Scarlet Letters

The not-so-private thoughts and rants of Elizabeth Donald, journalist/author and founder of the Literary Underworld.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Ye Olde Book Tour... how does it work again?

This post started life as an email to a friend who was getting ready for his first bookstore signing and had some questions. Unfortunately, I had my phone on silent all day for a journalism conference, and I missed it. My apologies to my friend for the laaaaate reply.

Then I realized this might be useful to other new authors. His question was about bookstore signings, and how they work. And my answer is an unsatisfying "it depends."

• There's the traditional model. For major chain bookstores, and a large number of independents, it's the preferred choice. The bookstore orders copies of your books in advance from Ingram (sometimes Baker & Taylor, but they really like Ingram). They have the books on hand for your signing, and you show up with a pen. The readers buy the book from them. Eventually they pay the distributor and your publisher, and your publisher pays you your regular royalty.

This model is the time-tested standard, but it has some problems. If you're self-published, good luck on getting the signing in the first place. If you're published through a small press that doesn't use Ingram, they might or might not book you, depending on the level of hassle they'll face in ordering your books. (In one famous case, the bookstore trying to order my books was told the discount was only 5 percent. They ordinarily discount all new books 10 percent. My signing would have caused them to lose money. So I struck a deal with them directly.)

If the bookstore can't return the books to your publisher, they're probably going to turn you down. No returns means that if they order 40 books and sell three, they have to eat the cost. Not only will they never book you again, but it's embarrassing as hell. Unless they're willing to consider...

• The new model. You provide the books, either in advance or on the day of the signing. The bookstore sets up the display, people buy them at the register, and then bring them to you to sign. After the signing, you collect the unsold books (plus or minus a few for their stock) and the bookstore cuts you a check, minus their commission. This can vary from 10 to 40 percent. I would never agree to more than that, save once, and that was an unusual situation.

Note: You must negotiate this in advance! If you skate along happy on your cloud that a real live bookstore accepted you, you will be very unhappy to show up and find out they want a 50 percent cut and you will receive less per book than you paid for them. Frankly, I usually can't do 40 percent either, because that's often my whole discount. However, since the bookstore isn't risking anything in this model, they'll often split the difference to a nice even 20 percent.

Most of the time the bookstores cut me a check on site; in a few occasions they do the books later and mail me a check. When it was a small family-owned store in Memphis, I got the check within 10 days. When it was the Atlanta Borders.... not so much. Seven years and counting, they still owe me $175. Dear Borders: I want my money!

Downside of this model and the next: You provide the books. That means unless your contract says otherwise, you're paying the wholesale rate for those books in advance. You're investing in stock, so you hope that pays off. Order wisely, friends.

• The true indie model: The bookstore hosts you, but you sell your books directly. You set up your stock, the customer gives you money, you sign. At the end of the day, you give the bookstore the agreed-upon percentage.

Most bookstores don't like this model, because they want to encourage people to buy their existing stock as impulse buys along with your book. That's the real value of a signing for them: feet in the door. It is most common in very small stores, used bookstores and places that don't sell books as their primary product, like coffeehouses or specialty shops. Sometimes these venues don't even ask for a percentage; they allow you to set up as a way to gain free advertising and get more feet in the door.

The latter two models are the ones that really make the most sense for you financially, if you're a small-press author. For one thing: they don't require setting it up six months in advance, which is probably the best plan for the traditional model. There's less pressure, since no one is losing a fortune if you only sell a few books.

And, of course, there's the issue of royalties vs. hand sales. I've sung this song before, but the fact is that on a book-by-book basis, you will make more money selling your books yourself than you will through your small-press publisher. Until you land a publisher that has the distribution and marketing capability to get your books nationally and internationally distributed among bookstores, the small press author does better selling them herself: 7 percent royalty vs. 40 percent profit margin on hand sales, for the typical contract.

The latter two models allow you to take advantage of that, to a certain extent. Twenty percent still beats 7 percent on any spreadsheet I've ever developed. Of course, you have to balance the costs of transportation and maybe housing, but that's the cost-benefit analysis you develop after years of selling boxes of books out of the back of your car.

This is on my mind again this year, of course, because we're deep into planning the year and I'm faced with the usual conundrum: cons don't pay off unless they pay your way, no matter how much fun they are, which is why many artists and authors I know are cutting back or eliminating cons from their schedules. Personal appearances and whistlestop tours are the key to getting your books out there, along with ebooks.

Or so I'm hoping, because Ariane is looking for places to visit in her inaugural tour season...

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Friday, February 14, 2014

Mr. Romantic

HIM: *pokes head up into office* I'm about to go to work.
ME: Uh huh.
HIM: What?
ME: Remember about two hours ago, when I said there was inventory to be done? And you conveniently vanished?
HIM: *grins* Well.
ME: Yeeeeah. There's still inventory to be done. And it has to be done before the convention next weekend.
HIM: We can do it this weekend.
ME: Oh yeah? When?
HIM: Tomorrow, before I go to work.
ME: I'm at the journalism conference tomorrow.
HIM: Oh yeah. Well, Sunday then.
ME: *stares*
HIM: What?
ME: Really?
HIM: ... What?
ME: You forgot.
HIM: What are we doing Sunday?
ME: You really forgot.
HIM: What did I forget?
ME: Uh uh. I'm not bailing you out. You just sit there and remember.
HIM: ...Are we going on a date?
ME: Remember when we decided that we would go on a date every month and take turns as to who planned the date? And remember a month ago, when we realized that Valentine's Day was on a Friday when you're working, and we thought we'd go out Saturday but I had the conference? So we said we'd celebrate Valentine's Day on Sunday, and it's an even month so it's your turn to plan the date?
HIM: Um.
ME: Yeah. Good planning, sparky.
HIM: Well! We'll... we'll ditch the boy, go out to dinner at 54th Street, and then go see the romantic time-traveler movie.
ME: Oh really? And we're paying for it with good looks and charm, of course.
HIM: Of course.
ME: You wanted to do inventory on our Valentine's Day date.
HIM: You are not going to post that, are you?
ME: Oh yes.
HIM: Noooooo!
ME: See, everyone thinks you're the super-romantic Perfect ManTM, and they have no idea that it's all a sham, and you're really the same clueless male as all the rest of the guys who didn't notice the giant freaking Valentine's Day signs for the last six weeks.
HIM: ... I love you.


Friday, February 07, 2014

In which I argue with a dinosaur...

To be fair, I wasn't intending to fire the St. Louis Science Center. Instead, all my friends are fired.

The science center showed Back to the Future in the IMAX theater tonight, and I had no idea it was happening. I would totally have ditched my lame "writing and doing taxes" plans for that, and made an evening of it with the boy.

Of course, I usually receive press releases from SLSC, and follow their Twitter... so it's a tad surprising I missed this. Still, it's a lot more fun to blame my friends on Twitter... forgetting who might be listening.

@edonald: @slsc is showing Back to the Future tonight, and none of you TOLD ME! You're all fired.
@slsc: It's usually pretty hard to to fire a T.rex. Hard to find a replacement. #extinct
@edonald: Fair point. I try never to argue with a T.rex anyway. #yessir
@slsc: Good conclusion. #foodchain

The T.rex is listening...


All right, what's he up to?

I know, this blog has turned into "bizarre things my kid says," but it's that or subjecting you to endless ruminations about car troubles and writer's block.

ME: Hey, spawn. Put away the clean dishes before you go to bed.
BOY: Okay Mom. Thank you.
ME: ... For what?
BOY: Supporting me.
ME: Wha?
BOY: You feed me and give me clothes and a place to live and stuff. You support me. That's awesome.
ME: Okay, what do you want?
BOY: Nothing. I was thinking about that today, that if I was on my own I'd have to pay for all that stuff. That would be really expensive. So thank you.
ME: ... Seriously, what do you want?
BOY: Seriously, nothing. You give me all that stuff just for being your son.
ME: Ooooookay. You're welcome. Put away the dishes.
BOY: Okay. *hugs me*

He is totally up to something. Battening hatches.


Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Smith Co.

BOY: How much are you paying me to do our walk?
ME: As I have said in the past, the amount you are compensated is calculated by the extent of the job times the quality of the work performed minus the amount of mouth I get in assigning it. And there was some serious mouth.
BOY: I was joking.
ME: Uh huh.
BOY: You should know that Smith Co. rates have gone up twenty percent due to repeated snowpocalypses.
ME: I decline.
MAN: Inflation ain't that bad, kid.
BOY: I shall speak to my agent about this.
ME: Go ahead. Your agent is Jimmy.
BOY: My agent is Mr. Snuffles the teddy bear.
ME: *quakes in boots*
BOY: Fine. Jimmy, you're hired.
ME: Besides, all my friends agree I should charge you a shovel tax for the use of my shovel.
BOY: A shovel tax? How much?
ME: Katie Yates says fifty percent.
BOY: Fifty percent? Smith Co. will not do business with Donald Inc. under these conditions!
ME: There is no Smith Co. According to Jimmy, I am the CEO of Donald-Smith-Gillentine Inc.*, which is a union shop and Jimmy is the shop steward.
BOY: I need to talk to my agent.
ME: I suggest you talk to your union boss. In the meantime, I'm working. And the front walk needs salt.
BOY: *grumbles*

* If I didn't keep hold of the checkbook, we'd be evicted. This in no way implies that anybody does what I say.

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Monday, February 03, 2014

Not sure where he got this smart mouth...

BOY: I need to get a job.
ME: Liking that whole "earning money" thing, are you?
BOY: Do you know any places that hire fifteen-year-olds?
MAN: McDonald's.
ME: I think food service is illegal until sixteen. What about the YMCA?
BOY: I could work in the skate center when I'm fifteen-and-a-half with a parent's permission.
ME: That could possibly be arranged, with bribery.
MAN: Fifteen-and-a-half... that's...
ME: Summer.
BOY: A summer job.
ME: The question is, how do you intend to transport yourself to and from work? Does the bike trail go out that far?
BOY: No. *frowns*
ME: The bus?
BOY: Can you drive me?
ME: Well. I think we'd have to arrange some kind of compensation. We are not a taxi service.
BOY: *sigh*
MAN: Soda.
ME: What?
MAN: He buys me a soda, I'll drive him to work.
ME: Man, you're cheap. I'd demand actual cash.
BOY: How about the honor of my presence in your lives?
ALL: ...

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