June 23, 2011

Print on Demand Publishing, part 4

In my last post on POD (Print on Demand) publishing, I wrote about two decisions self-published authors need to make: choosing a publisher and pricing the book. In this post, I focus on getting a self-published book into a bookstore, which can be a daunting task. For the freelance editors reading, this knowledge is primarily useful in that you’ll better understand what your self-published clients are taking on. You might also help them by suggesting they first take an inventory of the self-published books they own, and identify how they found them. This will help them develop a promotion plan, which may be another service you can provide to support authors.

Selling to Bookstores
Every author wants to walk into a bookstore and see a pile of their books displayed on a table, but most self-published authors are unlikely to see this happen.

Why? If the book is well-written, well-edited, and well-designed, why shouldn’t it be treated like the books published by traditional publishers? The answer lies in understanding the business of bookstores.

I worked for a Seattle bookstore, Red and Black Books, in the 1990s, just as the publishing world was starting to shift. In those days, publishers had book reps they sent out to peddle their wares to individual bookstores. The reps knew our store, our customers, and our book buyers’ taste. They would show up having read many of the books they represented, they would have a catalog with many of the books circled, and they would have ARCs (advance review copies) in their briefcases. Each rep would page through their catalog, pointing out books we might like, then leave the catalog for the buyers to read. There were always more catalogs and ARCs than time to read them. But the book buyers worked hard, reading books and reviews, scanning catalogs, and observing what the customers requested and bought.

At about the same time the big chain stores opened in Seattle, publishers started laying off the book reps. In the chain stores, buying was done by computer and based solely on prior sales. Pity the poor author whose first book sold few copies; no store would order his or her second book. If an author was new, well, there might be some hope if the book was similar to another book that had sold well … My friend Curt Colbert made friends with the booksellers at Barnes & Noble, and they loved his noir mystery series (it began with Rat City), but they still couldn’t order the book until they got permission from the national office, as all the book buying was centralized.

(Authors who self-publish really don’t want to have their books purchased by the major chains like Barnes & Noble. These types of bookstores order in bulk—say, 1,000 copies—and then return the books they don’t sell. The author will be paying for those books if they come back.)

The arrival of Amazon triggered another set of major changes in the book selling business. Amazon’s strategy is simple: they will offer a book at a lower price than any other seller. Sometimes this means Amazon will sell a book for less than they paid for it. Amazon can afford to lose money on sales of books (and other media) because they make money selling other items. And Amazon is focused on the customer. By cutting out the middlemen—both the distributors who sell to the bookstores and the bookstores themselves—Amazon can offer a good deal to both the reader and the author.

Amazon finally dealt a death blow to Red and Black Books (and many other independent bookstores). We all loved to hate Amazon at the time, but since then my attitude has softened. I still buy books from my local independent bookstore, but I use Amazon to buy out-of-print and used books, and for bibliographic research. I think Amazon has been smart: creating a community around books with reader feedback and making it easy (one click) for the reader to purchase a book, although I do worry about their tremendous power (especially the news that they are opening a publishing branch).

Most self-published authors should love Amazon, because it does make it easy to sell books and find an audience. And if the author prices the book correctly, and doesn’t make it available through other channels, Amazon is a great choice.

A bookstore is not. And here’s why.

A bookstore like Elliott Bay Book Company carries about 150,000 books (at Amazon, a search for fiction turns up over a million titles). Imagine that every bookstore had to deal with every author to order every book on their shelves. Elliott Bay’s book buyers would have to talk or email with around 300 authors every day (no days off). One buyer at a local bookstore said she got over 1,000 emails a day, and deleted almost all of them. And, because most self-published authors are not businesspeople, the book buyers would likely have to deal with flaky order processing (where are those books we ordered five weeks ago?) and invoicing (we got a bill for 12 books but only received 11). Finally, bookstores regularly return unsold books for a full refund. Imagine if they had to box up and send back books to 100,000 different authors. Impossible!

Most bookstores rely on distributors to provide them with books. And some POD publishers provide distribution of self-published books through the big national distributors, Ingram and Baker & Taylor. That means a customer can go into a bookstore and place a special order for a self-published book. But a bookstore is unlikely to order the book for their shelves, unless they can be returned (if unsold) and are offered at the standard discount (of 40%). 

Some distributors, like Publishers Group West, represent books published by small presses. Some self-published authors have also banded together—such as Seattle’s Book Publishers Northwest, a branch of the Independent Book Publishers Association—to publicize their books and share knowledge. And new businesses are springing up to cater to self-publishers, like Small Press United, which offers distribution and publicity services to small publishers.

The Northwest has a great local distributor in Partners West. But imagine 100,000 authors trying to convince Partners West to distribute their books by showering them with emails and flyers. I know one self-published author who convinced Partners West to carry her book, but she had a personal contact, and she launched her book with several well-attended readings at local bookstores, at which she sold more than 100 books.

The good news is that local, independent bookstores are often happy to stock local authors’ books, so make friends with the buyers at your local bookstore. Some local independent bookstores have special policies for self-published books. I liked this one I found for Tattered Cover (in Denver and online), which helps set standards self-published authors can follow.

Karen Allman at Elliott Bay Book Company said they are most successful at selling self-published books if the author is local, does promotion for the book, sends people to them to buy it, and writes a type of book that sells well at the store. She said they have the most success with books on some aspect of Northwest history; fiction, self-help, poetry, children’s literature and parenting books do not do so well at their store.

The best bet for getting a self-published book into bookstores is to make it a bestseller with a brilliant promotion plan, the subject of my next blog post.

Other Financial Matters
Authors who choose to become a publisher are also responsible for getting a business license, collecting sales tax, and sending taxes to the appropriate governmental entities. This has gotten even more complicated recently for authors who are selling online. (Believe me, you don’t even want to know how complicated!)

That’s why it’s great to have a POD company that tracks sales and pays the author a commission or a royalty, usually on a monthly basis. Every month, I get money deposited into my bank account from Amazon and transferred into my Paypal account by Lulu. The amounts are small, but over the course of four years, I’ve made a profit of $2,000 on Slow Time and sold 888 copies with very little effort on my part.

—Waverly Fitzgerald

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