Working With Self-Published Authors

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In response to the growing number of self-published authors seeking shelf space at indie bookstores, savvy booksellers are establishing programs that clearly define their requirements and streamline the consignment process. Profitable programs range from a no-questions-asked spot in a store’s consignment section to an elaborate, tiered event option, including signings, readings, and publicity.

Establishing a program for self-published authors has made the experience smoother for everyone and has increased sales, said Sarah Bagby, owner of Watermark Books and Cafe in Wichita, Kansas. “Having a system in place relieves us of assessing all of the books, and it relieves us of the responsibility of having to respond to every single self-published author,” she explained.

One of Watermark’s programs simply offers a little coveted shelf space. “No questions asked, we’ll take five copies of a book on consignment,” said Bagby. The terms are 60/40, and the store keeps the books on the shelves for 90 days. “If they sell, we’ll get back to the author right away and reorder. If they don’t, the author needs to pick up their books.” Staff reconciles the section every month.  Contracts for the authors are kept at the cash wrap, and staff is trained on the programs that Watermark offers.

A second Watermark program offers tiered event options, which can cost from $50 to $500. Elements include a signing, newsletter inclusion, and front-of-store title placement, or a reading and signing, 100-postcard mailing to the author’s list, a four-color 11" x 17" poster hung in the store, and more.

Bagby finds that presenting the options as an event kit gives authors an understanding of the work that’s involved to host, promote, and staff an appearance at the store. “It basically puts a price on all of our marketing efforts,” she said. “It also gives us something to help promote their books. And the best thing about it is that we don’t have to turn anybody away.”  The event kit is also available to small presses that don’t have a co-op program.

Big sellers tend to be local history, Bagby said. “If a book is regional, interesting, and well researched, we’ll put it in the regional section rather than consignment. People want to read about where they live, and to contextualize their history. A book on jazz and vice in Wichita sold hundreds of copies.” 

Would she recommend other booksellers establish similar programs? “Absolutely,” Bagby said. “Make sure the staff is trained and knows how to make the author feel comfortable, so that it’s a good exchange for everyone. It’s really helped our public relations in terms of how we work with self-published authors.”

At Denver’s Tattered Cover Book Store, authors and small local publishers can sell their books on consignment via the Rocky Mountain Authors program. The benefits and requirements of the program as well as answers to frequently asked questions are provided on the store’s website.

A book must be professionally bound and approved by staff. Once it’s approved, a $30 administrative fee is charged, which allows Tattered Cover staff “to continue providing individualized service to the hundreds of authors and publishers [the store] supports through the program each year.” The first consignment term lasts 90 days.

If a self-published author is interested in having an event at the store, Tattered Cover explains that the title must be available for sale in the store and must have a documented history of sales before it can be considered for an event. And, with rare exception, store-sponsored events are scheduled at least two months in advance.

“Sales of self-published books are steady,” said Matt Miller, Tattered Cover’s general manager. But, as with any other inventory, some titles are more successful than others. “On one hand, they are [profitable] because we have the authors’ books on consignment. However,” he noted, “it can be very labor intensive to go through the process that we do with each author.”

Though Tattered Cover has supported local and self-published authors for decades, with the number of self-published authors increasing exponentially over the last 10 to 15 years, Miller said the store needed to standardize more of its procedures in order to accommodate the demand. “Nevertheless, we try to treat every author with the respect they deserve for their efforts and their desire to make their works available to the larger community,” he said.

Having an Espresso Book Machine [EBM] has expanded Tattered Cover’s options for self-published authors. “The Espresso Book Machine has allowed us to broaden our services for local authors to include the printing of their works as well as serving as a venue for sales,” Miller said.

Carmichael’s Bookstore, which has two locations in Louisville, Kentucky, takes a streamlined approach to dealing with self-published authors. “We will take almost anything on consignment,” said owner Carol Besse. “We’ll put it on the shelf, and sell it in the stores. We usually start out with 10 copies.”

Sales are “wildly variable,” she said. “We’ve had some consignment books that sold hundreds of copies. And some don’t sell any copies.”

Besse considers her involvement with writers in the community as an extension of her store’s mission. While the staff time involved can be significant, she said, “There’s more to what we do than the bottom line. We do it because we want the authors to feel good, and if their friends and family are walking in to buy the book, that’s a good thing. So the investment we make in it is worthwhile.”

For Lyon Books in Chico, California, the consignment policy is to “take all comers” as long as the author lives within 60 miles of the store. Currently, that represents more than 200 local authors. “This has been successful for us in terms of money and popularity,” said store owner Heather Lyon.

Consignment checks are written every two months, and the post-holiday run was more than 100 checks, totaling about $14,000.

The program is popular in-house and within the community. “The authors are, of course, delighted, and we won several community awards for supporting the arts,” Lyon said. “The fact that the books are on consignment makes it affordable for us to keep an abundant inventory. We have become well known as the place to find books by local authors and books about our region.”

Lyon Books hosts author presentations two or three times per month and is selective about which authors and books they present. “We have a robust publicity plan for our events, which includes website and e-mail announcements, press releases, events calendar listings, and in-store posters and displays,” said Lyon. “We don’t charge the authors, but if they want to add any paid advertising to the plan, we ask them to reimburse us.”

Turnout at events is good — usually around 30 to 75 people — and book sales are brisk. Each of the last three featured titles sold between 40 and 100 copies.

An annual event at Lyon Books is the Local Author Holiday Open House. Last year, 80 authors participated. “These are a lot of fun for us, and the authors love getting to know each other,” Lyon said. “We also sell lots of books at these events — maybe half are authors buying each other’s books, but also customers looking for autographed books as holiday presents.”

During the holiday season, the bookstore buys full-page color ads in the local newspapers and invites authors to chip in about $40 for a 1/20th page mini-ad featuring a 50-word blurb and thumbnail image of their book. The authors’ fees pay for the newspaper ads, and Lyon Books pays for the ad design. Lyon said, “The newspapers love the ads and the community response to them, so they give us great prices. The ads are effective; we see lots of customers bringing them in with circles around their picks. Last year, we were able to buy four full-page ads. They look amazing.”

Lyon Books also sells self-published titles online. “For some authors, we provide their only online sales venue,” Lyon explained. “While the online sales aren’t nearly as much as in store, the locally authored books make up about 2/3 of all our online sales. For self-published books, there isn’t the pressure to compete on price, so Amazon isn’t much of an issue.”

Working with local authors is “a big part of what we do,” said Lyon. Locally authored books make up about eight percent of store sales, but “our reputation for our commitment to the community is what makes up the other 92 percent,” she said.

Lyon is passionate about the program and about working with area writers. “I’m on a soapbox about this, because I know a lot of bookstore owners and managers don’t like to work with self-published authors. I think they’re missing out on the big picture ... and profits. Once you embrace it, it’s really not difficult.”

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