Booksellers: Want to partner with authors? Lower your percentage.
Independent authors and indie booksellers — they’re natural partners, right? They should be.
Both work hard to reach new customers, the former struggling in a market dominated by writers published by the Big 5. The latter, meanwhile, must constantly reinvent themselves to attract shoppers who’d otherwise visit a chain store or “Proceed to checkout” online. As part of their outreach, many shop owners invite local authors for in-store events. These mainly feature writers who are published (oh, the irony) by Amazon’s KDP platform. No doubt this irks booksellers, but they invite these authors anyway. Why? Because locally owned businesses must constantly expand their customer base to survive, and authors are highly motivated to bring friends, family, and followers to their book signings. During these events, however, a fundamental inequity prompts authors to give a forced smile while they stand arm in arm with booksellers, presenting a united front for Instagram. I speak of the standard consignment deal.
Let’s explore this.
The typical arrangement has the retailer taking 40% of sales. Now, I get it, bookstores have high overhead and low profit margins. But let’s look at the author’s expenses just to bring their books to the shop. Many, including yours truly, order their own books from Amazon because Prime members get free delivery. My cost per paperback (pre-tax) is typically $10.79 which is about two dollars less than the list price. If I sold you an autographed copy in person, I’d charge $15 and make a profit of $4.21 — most of the cost of a grande cappuccino. Yay for me.
But many bookstores are uncomfortable charging that much for a paperback, autographed or not. They would prefer the standard list price of $12.99. Now if I sell ten copies for $129.90 total and you take 40%, that’s $51.96 going into your register while I get $77.94. My cost for ordering ten copies was $107.90 so the standard deal is clearly a money-loser for me. And yet, many booksellers continue to act like we don’t know their worst kept secret: They select authors for events based on the number of new customers we’re likely to bring. You’ve tacitly acknowledged our power to promote. So, can’t we find another way to partner up?
I think we can agree that most customers are price sensitive, and we shouldn’t alienate them by charging more than standard list. So, I will take off the table any value associated with my autograph. What’s your compromise?
How about you reduce your percentage to 25%? Let’s do the numbers again. If I sell ten copies for $129.90, a quarter percent means you’ll get $32.48 and I get $97.42. I’m still losing money having spent $107.90 to buy my books from Amazon, but I’ll call it even if you give me a coffee.
Not happy with $32.48? Think about what it would cost to run an ad in the paper. You probably know that a typical modular ad costs $50 while a full-page one would set you back a grand in many markets. An indie author, however, will share news of an upcoming appearance several times on social media (often with photos and videos) and alert those subscribed to their email lists. What’s more, many authors belong to informal networks that mutually share news of writers’ events. If you define a good day as seeing a dozen new customers walk into your store, know that a typical author can do that for you.
I recognize that many bookstore owners will insist on charging 40% no matter what I say. If this is you, understand that I will actively seek other booksellers for events and encourage my fellow writers to do the same. In addition, your store will disappear from my social media pages to make room for competing retailers that are more reasonable. 40% may be sustainable in the short term, but I’ll remind you that the books you sell do not appear magically out of thin air. Authors are your business. Having us on your side will pay dividends — if you trust us to bring the customers to you.