If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you’ll know that I’m transparent and candid about my experiences as an indie author. I write these articles to share my story, advice, mistakes, and the lessons I’ve learned along the way so I can help other new and aspiring authors.
When I was younger and I daydreamed about being an author, I imagined sitting at a table in a cozy bookstore with a line of readers waiting, my book in their arms, eagerly waiting for my signature. That’s the portrayal in movies and television shows, after all. It’s how you know you’ve “made it” as an author.
(I’m willing to bet that a lot of other aspiring authors dream about that scenario, too.)
But, no surprise, reality doesn’t fall in line with daydreams.
I published my first novel in 2018, and I quickly learned that although the idea of traveling from bookstore to bookstore meeting fans is a pleasant notion, it’s not realistic if you’re banking on making a living selling your books.
Maybe that could be a reality for me someday, if I ever become an internationally famous author who sells millions of books.
But today, I rarely agree to do bookstore signings anymore, and I’ll explain why. My experience is based on being an indie (self-published) author. This perspective might be a completely different story for traditionally published authors who have agents and marketing specialists working for them behind the scenes.
My perspective comes from self-publishing three award-winning fantasy novels in the last four and a half years (in the middle of a pandemic). For me, deciding whether or not to do a bookstore signing comes down to two primary factors: traffic and profits.
Unless you’re a well-known author, don’t expect much foot traffic.
I hate to be a downer, but the truth is, bookstore traffic is pretty sparse compared to other types of events I’ve done. Unfortunately, there isn’t going to be a line of people wrapping around the block for you.
I’ve set up shop in small, independent bookstores as well as larger Barnes & Noble stores, and most of that time was spent sitting behind a table with nothing to do. Some people stopped by to check out my books and ask questions, but I found that the chances were about 50/50 that the reader would be interested in my genre. Other people adamantly avoided eye contact as they browsed the shelves (readers tend to be introverts… so can you really blame them?).
Despite the bookstore advertising my signing, and despite my own efforts on social media and local press releases, there just wasn’t much going on. Now, to be fair, I’m based in the Midwest. It might be a different story if you’re in a big city like NYC. In my experience, bookstore signings had very low organic traffic. A few people came to see me specifically, but I wasn’t reaching a broad range of new readers like I needed to.
After doing my 2019 B&N book signing tour that took me to seven cities in three states, I started tapping into other types of events—festivals, comic-cons, artisan markets, etc. Places where there was MUCH higher foot traffic and the built-in opportunity to reach a lot more people without extra advertising.
When I first started, I wondered if people would even be interested in books at these types of venues. Turns out, they were! I sold out of paperbacks for my first novel at the first festival I did, which was an Independence Day celebration. I was the only author there.
I attribute the success not only to good traffic, but also to less competition. If people liked books, my booth was the only place to get them, not to mention the opportunity to meet the author and get the novels autographed at an event where people were already shopping for crafts, keepsakes, food, etc. At some events, there were one or two other authors with booths, but even though we were all selling our books, we usually had different genres and therefore weren’t closely competing for the same fan base.
In a bookstore setting, selling more than 5 books was a good day. At a festival or market, I often sold 20, 30, even 50 books. If you’re planning on making money as an author, that’s a huge leap in sales and exposure. Which leads me into my next point…
Bookstores take a hefty cut out of your profit margins.
Typically, bookstores handle your book sales one of two ways when you do a signing.
Option one: they order their own copies to the store. This means they’re buying the books from your distributor and paying the wholesale price for them. Depending on your distributor, that’s probably a 35-55% discount off the retail price, plus subtracting the print cost.
In my case, depending on the size of the book and whether it’s a paperback or hardcover, I’m pocketing between 11.5% and 20.9% profits from the retail price after factoring in those costs and wholesale discounts.
The good part about this method is once your signing is done, any unsold books remain at the bookstore to go on the shelf and potentially reach more readers after you’re gone. And of course, you can usually autograph them so they have higher value.
Option two: the bookstore takes a 40% cut of your sales during the signing, but you supply the books. At face value, it doesn’t sound like a bad deal. They host the venue and advertise your signing, and you get 60% of each sale. You’re taking home a bigger percentage… right?
The 60/40 split is an industry standard, but it’s based solely on the price of the book being sold to a customer. What it doesn’t account for is the money that you have to pay to get the books.
When you do the math, you’re losing more than you think. For example, one of my paperback books retails for $19.99. But each book costs $7.83 to print, then $1.04 per unit in shipping costs (after dividing the total shipping amount by the number of books in a box). So, when someone buys a book from me, I’m not actually getting $19.99. I’m getting $9.72 per book after factoring out the sales tax. That’s 48.6% of the retail price.
With that in mind, it’s a completely different picture when I tell you that bookstores take 40% of every sale I make at a signing considering that I’m making only 48.6% BEFORE they take their cut. Since more than half of my profits are already going into the printing/shipping costs, the bookstore is walking away with about $8 per book (40% of $20) while I’m getting just over $3 in profits. That math is going to vary a little since the bookstore adds sales tax on top of the retail price (I don’t do that when selling the books myself because it’s easier to charge people an even $20 at events), but you get the picture.
60% sounds good at face value, but that’s not the profit you’re actually getting. In terms of money, a bookstore signing is much more profitable for the store than it is for the person who wrote and published the book.
Bookstores don’t seem to acknowledge (or realize?) that a 60/40 cut is actually a hard blow for indie authors, especially with the cost to print/ship books on the rise. Because I decided not to raise the price of my most recent hardcover, my profit margin is so low that I would be in the red if I lost 40% of the sale to a bookstore. I literally can’t afford to do a bookstore signing with that particular novel. Because my margins are better for paperbacks than they are for hardcovers, I do only paperbacks now for bookstore signings.
When Do I Recommend Doing Bookstore Signings?
At this point in my career, I’m pursuing two goals: make enough money to earn a living and expand my fan base by reaching as many readers as possible. For both of those reasons, bookstores really aren’t on my radar at the moment. I typically consider doing a bookstore signing for two reasons:
- Exposure Opportunity
- Supporting the Bookstore
Bookstores can still be an adequate source of exposure, especially if you’re able to book a signing during another event that’s happening at the store. I’ve done several author fairs at bookstores, and those are fun because you have the opportunity to meet other authors, network, and cross-market with each other to draw more readers to the event, especially if the other authors write in a variety of genres.
As my event schedule fills throughout the year, sometimes I end up with open weekends. In lieu of alternative festivals, markets, or conventions, a bookstore signing can be a nice filler. It is, after all, more exposure and revenue than sitting at home.
I’m also more likely do bookstore signings if the store is a small, local bookstore that deserves support. For those events, I acknowledge that the bookstore will make more than double the profits on my books than I do. That’s just the way it is. At that point, I’m not doing it for the money; I simply enjoy supporting indie bookstores to help keep them in business.
Bookstore signings at this time are not very profitable for me, nor do they garner much foot traffic compared to the festivals, markets, conventions, and other types of events I do.
I’m not saying that new authors shouldn’t do bookstore signings. But if traffic, exposure, and profits are your top priorities, then a bookstore probably isn’t where you want to be focusing the brunt of your attention.
I recommend starting with local festivals and markets in your area, even if they’re not themed around books or your particular genre. (In fact, it’s probably better if they aren’t—less competition is a good thing.) See how you do. You might be surprised, as I was! And the results just might alter the trajectory of your in-person marketing plans.
I'm an award-winning fantasy author, artist, and photographer from La Porte, Indiana. My poetry, short fiction, and memoir works have been featured in various anthologies and journals since 2005, and several of my poems are available in the Indiana Poetry Archives. The first two novels in my Chronicles of Avilésor: War of the Realms series both received the Literary Titan Gold Book Award in 2020.
After working as a freelance writer for a time, I was shocked by how many website articles are actually written by paid "ghost writers" but credited to a different author. It was a jolt seeing my articles presented under the name of a high-profile CEO or an industry expert with decades of experience when in reality, I had none of those credentials. Just a talent for writing and the time to research topics. Ghost writing is perfectly legal and a VERY common practice.
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