Yes, I know I’m going to be barraged with emails telling me that I’m wrong, that title A, B, or C managed to hit bestseller lists even though they were self-published.Â Â And I agree, there are several notable examples of self-published books that did do well: The Chicken Soup series, for example.Â AndÂ The Celestine Prophecy.Â And a book that came out in the 90’s called The Messengers.Â Those three books sold well because the authors took them on the road and sold tons out of the trunks of their cars or on the lecture circuit or through their contacts in churches.Â (Although I should point out that the latter two titles didn’t really hit blockbuster status until they were subsequently sold to, and published by, big-name publishing houses.)Â But for the most part, self-published books just don’t sell in big numbers, and for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of writing orÂ the lack of editing (although we can talk about those flaws, too.)Â It all gets down toÂ the one hugeÂ weakness in the self-publishing business model.
IÂ was reminded of this at a booksigning at a Barnes and Noble in New Hampshire.Â After the signing, the events coordinator thanked me for being “so easy to work with — unlike some other authors.”Â
“But I would think that most authors are pretty nice,” I said.
“Most are,” she said.Â “But the self-published ones are horrible.”Â Then she described an incident that had happened earlier that week.Â A local self-published author had requested that the store arrange a booksigning for him, and she hadÂ turned him down flat.Â Enraged, he’d thrown the bookÂ on the floor and asked: “When the hell am I ever going to get a signing in this store?”
“When pigs fly,” she’d snapped at him.Â Â The man couldn’t accept the fact that their store almost neverÂ hosted signings by self-published authors — even if the author wasÂ local.
“Why not?” I asked.Â “Is it becauseÂ of the quality of the books?”
“That’s only part of it,” she said.Â “The real reason is that we can’t return them.”Â Â
This was a revelation to me.Â She explained that when they order books from a subsidy (self-publishing)Â press, the books are non-returnable.Â If the store can’t sell them, then they’re stuck with them.Â And they lose money.Â
Regular publishers, on the other hand,Â ship books on a refundable basis, so if the store orders 100 copies and only sells ten, they can ship the 90 unsold copies back and get a refund.Â In this case, there’s no risk on the store’s part, so they’re happy to host a signing and order tons of books because they know they won’t get stuck with them.
“That’s why self-published authors can’t get their books into the large chains,” she explained.Â “It’s all about non-returnability.”
So if you’re an author who’s thinking about going the self-published route, this is a cold splash of reality.Â No matter how good your book is, good luck getting nationwide distribution unless you can guarantee the stores you’ll take back the unsold copies.Â
It also tells me thatÂ we’re stuck with the current system of bookstore returns.Â Â Bookstores are too afraid to take the risks of getting stuck with unsold stock.Â Â They’d as soon not order any copies at all, and would only order the blockbuster titles they know they can sell.Â In the end, it would beÂ the new and quirky titles that would suffer — and all of us, readers and writers alike,Â would be theÂ losers.