The brick and mortar conundrum for indie authors

Hello again, everyone! Welcome to fall and the Halloween edition of the Manifesto!

Today we’re discussing what has long since been the great unicorn for most indie authors- — brick and mortar book sales. I use that metaphor because, like the unicorn, most indie authors have heard that bookstore sales exist, but few if any have every actually seen them.

Before we get started, though, I did want to take a sec to remind all of my Carolina peeps that this weekend marks the return of HonorCon to the Hilton North Raleigh-Midtown, Friday, Oct. 31, though Sunday, Nov. 2.

HonorCon is a science fiction convention held annually in Raleigh to celebrate achievements in the genre of military scifi. Guests this year include the likes of David Weber (THE HONOR HARRINGTON SERIES) and Timothy Zahn (STAR WARS: THE THRAWN TRILOGY) among others.

I myself will be doing a panel on indie publishing with my colleague, Chris Kennedy (THE THEOGONY) in Room D on Friday at 5pm, so hope to see you all there!

FYI, for those who can’t attend, you can view the slides from our presentation on my website’s For Writers page.

Okay, let’s get on to the meat n’ taters of this puppy, shall we?

The Backdrop

Like many indies, I knew when I started out that I wanted to offer my book in paperback. And why not? For one, it’s just one more platform to make money on, and for another, what author DOESN’T want to see his or her work in printed form?

I was also quite cognizant, however, that sans the help of a major publisher, I’d never have the resources to print a thousand copies of my work for the purposes of trying to flip them for profit.

… Enter the world of Print On Demand (POD) Publishing!!!

How does POD work?

POD is a glorious thing because it gives your readers the option to purchase your work in paperback form—albeit at a few bucks more per unit—but in a way that precludes you, the publisher, from paying any overhead. In a nutshell, if a reader wants a paperback, he or she simply logs onto Amazon, B&N, etc. and clicks the “buy” button, at which time the company prints a single unit, mails it out to the customer, then deducts that order’s production and royalty costs from the retail price before sending you the rest.

As POD services go, there are tons to choose from, but only two that really matter:

CreateSpace: A subsidiary of Amazon
Ingram Spark via Lightning Source

I know some might say that Lulu and or BookBaby are good ways to go, but I’ve never dealt with either, nor have I ever heard a good story about their services from those who have. Just sayin’…

Which POD service is better?

CreateSpace is pretty much a must. Now I know there’s a lot of hate out there for Amazon these days, but frankly there’s a reason why they’re the 800-poud gorilla where sales are concerned. Thus, as an indie, you can’t afford to not be on Amazon. There’s just one problem with that… outside of Amazon, and in some case B&N, no one else will order from CreaseSpace BECAUSE it’s owned by the aforementioned gorilla that seeks to put them all out of business.

Enter Ingram Spark via Lightning Source whom EVERYONE ELSE orders from.

NOTE: It also bears mentioning that both companies give authors the option of selling their works at a discounted rate to bookstores and venders — a must if you hope to get carried. Before you reach that point, though, you’ll want to purchase your own ISBN from Bowker and make sure NOT to utilize Amazon’s expanded distribution feature.

So… now that you’ve gone through all of that work (and financial investment if you had your books professionally formatted), you’re good to go, right? You’re on Amazon; you’ve opened a Spark account for your local bookstore on the corner; you’ve offered all at a discount to make them as cheap as possible for everyone involved… now it’s all about building business relationships with your local venders, right?

Well, as my buddy, Lee Corso of EPSN’s College Gameday would say, “Not so fast, my friend!”

See, there’s just one little problem: Bookstore owners, and rightfully so, want the option to return books that don’t sell to the publishers who printed them… publishers, which in this case, means you. Not Amazon/CreateSpace or Ingram Spark/Lightning Source… you.

Example: let’s say John Smith Bookstore in Raleigh wanted to stock 10 copies of my book, MAKO, in their store using the $10 discounted purchase price I offered them through Ingram Spark — a price that netted me somewhere around 15 cents per book after Spark’s production and royalty fees were deducted. (Gotta spend money to make money, right?)

Fast-forward three months, and Smith has only sold 1 copy of MAKO, at which time the store opts to return the other nine for a total value of $90. I, not Ingram Spark, am obligated to repay that amount, even though I made less than $1 on the entire transaction.

See where this gets sticky if you’re an indie?

Of course, the simple solution would be to set up your Spark account with non-returnable books, which authors are certainly entitled to do. However, as one local vender told me, 95% of most bookstores won’t even look at you, much less consider stocking your books because you’re name isn’t a proven sales brand and they don’t want to get left holding the bag for unsold units.

So what’s the answer?

Sadly, right now there isn’t one, which, sad to say, means that as an indie, seeing your book on physical shelves should in no way be a priority to you. Offer a non-returnable POD option then concentrate all of your efforts on selling e and audio books since those will bring in 95-99% of your revenue. That sucks, I know, because like a lot of you, it really does mean something to me to support, and be supported by, my local stores. But if they won’t work with me, then I, as a business person, need to focus on working with those who will… and that, dear brick and mortar stores with your endless tales of falling fiscal skies, is Amazon.

Bloggers Note: I have seen where some bookstores are beginning to stock “local author sections,” and I’d definitely encourage any author who can get in on that to take full advantage of it where possible. Even if it only means they purchased one copy of your book, they still PURCHASED one copy of your book. So reward that. Throw them the occasional tweet or Facebook post, and take the extra second to plug in their corresponding handle or hashtag so people can find them straight out of your text. Con-goers, let fans know that they can find your work on shelves at those locations. Anything that shows the vender, “Hey, thanks for supporting me. Now let me return the favor as best I can.”

It’s all about mutuality, folks.

Ta ta for now! Hope everyone has a wonderful and safe Halloween this weekend, and can’t wait to see a lot of you at HonorCon!



PS – Should have my first round of editor feedback on RED SKY DAWNING within the next couple of weeks. From there, it’s on to line edit then to a proofread then to formatting. All told, the second book in the #MakoSaga is set for an early 2015 release.

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