Indie-Only Bookstores?

What if somebody told you that in the future not only would bookstores sell indie work, but there would be entire stores devoted only to books by indie authors? Good idea? Fantasy? Unworkable? What if I told you they are already here?

I’ve been in touch with two new stores, one online and one in the proverbial “brick and mortar”, that do just that. It might be pushing it to call these stores “harbingers”, but I don’t think it’s totally wild-eyed to take them as indicators of some sort, and possibly a major future wave in bringing indie books to the public. Much will depend on how these early pioneers work out.

Back To The Books opened this spring in Manitou Springs, Colorado, a tourist spot literally in the shadow of Pikes Peak. (A town, by the way, where I once lived and published a notorious underground newspaper.) Owner Jon Renaud came up with the idea of a bookstore selling only indie titles when the Borders failure left the area with no bookstores and his author friends had books on hand. The old model of bookstores was failing so he figured, why not try something different? He got a prime location and stocked it completely on consignment. And is doing better than would be expected, covering the rent and an employee’s salary.

The much-covered wild fires in the area hit him with a huge setback, chasing tourists off and forcing store closure during what should have been his prime season, but he continues optimistic…and committed. He’s finding that people like indie books and have zero reservations about “provenance” if they find something like enjoy. Jon also started an online outlet for Back To The Books, where authors get a much better percentage than they do off amazon.com. All in all, it’s a tiny flag for indie authors, but it’s flapping bravely, despite adversity…and growing. His signings have been very successful and one of my books sold out in two weeks. One major thing Jon has to say is what many of us suspected all along: customers don’t care who the publisher is. They browse the books and buy the ones that look good to them. Which is all that we indies ask.

If you like the idea of having your books in a store where they are appreciated, contact Jon. You might want to wait until the fires are out and business is back to as usual. If you live in the area, this one’s a no-brainer for signings.

Well, one might say, that’s just one tiny bookstore tucked away in the foothills. But there’s another “only indies” store online, (called OnlyIndie.com, as a matter of fact) and it’s being widely watched by the industry already, though it’s brand new and showing a relative handful of titles–all ebooks and, of course, by self and independently published authors. The main reason for the publicity and interest in OnlyIndie is less the content of their books than their new, innovative financial model. All their ebooks are free…to start with. They have an escalating formula that moves books up to higher prices according to their sales. If your book moves fifteen copies, it starts costing more, ratcheting up a penny per sale to a ceiling of $7.98. To keep a book from being priced up to its “level of incompetence”, prices lower if the book stops moving.

This dynamic pricing is not only unique, it answers a lot of the decisions involved in pricing indie titles because it’s automatic. At all levels of sale the royalty percentage is more than what amazon pays–and it’s non-exclusive. It’s been suggested that writers try this on the side to see how it works. One obvious application would be to use it to give away samples to reviewers: give away enough, and the price will start rising a penny at a time.

Like most radical innovations, there is no way of knowing whether this will work or not except to wait and see. Could be a master stroke, defying conventional wisdom (like Bezos starting amazon and FaceBook challenging MySpace) or it might never reach the “critical mass” that turns it into a profitable concern and boon for indie writers–and spawns imitators. We’ve all seen dozens of “my new site lets indie authors sell their book” sites that are incompetent, useless, scams, or just didn’t work out. But we’ve also seen sites succeed, and this one has some useful new thinking going for it. Even if Only Indies never hits the “critical mass” that tips them into a going concern, one thing is for sure: they’ve made a statement about indie work and the idea that it’s worth paying attention to and purchasing.

Which brings me to a point I’ve been pondering for awhile. Much of the success of such a project depends heavily on a fairly quick expansion of titles. I mentioned to Karol Gajda, co-owner of Only Indie, that their catalog at the moment tends to reinforce the stereotype of indie writing: weak titles with less-than-impressive covers. She admits that they are growing slowly, through the time-intensive method of inviting people they know or have heard of. She contrasts this to the absurdity of big publishers’ ebook pricing. “Big publishers need to take a look at what happened to the music industry. Treat people well now. Build a rabid fan base now. Instead, they’re treating readers like trash and instilling in us a sense of hatred instead of love. It might work short term, but it’s a fool’s game long term. That’s a long way of saying I think the market should decide the price of an eBook. With our store, the power is in the hands of the reader. Not me or a publisher or author. The reader. The people who technically pay the bills for publishers and authors. The way it should be.”

Once the “snowball” effect is realized, it becomes obvious that an influx of good work to a site like this would start to move it towards acceptance, and therefore more authors… and therefore more sales, and thus higher earnings. I have thought for some time, consistent with my feeling that indie writers need to gang up to get further, that if a large enough group of writers would use a “store” en masse, it could push it towards a tipping point. I’m not endorsing Only Indie as the place to start, because we really don’t know much about them yet, but they might be the best chance at creating a secondary market where indies rule.

There’s their dazzling commitment to the indie sector, of course, but also consider that they’ve come up with a truly innovative price model while the “big boys” are floundering around trying to figure out what ebooks should cost. And the idea that the cost should be decided by audience demand is very much in the indie spirit. If nothing else it could be a good place to offer books for free, perhaps to offer free books to reviewers.

Costs nothing to get involved, non-exclusive (though would be ruled out for books on Amazon Select, of course) opt out at any time… the right idea all around. A resource to consider, I’d say.

But even those who decide it’s best to keep all their eggs in the same basket can take Only Indies as a shining example: an online bookstore aiming to get big through presenting only books by indie authors.

But whatever the future of Only Indie, or Jon’s Back To The Books, they have both made a statement: that indie books are a viable concern and that there are retailers who are willing to put their money and dreams behind them.

Author: Lin Robinson

Linton Robinson was born in occupied Japan, schooled in Asia, and is now a 20 year resident of Latin America. Robinson is an award-winning journalist and noted photographer, with credits in top markets. His syndicated columns were cult favorites in the nineties. Learn more at his blog and his Amazon author page.

40 thoughts on “Indie-Only Bookstores?”

    1. Actually, most of Jon’s books come from outside of the Springs area. I ship to him out of South Carolina and I’d say he gets a lot of stuff direct from CreateSpace and LSI, and some mailed by writers.

  1. Lin, the sliding cost method of pricing sounds like supply side economics. Even the capitalists should get behind this.

  2. Thanks so much for your support Lin.

    If any of your readers are interested in testing us out I’ll be happy to answer questions or help out any way I can.

    -Karol

    P.S. I’m a He (“Carl”) not a She (“Carol”). 🙂

  3. Thanks for the info. As an FYI, I have an author friend in Cheyenne, WY who is working on starting a “used” bookstore. The catch is, he will also be selling Indie titles. You can bring used books in, swap them for more used, or (if I understand him correctly) can use the books for partial payment on new Indie titles or more used books. I hope he can get it going, sounds like a great idea.

    Excellent post, will check out IndiesOnly.

    1. Sounds cool, Kathy. Who knows high street outlets for indie books might end up being a shot in the arm for a troubled retail sector.
      Your friend ought to get hold of Jon and chat. He’s a really great guy.

  4. Lin, I remember your profile pic from WritersDigest.com. I stopped interacting there; it didn’t meet my needs. But thanks for this article. I am thrilled at the potential, and will approach them about selling my novel. Best wishes with your biz.

  5. Great article, and you’re the first person (besides myself) to point out that the average reader doesn’t care where the book was published; they pick up a book that looks interesting, read the back, and buy it if catches them.

  6. Thanks-I’ll call BTTB today. I’ve placed my two novels in 220+ indies, mostly on consignment, mainly in the Southwest, and I’m in SC too. Labor intensive, but I’ve sold 2000 of one and 350 of the sequel.

    1. That’s pretty impressive, Mike. Another word for “labor intensive” in early stages of any career is “sweat equity”. You’ve obviously building solid foundations.

      1. Didn’t mean to sound like a braggart. My point was that there are many Indies that will try an Indie author on consignment, even if he’s not local. Most will pay 60 % of the sale price. They like ’em signed, with book marks and posters if you have them. They love signings. The author is responsible for postage and follow-ups. I’d be a lot happier if my books were readily available thru Baker&Taylor or Ingram, but they are not-yet.

        1. I don’t think you’re bragging, Mike. I think your describing some very head’s up marketing.
          I think the comparison of 220 outlets and 2000 books says a lot, too. If your books weren’t making people happy, you wouldn’t be selling ten per store.

  7. Great article… so good, I read it twice. I’ve seen bookshops that have ‘local interest/local author’ shelves, but a ‘writing’ friend of mine has a bookshop that sounds very similar to the one Kathy Rowe’s friend is trying to set up (his is in Arizona unfortunately – bit of a trek from Yorkshire!) He recently mentioned that he was thinking about doing an ‘indie’ wall/display. As an indie author himself, he knows all about the challenges we face. Naturally, I thought it was a wonderful idea…

  8. Books on consignment can be a waste of time and effort. Somebody, somewhere has to put in a good word about your book in order for it to sell. How and where it is displayed in a store is critical…better have an outstanding “grab me please” cover.

    1. John, I agree with you on the consignment thing – I’ve stopped doing consignments because the books get manhandled and end up looking ragged. Then they don’t sell because of that, and I’m stuck with a book that’s beaten up. I usually end up donating it to a library and calling it a day.

    2. Welll, there’s no use consigning books that nobody wants to buy. Especially if they aren’t granted the same display and status of TP books. That’s an attractive feature of a store that sells only Indie books–or a used bookstore that handles Indie books as a flash line. If you take a look at the pics on Jon’s site, I think you’ll see the displays.

      Speaking from selling 6 figures of an SP book, I’d see consign as a sort of “tool” for the overall sales picture. You learn where it moves, you get people on a buy program once consign shows that it will move. Stores aren’t the big show for indies, but something like this has a use.
      As one example, Jon does mailings and a mention on his site of his best-sellers. If you make that list, it’s one of those “permission to spam” things.

  9. Great write-up Linton.

    I appreciate the plug for my little store. This summer was a struggle with the fires but we are recovering nicely and looking for new titles for the coming holiday shopping season. If anyone is interested, stop by http://www.backtothebooks.net and drop me a note.

    Have a great and keep writing,

    Jon Renaud
    Owner – Back to the Books

  10. As for selling on consignment. For me it is a losing proposition. By the time I pay for the books, shipping and duty and give the store their 40% I might make a buck a book. The store makes $4.00. I do it in a couple of local stores just because people recognise my name and I have to play nice. I’ve been told to raise the price but then people simply won’t even consider it.

    1. I hate it, and use it as a tool to get stores to move to straight purchase. Thing is, having your books in stores through major publishers and distributors is also “consignment” due to the return policy thing. You might get money up front, but having to give it back on demand is actually worse than a straight front.
      Store presence in something like this isn’t seen as a money-maker, so much as a side event, promo help, and a possible pay-in to a possible future.

  11. Thanks bunches, Lin and all who wrote comments!!
    I’m posted this article on LinkedIn and FB, and am saving it for when I’ve finished writing my historical novel……
    Great!!

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