RT’s Giant Bookfair

Yesterday was RT’s Giant Bookfair. It was easily the most intense signing I’ve ever been at. Authors rubbed shoulder to shoulder (literally), books taking up all available table space, with a line of readers that snaked through much of the building. The waits were immense.

Some self-published authors are talking about one specific thing: that is, the separation of authors into two rooms on the basis of criteria that would not have been obvious to readers. Authors who were selling nonreturnable books–typically, authors from digital-first presses and self-published authors–were selling books on consignment, whereas the other books were being sold by a bookstore.

(For those following along at home: Most authors know what is meant when we say a book is “returnable,” but readers probably don’t. So just to make it clear, many publishers make their books available to bookstores on a “returnable” basis. That means the bookstore can order in 20 copies of a book to see if it will sell well. If it does, yay for everyone! If not, the bookstore can send back the copies they didn’t sell for credit. They do this to convince bookstores to take a chance on authors without having to take an enormous risk. From a book fair perspective, it could be very expensive to order nonreturnable books that are not sold at the book fair. There is little other avenue to sell those books–so ordering those books, and having to eat the cost of them, could easily make a bookfair unprofitable, and then we wouldn’t have them at all. Instead, authors with nonreturnable books bring those books on a consignment basis.)

That meant that the authors needed to bring those books, have them checked out, determine the sales of books afterward, and fill out paperwork as to how they were to be paid. I believe RT handled those sales. By contrast, a bookstore was handling the sales for the books that were returnable. At the RT Giant Bookfair, for administrative ease, authors with nonreturnable books were put into a separate room. This saves a little time because then RT staff would automatically know if an author needed to be checked in/checked out. From the reader perspective, I believe that these books had to be paid for separately, too. (I didn’t go through the paying lines and so cannot say for a fact that this is true, but I’ve heard it more than once now.)

(Another not-so-sidenote: I refer to this as a “separation” because that is in fact what it was. I do not think it’s appropriate to use civil rights language to describe what happened. There is a difference between business arrangements that are entered into voluntarily, and irrational, debilitating animus that is based on immutable personal characteristics. Also, there is a difference between separating people on the basis of irrelevant facts like race, and separation on the basis of legitimate, administrative reasons. It’s really uncool to appropriate the struggles of minorities to describe a voluntary choice to get 70% royalties on digital books. I don’t really want to have that debate, though, because I have Been There Before and it Rarely Does Any Good. So I’m putting my thumb on this particular issue: I reserve the right to disemvowel comments that go there. If you want to engage in appropriation, you can find other venues to do it.)

This separation was not explained well to readers or volunteers–unsurprisingly, since most readers/volunteers don’t really know or care whether the books they buy are “returnable” or not, since that’s a distinction that matters only to the bookseller.

Naturally, people made up their own explanations for the divide. Rumor has it that someone claimed that the authors with returnable books were “real authors” and that the authors who were selling their books on a consignment basis were “aspiring authors.” As far as I can tell, this appears to have been one misinformed volunteer, rather than the official RT Convention description. It was not something that I saw or heard, and I do not think it was widespread.

Several readers had difficulty finding me because it was not made clear that there were TWO giant rooms full of authors, and while there was a list stating what room each author was in, if you’re looking for 15 authors, it gets confusing to plot out a course between them unless you sit down and plan everything right from the start. The end result was that a division made on the basis of administrative ease led to chaos and confusion. It meant that it took readers much, much longer to navigate the Bookfair and find the authors they were looking for, and even longer to pay for those books.

While I understand the administrative reasons that gave rise to the separation, the end result was hurt feelings for authors, and–far more importantly–confusion, hassle, and hours-long waits in line for the readers who had come to this event to get signed copies of books from their most beloved authors.

I hope RT will strongly consider the possibility that a separation based on administrative reasons that are not immediately visible to readers created more difficulties than it solved. One possible solution is to scrap the consignment system and have authors with nonreturnable books sell their own books directly, using something like Square.

Despite these administrative issues, I still really enjoyed the signing. I sold every book that I brought. I met many people I had only interacted with online, and others who have just read my books on their own. Thanks to every reader who came to find me, to the wonderful authors sitting next to me who took this whole thing in good humor, and to the RT volunteers and staff who put in a tremendous day of work to make a signing of 700 authors come together.

51 thoughts on “RT’s Giant Bookfair

  1. @CD Reiss: I was wondering the same thing, since my own book list is a mix of HarperCollins, Random House, S&S, and my own indie imprint. This post provides a generous explanation of what went on behind the scenes, but it’s an explanation, not an excuse. Bottom line: The vendor who scores this gig – a massive money maker – has an obligation to carry books by all co-opted authors/publishers in a way that provides a seamless customer experience for readers. There are several ways to do that.

    We are living a remarkable moment in publishing. Readers are consuming (and spending!) more than ever. Authors have awakened to the financial possibilities and have let go of the “us and them” mentality that held us back for way too long. Hybrid authors like me are proof that there is no “them”. It’s time for booksellers to clap on, develop ways to facilitate indie authors, and share in the financial opportunities rather than cling to the kind of elder-think displayed at this book fair – because that’s what drove us into the arms of Amazon to begin with.

    The Alliance of Independent Authors has been making strides with their “Open Up to Indies” campaign, and I’m sure they’d be more than happy to advise RT on how they might create a happier, more efficient book fair next year. I hope it happens. This is such an important event. They should be leading the way for others.

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