WHAT WE'RE TALKING ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT CONSIGNMENT
Why, you might ask (and often do), don’t we just agree outright to carry your book? Why do we insist that you have a relationship with the store before we will stock your book? You bet we wouldn’t treat (AnyFamousAuthor) this way. (In fact, we would treat AFA exactly this way, if he or she published him or herself outside the model of traditional publishing.)
Every year hundreds of thousands of books are published in this country—new titles and reissues of older ones. No store can stock all of them, even if current technology fosters the illusion that someone does. In the past few decades changes in technology and productive capacity have made it relatively easy and inexpensive for anyone to publish a book, which has led to a landslide of titles well beyond the often excessive overproduction of traditional publishing operations. We receive a flood of requests to stock these un-traditionally published titles; hence, our consignment policy.
We are committed to having a physical space where people interested in purchasing books can see and touch them before deciding what to buy. We choose the books we place on our shelves based on a variety of factors: our own tastes; the preferences expressed over time by our customers, along with their suggestions; recommendations of publisher sales representatives, with whom we have abiding relationships; careful reading of review media; felicity and happenstance. We have a limited amount of space to fill, and we strive to fill it with the best and most interesting books of our own time and from times past, from our region, our nation, and from around the world, in so doing to respect tradition and history while welcoming the new, the challenging, the unorthodox, the unusual.
The book publishing world is centuries old, and a traditional method of publishing is well-established. It involves an eco-system of publishing houses with editors, sales representatives, and marketing specialists, working with authors, agents, distributors, librarians and booksellers. Publishers provide money to pay authors, editors acquire and edit books, marketing staff work to find and target the right readership, sales representatives bring the books to the marketplace of distributors, libraries and retailers where readers are likeliest to find them. Agents represent writers and help them find the best publisher or editor for their work(s). While by no means unflawed, this system does work for the most part to assure that works of adjudicated quality reach their intended audience(s).
As an independent bookstore, we work with traditional publishers to bring the books we believe in to our audience of readers. We meet regularly with sales representatives, editors and publicists. Publishing houses provide us reasonable terms of sale, extend us credit, and provide advertising and marketing support to help us reach the appropriate audience for their titles. They allow us to return unsold books for credit towards new purchases. They provide financial support for many author events. We develop strong relationships with particular houses, editors, sales reps, and agents, relationships that enhance our ability to present both well-known and fledgling authors in a variety of formats and at various venues—our store, libraries, restaurants, cultural organizations, schools, churches, and many more. We establish significant relationships with local literary and cultural organizations and businesses that amplify our presentation of authors and books to our community.
We have, effectively, a partnership with traditional publishers, one that, though flawed, works reasonably well. We devote significant space in the store to the books of these partners, because the relationship serves both of us as we intend it to—allowing us to provide readers with a variety of choices to meet their needs for information, entertainment, pleasure, knowledge, insight, exacerbation, etc. And we are less likely to give up some of our valuable space store to a new relationship that is economically unproven and without the connective tissue to sustain it.
Our experience with non-traditional publishing over the years has often been challenging. Some are completely unfamiliar with our store, its location and placement in our community, with what we stock, with our vision of bookselling and community. Some publishers or authors don’t want to share any money from sales of their books with booksellers; some have editorial or production standards that don’t match ours. Some require restrictive terms of sale and returns that don’t allow us a reasonable margin on sales. Some don’t share our belief that a successful business is built on a committed and equitable relationship with like-minded partners.
As a new or self-published author, you want us to stock your book; we are as likely as not to want to. We’ve established our consignment policy as a reasonable and economically viable way for us to do so.
(With thanks to bookselling colleague Richard Howorth of Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, for inspiration, insight, and language.)