There are many frustrating realities of being a self-published author: unfriendly review policies, managing your own production, stigma, and more. Now, after self-publishing two books and prepping the third, I’ve decided to improve my quality of life by fixing one of these frustrating realities: I’m not selling on consignment to bookstores anymore.
Consignment works like this: You loan a bookstore your books. If they sell them, they pay you, if they don’t, they either give the books back, sell them for a loss, or destroy them. There are some great reasons to sell on consignment:
It gets your book out there. I can send 3 copies each to stores in San Diego, Houston, New York, and Seattle. I increase my ability to connect with people who browse their local bookstores; people who are passionate readers who wouldn’t find me otherwise. There’s no risk for the bookstore owner, because they only pay me if they sell the book.
It connects me with booksellers, an author’s most valuable ally. It’s easy to give up a few slots on a shelf for an unknown if you don’t have to buy the book first. It can get booksellers reading me and then recommending me to readers. Many indie booksellers only use one distributor. And these distributors often choose not to carry self-published titles. I use the Ingram network, which is huge and wonderful. It feeds stores like Barnes & Noble and many independent stores of all kinds. Baker & Taylor is another distributor that feeds libraries and some smaller bookstores. Baker & Taylor often chooses not to distribute self-published titles or titles from boutique houses. This effectively means my books will never appear at certain stores unless I sell on consignment.
You can sell some books this way. Generally not a lot, but if you do an event at a bookstore, or get some sort of promo deal, you can certainly move a stack of books all at once.
It feels good to see yourself on shelves among the “real” authors. Yeah, it’s a little egotistical, but dang if I didn’t love the look of this:
So yeah, there are some great reasons to sell on consignment. But I’m stopping. Here’s why:
Consignment means I’m chasing down $6 checks. Bookstores only have so much shelf space, so they often only buy 1 to 6 books at a time. This is especially true if you’re an unknown. Folks like us won’t be getting Neil Gaiman’s endcap anytime soon. So I have to keep track of how many orders of 3 books I’ve given to different bookstores. I have a spreadsheet that looks like a 2nd grader’s math homework: Pegasus 2 x 4.5 = $9. Bluestockings 8 x 4.5 = $36 Many indie bookstores are good about keeping track, but more aren’t. I stopped paying attention after my first book came out because. . .
It takes more time to track than your time is worth. Let’s say I make $3 per copy of my book sold. If I give a bookstore 4 copies of my book and they sell them all, I should expect a $12 check at some point. Let’s say I log that information in my spreadsheet and then email the store manager to remind them to pay me. That means I’ve just spent 15 minutes chasing down $12. If I have to email, then call, then email again, the call and talk to someone who doesn’t know but is happy to take a message, then email a follow up over the course of 6 months (which is a thing I just did, btw) I’ve just spent 6 months to collect $12.
I have to ship on my own dime. If I drop ship my books to Houston (meaning I place the order with my printer, who then directly ships them to Houston), I pay for all of it, and will only recoup the net from the sale of the book, minus the percentage taken by the bookstore (usually between 30% to 60%). This means I could very well sell the books at a loss, depending on the cost and payment structure.
Bookstores CAN buy my books outright, they just don’t WANT to. I’ve worked with plenty of stores who just buy my books outright. I drop ship them, give them a fair wholesale discount (which I set myself because I self-publish), and then invoice them. These orders are usually the same size as consignment orders, because, regardless, the store has faith they can move the product. In this case, the store takes on more of the risk. But they also have to do less work. No one has to track whether or not I got paid for 3 titles sold in the last quarter. All they have to do is check to see if my invoice was paid or not. They can set the retail price where ever they want, do discounts, coupons, giveaways, or whatever. It’s their book now, and I’ve already been paid.
Obviously, I’m a big fan of this last way of doing business. It takes pressure off of BOTH of us. Because even though the store takes on a bit more risk because they can’t return the books, they can cut the sale price all the way down to the wholesale price and not have to worry too much. Stores can buy small or large quantities, depending on how many titles they can move and how much storage space they have. I don’t have to manage annoying spreadsheets and deal with staff turnovers and missing books.
Authors buy groceries in increments of $3 (indie authors, at least). When I sell on consignment, each of those book sales matters and I have to track each one on its journey through independent bookstores. I love my indie bookstores. They are owned and staffed by passionate, loving people. They help get my book into the hands of passionate, loving readers. But the business of begging them to send me a check for $6 just doesn’t work for either of us. So now, if people want to carry my books, they can order through Ingram (which allows for returns), or they can order through me directly and pay up front. Generally, for this generosity, I can cut a better deal, and we can decide on a good wholesale discount together. This is one way small businesses can work together. I don’t want to feel swindled by small bookstores with too many authors to manage. And I don’t want small bookstores feeling frustrated by incremental note taking and cutting a check that’s barely worth more than the paper it’s printed on. So I’m abandoning consignment, and moving to a model that honors both our work and our time.