Back-of-Room Sales: When to Do It Yourself and When to Bring in a Retailer

There are many reasons why authors choose to self-publish or go with a hybrid model that lets them retain their rights, but one of the most frequently cited reasons is ownership of inventory. Having ownership of their own books allows authors to sell directly to the public at high margins, which is great for entrepreneurial authors interested in back-of-room sales. (In a traditional publishing arrangement, if the author is permitted to sell direct, the contract generally includes a set 40–50% discount for copies the author purchases from the publisher.)

For nonfiction authors who speak frequently, back-of-room sales present a wonderful opportunity not only to sell books but also to sell them for a higher return. An engaged and energized audience will want to bring that excitement home with them, which means you have a group of willing buyers primed and ready to go. At this point, you have to answer the crucial question of how you will go about selling to attendees without missing any opportunities or becoming overwhelmed. To help answer this question, here are the two most common ways it’s done, along with the pros and cons of each option.

Option One: Do It Yourself

The first option is to handle the process of selling books directly to the audience yourself. Like any situation where the middleman is eliminated, you will retain a higher cut of the cover price. This is a great way to earn a higher return per unit, which is enticing for authors who can draw large crowds and who have direct access to their market. On the downside, the time you spend manning a table and taking orders could be spent wooing audience members. There are often potential clients and additional speaking opportunities waiting to be snatched up after a presentation, and missing out on them could mean losing thousands of dollars (and of course, book sales).

There are a couple of other things to consider. First of all, all book sales are great, but only those captured by certain retail outlets are logged into Nielsen’s BookScan, the book industry’s go-to source for tracking the sales history of books. A solid BookScan history is a key steppingstone to additional book deals (and it also affects bestseller status).

Also, you will have to consider how you will process payments such as credit cards and checks.  The hardware, declined payments, and insufficient-funds fees can cost you more time and money, ultimately eating up your profits.

One way to get around this is to employ a tactic used by many established speakers: instead of selling the books at the back of the room, you can include a copy for each attendee in your speaking fee. This way you benefit from direct sales, reach every audience member, and capitalize on networking opportunities after the event without worrying about selling books. You could also circumvent back-of-room sales by offering a discount on orders made through your website or by having your books available through the organization itself.

Option Two: Use a Retailer

The other option is to secure a retailer for your book table and have them handle the entire process. Under this scenario you would receive the royalty laid out in your publishing agreement. Yes, you’ll be making less per copy, but instead of spending your time processing sales, you’ll be securing new speaking engagements, clients, and building rapport with potential word-of-mouth marketers. Also, since a retailer is handling the payments, you don’t have to worry about the cost of facilitating each transaction. The retailer already has safeguards in place and the proper equipment on hand to process payments. In addition, every book sold will be logged into BookScan, adding to your title’s sales history and contributing to an auditable tally of your book’s market appeal and the strength of your platform.

There is no right or wrong way to handle book sales at speaking events. Ultimately, you need to decide which option best fits your needs and goals as an author.

Shennandoah Diaz is the Business Development Assistant at Greenleaf Book Group, a publisher and distributor supporting independent authors and small presses. Diaz develops educational materials for authors in addition to managing Greenleaf’s social media, writing case studies and white papers on the publishing industry, and coordinating Austin Publishing University.