My Conflicted Feelings about Bookstores

I am a voracious reader as well as a mystery author. Although of course I read many books in my genre, I also enjoy nonfiction adventures, science fiction, and the so-called “women’s fiction” categories. (In my opinion, nearly all books are “women’s fiction” for most of us.) But I digress, as I so frequently do. Back to bookstores.

Photo by Pixabay on

I adore bookstores! What could be better for a reader than being able to sort through thousands of books? I find new authors and great reads in both new and used bookstores; they’re some of my favorite places. So, of course, as a reader, I am a big fan of bookstores.

As an indie author, I have very mixed feelings about bookstores. I am both the author and the publisher for my books. The thorny issue involves returns. If a bookstore orders books through a major distributor, as they all want to do, the publisher typically discounts the price by 40-55% so the bookstore can make some money. That’s painful enough for the publisher (and explains a lot about the cost of books), but if the bookstore doesn’t sell all the copies it orders, it can demand a refund to “return” the unsold books. (I put that word in quotes because due to the cost of shipping, “returned” books are typically destroyed instead of actually returned.) To make matters worse, many distributors/publishers have deadlines by which books must be returned, so if a book is approaching that date, bookstores may “return” them to get under the wire, knowing they can just order additional copies later, beginning the cycle again.

Self-published indie authors don’t have to make their books returnable, but if they don’t, the odds are that bookstores and libraries won’t put them on their shelves. As Publishers Weekly has written, “selling to the book trade is a gamble, and you need to decide your comfort level at playing the game. If you don’t play, you won’t sell.”

But when indie authors do decide to play the game (as I most often do), we can get burned big-time. My worst moment was when I was attending a Left Coast Crime Conference in Honolulu. A bookseller typically handles book sales at conferences, and when I walked into the book room in Hawaii, I saw piles of my books. While this might make some newbie authors celebrate, I cringed, knowing this would come back to haunt me. Number 1, I am not a well-known bestselling author. Number 2, most attendees for these conferences arrive via air, and they’re not going to lug back 100 pounds of printed books. Get a grip, bookstores! (But why should the bookseller care? They can simply “return” those books.)

Photo by Liza Summer on

Sure enough, I later got a bill from the printer/distributor for around $600 in returns (destroyed books) from that Hawaii conference. Having learned painful lessons like that over the years, I no longer sign up to have bookstores handle my books at conferences, unless that’s the only choice. Instead, I bring a few copies on consignment, and tons of bookmarks to remind interested readers later about my books. I sometimes supply books on consignment with local bookstores, too. Yes, I still have to discount those books and I have to pay for printing and shipping, and I have to deliver them, which reduces my profit to near zero, but I will get unsold copies back instead of having to pay for no-longer-existing books.

My understanding is that this whole “returns” business came about during the Great Depression of the 1930s to encourage stores to stock the non-necessity of books. And (of course) stores liked it so much that the policy has never gone away, to the detriment of publishers and authors. Traditional publishers consistently hold back a substantial portion of the royalties they owe authors in case there are future “returns.”

So now you can understand why indie authors have mixed feelings about bookstores. But please know that nearly any bookstore is willing to special order a book for you from your favorite indie author. If you’re willing to wait a bit for a book, you can support both the author and the bookstore that way.

5 thoughts on “My Conflicted Feelings about Bookstores

  1. Your post is spot-on. The returns issue is a plague on the industry. Another part of it is the distributors. They want to have every book in stock, so they order one or two or a dozen copies. After three months, they return them to the publisher and then order more. The books returned to the publisher can be torn, filthy, missing pages etc., and there’s nothing we can do about it. I speak as a former small publisher (The Larcom Press) and a hybrid author. This business is a mess.


  2. Yes, I would say that is the biggest downfall to being an Indie author. I have all my books through Ingram so bookstores and libraries can get copies. I don’t do returns, which may be detrimental but I have enough sales of print books every month that I’m glad I do have the books at Ingram where bookstores and libraries can purchase them.

    I always take my books to events and conferences, because I had the same thing happen to me early on, only with was when I was with a small press. I was glad I had attended the event with a more seasoned author who told me to purchase my leftover books from the vendor at the end of the event at their cost. I came out even rather than in the hole.


  3. Way back when I had a publisher I took my books to a Bouchercon and asked a book dealer to sell them–he said yes for that 60/40 deal. I took it, but of course I didn’t make a cent on anything he sold, and he did sell some. And I think I did it at other conferences too. Now the only conference I go to is PSWA and they only take 20%. I haul my books there and back.

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.