Conduits to Customers, Part 2: Fulfillment Options
by Linda Carlson
Getting books to customers means mastering many different operations. Last month, this two-part “Conduits to Customers” series examined distribution options, covering wholesalers and distributors, especially those with specialties, and the merits of working with them, whether or not you also self-distribute (for more on distribution, see “Toward a New Distribution Paradigm for Startups and Self-Publishers” in this issue).
This month the focus is on physical tasks inherent in fulfillment: warehousing, drop-shipping, packaging, and shipping. Although oriented to publishers who maintain significant inventory, the packing and shipping information may also help authors who sell copies of their titles.
Publishers who distribute their own books have to inventory the books, whether or not they work with wholesalers and specialty distributors. Translation: they need warehouse space. For very small or fledgling firms, the warehouse is often a garage or a spare bedroom.
More seasoned presses have some advice for new publishers who expect to store their books in their homes:
Evaluate the weight involved. A room with wood floor joists may not be able to support several thousand pounds. A book manufacturer can provide the weight of a single copy and a carton, so you can estimate the load of your inventory. With that information and a look at the size and spacing of your floor joists, you can ask a commercial building supply firm or a design professional friend how many books you can safely store in a room.
Ensure that your books won’t get damp. Garages are not ideal storage environments. As Pete Masterson of Aeonix Publishing Group in El Sobrante, CA, points out, “Moisture can ‘wick’ through concrete. Always store book cartons on wooden pallets, and about eight inches from a concrete wall to permit air circulation.” This, he says, should prevent mildew.
Alert book manufacturers and shippers to your location. Deliveries to residences and facilities with limited access require that shipments be transferred from a semi to a smaller truck. If you don’t have a loading dock, you’ll also need to specify a lift-gate truck. In many cases, this increases the freight costs by at least $100.
At another additional charge, many shippers also offer the use of a pallet jack to move books into a ground floor facility. But in his case, Masterson reports, that didn’t work: “The slope of my driveway did not allow for a pallet jack, so the driver and I used my own hand truck to move the books into the garage.”
Whatever you need, he advises, “notify the printer, and specify that the printer notify the trucking company of what you’ll need so that fees can be calculated in advance. This eliminates any last-minute demands for delivery fees.” It’s wise to specify what you need on the bid request and confirm it in writing with your customer service rep immediately before books are to leave the book manufacturer.
Although a few printers will store short runs for publishers, book manufacturers generally expect you to use an affiliated distributor or take delivery of your books immediately. You don’t always have to warehouse at home, however. Carol White of RLI Press in Wilsonville, OR, advises, “Get creative about finding economical warehouse space. People don’t believe where I store my books—at my local grocery store, up with the Charmin tissue!
“It’s been great because the grocer has a loading dock as well as forklifts,” she says. “This resulted from a casual conversation with the store manager. Other people might have similar relationships that could be beneficial—with someone who owns a building that isn’t completely full, or other types of stores.”
For publishing companies that are growing, there are many advantages to having headquarters offices and warehouse in the same or adjacent facilities. “Our distribution center, administration, editorial, production, and sales and marketing offices are all located together in Seattle,” says Doug Canfield, sales and marketing director at Mountaineers Books. “The publishing staff loves being located with the distribution center,” he adds, since it’s easy to fulfill publicity requests, requests for author copies and donations, and other administrative orders quickly. Fulfilling bookstore orders is fast because the company’s wholesale customers, including Ingram and Baker & Taylor, have warehouses in several U.S. locations.
If your warehouse is separate from your office and your inventory is extensive, publisher Mark Wayne Adams of Longwood, FL, has a different recommendation: Get a smartphone. Adams inventories both the four books he’s published and copies of several other books he’s illustrated. When he’s in the warehouse doing physical inventory, he explains, “I can open the current Excel inventory spreadsheet from my iDisk storage app or from my email and confirm the numbers. If there is an error, I can photo document the count, then email the numbers from my warehouse. The accountant can check the numbers and I can recount before returning to the office.”
Adams’s photo counts (one photo per pallet) are made easier by something else he recommends: the same number of cases per layer per pallet. In his case, each pallet is stacked with seven cases per layer to eliminate counting errors, help with tracking and insurance, and show what space is available. If you follow his lead, you’ll want to photograph any partial cartons with the quantity noted (and of course you should have no more than one partial carton per title in a warehouse).
To make inventory even easier, this publisher is waiting for one more phone app, a barcode reader: “That will make inventory completely automated!”
You can reduce the warehouse space you need and save yourself some work if you have your book manufacturer drop-ship several cartons of books to distributors and/or wholesalers. Unless you’re using a distributor affiliated with your printer, though, this requires having obtained advance purchase orders; and you may not be able to get these advance orders for debut titles, especially if you or your author is unknown to the distributor or wholesaler whose order you solicit.
One way to encourage an advance order is by getting booksellers so excited about a book that they’ll place backorders for it. These backorders will prompt distributors and wholesalers to place orders. This tactic works better for titles with niche markets—regional books, for example—that make it relatively easy for a publisher to contact major booksellers personally.
Reporting on drop-shipping at me+mi publishing, inc., in Wheaton, IL, Mark Wesley says: “When customers are asking for 5,000 to 30,000 units, we have books shipped directly from the printer. When orders are this large, we always get 30 percent of the invoice total up front, and these books are not returnable. This covers our production cost.”
Printers do not typically drop-ship just a few cartons or mixed cases, and drop-shipping usually involves an extra freight charge because books are being delivered to two or more locations. However, such charges are likely to be lower than what you’d pay to ship the same books from your office, especially if your only option is UPS or the U.S. Postal Service.
Carton Weight and Book Quantity
For many publishers, the number of books in a carton and the carton weight are important issues. Although some book printers charge extra if you ask for anything other than their standard carton, smaller boxes can pay off both for your back and for your bottom line.
As Ken Weiler at Ostfront Publications in Hanover, PA, points out, a 37-pound carton may not sound too bad until you realize that it may be you moving it on a hand truck loaded with a couple of cases, a laptop, a briefcase, the credit card processing equipment, and everything else needed for back-of-the-room sales. “You start to look for very close parking spaces and wide automatic doors and elevators,” he says, chuckling.
“We have our press runs packed at 25 pounds per carton,” says Cathy Teets of Headline Books in Terra Alta, WV. With fewer books per carton, Headline reduces the number of books being returned by customers who ordered full cases. Plus, Teets notes, that makes case sales “much more enticing to our smaller accounts, thus saving our shipping and receiving crew the time, cost, and effort of packing more frequent smaller orders.”
At Cypress House in Fort Bragg, CA, print production work orders specify that boxes must weigh less than 40 pounds and be double-walled. “The few printers we work with who don’t regularly carry double-wall cartons can shrink-wrap the cases of books between pallets for extra protection,” Cynthia Frank notes.
Joan Liffring, at Penfield Books in Iowa City, IA, specifies even lighter cases: 12 to 20 pounds, with a total count of no more than 50 books. And at North Country Publishing, the specs are a maximum of 15 books per carton (three shrink-wrapped packages of five).
In contrast, publisher Mark Wayne Adams declares, “I’m young! More books per case means fewer boxes to carry.” But he adds an important warning: “My post office staff says that most carriers will leave heavy boxes: they wait for someone younger to take them.”
Some of your customers may limit the weight of the cartons they are willing to receive. Mark Wesley, whose me+mi publishing orders are handled by subsidiary Chocolate Bunny Fulfillment, uses the guidelines from Amazon.com, Baker & Taylor, and Target to specify how his books and those from other Chocolate Bunny clients should be packed. He also tells book manufacturers how high cartons are to be stacked on pallets and what kind and size of pallets are to be used.
As Adams points out, margin is an important consideration when deciding whether to pay extra for smaller cartons: “If your books retail for $15, the production cost is $4, and you make only $3 per copy by the time you’ve shipped them to the distributor, then 15 cents per book additional for smaller packaging could be a costly mistake.”
What printers charge for smaller cartons varies; some do not charge extra.
When you’re placing a print order, decide if you want your books shrink-wrapped, and if so, in what quantity. IBPA members love shrink-wrapping—or they hate it. (There doesn’t seem to be any in-between.)
Here’s what to think about when making your decision:
Shrink-wrapping reduces damage and keeps books clean. A shrink-wrapped book is less likely to be damaged as it travels from manufacturer to publisher, wholesaler, and retailer, and it’s also less likely to have a cover scratched or a corner bent when it’s boxed in a mixed carton for an exhibit or slipped into a briefcase by an author going to a presentation. “The wrap keeps warehouse dust and grit off of books, too,” notes Jacqueline Church Simonds of Beagle Bay, Inc., in Reno.
“Shrink-wrapping is great,” says Jack Carlson at Clear Creek Publishing in Tempe, AZ. “It keeps the books from getting scratched. Always shrink-wrap in quantities of two or more, never individually; you don’t want your book to sit on the bookstore shelf still in the shrink-wrap.” Another Carlson, the unrelated Steve at Upper Access in Hinesburg, VT, seconds the endorsement for shrink-wrap, but disagrees on packages of two. “What happens is that people, even at distributors and commercial establishments, pick up the package and think it’s one book.”
Shrink-wrapping can protect books from moisture. Lynn McGlothlin of North Country in Skandia, MI, says, “We have found the protection worth the small charge. One trucking company we used had water standing in the truck after a rainstorm: the boxes were damp, but the books were fine.”
Retailers selling two or more books as a package want them shrink-wrapped together. This is especially typical with big-box stores, explains Mark Wesley, who says, “We do shrink-wrap by request. Sometimes Costco or Sam’s Club may want three books wrapped together.”
It costs extra. Pricing is usually by package, so shrink-wrapping five copies of a book will cost five times as much as shrink-wrapping a package of five. The printer’s equipment and the thickness of a book determine how many copies can be packaged together.
“Convenient” is the word to use to request the most economical packaging. For example, at Malloy, although the cost per package varies depending on book trim size and the total quantity being wrapped, shrink-wrapping individual copies can add 12 to 17 cents per copy, Stephanie Barker explains, while “convenient”—usually a three-inch-high stack—costs 20 to 27 cents per package.
Shrink-wrapping has to be removed for books to be signed. One solution is having only part of the press run shrink-wrapped. “It’s a hassle to take off the wrap for signings,” Kathy Shearer of Shearer Publishing in Fredricksburg, TX, points out.
Even a publisher that uses a distributor or wholesaler for trade customers probably needs to handle review requests, requests for authors’ copies, and individual orders that come in via telephone, mail, and Web sites. Many publishers fulfill such orders directly, whether or not they have a warehouse. Others use fulfillment services, which range from home-based, one-person packing and labeling operations to companies that have advantageous contracts with shipping companies and also the ability to invoice.
Especially if you’re a small publisher with limited space and many obligations, a fulfillment service may be attractive because it relieves you of many tasks. As one IBPA member who recently switched to a fulfillment service says, “Life is simpler.”
Besides providing and storing packing supplies, some fulfillment contractors offer toll-free lines and credit card processing for orders.
One of the major disadvantages of outside fulfillment is the lack of control. As Mark Wesley explains, “First we stored the books in my basement, 3,000 to 5,000 units. Then we found a company that would pick, pack, and ship for us. But as time went on we noticed that our products were not shipping on time, or that when we visited the warehouse, our products didn’t appear to be well cared for. We were this fulfillment company’s smallest customer, and they it treated us like that.”
Because of Amazon.com’s discounts and prepaid shipping program, some members report that their telephone and Web site orders have sharply declined, eliminating the need for a contractor to handle retail fulfillment.
Skip Thomsen, who founded both Oregon Wordworks and the Hilo, HI–based Affordable Paradise, says, “We use Book Clearinghouse for single-copy credit card purchases via a toll-free number, but the volume of sales is minimal. Although BCH used to process about 50 orders a month, that’s now down to 5 or 10. Most customers prefer to order from Amazon, and we offer that option on our Web site.”
Book Clearinghouse faxes orders to the Oregon Wordworks distribution office in Portland and issues checks to Thomsen either monthly or quarterly, depending on sales volume. “They have been quietly fulfilling their end of the deal for years, without a single glitch,” Thomsen notes.
Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) writes for the Independent from Seattle, where she spent a dozen years self-publishing and self-distributing How to Find a Good Job in Seattle. She’s a shrink-wrap enthusiast.
A Primer on Packing and Postage
To ensure that the books you send to customers will arrive, and arrive without damage, try using these tips from IBPA members who handle their own fulfillment:
Reduce your supply costs by recycling foam peanuts and, for Amazon.com shipments, the plastic air pillows.
Comparison shop for the supplies you must purchase by using the Uline and Quill catalogs and Web sites (uline.com, quill.com).
Reduce the number of package sizes you stock by using vari-depth corrugated boxes. Rives Hassell-Corbiell of the Learning Edge in Tacoma, WA, recommends the three-fold style, which she can use to ship 24 copies of her guide or modify for orders of 8 or 16 books.
Don’t overestimate the protection of padded envelopes.“The padding doesn’t protect the books from bending, which is how they get damaged in shipping,” says Steve Carlson at Upper Access. “So protect the book with cardboard. And never ship more than one book at a time in a padded envelope.”
Wrap books for shipping. If books are not shrink-wrapped, protect them from rubbing against each other, especially if the books don’t fit tightly in your shipping carton, Carlson continues. Wrapping also protects the books from packaging material (which can cause damage, as you’ll discover when you receive returns that were boxed up with loose foam “peanuts”).
Consider Endicia.com for mailed packages because you can obtain an online tracking number. “And the price is reasonable,” says Cynthia Frank at Cypress House.
Consider FedEx for wholesale orders.“Baker & Taylor, Ingram, and Amazon do not accept a Postal Service delivery confirmation receipt as confirmation of shipment,” Jacqueline Church Simonds at Beagle Bay points out, adding, “We had retailers tell us they never got a shipment, and they may not have, but we couldn’t prove it either way. Now we use only FedEx and include the tracking number of the shipment on every invoice.” That means, she says, “we can quickly see both the confirmation of delivery online and who signed for it.” (At Clear Creek Publishing in Tempe, AZ, Jack Carlson agrees on FedEx’s reliability, but he warns that some handling is rough, which is why he double-boxes wholesale shipments.)
Consider shippers that automatically ensure your packages. That’s why Shearer Publishing uses UPS and FedEx: “The shipments are automatically insured for $100.”
Review holiday delivery times if you’re shipping via Media Mail. Beagle Bay uses Media Mail with delivery confirmation for customer orders except between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when it uses the Postal Service’s Flat Rate Priority Mail packaging for guaranteed delivery within a few days.
Use Library Rate when possible. As Robert Ellis Smith at Privacy Journal in Providence, RI, points out, “Library Rate, a little cheaper than Media Mail, may be used when you are sending to traditional libraries and to corporate libraries, government offices, and nonprofits. It may also be used if a nonprofit is the sender.” Because many Postal Service counter personnel are unaware of the guidelines for Library Rate, he adds, “We make sure that the word library is included in our mailing labels.”
Consider Stamps.com if your shipping fee is more than the postage cost. Another tip from Smith: “Stamps.com permits you to print out stamps without displaying the amount paid and allows you to put your logo or another illustration on the stamp.”