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Measuring the success of an author event

On the Sisters in Crime discussion list, we've been having a conversation about — among other things — how one should measure the success of a book signing. I suggested that a signing is about more than just the number of books sold during the couple of hours a writer is at the venue, while some writers argue the opposite, that this situation is all about selling books. One writer offered an anecdote about a library event where the library engaged a bookseller to handle sales. The bookseller was reluctant to order in books for itself, and instead tried to get the author to bring books to the venue, where the bookseller would sell them for a 40% cut of the transaction. On her blog http://libbyhellmann.com/wp (scroll down to 11/6 – "Bookselling Today: A Cautionary Tale), she expressed her unhappiness.

What follows below is a slightly edited version of the response I posted to the SinC list, a description of how I as a bookseller look at sales at an offsite venue.

I'll repeat something that I quoted on this list earlier: the plural of anecdote is not data. (This quote is from a great article you'll find here: http://tiny.cc/deathofbooks.) I'm sure you know that I could offer counter examples, tales of Heroic Booksellers Who Nobly Went Beyond The Call of Duty — and I know you know I could. But if you're already soured on bookstores, well that probably won't help, and the plural of anecdote is not data so dueling anecdotes aren't the answer here anyway.

So, let's talk about this library situation, and how I look at offsite events.

As a general matter, I've used 40% for consignment situations. At the same time, I would normally not expect to need to go the consignment route for an author whose books are available on standard terms through the usual channels. My feeling is that the bookseller behaved badly in asking you to bring books when they're normally available, so I'll give you that point.

But 40%? I know that sounds like a lot, but 40% of what? If we're going to create a profit and loss statement for the event, we need more information. How many books were sold? What's the dollar value of those sales? Expenses? Did the bookseller take credit cards? Electronically or by hand? Who bore the risk of bounced checks or card transactions that could not be processed? (The risk of either bad checks or bad manual card transactions is not big, but it's not zero.)

How much time did the bookseller put into the event? Mileage or gas money?

Did the library ask the bookseller for a commission on sales? (Or for one of those "suggested" donations to the friends group?)

Libraries often pay authors honorariums for an appearance. They don't pay honorariums to booksellers who support author appearances by selling books. I'm not quarreling with the money that a library pays to an author for the event. But I would hope that others would join me in not quarreling with the money that a bookseller gets out of sales at an event. If that comes at a cost of a 40% margin on book sales, I'm okay with it.

In my experience, even at a 40% margin, offsite events are rarely profitable — the few at which you can sell lots of books are more than offset by the ones where sales are minimal. I'll give you a detailed example. I sold books at a poetry reading 11 days ago. For about two hours in the room, I grossed $118 in sales. (I'm home now, so I'm doing these numbers off the top of my head — forgive me if I'm off a little.) I think that the title I sold most came in at a 35% margin, and the other came in at 40%. Call it a 37% margin overall — probably close enough. That's a gross profit of $43.66. I know that we paid freight on one of the shipments — probably about $6 or so. We're at $37.66. No credit cards at this event — which is unusual, but good because we don't have to figure a percentage for that, and no risk of messing up the transaction. No checks, so no risk of bouncing and no fee for depositing a check. (Hard to believe, but commercial accounts are often charged for depositing a check.)

What else? The trade book buyer and I put in about two hours' time between us to locate books from this poet's small presses, evaluate available titles and make decisions about appeal and quantities, discuss terms, place those orders and receive them. Working out logistics for this offsite event (arrangements, needs on site, packing books and putting together a cash bag to make change, finding and packing the receipt book, bookstands, etc) was relatively simple in this case — call it 45 minutes. Event was in another building on campus, so travel time there and back was only 15 minutes. Post-event, I had to input the sales into the system, return the books to the display, return the leftover cash to the safe — all easy in this case, call it 15 minutes. We've already returned some unsold stock to one vendor — probably 15 minutes of processing and packing plus $6 or so for shipping. That $6 gets us to $31.66 or so. If you've been adding up all the time, the pre- and post-event time was about 3.25 hours. I was at the event for 2 hours, for a total of 5.25 hours. $31.66 divided by 5.25 nets out to $6.03 per hour. I'm salaried so the extra time — I worked a full day came home then went back to campus to do this event — is just extra time. But the store pays for the trade books buyer's time, and shouldn't have to count on extra time from salaried personnel to cover events. I just remembered that I haven't put in anything for mailing checks to three companies from which we purchased books — another $1.52 in expenses for postage, not counting time for our accounting dept. to issue checks.

I type that all out not because I'm intending to offer an anecdote — I said I wouldn't do that. I'm typing this out in full detail so that you can see that there are a lot of details involved in being a bookseller at an offsite event. In this particular case, I haven't yet even touched on the issue of in-store display that supports the event, and how much that front of store space ought to be worth. (We sold I think 6 more copies of the poet's books from the in-store display, but if the measure of an event's success is what happens in the room, then these sales don't count.)  I also haven't touched on any other aspect of publicity, something Libby's bookseller promised and failed to deliver — but something that booksellers do indeed deliver on occasion.

Some events go better. Some go worse. But this one is in most respects utterly typical, esp. in the steps that we had to go through. Rarely is an event easier to arrange than this one — it's not unusual to spend more time having to figure out details, esp. for the first time in a venue (which this was, but we had good support from the event's host). Rarely is an event closer than this one — 15 minutes of travel time is hard to beat. Sometimes, it doesn't take 2 hours to locate, order and receive books. But it's always a noticeable amount of time for these steps.

Anyway … more than you want to know. Or is it? From a bookseller's standpoint, this is the process, and all this is what we have to think about when we're measuring the success of an off-site event. Does this make 40% any more understandable?

It happens that I enjoy author events — talks, readings, Q&As — even when it's poetry. I enjoyed the reading that I described above; I was happy to be in the room for it. But as a business proposition? Well, you tell me. Did I make a good decision to commit my store to supporting the event by selling books there? Is there a business reason beyond dollars that justifies this effort? I'll be interested in your answers.

That’s what I posted to the list. Let me add two final notes. First, I love libraries – I was on the Friends board in my previous community, I’m speaking today at my current library (no honorarium or book sales) – and I’m delighted that libraries are hosting events, and that they’re trying to find a way to do book sales at their events. But if the current compensation system for bookstore is somehow objectionable, we're going to need to find an alternative. Secondly, if you shop at an online bookseller, I would ask you to think about whether that online bookseller would ever support an event at your local library.  This is another example of the way in which you spend your money having an effect on your community.

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  1. This is such an excellent example (and description) of a true labor of love, Jim. Thank you for sharing it, and it also shows the love and dedication in all the authors’ signings within the bookstores also and why it is the only honorable thing to do to buy the books from the stores and not online. I am selfish and like to be treated with friendliness so I like the whole experience of having a nice bookseller hand the book to me, smiling, and offering me a bookmark. Just as “A dollar is a vote,” a “Thank you” with a smile is a sincere invitation to return. Neither of which can be communicated with warmth online. I enjoy shopping by phone if there is a friendly voice at the other end, taking time to chat a bit, and if the book arrives with a bookmark or a business card with a “Thank you” on it, the book is welcomed to my little personal library all the more heartily as it was sent by a happy booklover! Sometimes a bookseller will take my # and call back, because they are already with a customer, that’s fine, of course. Sorry for rambling. Thanks for the post!(*;*)

  2. Thanks for breaking it all down. I’ve worked on writing conferences where booksellers have done the book sales. That’s a little different because there’s usually a dozen or more local authors/speakers, as well as writing craft books. But I figure, even if they take in $500-$1000, that’s not a huge profit when you consider the time before and after, one or two employees working at the site all day, etc. Some of the larger conferences get a percentage of the bookstore’s sales (5% to 10%), but at our smaller conferences I’ve never asked for that. Their presence is good for the authors, good for the conference, and saves a lot of hassle versus hosting a bookstore ourselves.