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...


  1. I cut a deal with the bookstore that did my launch. They got the books, and I offered to buy the unsold ones at the rate THEY paid for it. I graduated from high school with the owner, which helped.

  2. Hmm, that's a good idea! Assuming, of course, that they don't order 200 books. In which case they haven't been in business all that long. :)


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