Liz Mason, Quimby's Bookstore

Tips on Self-Publishing and Selling on Consignment

Working at Quimby's—a bookstore that specializes in independently
published and small press books, comics, and zines—I meet lots of
zinesters, writers, publishers, poets, and comics artists. I field lots
of questions about the practice of self-publishing, including why
zines/independently published periodicals are still being published and
by whom; how to sell self-made publications on consignment; and how much
to sell them for. I try to throw helpful info. their way, and I
thought I'd share some of that information here.

Why bother self-publishing?

People
publish their work for a variety of reasons. Some self-publishers want
to meet other people who do the same type of work they do. Others may be
activists of some sort, and their interest is to educate and motivate.
Still others might just feel a compulsive need to document/offer
analysis on a weird and entertaining topic, such as public
transportation, renegade dental care, things old people say, or how to
jam parking meters.

Take me, for example: I'm a writer with the
conviction that the public has a great need to be informed of all the
different names I call my cats and how much I love karaoke. I write,
edit, and publish a zine called Caboose and sell it at Quimby's.
So in addition to working in a place that sells zines, I have the added
benefit of seeing how my zine sells. That means that I see how independent publishing works from both the retail angle and
the publisher angle. I also know exactly who my demographic is, since
I'm often working when people buy Caboose, and I don't think they know who I
am until if/when I say something. (Want to hear who my demographic is?
It's people who shop at Quimby's!)

No matter your reasons for
participating in self-publishing, it's probably not for the mass
quantities of money you're pulling in. I mean, I don't know anyone who
makes a living doing a zine about the punk scene in Idaho. Beyond some
of the reasons mentioned above, I think many writers and publishers
engage in the practice and want a wider audience because really, what
their art is is a big campaign why people should love them. I'm OK with
this, and I think you should be, too. There is nothing wrong with, for
example, doing a "perzine" (personal zine) where you talk about your own
experiences and show your artwork. As cheesy as this sounds,
self-expression from the artist can be soul-enriching for the audience,
and therefore healthy and helpful.

In the end, what I think many
creative people want is some degree of validation in the form of
famousness without papparazzi-level attention. They want people to
recognize them when they go to pizza, send them fan mail, and tell them
that they're genius-y.  I don't know if I can help you with how to make
people like you and your work, but I can tell you that consignment is a
great way to get your work out into the world, so at least people can
see it.

Call you tell me more about selling on consignment?

Selling
merchandise on consignment (like we do at Quimby's) means that if you
bring in your zine, comic, or book to sell, you designate the retail
price, and then once it sells you can come and pick up the money you
made on the sale. The store offers you the space and service to sell
your items. The way that Quimby's does it, you get 60 percent of the
retail price you sold it for, and the store keeps 40 percent.

Most
other stores buy merchandise from a distributor, pre-paying for it when
they order. Or they order merchandise and have a month or two to pay
the accompanying invoice once the merchandise arrives. Either way, if
they go this traditional route, stories can be stuck with merchandise
that they've already paid for but can't sell. This is why consignment is
a more helpful model for a bookstore that wants to take some chances
and maybe support some underdog independent publishers. The store isn't
paying any money up front—just some of the proceeds already earned once
the merchandise sells, and it goes straight to the consignor (who is
usually also the publisher).

It's great for the consignor too,
because he/she can take back their merchandise at any time if it's needed for any reason. At Quimby's, when we run out of space, we ask
consignors to retrieve unsold copies (after a reasonable length of time)
to make room for new stuff on our shelves.

One thing I really
like about the consignment process is that it allows Quimby's to sell
what we do. Sure, we carry some books that we get from distributors and
publishers, but these typically sell well and allow us to carry the
other stuff we're excited about taking chances on. If a consignor has
consistent success over time selling his/her zines at Quimby's, we'll
start buying merchandise up front, giving him/her money for the work in
advance because we know we can rely on those items to sell.

If I'm selling on consignment, what should the retail price be?

My
answer to this is multifaceted, since there are many things to
consider. For one, how much did it cost you to make? Is your priority to
make money on it? If so, do you want to make enough money to not only
cover the cost but to also fund your next project? How many hours did
you put into making the thing? Do you want to consider paying yourself a
wage for that? What kind of wage? Or do you totally not care about
money at all and you just want to tell your friends to come and look at
your awesome new creation that you can proudly say you have selling in a
store, so you sell it for super cheap? These are all things to think
about, but generally speaking, these are the patterns I see people use in
pricing their items:

  • Zines tend to range from $1– $5.
  • Chapbooks (the zines of the poetry world): $4–$10.
  • Fancy pants "artist books" (like zines but with less text and more visually-oriented content): $5–$15.
  • Mini-comics (the zines of the comics world): $1–$10.

Of
course, these are just pricing trends I've noticed, not hard and fast
rules. Whatever price you decide on, make sure it is legible. And give
your publication a name (not Untitled) because we need to be able
to track it if you actually want to get some money for sold copies. You
don't need to get fancy and get a barcode, but if you want to, that's
cool; it makes no difference to us. (And a P.S. on that point: just
because somebody put a barcode on their thing it doesn't mean they've
sold out to "The Man." Anybody can get a barcode.) Lastly, bind your
publication in some way that it won't fall apart on the retail floor:
stapled, sewn—however you want to do it. Good luck!

Liz Mason's work has appeared in such publications as The Chicago TribunePunk PlanetVenusLumpen, and The Zine Yearbook. Her writing has also been featured on playboy.com. She once appeared on a daytime television reality show to provide instruction on publishing zines, which executives at NBC referred to as “pamphlets.” She writes, edits, and publishes her zine Caboose and manages Quimby's Bookstore.

Published by CAR_Laura on Mon, 11/08/2010 - 2:27pm
Updated on Fri, 03/25/2011 - 3:10pm