Fees help Boulder Book Store manage deluge of self-published titles

By BlueInk Staff

As the self-publishing explosion continues, bookstores around the country are grappling with a key question: How can they accommodate the growing number of self-publishing authors who want space on their shelves without sacrificing resources needed for other store priorities?

For the Boulder (CO) Book Store, the answer came only after the problem had gotten out of hand. Every year, the Boulder Book Store would receive a few more books from self-published authors than the year before — until staffers suddenly realized they were drowning in them.

“It just got bigger and bigger, until three or four years ago, we thought, ‘This is just crazy,’ recalls Inventory Manager Arsen Kashkashian, “It just kind of snuck up on us, and there was no organized way to deal with it.’”

At that time, the store took self-published titles on consignment, but didn’t have the resources to promote those books — or even to ship them back to the author, once their allotted time in the store was up. Instead, the volumes languished on back shelves for a few weeks before being stashed in some lonely closet, waiting for their authors to reclaim them.

The system wasn’t satisfying for the authors or the store, says Kashkashian.

In 2007, the store devised a solution. It would offer self publishers more promotional opportunities — but at a price. “We decided that we would put in a fee structure and guarantee that we’ll do certain things for the book.”

The store now provides three different levels of promotional services:

– For $75, an author’s book is featured for at least two weeks on a main floor display.

– For $125, the book is featured on a main floor display, as well as in an email newsletter, on the “Local Authors” page of the store’s website for 60 days and available to customers to buy online as long as the book is in stock.

– For $225, authors receive everything available at the $125 level, plus a booksigning event with 2-3 other local authors.

Fees pay for staff labor to handle the books

The fees pay for the staff hours it takes to enter the books into the system, shelve them, plan events, add items to the newsletter, return books that are unsold, etc. They also make it easier for the store to offer prime shelf space for self-published titles.

When featured on a main floor display, the books are tagged with the description of “featured author.” Kashkashian pre-empts any criticism of this practice by quickly adding that they’re often shelved “right next to a book from Random House, where they paid for space (too).” (Traditional publishers pay bookstores to place their titles in more visible spots.)

Booksignings are held in groups, he explains, to take advantage of the synergy that comes from being able to tap into more than one author’s network of support.

“It helps build a crowd. If each one brings in 15 people and you have four authors, you have 60 people. Some (attendees) will buy more than one book. Maybe they came for a friend but then heard another presentation they thought was interesting.”

“Ninety-nine percent of authors love the program…”

Kashkashian notes that the program has been successful beyond the store’s expectations. While some might have expected a backlash, either from self-publishing authors grumbling that the fees are unfair or customers claiming that the designation of “featured author” is misleading, Kashkashian insists that the it hasn’t materialized.

“Ninety-nine percent of the authors like the program because they feel like they’re being treated in a professional manner. They’ve put all this time into their project, and now there’s some way to market it…People who put this much work into a project just want to be treated professionally, which is what this has done.”

As for customers, “We haven’t had any negative comments, not a single one. I think they like it. These are their neighbors. They’re overjoyed to see their neighbor’s book on the shelves.”

Kashkashian notes that the biggest number of titles the store receives is novels, followed by memoirs and self help. Those that sell best, he adds, are books whose authors are savvy at enlisting support from their local and online communities through social media and other means. But no amount of marketing can make up for a bad book, he adds.

“I think you get an initial bump that might get up to 30-50 sales based on marketing, packaging, all that stuff. But after that, (sales come from) people putting the book in other people’s hands saying, ‘I really like this; you should read this.’”

The store counts among its recent better-selling self-published books a science fiction series titled Astral Imperative by Robert Dresner. The three-title series has sold more than 300 copies. Made in Hungary, a memoir of author Maria Krenz’s childhood in Nazi-occupied and then communist Hungary, has sold 184 copies over the last 10 months.

For comparison, Kashkashian notes that Abraham Verghese’s well-reviewed Cutting for Stone sold 300 copies at the store over 8 months. (None of these, of course, is in the same league with a blockbuster like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which has sold several thousand copies at the store.)

Self-published titles make up 1-1/2 percent of the store’s sales

Well-selling titles, such as the Astral Imperative books or Made in Hungary are in the minority among the self-published titles on the store’s shelves. Sales of all these books make up only 1-1/2 percent of the store’s revenues, says Kashkashian.

Still, Kashkashian notes that the program is worthwhile for the good customer relations it engenders alone. Self-published authors are so proud of having their books in the store, they often bring friends in, just to show them the spot on the shelf where their books are featured, he says.

That’s a bonus for bookstores, especially at a time when sales are flat and the advent of e-books makes the future of brick and mortar stores less certain than ever.

Whatever the advantages or disadvantages, the program is one step toward finding a way to handle a growing issue. “I think what I’m learning is that this is going to be an increasingly major part of the industry,” says Kashkashian, “so we have to have a way to deal with it.”