even close. But if your book has a local focus or matches with our store’s specialty, we’re certainly going to consider it. Check out our store and work that relevance into the elevator speech. If you tell me, “Your store is known for its nature section, and my book about wolverines will be the perfect fit,” you probably just tripled your chances of a yes.
  2. Is the price realistic? The average trade paperback novel sells for $13 to $16 these days. If yours is $19.95, we can probably work something out. If it’s $30, we’re not going to be able to sell it. Some genres go for more than others. Science fiction and fantasy fans are used to paying $7 to $10 for a mass-market paperback. Twenty bucks is a hard sell to them. A well-researched 500-page nonfiction book may not sell as many copies, but people will pay $25 without blinking.
  3. Can you help us sell your book? If you offer to talk about our store on your blog or Facebook, that will help. If you offer a book signing, that helps, too. Signs, bookmarks, and other marketing materials are good, but with one caveat: If you give me a stack of bookmarks that say “available at Amazon,” I’ll toss them straight in the trash. I don’t advertise for competitors.

Assuming your book passed the first test, I’ll flip through the book itself and check on some details. Here’s what I’m looking for:

  1. Does it have a professional-looking cover? Cover designers aren’t that expensive. A good cover that doesn’t look like stock photography with text in Comic Sans will pay for itself a hundred times over.
  2. How’s the writing? I’ll flip through and read a few paragraphs from random pages. I’m not really critiquing your literary skills here. If I don’t see spelling errors, egregious grammatical flaws, bizarre punctuation, or horribly awkward dialog, I’m probably happy with it. If I see ten exclamation points on one page, on the other hand, that’s a no.
  3. Who’s the publisher? There are certain names that set off red flags because they’re horrible for bookstores to deal with. The Amazon imprints (especially CreateSpace) are a pain for us. They really don’t want to deal with indie stores because the whole imprint is set up just to sell on Amazon’s website. I won’t even call PublishAmerica anymore, because they’re so difficult to work with.

Finally, it’s time to check the terms. I’ll take the book over to the cash register and scan it into one of our wholesaler databases (Ingram or Baker & Taylor). There had better be an EAN barcode, or the book’s a no-go. There are certain things in the retail book business that are a given. One of those is that bookstores buy books at a 40% discount or better. Another is that books are returnable. If we try your books as an experiment and they don’t sell, we want to be able to send them back to the distributor.  Here is something we don’t ever want to see (this is a screen capture from the Ingram iPage database: Createspace iPage listing I circled the two issues with this listing. Here’s why they are important:

Discount

As I said, 40% is the standard discount, and it’s often better than that. Virtually every book by a major publishing company is available to bookstores at 40%. If we have a choice between stocking a $10 book that we can make $4 on, and your $10 book that we can make $2.50 on, which one do you think we’ll dedicate our shelf space to? There’s also the issue of sales. Some bookstores never do them, but others do regular promotions: all mysteries 20% off this weekend, for example. If we bought your book at a 25% discount, we’re going to end up losing money selling it during a sale. Is 40% an excessive profit? According to the latest data from the American Booksellers Association, a typical small American bookstore is operating right on the edge of profitability. Most actually lose a couple of percent per year. Believe me, we need that 40%.

Returnability

Clothing stores can’t return unsold clothes. Grocery stores can’t return unsold food. Why do bookstores expect to be able to return unsold books? Well, that issue is quite a hornet’s nest! Return policies began during the Depression in the U.S.

Businesses were going bankrupt all across the country, and bookstore owners became very conservative in their buying. They bought the stuff they knew would sell, but they didn’t take chances on new titles. Publishers can’t survive if they’re only selling their backlist. They need to have a constant stream of new titles; new authors; new enthusiasm. So they offered booksellers a deal: keep buying new books, and if they don’t sell, send them back. It’s not free, of course. The booksellers are responsible for shipping costs to send the books back, and the return credit isn’t always the full amount they paid for the book. Ingram, for example, gives booksellers a 40% discount, but only credits 50% of the list price of the book on a return. Buy a $30 hardback for $18, and get $15 back to return it. Add in a buck for shipping, and the store loses $4 on the return.

But the system worked. Bookstores bought new books, publisher sales continued, and the book business survived. There are those who think this system should have gone away long ago — just see what Angela Hoy has to say about it. And I see her point; my store is switching to non-returnable with several publishers that offer us significantly better discounts. If we trust our instincts on ordering, that extra 5% discount pays off. But this plays hand-in-hand with discounts. If you’re offering me a 45% or 50% discount, I will take your book on a non-returnable basis. But when Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Partners/West, and all of my other distributors offer me 40% returnable and you offer me 25% non-returnable, I really don’t want to take a chance on your book. I’ll find something good from the millions of titles in their catalogs.

To sum up, I will buy self-published books and stock them in my store. If you have a professionally-edited book that’s well written and sold under the same terms as the rest of the books I buy, please come talk to me. But if this is your first book and you didn’t hire a proofreader, or you’re short-discounting a non-returnable title, or your cover looks like it came from a template, I’m probably not going to stock it.

Oh, boy! My book is a textbook! That’s good news, right?


Closed Captioning HandbookWhen I wrote about this in 2011, I talked about rights reversion and what that means in an age of ebooks. Today, I’m having more of an issue with the whole way textbooks work. With two kids in college, I’m seeing my share of textbooks selling for hundreds of dollars, but the price increase on my own book was still a shock a few years back when it was picked up as a college text.

My editor was adamant when I was writing the book in 2003: keep it under 400 pages or the price of paper will make the book just too expensive. Their target price was $49.95. The final page count was 404 (snicker), and it did indeed release (in paperback) at that price. I still don’t buy the paper cost argument. My bookstore sells plenty of paperback books with far more than 400 pages for far less than $50.00, but the world of low-volume, highly specialized books is different. I get that.

Prices go up over time, so I wasn’t surprised to see the price go up to $54.95 a couple of years later. But when three colleges adopted The Closed Captioning Handbook as a textbook, I didn’t expect the immediate jump to $71.95. Now, it’s up to $74.95, and it has the dreaded word “NET” in the Ingram distribution database.

Net? What’s net?

In the retail book trade, there are a lot of publishers to deal with, and keeping track of everything would be an insurmountable task for small bookstores. That’s why we have big distributors like Ingram Books and Baker & Taylor. Stores like mine buy the majority of our books from a couple of sources because it’s easy and it consolidates shipping and billing.

Discounts are pretty standard in the book trade. For the most part, retailers get the same discount on every book at the big distributors. Sometimes, though, books are “short-discounted.” Publishers may not offer the standard discount to the distributor, or may have very high minimum purchase quantities. It’s common for print-on-demand books to be offered at only half the normal discount to stores, which is why many bookstores refuse to stock them.

But every now and then, that discount field in the database displays as “NET.” That means that the bookseller pays full list price for the book. If you go into a bookstore and order a copy of The Closed Captioning Handbook, that $74.95 isn’t what you pay, it’s what they pay. This isn’t going to be true for bookstores (especially campus bookstores) that order directly from the publisher, but few stores deal directly with technical and specialty publishers like Focal Press. Also, there are many textbook publishers that simply don’t want to deal with what’s called a “general bookstore.” They only offer trade terms to college bookstores.

Obviously, this is a big turnoff to readers. Stores can’t stay in business without a profit, but nobody wants to pay higher than retail. So what’s an author to do? We can beg readers to buy directly from us. We can find out what stores or websites stock our books at a reasonable price (as much as I hate sending people to Amazon, they do have my book available at a discount right now) and send people to them. We can beg our publishers to offer standard discounting to distributors.

And we can ask our readers: if you’re quoted a really high price on one of our books, please don’t give up on us. Take a few moments to check another source or two. We don’t have the luxury of setting our own prices or terms. Thank you!

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