Consignment Sales for Writers

Before I get into this topic, I’d like to announce that I have an interview up at Rachael Horsma’s blog The Writing Side of Me. Rachael is the author of the YA fantasy novel Soul Seed, and she’s starting a series of author interviews and spotlights. Thanks, Rachael, for having me as a guest!

I started looking into consignment sales when, like most authors with self-published books, I was scratching my head about how to get my work into the hands of readers. I happened across this article, which discusses consignment sales: having a bookstore carry your books for a share of the sales price. While the article does give some useful general information, it mostly consists of statements from bookstores, all of which are out of state for me and tend to handle local authors only. So I had to do some more research, and I thought I’d share what I found for other indie authors who might be interested.

Few independent bookstores that I found discuss consignment sales openly on their websites, so you may have to make direct contact: email, call, or visit in person. One bookstore I contacted pointed me to an application form that details the consignment process; another only gave me basic information by email. Both said they would have to look at copies of the books before they would agree to carry them, which is understandable since print-on-demand books can be of varying quality.

A 60/40 split seems to be typical: the author gets 60% of the purchase price when the bookstore sells a copy. Which brings me to the first concern: costs. You as the author will have to buy your own copies and provide them to the bookstore. Depending on how you’ve priced your books, the author copies can cost around 33% of the cover price. Then you have to pay shipping, which is cheaper per copy the more that you order, but because there are tax implications for keeping stock on hand, you may not want to order more copies than you can sell. (If the bookstore you’ve contacted isn’t in driving distance, you’ll also have to pay shipping costs to them, unless you can arrange to have your printer ship directly to the bookstore.) When I calculated these costs for my books, I found I’d make about $1-$2 for each book sold, depending on how the shipping costs break down per copy.

Another thing to consider: some bookstores may charge an administrative fee to handle consignments, $25 in one case. That means I’d have to sell at least 13-25 copies before I start making money. Those would be some pretty strong sales at a single bookstore, for any book that doesn’t have a celebrity’s name on it.

But money might not be the only motivator. Getting your name in front of people is a big challenge, especially in the heavily saturated fiction market. Some indie bookstores place their local & independent author display prominently in the front of the store, and this can be a big help. Some bookstores may offer speaking and signing opportunities, such as those discussed in the article linked above. (I have not yet determined whether the stores I contacted do, and I also haven’t tried contacting Barnes & Noble, which is also discussed in the article.) Keep in mind, though, that just because you build it doesn’t mean they’ll come. When I browsed the bookstore where I found that indie author display, customers weren’t spending much time in front of it. And I’ve done several bookstore signings, back when I had shiny new books out from a New York publisher, where I answered the question “Where’s the restroom?” far more often than I signed any books.

If money and exposure aren’t strong motivators, the sense of building a community and supporting a local business might be. In an age where the media is constantly heralding the death of the book and big corporations are buying up and declaring bankruptcy on all sorts of businesses, it can be deeply satisfying to get involved with an independent bookstore. Many indie shoppers are passionate about these stores, and store owners can be powerful proponents of their local and independent artists. If you already have a relationship with an indie store, getting your book on their shelves regardless of the profits may seem like a no-brainer.

I haven’t actually decided what I’m going to do yet. While I love to see indie bookstores thrive, I am not actually a big book buyer and I haven’t built one of those strong relationships with any bookstore. (This may seem strange for a writer, but since my day job is as a librarian, the fascination with books doesn’t tend to linger after I get home.) I also write in kind of a niche: atypical fantasy set in a quasi-historical background, but not the popular Medieval-style setting. It lacks all the features of epic fantasy, so fantasy fans often don’t know what to do with it, and history buffs tend not to like fantasy at all. So I doubt that I can pull in a large crowd of book buyers. I will definitely keep my eyes open, though. Maybe just the right situation will present itself, the right promotional opportunity, and an extra $25 pay that admin fee.