How to sell books on consignment to bookstores (and other retailers)

Bookstore displayMost bookstores buy books in one of three ways:

  • The bookstore buys the books up front from a distributor, or from the publisher directly, and then stocks and sells the books to their customers, and return any unsold copies.
  • Special orders: a customer requests a book that the store doesn’t carry, and the bookstore orders it from the distributor or publisher and then hold the book for the customer. Most bookstores now request payment up front from customers for special orders.
  • Consignment arrangements with the author or publisher.

The Low-down on Consignment Placements

With a consignment deal, the bookstore doesn’t pay for the books until/unless they sell. Bookstores literally have nothing to lose (they don’t even have to pay anything up front) and authors are getting their books into local stores — often on the “local author” shelves or even on the front counter, depending on how well they promote themselves to the store’s owner or manager.

Some authors simply call or stop in once a month to check with the store manager about how many books are left on display, and then invoice the store for the books that have sold. The downside of a consignment contract is that books can get damaged by customers thumbing through them, and are sometimes damaged to the point where they are unsellable. So, when the author collects unsold books at some future point to sell elsewhere, they may not be fit to sell. To avoid the potential for a large loss, start with just a handful of books, not an entire case.

Offering a consignment deal to a bookstore will probably give you the best chance of having them carry it. Simply offer to have them sell it on a consignment basis, and tell them you can check in every month or two to see if any have sold. Tell them you can then bill them for any copies that are no longer on the shelf. The appeal to a store owner or manager is that they need to take almost no action, and spend no up-front money, to get your book on their shelf.

Since you are selling directly to the store, you are free to set your own discounts — which will probably be more favorable for the store than if they’d bought your book directly from the publisher or distributor. Keep in mind,  however, that the industry standard is 40%. The easier you make this transaction for them, the better chance you’ll have of being stocked by the store.

If the store does not have its own consignment agreement form, bring two copies of your own consignment agreement (one for you, and one for the store) when you deliver the books. Your agreement should contain a clause that specifies that the store is responsible for paying you for all unreturned copies, as well as any damaged and/or discarded copies. Anything that happens to your books in the store is not, and should not be, your responsibility. You don’t want the store to claim that copies were stolen or damaged, and then not pay you for them.

One option for protecting books being sold on consignment is to put a sticker labeled “SAMPLE” on one book for display, and then shrink-wrap the remaining copies for actual sale. Having a “demo” book is actually a pretty tempting hook to get people to pick up and thumb through your book.

Of course, keep in mind that consignment arrangements can work for many different types of retailers, not just bookstores.


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