When authors sell books online or in a bookstore, traditionally published authors make around $0.80 in royalties per copy sold. Indie authors make $2.00-$5.00 per copy.
But when traditional or indie authors sell their books in person, they often make $10.00 per copy or more.
Why do you make so much more selling your book in person? Let’s run some numbers.
Every book should have a price on the back cover. Where does that money go? Typically, the division looks like this:
- Retailer: 40%- 60%
- Printer: 10%-30%
- Publisher: 30%-40%
- Author: 5%-15%
Indie authors make more money per copy sold because they receive the publisher share and the author share.
When a traditionally published author sells books directly to readers in person, she gets the retailer share plus the author share.
When an indie author sells a book in person, she gets all but the printer’s share.
All the publishers I have worked with outsource their printing. Book printing is a very capital-intensive business, and it’s surprisingly unconnected to publishing. Books make up only a fraction of the printing industry’s work.
You can sell directly to your readers in person or online. In this article, we’ll focus on in-person sales. (If you want an episode about how to sell online directly from your website, comment on this episode at AuthorMedia.social, and let me know. )
Selling your book yourself yields the highest profit margin and the most personal connection to your readers. When you meet readers in person, you get to visit with them. Typically, readers want you to sign and personalize the book, which makes your book even more special and valuable to that individual.
Selling in person is also the most fun. Nothing makes you feel more like an author than signing a book for a reader in real life.
So here are five steps to selling your book in person.
Step 1: Find a Crowd
When selling your book in person, the primary challenge is to find a crowd of people interested in buying your book. Gathering the crowd is the hardest part of selling a book, and while the retailer’s cut is the biggest, they don’t always bring the biggest crowd.
You’ll find potential book buyers in many places.
A good launch party can be a great place to sell your book in person. Your friends and family prefer a signed copy, and they’re glad that their book budget goes to you rather than Amazon.
At my launch party, I spent most of my time signing and selling books to the 200 attendees. It was one of the five happiest moments of my life.
Every spring, we talk about launch parties in the Book Launch Blueprint course.
For most authors, speaking events are the best place to sell books in person. Speaking from the stage builds your credibility. If you deliver a moving talk, your book table will be swarming with people. It’s estimated that 5-15% of attendees buy a book from the speaker. Top-level speakers may do even better.
An author client of mine spoke at a large event in a basketball arena. He was not the keynote speaker, but he still sold about $30,000 in books and DVDs that weekend. Not a bad wage for a few days of work.
But before you can earn your way to the big stage, you must first be faithful on the small stage. That means learning how to give a good speech to a small crowd.
I spent ten years studying the craft of public speaking, and I will soon be adding a public speaking module to my course, Obscure No More.
It’s tricky to measure the success of your talk because even a bad speaker can get an audience to clap. Sometimes people applaud with relief that the boring presenter has finally shut up. When professionalism and politeness prevail, audience members will say they enjoyed a talk even when they didn’t.
So how do you measure success? By laughter.
Great speakers can make their audiences laugh or cry. The very best can do both. If you can induce an emotional response, your audience will be more likely to want to buy your book when you finish speaking.
As the old joke goes: “Do you need to make people laugh to be a public speaker? Only if you want to get paid.”
To learn more about improving your talks or booking speaking engagements, listen to the following episodes.
- How to Get Your First Speaking Gigs
- How To Sell a Ton More Books With Public Speaking
- Public Speaking for the Introverted Writer with Joanna Penn
Homeschool conventions are special because the attendees intend to spend a lot of money on books. Homeschool moms often bring several hundred dollars in cash, intending to spend it all.
Some authors make $10,000-$20,000 in book sales at a single homeschool convention.
If you want to sell books to homeschoolers, here are some episodes to help:
- How to Market Books to Homeschool Families with Tricia Goyer
- A Christian Author’s Guide to the Homeschool Market
- What Authors Must Know About Homeschoolers Before Trying to Sell Them Books
What started as Star Trek and comic book conventions back in the day has morphed into a whole movement of nerd events around the country. These include board game conventions, anime conventions, and even video game events. If you write speculative fiction, your books may fit in at these conventions.
Booths at these fancons can be expensive, especially if you only have one book to sell. But you can team up with similar authors to split the cost of a booth. Plus, you can wear a costume and fit right in!
Companies & Organizations
I talked with an author who sold about 10,000 paper copies of his book to corporations and large nonprofits every year. How did he do it? He cold-called HR directors on the phone and talked to them about including one of his books in their Christmas gift to employees.
HR directors typically have a limited budget for Christmas gifts, and books make a great, inexpensive gift. Many companies follow the “Something they want, something they need, something to wear, and something to read” model for gifts. One phone call to the right HR person could result in 500 sales.
Authors who make a fortune with this tactic often stay quiet about it because it tends to be zero-sum. While a company might put a book in the corporate gift basket, they rarely put two. That said, millions of companies, NGOs, churches, and nonprofits don’t get contacted about what to put in the Christmas gift basket, so opportunities abound.
If you are willing to smile and dial, this strategy could work for you.
The first time I met an author in real life was at my church’s craft fair. John Bibee, author of the Magic Bicycle Series (Affiliate Link), was selling books in person at the craft fair. From that moment on, I could say I’d met a real author, and that was a big deal for an elementary school kid. My parents bought a copy of every book he wrote, and we read them as a family. We even had an autographed copy!
I hosted my book launch party in the same room at the same church twenty years later, and John Bibee came by and purchased a copy of my book. That was a special moment for me. I sold a copy of my book to one of my heroes. It was far more meaningful to both of us than if he would have purchased a copy on Amazon.
Craft fairs work best for authors whose books are a good fit for that market. If you have never been to a craft fair, your market probably isn’t there either. But, if you are plugged in to this community and your book is one they’d like, this could be a big win. As with booths at fancons, you can team up with other authors to split the cost and the work, but booths at smaller venues are often cheap or free.
Step 2: Order Copies of Your Book
Once you find your crowd, you need inventory to sell. How you get your copies will depend on how you are published.
Remember, if you’re in a rush to receive your books, you’ll have to pay more to get them on time, whether that means express printing or shipping. Order books before you need them.
Traditional Author Copies
Traditionally published authors typically get 20-100 free copies of your book to give away or sell. You can purchase additional copies from your publisher at the discounted price laid out in your contract. If you plan to do a lot of public speaking or go on a fancon tour, let your literary agent know so they can fight for a bigger author discount for your book.
With your author discount, your book usually will cost between $3.00 and $6.00 per copy. One sign of a predatory publisher is the high cost of author copies. Read your contract and ask a lot of questions before you sign anything.
Indie Print on Demand
Most indie authors print their books on demand (POD), which means they pay the same price per copy no matter how many copies they order.
My book costs me $3.47 per copy, regardless of how many copies I order. After I add taxes and shipping, my price increases to $4.63 per copy. My printer offers a shipping discount for large orders, but it’s not enough of a difference to make me want to stock up.
I sell the book for $15 in person, and I find that after a speaking event, people will pay with a $20 bill and ask me to keep the change. I make $10.37 or $15.37 per copy when I sell my books in person.
Indie Offset Printing
If you had a strong Kickstarter campaign or have one successful book under your belt, you may want to consider offset printing. Authors on the homeschool convention circuit often use offset printing because they sell so many copies.
Offset printing becomes cheaper per copy for larger orders. Depending on the number of pages and various other factors, an offset print run of 500-1500 copies will usually be cheaper than print-on-demand copies.
You probably have a printer in your city that can offset-print books for you.
The drawback is that offset printing typically requires a lot of money up front. Depending on how many copies you order, you may need $5,000 to $15,000 on hand. When you order thousands of copies, you have the added expense of storing them.
The offset printing method works great if you had a Kickstarter campaign that brought in $10,000 ahead of time, and you already have hundreds of books sold through the campaign. Offset printing is also good for authors speaking to large audiences.
When I was a literary agent, a client of mine was booked to speak to 30,000 people. If 5% of his audience bought his book that day, he’d still sell 1,500 copies at a single event.
But be careful!
One of the classic indie blunders is to order too many copies of your book in a flurry of optimism. Don’t order 1,500 copies, hoping you’ll be invited to the big stage. Order 1,500 copies after you have a contract to speak on the big stage.
If this is your first book, don’t use offset printing. You have no idea how well it will sell, and most authors’ first books don’t sell as well as they expect. This is especially true if they are not following the 10 Commandments of Book Marketing.
I recommend you use print-on-demand services when you’re starting out. Be faithful in the little things. Learn how to sell 100 books in person before you try to sell 1,000 books in person.
Don’t waste your marketing budget on books that will sit in your garage forever.
Step 3: Set the Table
Once you have your crowd and your books, you need to set up your book table. This shouldn’t matter, but it does. It matters after giving a speech, and it matters a lot at a convention.
So here are some tips for setting up your book table.
Create Appealing Bundles
This is the most powerful tip, and it works in all contexts. If you have multiple books and products, put them into bundles to incentivize people to buy more than one book. If each book in your trilogy is $15, consider selling a bundle of all three books for $30 or $35.
Create a pretty display with the contents of the bundle, like a wicker gift basket containing your three books. Your display allows people to see what the bundle includes.
If you only have one product, bundle some related products made by other artisans. You could bundle a handmade candle, a bath bomb, and your cozy romance book into a “Spa Night Bundle,” for instance.
You may be tempted to sell a bottle of wine with your book bundle, but check your local laws. You may need a liquor license to sell alcohol which would make it prohibitively expensive.
If you team up with other authors at a fancon, consider making a bundle that includes a copy of each of your books.
Grab Attention with Booth Decorations
One classic booth decoration strategy is to get a tablecloth or booth runner with your book covers printed on it. You can decorate your booth with signs, spinners, and more. If you plan to do a lot of in-person selling, you may want to invest in solid booth decorations.
At your next convention, notice that nearly every vendor has a tablecloth or a booth banner. Your decorations should match the convention, so get a feel for the vibe as an attendee before you spend hundreds on booth decorations.
If you have a photo of your decorated book table, please share it in the comments of this episode at AuthorMedia.social to help inspire your fellow authors.
Buy (or sell) a Conversation Starter
At homeschool conventions, authors commonly place a sword, shield, helmet, or something similar on the table to draw attention and start a conversation that can lead to a sale.
One author I met was wearing chainmail at his booth. He sold fantasy books and assemble-at-home wooden trebuchets. He clearly knew how to sell to teenage homeschool boys! The trebuchets were expensive, and they made his books seem like a bargain in comparison.
If you write mysteries, put a plastic skull on the table. The more creative your conversation starter, the more conversations you will start!
Maintain the Crowd
No one wants to approach a book table where the author is awkwardly twiddling his thumbs.
Make your book table inviting by talking with people and assembling a crowd. People want to do what they see other people doing, and a crowd draws a crowd. Don’t be in a rush to move people along. Keep the conversation going. Ask them questions to keep them talking. You’ll get to know your readers better, and it will help you sell more books.
Step 4: Collect the Money
In the olden days, when people wanted to buy a book, they would hand you cash, and you would hand them a book. But today, people are hesitant to touch money that other people have touched. The trend away from paper currency has accelerated.
Some authors accept cash only because they don’t want to pay credit card fees, but that is bad math. These authors don’t realize that 95% of a watermelon is more than 100% of a grape.
Yes, there is a transaction fee to accept credit cards, but you typically only need to sell one extra book to cover all the transaction fees for the day. It’s better to pay a 3.5% transaction fee on a $15 purchase than for your customer to buy from Amazon who takes 70%.
If you want to sell books in person, you need to offer a cashless option.
When you buy on Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist, the preferred payment method is Venmo.
Venmo allows you to print out the QR code and place it on the table. If people want to pay you with Venmo, they only need to scan that QR code with their app.
I’d caution you not to leave much money in your Venmo wallet. Of all these cashless platforms, Venmo is the least like a bank. If someone steals money out of your Venmo wallet, it is gone.
Square is perhaps the most popular cashless payment method for authors because you don’t need a fancy terminal. You only need a smartphone and a card reader, and Square will send you a basic card reader for free. There’s no monthly fee, and their credit card fees are reasonable.
If you want to take credit cards in person, Square is a great option.
PayPal has a smartphone credit card reader that competes with Square. I haven’t tried it, but if you are already a big PayPal user, then using PayPal might be easier. PayPal and Square have similar pricing.
As a consumer, I prefer Square because I get an email receipt.
Some authors set a laptop on the book table so readers can pay for books through the author’s website. If you choose this method, remember that you’ll need an internet connection. One benefit of taking payments through your website is that you’ll get your readers’ email addresses too.
I only recommend using your website if you already have an e-commerce store set up and you’re already collecting sales taxes.
Step 5: Collect Sales Taxes
This next section only applies to authors in the United States. Each state is different, and I am not a CPA, so consult the laws in your state. Depending on where you sell, you may be required to collect sales taxes.
You May Not Need to Collect Taxes
If you only sell books in person occasionally, you may fit within your state’s “Garage Sale Exemption.” If you only sell a few hundred dollars in books each year, the state may not require you to collect taxes on that. Check your local laws for a garage sale exemption and find out if you qualify.
Collecting Taxes Might Save You Money
If you are required to collect sales taxes, it should mean you don’t need to pay sales taxes when you buy copies from your printer.
If you’re not required to pay sales tax when you purchase copies, you might increase your margins by the percentage of the tax rate in your state. In Texas, this would mean your books would cost 8.25% less per copy. That may not sound like much, but it is half the royalty a traditional author makes.
In some states you get a small kickback from the State as a “thank you” for filing your taxes correctly and on time.
Collecting sales taxes requires more sophisticated bookkeeping, and bookkeeping costs time and money. You need to accurately track your sales to file your sales taxes, which means you need bookkeeping software.
You must also apply for a sales tax permit and file a sales tax return. Depending on sales volume, your return is due monthly, quarterly, or annually.
Some states don’t have sales taxes at all, so please check your local and state laws.
Where to Find Help with Sales Taxes
While the IRS has a reputation for terrible customer service, the Texas Comptroller has the opposite reputation. They have a helpful website, and they will talk with you on the phone to answer your sales tax questions competently and politely.
While I am tempted to say this is because Texas is a special place, I would like to think other state governments are equally as helpful, but your mileage may vary. Not all states are friendly to small businesses.
Companies like TaxJar will handle sales tax paperwork for you. Their pricing plans start around $20 per month.
Handselling is a Low-Obligation Tactic
You can sell copies of your book in person as much, or as little, as you want. Some successful authors sell nearly all their books in person, and other successful authors have never sold a single copy in person.
For most authors, selling in person is a great way to supplement their income and connect with super fans. It may be worth a try.
In this course, you will learn
The course is taught by Tom Umstattd, a CPA with over 35 years of experience working with authors, and his son Thomas Umstattd, Jr, founder of Author Media and host of the Novel Marketing podcast.
Learn more at AuthorTaxTips.com.