Shortwave Magazine

NonFiction / Publishing

How Indie Authors Can Use Consignment to Get Into Bookstores

a guide
by Nicole Dieker

August 14, 2023
1,205 Words
Genre(s):

Not all booksellers want to take a chance on an indie author—but setting up a consignment relationship could turn risks into benefits.

When you sign with an indie publisher, you get a lot of benefits that traditionally published authors may have to give up. Input into cover design, for example, as well as the opportunity to experiment with different types of marketing and promotion. (I took my books to a farmer’s market last month, setting up a display next to a banner that Alan Lastufka had designed for me, and averaged five sales an hour.) Many indie authors are also able to negotiate higher royalty percentages than traditional published authors, since the overhead costs of indie publishing are often lower than what you might see at a traditional publishing house.

That said, there’s one big drawback to being an independently published author—it’s a lot harder to get your books into bookstores. Many booksellers simply haven’t heard of you, and others may hesitate before ordering multiple copies of a book that might not have mass audience appeal.

That’s where consignment comes in. If you have the skills to pitch your own books to your local booksellers, you can probably work out an arrangement in which your books make it onto their shelves. 

Here’s what you need to know.

What is consignment?

When you consign your books to a bookstore, you give the bookseller the right to sell those books on your behalf. If one of your books is sold, the bookseller takes care of the taxes associated with the sale and then splits the revenue according to a predetermined agreement. In many cases, the author receives 60 percent of the sale price and the bookseller receives 40 percent. 

Why does the author receive a higher percentage than the bookseller? Because the author is covering the cost of the books. If you are published through Shortwave Publishing, for example, you’ll need to purchase physical copies of your titles from Shortwave before you can consign them to a bookseller. Since you pay the up-front costs of getting your books into the bookstore, you take home a slightly larger percentage of each sale.

How much money can you earn from consignment sales?

Let’s do some math. If a paperback copy of one of your books sells for $12.99 plus tax and you have a 60/40 revenue split with the publisher, then you could make $7.79 gross per sale. If you paid $5 wholesale for the book, that’s $2.29 sales profit. You’ll need to pay taxes on your earnings, so set aside 30 percent of your total sales profit for estimated taxes and then go over the final numbers with a CPA when it’s time to file your tax return.

(By the way—and I know you didn’t ask, but I’m going to tell you anyway—if you’re at the point in your career where you’re doing consignment relationships and selling books at farmer’s markets, you’re going to need a CPA. Most tax software programs aren’t robust enough to handle independent authors who are handselling books next to food trucks and flower stalls, and you’ll also want someone who can advise you on seller permits and other important forms.)

How often do you get paid when you sell on consignment?

It depends on the bookseller and the contract. You may get paid every three months, or you may get paid every six months. One of my booksellers pays me every month, but they’re more of the exception than the rule.

What happens if the bookseller runs out of stock?

If you are proactive, your booksellers will never run out of stock. Every time they report a sale, you have the opportunity to give them a fresh copy of your book to replace the one that sold—and you also have the opportunity to stop by the bookstore, make conversation, buy the latest bestseller, recommend other local authors you know, and be the kind of person that brightens everyone’s day.

(Why is it important to be the kind of person that brightens everyone’s day? Because that’s how you get the bookseller to place your book in the window. Trust me on this one.)

If the bookseller runs out of stock before you have the chance to replenish—whether it’s because you’re out of town, or because the bookstore only reports sales every six months, or because someone promoted your book on TikTok and now everyone wants a copy—they’ll ask you for more books. Try to always have a few extra copies on hand.

What happens if none of your books sell?

Most consignment contracts will have some kind of clause that says “If none of your books sell by a specific date, we will terminate the agreement.” A bookseller might give you 90 days, six months, or a full year before they decide to take your books off the shelves—and although you can consign those books to another bookseller (or sell them at the next farmer’s market), keep in mind that you will probably need to go pick up your books yourself. Very few booksellers will ship unsold consignment books back to their authors. They’re way too busy trying to run a brick-and-mortar business in an Amazon-dominated world.

How can you increase your odds of a successful consignment relationship?

Get to know your local bookstore owners before you ask them to consign your books. Show up at local author readings. Join a book club if they have one. Buy books from them. Local bookstores are all about community, and a local author who is already part of that community is likely to get better treatment than an author who shows up with a box of books and a demand. If you successfully become part of the local bookstore community, you may even be able to set up a book launch party (and, as I happily discovered when I launched SHAKESPEARE IN THE PARK WITH MURDER, the bookstore might even pay for the cake).

That said, I know that not all of you have local bookstores. Does that mean you can’t take advantage of consignment? Nope. There are many independent bookstores that do long-distance consignment—you ship them your books, they mail you the checks—and you can find them online, same as you find anything else. Check their websites for information about consignment relationships, and assume that if they don’t have any information about consignment relationships, they aren’t interested in hearing from you. 

I have successfully consigned with a few bookstores that are not in my neighborhood, so I know it can be done! If you have the opportunity to visit those bookstores in the future, even better. Say hello, buy a book, and see if you can set up a reading while you’re in town.

If you have other questions about consignment sales, feel free to email me at nicole@nicoledieker.com. I’d love to hear from you, and I’d love to help you get better at selling your books! I can also help you get better at writing them—but we’ll get back to that in our next column.

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About the Author

Nicole Dieker is a writer, teacher, and musician. She began her writing career as a full-time freelancer with a focus on personal finance and habit formation; she launched her fiction career with The Biographies of Ordinary People, a definitely-not-autobiographical novel that follows three sisters from 1989 to 2016.

Dieker writes the Larkin Day mystery series. She also maintains an active freelance career; her work has appeared in Vox, Morning Brew, Lifehacker, Bankrate, Haven Life, Popular Science, and more. Dieker spent five years as writer and editor for The Billfold, a personal finance blog where people had honest conversations about money.

Dieker lives in Quincy, Illinois with the great love of her life, his piano, and their garden.

nicoledieker.com

Copyright ©2023 by Nicole Dieker.

Published by Shortwave Magazine. First print rights reserved.

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