hand holding up Action Hero's Handbook

The last step in the self-publishing process is getting the book into the reader’s hands (or reading device). I’m not talking about marketing in this post (I’ll talk about that later); I’m talking about dead-tree distribution here because that’s how I published Live Full Throttle, for reasons I outlined earlier in this series.

If you plan to sell your books yourself (what’s called “by hand” in the genteel bookselling world), read no further. Line up a book tour or seminar series and get out there. But if you want to get the book on bookshelves, prepare to see your margins erode along with your patience as you deal with the antiquated practices that made authors flock to Amazon in the first place.

Bookstores are consignment sellers

Shop for my book in Indie Bookstores

Let’s say you’ve been shopping at a local indie bookstore and figure that an indie author and indie bookseller should be natural allies. You approach your bookseller asking for some shelf space and perhaps an opportunity to hold an event at the store. You’re shocked by the terms you’re offered (if you are even offered terms):



  • The store may take three to five copies on CONSIGNMENT. This means you will not be paid up front for your books, rather, you’ll be paid once the books sell.
  • You’re responsible for shipping the books to the store (or delivering them). If you don’t pick them up when asked, they’ll probably be donated to a charity or simply trashed.
  • Perhaps the store cuts consignment checks monthly, but more likely it’s quarterly. Be prepared to wait.
  • You’ll likely be asked to pay a fee to set the book up in their system–$25 is not unusual.
  • You’ll also be told that any books mangled while on consignment are YOUR tough luck, not the store’s.
  • For all this you’ll likely receive 60% of the sales price.
  • If they agree to sponsor a signing event, you’re still selling on consignment (even though readers walked out with a signed copy of your book) and will be paid your share in the future.

I don’t like these terms, but I understand them. Bookstores operate on razor-thin margins and low sales volume, which is why they use consignment, even when dealing with the big publishers. A book isn’t really SOLD until the reader takes it home.

Enter the book distributor

When you approach a bookseller, even an independent store, about carrying your book, most will tell you they only order through distributors. Why is this? Because bookstores rely on distributors to manage their inventories for them–essentially providing cash flow. For example,when stores order what they believe will be a best-seller and it flops, bookstores return the surplus to the distributor for credit so they can buy new inventory.

The ins and outs of working with a distributor are outside the bounds of this post and each distributor has its own set of terms and conditions. I’ll just say that working with a distributor involves up front money and a significant cut. You’ll be required to make a long-term commitment, at least a year. The distributor is under contract to manage your inventory, which means they ship ahead to your events and make their cut on every book sold; don’t even think about holding on to part of your inventory to sell by hand at a better margin. Like any business decision, if you get a good return it’s worth it. Distributors have relationships with big chains, so it might very well be worth it for your book.

Barnes & Noble

Speaking of big chains, how about getting your book inro Barnes & Noble or another chain? Yes, there is a chance that the local B&N store will carry a couple of copies or host a signing event, but the opportunity you want is to be carried in all their stores and online right? Then you’ll need a distributor (see above) unless you want to try becoming a vendor of record.

Barnes and Noble claims it will consider independently-published books, but you’ll have to jump through hoops and wait a couple of months for an answer. Elsewhere on the site is revealed that they will order UP TO TWO copies for starters. Good luck becoming a best-seller with that kind of exposure.

No wonder digital will prevail

Compare this to working with Amazon, which will basically carry your book.

As much as I love a REAL bookstore, with that ambient smell of  of paper and ink, helpful booksellers and racks of magazines on subjects as diverse as the human family itself, I’ve got to recommend doing business with Amazon no matter what else you’re doing. Even when this means hammering another nail in the coffin of bookstores.