What you need to know about off-site book sales
Yesterday I received an email from an author at 5:09 p.m. asking if I could arrange for his book to be sold. Today. In Hawaii. 200 copies of the book would be ideal, he said, although 100 would suffice.
I doubt very many bookstores have 100 copies of all the Harry Potter and Twilight books combined. The chances of a store carrying copies of a book — published nearly a year ago — in quantities larger than, well, one, are slim. While this is Book Publicity 101, I realize it may not be quite so obvious to others, so I thought it would be useful to compile some basic information about off-site book sales for authors and for publicists to pass on to authors. (Publicists, Agents and others — plagiarize these instructions at will although I would appreciate, of course, if you could credit The Book Publicity Blog.)
Arranging for books to be sold at off-site events:
— Allow time to arrange for a bookseller. Typically, bookstores need at least about three months notice to arrange for events on-site since they need time to promote them. Although they don’t need this long to arrange to sell books at off-site venues, they still do need time (a month is ideal) to arrange staffers’ schedules. Orders take about a day to be processed and books take at least a week to ship from coast to coast, so two weeks’ notice is pretty much the minimum.
— Publishing houses do not sell books on consignment, nor can our “representatives” sell books at an event. (We’re asked this all the time.) It may seem odd that a publishing house would balk at, well, selling books, but aside from a couple departments — customer service, the website — we’re not set up to sell books directly to consumers. (It’s like this with most commodities: you buy your toys or your Tylenol or your bananas from Toys ‘R Us or Duane Reade or Whole Foods, not from Hasbro, Johnson & Johnson and Chiquita.)
— It’s hard finding a bookseller for a small event. With some exceptions (like in smaller communities where bookseller and author are acquainted), booksellers ask for an expected audience of about 100 people at off-site events. It doesn’t make financial sense for a bookseller to send a staff member to an event for three or more hours — not including commuting time — to sell 10 books to 30 people. (Which doesn’t mean books can’t be sold, but you might consider selling them yourself, which many authors do.)
— Arranging for off-site book sales is time consuming. Of course, for large events, we’ll do whatever it takes to get books there (not to mention it’s pretty easy finding a bookseller to sell to a large crowd), but for small gatherings, we can spend an awful lot of time contacting an awful lot of booksellers only to sell awfully few books at the end of the day.
— Some venues do not allow book sales — some houses of worship, for example. Others, such as many universities, require you to use their bookstore. Keep this in mind when you are asked to speak.
— College students do not buy a lot of books. Particularly hardcover books. Probably because they’re too busy with their Wiis.
— Be realistic about the number of books you will sell. The most accurate way to determine the number of books you will sell is to take the average of the books you’ve sold at previous events. But if you don’t have previous events to go by — and many authors won’t — you can use the 1/3 rule for book sales: one out of three audience members will buy books (obviously this figure is higher sometimes; sometimes, lower). I’ve had authors insist that booksellers bring a large quantity of books, only to have them sit unsold at the end of the night — what authors don’t always realize is that this is a tremendous waste of money for the bookseller (they have to pay to ship back unsold books), it’s embarassing for the publicist, and all it does is make the bookseller wary of selling at the next event.
If you cannot find a bookseller to sell at an off-site event, consider:
— Handing out flyers with a picture of the book and your and / or the publisher’s website.
— Selling the book yourself. I have one author who speaks often at schools. He throws a box of books in the back of his car and off he goes. Depending on how often you speak (and depending on the size of the expected crowd), consider purchasing your book from the publishing house — with your author discount, of course — and selling them yourself.
— Working out an alternate arrangement with a local bookseller. This one needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis, but it is possible that a bookseller who can’t spare the staff to sell books at an event might be willing to order books for an author (sparing the author those logistical details), provided the author (or a media escort / friend / colleague / spouse) can actually sell the books. This can get complicated so some stores simply won’t consider it, but if you’re willing to help out on the sales end — and you’d like to support a local bookstore — it may be worth checking with your publicist or the store to explore how flexible the bookseller might be.
Now, in some cities, there are nice people who arrange off-site events and book sales like Hooks Book Events in Washington, DC (and some other cities) and Kim Ricketts Book Events in Seattle and San Francisco. You can imagine the excitement.
What else should authors know (or would you like to know, if you’re an author) about off-site book sales?