A teacher wrote in saying he didn’t want to sell his books to students directly but, instead, wanted a local bookstore to handle the sales for him. He asked for my advice on how to do this. My response was that this would likely only work with a small, local bookstore and that they would probably only agree to a consignment deal.
Bookstores buy in a variety of ways. Here are the most common types of transactions:
1. The most common scenario is when the bookstore buys the books up front from a distributor, or from the publisher directly, and then stocks, and sells the books to their customers. Of course, they almost always want to be able to return books and an increasing number of publishers are, not surprisingly, starting to shun the returns practice.
2. They accept a special order for a book, either by phone or in person, order that book from the distributor or publisher, and then hold the book for the customer. Many bookstores now request payment up front from customers for special orders because of a scam a few years ago that involved self-published authors placing fake orders at bookstores. They then wouldn’t pick up (and, of course, pay for) those orders, hoping the bookstore would give up on the “customer”, and shelf the book. Bookstores (including Barnes and Noble) quickly caught on to the scam and complained to publishers about their unruly authors. Some authors ended up losing their publishing contracts from participating in this scam, including authors who swore they were innocent. (“It wasn’t me! It was my PR person/secretary/sister/insert-any-scapegoat-here!”). After one of our authors got caught doing this (his contract was instantly terminated), we told Barnes and Noble we would no longer accept returns of special-order titles because they could easily kill the scam entirely by simply requiring prepayment on special orders. Just plain old common sense, right?! We never heard another peep from Barnes and Noble about the scam.
3. An increasingly popular scenario is when a bookstore buys the books on consignment.
Under consignment, the bookstore doesn’t pay for the books until/unless they sell. I’ve been teaching authors how to offer a consignment deal to bookstores for the past several years and it usually works out just fine for the author and for the store. Bookstores literally have nothing to lose (they don’t even have to pay anything up front) and authors are getting their books into local stores. Many of these authors get their books stocked on the “local author” shelves at their neighborhood bookstores and can even get their books on the front counter, depending on how well they promote themselves to the store’s owner or manager. Of course, consignment works for many different types of retailers, not just bookstores!
Some authors simply stop in once a month, check to see how many books are left on display, and invoice the store for the books that have sold. Other authors are kept abreast of sales by the store manager, and receive checks on a regular basis. Of course, this would only happen with a very small store. The large stores have too much red tape in their accounting departments for the store manager or a clerk to track sales of specific items.
The downside of a consignment contract is books can get damaged by customers thumbing through them, and are sometimes damaged to the point where they are unsellable. So, if the author must collect unsold books at some point to sell elsewhere, they may not be fit to sell. Occasionally, an author gets stiffed by a store on a consignment deal so I recommend only dropping off a handful of books, not an entire case.
Offering a consignment deal to the store will probably give you the best chance of having them carry it. Simply offer to have them sell it on a consignment basis, and tell them you can check in every month or two to see if any have sold. Tell them you can then bill them for any copies that are no longer on the shelf. The appeal to a store owner or manager is that they need to take almost no action, and spend no up-front money, to get your book on their shelf. The easier you make this transaction for them, the better chance you’ll have of being stocked by the store. When you deliver the books, you must bring two copies of a consignment agreement with you for them and you to sign. There are tons of these online. Search for these three words in your favorite search engine (without any quotes): sample consignment agreement
Your agreement should contain a clause that specifies they will pay you for all copies that no longer appear on their shelf. Otherwise, they could claim copies were “stolen”, and not pay you for those. They could also claim copies were “damaged and discarded”, and try to not pay you for those. Anything that happens in that store to your books is not, and should not, be your responsibility. That is more than fair. One option for protecting books being sold on consignment is to put a sticker labeled “SAMPLE” on one book, and then shrink-wrap the remaining ones. Having a book labeled “SAMPLE” is actually a pretty tempting hook to get people to pick up and thumb through your book.
Also, since you are selling directly to the store, you are free to set your own discounts for that store, which, with self-published books, will probably be more favorable for them than if they’d bought your book directly from the publisher or distributor.
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