QUIBBLES & BITS
At regular intervals, on every single one of my writers lists, somebody brings up self-publishing. DorothyL has banned the subject and so have other lists. . .
Don't worry, folks. I'm not going there :-0
Instead, I'm letting my friend and fellow author Richard Helms talk about RETURNS. [While doing so, he'll mention self-publishing.]
Richard Helms is probably best known for his series featuring slacker New Orleans jazz cornetist and reluctant knight errant Pat Gallegher. Four books in that series have been published by Back Alley Books, the mystery imprint of Barbadoes Hall Communications.
In 2003 Helms was nominated for the Private Eye Writers of America's Shamus Award for the third Pat Gallegher novel, Juicy Watusi. In 2004, he was nominated again, this time for the fourth book in the series, Wet Debt.
Helms also has two books out in his San Francisco-based Eamon Gold PI series. The first, Grass Sandal, was published in 2004. The second, Cordite Wine, came out in late 2005 and garnered Helms' third Private Eye Writers of America Shamus Award nomination.
His stand-alone novel Bobby J. has been optioned by David Greathouse Productions in Los Angeles for a theatrical release film.
Okay, here's the HPASS (that's Hot Poop and Straight Skinny for people who didn't read my posts back when I was a Burned Out Ex-Hippie Part-Time Flake)on book returns.
When you sign with Ingram, or virtually any wholesaler or distributor, you have to designate what booksellers are supposed to do with your books when nobody wants them. Obviously, this happens a lot, or it wouldn't be an issue. The options are actually fairly limited.
Option 1: Return the entire book to the wholesaler, who will in turn return them to the publisher. Returned books are either refunded or a credit is issued to the bookseller for future orders. The wholesaler/distributor charges the publisher for the *wholesale* cost of the book. This is an important point to note, as we shall see later.
Option 2: Return the entire book to the wholesaler/distributor, who will pulp it. The publisher is still charged for the *wholesale* cost of the book, and the bookseller is still issued either a refund or a credit. The advantage to this option is that the publisher doesn't have to pay for shipping the books back.
Option 3: This applies almost entirely to mass market paperbacks. Strip the front cover, trash the book, and ship the cover back to the wholesaler/distributor. Publisher still gets charged the *wholesale* price of the book, and the bookseller gets a refund or a credit.
Option 4: Don't accept returns no way, no how, no where, at no time. This is the option that the POD mills like iUniverse and Xlibris and their ilk took when they set up shop in the late 1990s. Booksellers, in general, don't like to buy titles that they might have to eat. Books are not edible - well, at least they are not edible for humans - and booksellers could take a bath on ordering titles that don't eventually sell. Because all of the POD mills used the POD process to print their books, and because none of them accepted returns, the word spread among the chain booksellers that POD = No returns.
Now, when I started Back Alley Books, I had my books printed using the POD process (this was 2001). My contract with Ingram clearly stated that I would go with Option 1 - accept returns and have them shipped to me.
Okay, I don't want to alarm anyone, but we're going to do some math here. Try to stay with me.
The retail price per copy was $15.95 for a trade paper title. Lightning Source printed each copy for about $4.50, and then sold it to Ingram for 50% of the cover price, which was $7.98.
Ingram then sold it to the booksellers for between $8.98 and $9.49, depending on their discount arrangement.
With me so far? Good. So, for each copy sold, I received about $3.48 from Lightning Source, which represented the price they sold it to Ingram for, minus the printing and binding charge.
When a book was returned from a bookseller, however, Ingram charged me the *wholesale* price, which was usually $8.98.
That means I had to sell four copies to pay for one return. Why four? Because I didn't make any money on the fourth, which was the returned copy. The three copies that sold and stayed sold paid for the one return, and left me with about $1.44 to pay for the shipping to have the return sent back to me.
That meant that for me to actually make any money, I had to sell FIVE copies to pay for one return. This equates to an 80% "Sell-Through" rate - much higher than that required by most of the major publishers.
For the first several years, this wasn't a problem, because I didn't get any returns, because the major chain booksellers refused to stock my books. Remember - at that time, POD equalled No Returns, no matter what the computer readout from Ingram said, so the chains refused to order. I did place some books with understanding independent booksellers who handsold my titles, but I was locked out of the Big Box Barns of Novels.
So, most of my books were sold through Amazon and the other online booksellers, which meant no returns because they were sold directly to end-users...er, I mean readers. No returns there either.
Things began to change about two years ago. Somehow, the major chain booksellers began to realize - probably around the time that the major publishers started dipping their toes into the POD waters - that *some* POD books could be returned. Suddenly, Barns of Novels were all too happy to order my titles, especially when I made an appearance at their stores. Same for Walden and Borders.
Nothing fails like success, I suppose. Last year, my book CORDITE WINE was nominated for the PWA Shamus Award. This was my third nomination. I was ecstatic. I was overjoyed. I was also stricken with fear, because I realized that the major booksellers tend to ORDER nominated books in somewhat larger numbers, but they don't hand-sell them.
I braced myself for a slew of returns.
I should have braced harder.
Right now, Back Alley Books is on a temporary hiatus. Because of the Shamus Award Nomination, I sold a buttload of books. I also had a slightly smaller buttload returned. As a result, I owe Ingram about $700 for returns. I have requested that they not ship my titles until we get square. I have three boxes of books sitting in my office, and a rolling suitcase full of them in the trunk of my car. I consign to bookstores when I visit these days - which is kind of fun since it's a lot like the way things were when I started out.
If I knew in 2001 what I know now, I never would have started this company. At Bouchercon last year, S.J. Rozan told the audience in one of her panels that Rick Helms and Sandy Tooley (Full Moon Publishing) are examples of people who did self-publishing the right way.
I consider S.J. a friend, and I am very grateful for her kind words, but I am also slowly coming around to the opinion that there is no 'right way' to self-publish. This may be a surprising notion, coming from someone who has had a relatively huge amount of critical and non-monetary success at it. However, when I consider all the numbers, there just isn't a way to self-publish using the POD model and come out ahead, profit-wise, unless you do exactly what the POD mills did and not allow returns.
When I started Back Alley, my goal was to play the publishing game by the same rules the Bigs followed - decent discounts and accepting returns. I think we put out a quality product. However, as many midlist authors with the major publishers have discovered over the last several years, it's damned hard to sell a book if nobody knows who you are. Using the POD process, at least at this time, stacks the deck against you even more, because of the high cost of production per unit. That increases the required sell-through to make a profit, to a level very few authors can match, no matter how well-known they are.
So, now I have a great agent, and we're searching for the magic Major Publisher contract.
Oh, one more thing - I can no longer submit titles under my own name. Why? Because every bookseller in the country can check and see exactly how many copies each of my titles has sold over the last seven years, and so can the publishers. While we've done okay for a micro-press, in major publishing terms our sales suck. That kind of thing scares off major publishers. Richard Helms, as a novelist, is probably finished, though I'll continue to write short stories under that name.
Self-publishing? I really, really, really don't recommend it, and I'm supposed to be one of its stars.
Over and Out,