Author 101: The Harsh Truth Behind Print Sales by L.G. O'Connor

A Harsh Truth, But We Can't Ignore It

Admit it. As a debut author, you’ve dreamed of walking into a bookstore and seeing your book on the front table luring readers over to buy it. Dreamy sigh. Am I right?

It’s not until you’ve been in the business that you understand the chances of that are fairly low, unless your book was selected to receive a generous marketing budget from your publishing house. In reality, those spots are paid placements from coop funding between publishers and bookstores, and can run upwards to the 10s of thousands of dollars. Nonetheless, whether an author is published traditionally, hybrid, or indie, many still have the dream of physical representation in bookstores and libraries. A place where people can see and touch their books, not just look at a thumbnail on Amazon. I know I did.

Yet, as much as we all hunger for print, what I’ve found is many debut authors don’t understand the deep nuances around the economics involved. The topic has spurred many a discussion between me and some of my closest author friends. Just like the dream of being in bookstores is universal among authors of every publication pathway, so are the drawbacks. It’s just that when you are in a traditional situation, it’s masked by royalty systems, but it feeds into why a large percentage of debut authors never see a dime beyond their advances.

So, why is this the case?

Let’s start with the basics and some averages.

  •   The Industry. Booksellers run consignment businesses. They can order as many of your books as they want, and they only have to pay for the ones they sell. All the others can be returned, sometimes up to a year later, in any condition…without penalty. Return rates run between 25 – 50% with the largest impact coming from wholesalers and chain stores. Small independent bookstores tend to buy only a few copies due to space limitations.
  •   Trade terms. To have your book stocked in a bookstore, you need to offer trade terms. That means you must offer a 55% discount off the retail cover price, and make the book returnable. If you are publishing through Amazon, unless they have changed their terms, your books are not returnable. That means, unless prompted by you, rarely will anyone order them. Add to that the general bias independent bookstores have against Amazon, and you most likely are wasting your time with expanded distribution through Createspace. If having a chance at being in a bookstore is a must have for you, I’d recommend IngramSpark with an IBSN purchased from Bowker.

Let’s pause to do some math. I know! It’s the wrong side of the brain. But just stick with me here:

Retail Price = $16.00

Manufacturing cost = $4.00

How the Biz works for Indies (if you are traditionally published, after publisher and agent fees, you’ll see $0.60 - $0.85 per book in this example. Hopefully, you’re making it up in volume):

Retail Price (GROSS)                  $16.00

Minus Trade Discount of 55%      (8.80)

Wholesale Price                             $7.20

Minus Manufacturing Cost          (4.50)

Net Profit to Author                     $2.70 / book

  •   Hurts & Return fees. Remember when I said that bookstores can return your books in ANY condition and not pay for them? If they are damaged, they are considered a “hurt” and cannot be resold. If it costs $4.50 to produce that book, guess how much you made for the sale of that book? You took a $4.50 loss. That loss will be used to offset any sales on future books. Restocking / return fees are generally $0.50 per book.
  • Remember that math?

    You’ll need to sell more than 1 book to make up for the loss of that returned hurt as an indie. As a traditionally published author? Yup, you guessed it. You need to sell 3-5 more books to make up for the single loss. If 30-50% of books are returned, remember that royalty check with all those sales? That’s why they withheld 25-30% of your last royalty check as a ‘reserve’– to cover future returns. Keep in mind, the average traditionally published author sells 2,000 full priced books. If they are doing really well? 10,000. For indie authors, it's 150 books and 1,500 as a 'respectable' number. Of course there are the outliers--I've met some of them--but comparing yourself to them would be like a movie extra comparing themself to Brad Pitt.

    Are you starting to see the economics of print coming back to bite you in the arsenal?

    It used to be that if a bookstore asked you to sign some copies of your book to leave behind after an event, they couldn’t return them. Well, not anymore from what I understand. They can return them, and guess where they can end up? Your hurt pile as unsellable stock. So, think twice about signing those 30 extra copies…

  •   Backlist status. Another thing about the publishing industry. Your book is like a ripe melon that has a shelf life. It’s considered a “frontlist” title for only the first year it is out, with most of the activity occurring in the first twelve weeks after publication. Backlist is anything a year or more from the current date. If you have a series, backlist matters less than if you have a standalone novel. Generally, bookstores won’t go out of their way to order backlist titles from debut authors unless they plan on having a physical event at that particular store.
  • The general flow of royalty checks looks something like this (at least from my first publisher who used to pay quarterly with no upfront advance), the first two checks are high, and then slowly decline over the next two quarters when all the returns come home to roost.

  •   Discounters. Who are these people anyway? Not all, but some show up on Amazon and sell in the secondary market. You may or may not see a dime on these sales. Where are they getting their books? Giveaways and ARCs tend to make their way to the secondary markets.
  • At the end of the day, I’ll still offer print on all the books I publish as an indie using print-on-demand technology. Nothing compares to the actual feel of the book in your hands. Also, I enjoy in person events and signing books. As far as bookstores are concerned? I will continue to form relationships with bookstore owners and nurture them, but if you’re looking for my books in Walmart, chances are you’ll only find them in their online catalog.

    My eyes are open to the impact these sales have on my overall economics, and I've made the choice to take that potential hit. With Ingram, I can always turn off the distribution machine with the toggle of a button. Honestly? Without the benefit of an Ingram Sales Rep pushing my book at my first publisher, the chances that I will have to are low.

    One more thing to consider: offer print through Createspace for Amazon-based print sales. You'll make more on those sales, and let Ingram distribute the rest. Best of both worlds.

    What about you? What are your experiences with print and your thoughts on how this contributes to your sales?

Lincoln Cole

Lincoln Cole is a Columbus-based author who enjoys traveling and has visited many different parts of the world, including Australia and Cambodia, but always returns home to his pugamonster and wife. His love for writing was kindled at an early age through the works of Isaac Asimov and Stephen King and he enjoys telling stories to anyone who will listen.

He has won multiple literary awards for his novels. He has also been a bestseller in multiple different categories.