Bookselling Today: A Cautionary Tale

Something happened the other day that I’d like your input on. It’s not a happy story for any of the players, and, yes, I am one of them. But I think it is indicative of the radical changes in bookselling, and the shift in the balance of power.

I was invited by a library to do a talk and signing. The library contacted an independent bookstore to sell my books. As you know, I am traditionally published author with seven novels out. ALL of them are still in print. (I have also e-published three works: a novel, a novella, and a collection of short stories.)

One of my seven traditionally published books is POD, (print on demand). Which means books are printed as needed. No inventory to speak of. No books lying around warehouses. For some reason, booksellers believe you can not return POD books. That is just plain untrue. When I signed my contract with my publisher, I specifically required that the books be returnable, because booksellers seemed to think otherwise. And, sorry to say, some of the copies of SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE indeed HAVE been returned. I’m not happy about it, but – hey – that’s the way it goes.

So, I got an email from the independent bookseller who’s going to sell books at the library event. They asked me to supply all seven books myself and bring them to the library. They would then sell them for me and take a 40% commission.

Yup. They wanted 40% of the cover price on books that I was bringing, that I was hauling into the library, that I was setting up.

Now, before we go on, I should tell you that standard operating procedure in bookstores used to be that authors who weren’t normally stocked in that bookstore could supply books to the store on consignment. The typical consignment fee was 40%. BUT… this was an event in a library, not a bookstore. And all my books are widely available, can be stocked, and even returned if necessary.  There is no reason that I can see why the store could not order my books. I told them that. They still refused.

As you might imagine, I was not happy. I emailed them again and said that I might accept a 40% consignment fee if they stocked some of my books. They said no. Then I got angry. At this point, we were on the phone.

“Hold on. You want 40 per cent for what? I’m bringing the books. I’m bringing them inside. What are you doing to deserve 40%?”

“We’re making the venue available to you,” she said.

“No you’re not,” I said. “The library is.”

“Well, we’re doing publicity,” she said.

“No you’re not. The library is.”

“Well, if you don’t agree, we won’t sell your books,” she said.

“Ok,” I said. “I’ll get someone else to sell them.”

“If you do that,” she said, “We’ll pull out of the event altogether.”

I would have said fine, but there’s another author involved. And I really like librarians, especially the one who set up the event.

So I said, “I don’t want you to pull out, but I’m only prepared to give you 20%.”

There was no reason in the world for me to offer even that much, except that I realized the dire straits independent bookstores are in these days.  And I have always preferred to deal with indie booksellers. This woman replied that she would talk it over with her boss, but she didn’t think it would fly.

So… that’s where we are. Clearly, something has to give. I’ll let you know what happens. But now that I’ve calmed down, I feel badly about the situation. I know this bookstore is probably only just surviving, if that. But so am I. And so are a lot of other authors, whose once promising careers are now uncertain.

At the same time, though, this shows – at least to me – how much the balance of power has shifted to the author. I’m fully prepared to supply my own books. The library can get someone to handle the money. I don’t need to give up 40 per cent of the cover price, just because that’s the way it used to be done.

What do you think??


END OF STORY?: After a few more emails back and forth, the bookseller says they have ordered my books after all and will sell them at the event. That’s good news. However, they did say they would only have limited quantities and that if I wanted to supplement their stock, it would be at the 40% commission to them. Hmmm…were they not listening to anything I said??? The event is next weekend. Will let you know.