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Julie Barrett is a freelance writer and photographer based in Plano, TX.

Can this bookstore idea work?

Fresh (almost) daily from Julie Barrett


This idea comes around every once in a while: A bookstore that sells Print On Demand and self-published books. Most bookstores do carry a few, but not in any quantity due to discount and returns issues. Most are books by local authors because local interest books do tend to sell. They may not sell a lot of copies, but it makes good business sense to carry them. Someone who pops in for a copy of Local History for Local People (a hypothetical title) might stick around and buy more books. A number of small presses use the POD process.

Should you poke around on this site, you'll see they offer other services for writers. Victoria Strauss wrote about this site at Writer Beware back in January. I'll let you read about the services and make up your own mind. I'm talking about the feasibility of such a bookstore and what it might take to get your self-published book in one.

I haven't seen the business plan, so I don't know how they intend to make money. I'd hope the stores will sell other items, like mainstream press books (which drive customers through the door, sorry), coffee, or other goods and services to help the bottom line. I'm all for helping struggling writers, but I've also run a retail operation and there's a reason booksellers demand a minimum 40% discount. You've got to buy stock, pay rent, utilities, people, insurance, taxes, advertising, store fixtures - you get the idea. A merchant has to cover expenses in order to keep the doors open. That's for them to worry about. What if you want to supply books to them?

First, a caveat. If you're self-published or through a small press, your mileage WILL vary. You may be able to come up with better - or worse - numbers. I'm going to use Lulu as an example because they have a nice calculator right on the site. These numbers don't count other services from Lulu, such as a marketing package, which includes an ISBN number. This is just a flat, per-unit rate.

For my number-crunching comparison I'm going with a 300 page trade paperback sized book. I happen to have a trade paperback just that size on my desk. Retail is $13.95. If I wanted to put two copies of my book in each of the 15 planned stores, I'd need 30 copies. I'm going to round it up to 50 - partly for reorders, and partly because I should have some stock on hand. The calculator shows a price of $9.47 each.

Here's where your mileage varies. A friend is self-pubbing a 300-page trade paperback and using a commercial printer. Because she's going to bite the bullet and get 1000 copies, her price goes down to $4. Of course, she's taking care of all the layout and typsetting. Obviously she can sell for less. (At Lulu they'd be $7.69 a copy for 1000 books.) I cannot stress enough that your mileage will vary.

Now, I'm going to have to have these books shipped to me, or to the bookstores. This is another "your mileage may vary" thing because shipping will depend on the size of the book, the method of shipping, and where you live. I've done some calculations online, and I think I can get them shipped for about 50 cents a book- if  I'm buying 50 and shipping at the highest Parcel Post rate. Priority can cost me as much as a buck a book. But since I'm presumably not in a hurry to get them I'll use Media Mail. It may take the box a couple of weeks or more to get to me, but I'll be paying about 30 cents (or less) per book.

Now I have to worry about outbound shipping. Media Mail will be about $1.50 a book - if I ship two books at a time. One book is $2.23, at which point I might just want to spring the extra quarter to fifty cents for First Class. I should note that I'm padding these prices a bit to help cover shipping materials.

So, let's add up some prices so far:

1 book:        $9.47
Shipping:     $1.80 ( coversboth ways)
Total:          $11.27

Now, you want to make a profit on a book. What's a fair profit to you? I'm going to take two bucks, and hope that's about 10% of the cover price. Really, I ought to take more, but let's keep the math simple.

That brings the cost of our book to $13.27.

A bookstore is going to want at least a 40% discount off of the cover price. A little number crunching gives us a cover price of $22.95.

The math:

22.95 X .4 =9.18. That's your 40% discount.
22.95 - 9.18 = 13.77. That's pretty close. A 40% discount off 21.95 leaves you $13.17. So you can drop the cover price and squeeze pricing elsewhere.

We're not even factoring returns. You have to take returns in order to deal with most bookstores.

My friend who is planning to order 1000 books at $4 a book? I'll leave the math up to you. It's quite an advantage. I'll leave the number crunching to you.

Now, what happens if you sell direct to the customer? You don't have to worry about the $40%. You have to deal with shipping one item at a time, which would be about $2.50 per item First Class.

So yeah, POD is expensive. You can also see why it would be hard to make money if you sell to bookstores. And if you do the math, you can see why so many micropresses are struggling right now. That 300 page POD trade paperback costs the consumer about ten bucks more than the offset-printed one from the big publisher - or the offset printed one form a small press or self-publisher who bit the bullet for 1000 copies or more. Profits will be slim. I'm not saying they can't make it, but I am saying that it's just that much more difficult.

Of course, we're leaving out other expenses you, as a self-publisher, will have. You need to do your own marketing. That means a web site at the minimum. Other forms of marketing will depend on your book and its audience. This is why your mileage will vary.

So, can these bookstores make it? I haven't a clue, though I am dubious. I'll wait and see.

So, can you get your books into these bookstores? Looks like it, but check out all the terms beforehand (just like you would with any other business arrangement) and crunch numbers. You obviously don't want to lose money.

I'll wrap this up for a pitch for you to seriously consider shopping your manuscript to a commercial publisher (even a good small press) or a literary agent. You'll get paid up front! And while you will be required to do some promotion on your own, you don't have to worry about marketing the book to publishers, distribution, cover design, layout, or a gazillion other things. You just cash the check and work on your next book.

Yes, yes, yes: I know that not all books are suited to commercial publication. There are some very good reasons to self-publish. In that case, I hope this helps you think about the financial aspects of selling your book so it can be a success.

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Filed under: Publishing            
8/2/2008 2:46:10 PM
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