“So… um… dude? I went to the book store yesterday, and they didn’t have your book. They said they wouldn’t even stock it.”
And I don’t imagine they ever will, sadly. Talk to any independent author, and you’ll likely hear something similar. There’s several reasons why, and to explain further, I’ll need to dig into how brick-and-mortar bookstores operate–and how that relates to pretty much any author who isn’t sizzling his or her way through the New York Times Bestsellers List. This is bound to be a long entry, but hopefully useful. By the way: If you, dear reader, are thinking about independent publishing (or trying to get published by a small press), find a comfortable seat since you’re going to need to know this stuff, and some of what I’m about to tell you might help you decide on what goals you’d like to put into place.
Bookstores operate on a type of consignment basis, where unsold material can be returned for a refund at the retailer’s discretion. What usually happens is, the store will place an order with their distributor for whatever books they’d like to stock. These books will find self space (or be warehoused) for whatever length of time the retailer sees fit, and leftover inventory past that point can be returned to the distributor. The distributor then bills the publisher, and the publisher provides the refund.
I use two distributors. The first is Createspace, which feeds the Amazon Marketplace. They are owned by Amazon, so naturally they shake hands frequently and readily with Amazon’s Online store; books are always listed as in-stock, free Prime shipping is available, and delivery is just the way customers like it: speedy. For the rest of the world I go through IngramSpark, which gives me a listing in the Ingram database. Ingram (no relation to Scott Ingram, thanks) is important since they feed damned near any bookstore you can think of. If you’re an indie author, chances are pretty good you’re copying this model.
So in my case, Dude’s Book Store would place an order for my novels through Ingram–which is most likely where they get the majority of the other titles they stock–and be tripping over the box when it shows up less than a week later. My books would sit on their shelf until someone buys them (Yay, me!), or their time runs out and they are sent to walk the Green Mile back to Ingram for a refund.
Just one problem with that: I do not offer returns. I can’t. Here’s why.
Bookstores expect a nice discount off of retail price–which I do offer at industry-standard rates. This expectation is normal, since every retailer buys at wholesale prices and that’s really all we’re talking about here. They don’t give away books; they sell them, and each sale will ideally give them a profit. In order to price my books, I not only have to factor in the size of discount expected… I also have to factor in the price of manufacturing and distributing the books. My royalty is the last consideration, since I cannot price my books right out of their own market: of all of my considerations, royalties are the only part of that process that I have any real control over. It doesn’t leave me with much.
Let’s crunch some hypothetical numbers, here.
Let’s say it costs me $5 per copy to print and distribute a given book. In order to give the bookseller room for their expected margin, I’d have to set a retail price of about $10 for that book… but that’s if I give it away. Let’s say I decide that earning $1 of royalty is a fair amount to give myself. We’re looking at a $11 book–which, those of you who buy a lot of trade paperback books know is low-balling it a bit (on average, trade paperbacks sell for $12–$16 or more depending on size and content)–but hey, let’s just use this as an example. The bookstore pays the wholesale price of $6, which is the sum of my production/distribution costs plus my royalty.
The industry average for bookstore returns is 30%, last I heard. This means that on average, three out of every ten books ordered from Ingram would be returned. To me. At $6 a pop that I’m responsible to pay. $18. On an order I only made $10 from. This is the expected scenario, mind you–this does not factor in what happens every time someone types “55” when he meant to only order five, or what would happen in the unlikely but possible event that a big-box store orders thousands of copies. This kind of thing actually does happen–especially when an author becomes widely-known and her career takes off. I’m presently at little risk of having this happen, but I’m in business for myself and have to think long-term about all sorts of possible “what ifs.” So do you, if you’re an author who is reading this.
So now we’re down to business decisions. Booksellers have their way of doing things, right along with their own reasons for doing so. Right or wrong, I’m not in the position to say–I write and make my work available, they sell it. From my end, obviously a business model which revolves solely around paperback sales to brick-and-mortar bookstores is a clear losing battle. If I was a major publisher, I could still gamble because of having hundreds of library sales (libraries do not tend to return what they’ve purchased), thousands of e-book sales (e-books are usually not refunded unless someone bought the wrong thing or there were formatting errors present), and the benefit of using an off-set printer (which dramatically lowers the cost of printing each book). I’m not. While I am making sales, they don’t come close to even allowing me to flirt with that risk. Which leaves me with two choices:
- Do not offer returns. While the booksellers can certainly offer their own returns programs to customers, those programs are not connected to me. Book stores can absolutely still order my work at discounts they expect… but if they stock me, they’ll have to do so by ordering sensibly.
- Give myself enough in royalties to reasonably absorb the risk. Unfortunately, this would mean charging the reader more since the retail price is tied to the book’s ISBN. I’d not only be punishing readers from Online sources (who are unlikely to return my books), I’d be giving them less of a reason to take a chance on me in the first place, should this be our first meeting. I write a lot about guns. I don’t know why I’d aim one at my own foot. Or yours.
So no, I don’t offer returns. Bookstores can still get my novels to you by way of special orders, but it’s doubtful that you’ll see me stocked on their shelves. Some might do it–but if they do, they would be the exception, not the rule. There’s nearly one million novels published every year, and there’s only so much shelf space. In their position, I don’t blame them for choosing titles that they can return in the event that they just don’t sell. I’m minimizing my risk, so I can’t sling mud at a business which is minimizing theirs.
At present, I’ve heard of some booksellers who scoff at the idea of special orders and simply re-direct the customer to the store’s website, where my work is happily listed right next to everyone else’s. That’s well and good, I suppose–it’s available and ready when you are.
Since I’m in business for not only myself but also for you, dear reader, I’m constantly evaluating the most mutually-beneficial methods for getting my work into your hands. Flexibility is pretty much the nature of the beast here. It could be that I’ll decide on an Online-only presence… or it could mean that things stay as they are. It could mean changing vendors and negotiating agreements with sellers. No matter what, you’ll always stay up-to-date by visiting this site and following the links provided for each book, and of course sipping some coffee with me on this blog.
For doing so today, I raise my mug in a toast of thanks.