Adding to the Bottom Line With Self-Published Titles

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Although "growth market" may not apply to much these days, one area of burgeoning sales for some indie booksellers is self-published titles. According to Bowker, from 2007 to 2008 there was a 132-percent jump in the number of new books published by print-on-demand companies. While dealing with the increasing number of self-published authors may present a challenge for some time-strapped booksellers, others have found that with clearly established policies and procedures in place self-published titles are a way to generate revenue, good PR, and store exposure.

Bob's Beach Books in Lincoln City, Oregon, has found a mutually beneficial way of dealing with the dozens of local self-published authors who approach the bookstore each year. Bob's launched the Northwest Author Fair, a large outdoor event, which attracts a few hundred attendees, said store manager Diana Portwood. "It's fun, and it's our best event of the year, which is pretty good for 42 authors most people have never heard of."

All authors can participate in the fair, which includes a mix of self-published authors as well as authors published by established houses. "Basically, we provide advertising, tables, chairs, and light refreshments, and we ask for [a percentage] of sales," said Portwood. "It's a way for authors who wouldn't get an event to have an event. And it's a way for the community to meet some really interesting authors. We do try to get a couple of big name authors, and we also try to include different genres."

One of the event's goals is that everyone sells a book. This year, despite the economy, sales were better than ever. A local wine store volunteered to donate wine for the event, and Bob's mentioned them as a sponsor in radio and print ads. The store also reminds authors to help promote the event on their own websites and to their friends.

At the 20,000-square-foot Boulder Bookstore in Boulder Colorado, Arsen Kashkashian said self-published books are "definitely a growth market for us." After getting "inundated" with local authors looking to sell their self-published books, the bookstore instituted a policy and fee structure loosely modeled on publishers' co-op policies. Self-published books are taken on consignment, and authors are charged a basic one-time stocking fee of $25. The fee goes up from there for a book's newsletter placement, website promotion, etc. There is also a fee for participation at events, which usually feature several authors who divide the cost. As long as the book looks professionally bound, Boulder Bookstore will accept it on consignment. By the end of the year, Boulder will stock about 100 self-published titles on its shelves.

Boulder's fee structure offers the additional bonus of creating a self-selection process. "Most people are happy to pay," said Kashkashian. "And most will pay a higher fee than our base stocking fee for marketing placement in our newsletter or on our webpage." Self-published authors who have spent a good deal of time writing theirs books and getting them professionally printed, only to find no one is willing to sell them, welcome the opportunity Boulder Bookstore provides. To have their books stocked and promoted is a valued service, and some self-published authors do sell a lot of books. "We just had a signing with a guy last night," said Kashkashian. "He sold 130 books. His book will stay at the front of the store, just like a Random House title."

Many customers purchasing self-published titles are sent directly to Boulder by the authors. "The authors have a whole network of people in town that they send to Boulder Books," said Kashkashian. "Many of those might not be regular customers, so it exposes them to the store, and creates wonderful PR in the community. It's really positive for us."

The books also help round out Boulder's inventory. Kashkashian noted that self-published books are of a much higher quality than 10 or 15 years ago, and they often hit a niche that books from the big houses can't. "There is opportunity to get odd little books that really appeal to a local audience.... That's a real benefit to us. It makes the store more interesting."

Viewpoint Books in Columbus, Indiana, also carries self-published books on consignment and has seen a positive effect on sales. The store also gained new customers from happy authors. "We will accept almost any local author's book, with few exceptions," said store co-owner Terry Whittaker. "However, we explain to the author that books are almost always purchased returnable. This includes major publishers and bestselling authors like J.K. Rowling.... Most self-published authors have no idea about the returnability of books, and when they realize you are not singling them out, they will accept this."

Viewpoint asks all self-published authors to sign a consignment agreement, which stipulates that the bookstore will keep the books on its shelves for six months and will evaluate whether to keep the book past that time. A note on the consignment form clearly states that any books left longer than one year become the property of the bookstore.

While accepting self-published books usually builds goodwill, sometimes there's some PR fallout, said Whitaker. "Negative reactions from refusing authors can be problematic; stocking books and having disappointing sales can be a negative experience for the author."

At Inkwood Books in Tampa, Florida, where self-published books have not been especially successful, co-owners Carla Jimenez and Leslie Reiner have put the store policy on a flier to help keep negative reactions to a minimum. The flier explains that the bookstore receives a high number of books to review, and that "no bookstore can carry every published title, whether from a major publisher's list or self-published by a local author, and many factors influence booksellers' decisions." Authors are welcome to leave a copy of their book, but are warned that they might not get a quick reply or have the book returned, and that Inkwood will contact the author should they choose to carry it. The flier includes a form that the author signs and leaves with the store with title and contact information, and this also serves as an agreement that the book becomes the bookstore's property.

At The Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, Vermont, owner Linda Ramsdell borrowed from the Inkwood Bookstore flier to draft her "Independent Author Policy," which is printed on company letterhead. Selling the approximately 25 self-published titles that Galaxy stocks has been, overall, a positive thing, said Ramsdell. "In some cases we have seen high sales that make up for the higher costs associated with self-published books. In the case of a couple of local poets, we have sold 38 copies and 71 copies of their volumes. In the case of another, we sell one or two a year."

Galaxy's experience with the success of events for self-published authors has been varied. "Some authors are great speakers and have a great following of people who are impelled to buy books -- others aren't," Ramsdell said. "It hasn't had so much to do with how the book was published."

Ramsdell believes strongly that "if bookstores are asking their community to support local business, bookstores should also support local authors, however they are published." For booksellers considering stocking self-published books or developing their program further, she offered the following advice:

  • Have a clear, written policy to present to authors who show up with books in hand. Authors will be very excited about what they have done and eager to tell you all about it. They will often have no idea how the business part of selling their book works, no established terms, etc. You will likely have much more profitable ways to spend your time than helping them figure it out. I have found that consignment terms and a form makes the process somewhat more efficient and keeps most people, booksellers and authors, relatively satisfied.

  • Develop a good system for paying for the books that sell, and clearing out the books that don't. Much easier said than done. But without a clear system and policy there is no good way to deal with the author that comes in randomly to check on sales and ask for payment.

  • Try to stand firm and stick to the policies you adopt. Every self-published author will likely have their own way of presenting their book and terms. If the bookstore establishes terms that most authors can adopt, everyone can benefit.

--Karen Schechner