Inside the bookshop: Costs and Benefits

So, you’ve splashed out a few thousand pound on professional editing, formatting and cover design for your indie novel. (Costs vary, but you get you what you pay for and I paid for high quality. In my experience, fiction writing and self-publishing is a financially self-flagellating affair, but we all have our reasons.) You’re reaping in a couple of US dollars per online sale, but how about if you make it to the Holy Grail? – you get your actual physical book into actual physical shops. If you’re in the fortunate minority, here’s my experience…

My local bookshops are here in Hong Kong, whereas my first novel is set around my Polish grandmother’s travails across war-torn Europe: the two are not naturally symbiotic. But the three main chains of bookshops across a city of seven million people – of whom perhaps 5% read English books – all opted to stock my novel. I had no connections, but I guess I got lucky because my sporadic journalistic offerings do get published in the local press.

The first thing to be aware of is that stores work on a sale or return basis: you pay for your books to be printed (– printing which could not be done in Hong Kong –), shipped and delivered, and the stores pay you only if they sell the books. It’s a tough industry for book stores, too. Just to survive, they generally expect a 50% discount – meaning they keep half of the cover price. Unless you’re going to run around all the stores (– for me, that’s dozens of locations, including out at the airport –), you’ll need a distributor, who will typically take 10%. You get to choose the RRP – so make sure 40% of it is enough to cover printing (around $60HKD per book for a 300-page novel), plus shipping and delivery costs.

I looked at the prices on the shelves and concluded that paying $180HKD (£15+ or $US23+) or more for a paperback was too much. So I priced A Chance Kill at $170HKD, and by my paper napkin calculations, I would make $2HKD per book.

But I’m not doing it to make a load of money (clearly!). I was hoping for my book to stay in the shops; often, after two to three months a poor-selling book would be removed from the shelves. I am trying to establish a footing: a second novel is on the way, this time set in Hong Kong.

If you find a store willing to sell your book at a discount for a while, as one chain of shops kindly choose to do for A Chance Kill, do check that the discount is marked: I found no discount label on or near any of my books, so customers only realized the bargain they had after they reached the till.

Sometime after sales began, my mathematics teacher of a wife got involved (I hadn’t wanted to bother her with it previously). It turned out I was losing four bucks for every book I sold from a physical shop. Well, I had no one to blame but myself. Fortunately, my distributor helped me find a cheaper way to import subsequent orders, to offset previous losses, so now I make a couple of dollars from each sale.

Nine months on, after it rose to the top of local charts for a while, I’m pleased that A Chance Kill is still selling well enough for stores to continue to carry it.

Seeing your own book on bookstore shelves may not help your bank balance, but it does help you to feel like maybe, just maybe, you are a writer. Furthermore, the exposure of book launches and signings may help you to develop at least a part-time literary ‘career’ – and it may help you to believe in yourself.

* I am to business what Donald Trump is to humanity: misplaced.

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