Consignment Books at Square Books
The internet created opportunities to have one's book published more easily and less expensively than in the past, when the only route to getting one's book published privately was by paying what was known as a "vanity press." This new opportunity also has created an avalanche of books through this non-traditional route, and almost every day at Square Books we are contacted by someone wanting us to buy and sell his or her book. In response, we have created a policy to enable doing so. Because people often do not understand the difference between -- let's call them for the sake of this discussion -- a traditional publisher and a non-traditional publisher, I want to explain here, to anyone who is interested, why there is this difference and what the different terms and conditions for accomodating them are.
Traditional publishers are all those, no matter their size or the types of books they publish in terms of content, who perform the conventional functions of publishing -- acquiring the manuscript (paying the author), editing the book, designing the book, marketing the book (which includes advertising, creating publicity for the book, getting the book before a reveiwer's attention, etc.), shipping the book to bookstores and wholesalers, selling rights (paperback, film, international, etc.), and so on. These publishers typically have two or three "lists" per year, with a number of titles on each list. The publishers have sales representatives (employed either by the publisher or as independent reps on commission)and issue a catalog several months in advance of the publication of the books on a given list. We order books off these lists on an ongoing basis, usually directly from the publisher.
In the relationship that Square Books has with these publishers, we are their customer and it is their product upon which we depend to keep our business afloat each year. We maintain active accounts with the publishers and, in addition to those times when we order a new list of forthcoming titles (called frontlist), we also order their other, older books (called backlist) directly from them. It is at their expense that their authors appear at our store, and they also provide cooperative advertising money, usually based upon a percentage of our account's previous year's net business. They extend credit, and allow us to return unsold books, usually at no penalty, for credit to be applied to future purchases.
Square Books maintains accounts with several hundred such publishers, each with different sets of terms, policies, and service capacities. It's a complicated business but one that -- given how difficult it generally is to sell a book regardless of publishers' businesss practices -- works fairly well. In addtition to these logistical barriers that publishers serve to overcome, they also go through great care to 1) select and invest capital in books that they deem to be of interest to readers, 2) edit manuscripts in order to present the book to readers in top shape, and 3) help market books so that our customers know about them. These functions make our job at Square Books possible.
Due to the unique functions mentioned above, and because publishers, by all that they do, "keep our business afloat," as I said earlier, we have a kind of partnership with them. We expect them to do a good job editing, marketing, and so on, and, in return, they expect us to work hard to sell their books. Over time, we develop personal relationships with the sales reps, or sometimes an editor who, for instance, has sent us a "Dear Bookseller" letter about a certain book that the editor wishes for us to pay particular attention to. So there is a certain level of trust or respect in this business, or at least I feel that way about it. That's probably natural in any kind of business, or any kind of "traditional" business, anyway. The book business is maybe just a little special in this regard, and that's probably because we're dealing with books.
We buy most of our books directly from the publishers. A very large percentage of our buying, however, is done through, usually, one of two major distributors (often also called wholesalers) -- Ingram Book Company or Baker & Taylor. These two very large book companies carry most of the same books that are available from publishers. They do not edit or market specific books or have (except in limited circumstances) sales representatives. We rely on them for speed, as they can get deliveries to us customarly in 24 hours to 48 hours. And we rely on them for their efficiency, as they are able to ship books at only a slightly smaller discount than that offerred by publishers. By combining in one shipment many titles from many different publishers, distributors serve an essential function in the book business.
If we make an order to a distributor for 200 books, for instance, those books could be made by 30 different publishers. If we had bought those books from 30 separate publishers, we would have 30 separate shipments with 30 different freight charges, 30 separate invoices (to be reconciled, filed and paid), 30 different envelopes to mail when we send a check, and so on. The distributor order, on the other hand, comes in one shipment, one invoice, etc., which saves us a lot of money simply in terms of our time.
So that's a cursory explanation how our business generally works, and because it largely operates in this way, that is why we encourage writers to pursue the traditional path of publishing. There is a finite amount of shelf space in our store, and it is dedicated to 1) books that we believe will sell or believe our customers want to see there, and 2) books published by the traditional publishers whose relationship to our store or whose ongoing purpose and function warrants our support. It is valuable space which costs us dearly in resources to maintain, and we will not turn it over (easily) to books that are not economically proportional -- if only because we must in order to survive.
Some writers, however, think that they should not share the profit of their work with a publisher, and seek to do it all themselves (a mistake in our view and in the view of virtually anyone who has tried to go it alone in the book business). Other writers want to take a short cut on all the time it takes to find an editor, find an agent, wait until the book is released, and so on, all of which is admittedly quite difficult. Then there are writers who realize, probably correctly, that their book has a limited appeal, that it is not a book a traditional publisher will accept for publication, so they go the non-traditional route and think our store, perhaps, can sell it.
I use the term "non-traditional" loosely here, but I am thinking, basically, of two types of books. The first is simply a self-published book. The writer prepares a manuscript, pays a nominal fee to submit it (usually digitally) to a company (which often calls itself a "publisher" although, in fact, it is really only a printer), and the company delivers copies of the book to the author. The second type, which seems to be increasing in appearance, is a firm that provides (or, again, claims to provide) some publishing services (sales, marketing, distribution) but either a) fails to provide those services, or b) may provide those services but is ineffectual in doing so -- does not really penetrate the market. In many of these cases we are talking about a one-person operation, often masquerading as a "publisher."
If our store wants to carry your book, as we often do, but the only way we can get it is from you or the one-man operation that printed the book and is a company with which we have no prior experience, then we must subject our business to the inefficiencies described or implied previously. Which, indeed, we may do -- I simply want you to understand the complexities that create caution on our end.
Again, we appreciate your interest in Square Books. With best wishes,