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Doubling as a Distributor

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In 2004, John F. Blair, Publisher, will celebrate its 50th birthday. When Mr. Blair died in 1986, his lawyers recommended that his heirs close the company because, as they put it, he had “squandered his personal fortune” on his publishing company. Mr. Blair’s sister, and principal heir, pointed out that he had no wife or children, and that he had literally died at his desk, doing what he loved. She noted that he might have had more of a fortune than anyone realized.

When Mr. Blair’s heirs decided to keep the company open as long as the family was not asked to contribute additional funds, the staff chose to tighten its focus and concentrate on publishing regional books–a formula that allowed the company to build a solid financial footing. Currently, Blair publishes 15 to 20 new books annually, all of which have some connection to our region, the Southeastern United States.

Taking on distribution clients made the financial footing even firmer. Interestingly, when I was pulling figures together for the 50th birthday celebration, I discovered that there will be 181 Blair books in our spring catalog (new and backlist) and 176 titles from our various distributed lines (new and backlist). Our distribution arrangements create economies of scale both for us and for the client publishers. In addition, they double the perceived size of Blair and dramatically increase the outreach of each distributed press. For example, a catalog from a small press with only 10 titles in print might not appeal to national sales reps, but once those titles are included in a catalog that offers 19 new titles in a season along with a sizable backlist, reps will take them on and work to generate sales.

Category Requirements for Clients

Blair began distributing 10 years before the death of its founder and CEO. In 1994, Barry McGee, owner of Bandit Books–which, like Blair, is located in Winston-Salem, North Carolina–approached the company about distributing the four books he then had in print. Since McGee was a one-person publishing operation, he wanted to shift the responsibilities for selling, invoicing, packing, and shipping to another source. In 1998, Blair signed its second distribution agreement with Jerry Bledsoe, the owner of Down Home Press. Bledsoe, a well-known newspaper reporter in North Carolina, had invested some of his earnings from his New York Times bestseller, Bitter Blood, in establishing a regional press, but he too was trying to balance everything with only one other staff member. When Down Home Press began its distribution arrangement with Blair, it brought approximately 50 backlist titles into the mix.

Including those two initial distribution clients, Blair now does distribution for 14 presses. The newest client is NewSouth Books, located in Montgomery, Alabama. We have always been adamant about taking on only presses that publish books in the same categories we sell well. This gives the Blair catalog a clear focus that buyers understand easily.

 

Although Blair’s distributed lines now account for only 20 percent of its overall business, that extra percentage allows the company to grow without overextending itself financially. Since we have our own warehouse and invoicing staff, it is easy enough to add a few more books to an order we’re filling for Blair titles.

The System’s Specifics

Unlike most distribution services, Blair charges a flat fee of 35 percent of the net invoices for all its services. We don’t charge separately for space in the catalogs, displays at book festivals and trade shows, inclusion in special direct mailings, sales rep fees, telemarketing campaigns, a page for each title on our Web site, submissions to Amazon.com and other online sites, or even processing of returns.

As for the logistics, we currently have one full-time warehouse employee, who has worked for the company for more than 10 years. He has a rare and enviable ability to read and follow those mammoth books of instruction that chains and wholesalers send out, and he likes warehouse work. Obviously, he is one of our most valued and hard-to-replace employees. We also have a part-time employee who comes in to help out when we receive large return shipments from a wholesaler or chain. She is a retiree whose hours are flexible, which works out nicely because you never know when those big returns are going to show up at your loading dock. As long as we can work around her regular golfing times, she’s available to make a little extra spending money. Her accumulated monthly hours are up and down depending on the return cycle for the chains, but because she’s so efficient and knows the system, she generally works no more than 20 hours a month. Our warehouse employee usually handles the small returns himself. (At about 20 percent, our returns are relatively low by industry standards, but of course they continue to be the thorn in the side of all aspects of the business.)

We use an off-site warehouse to store most of our inventory. However, we keep a supply of fast-moving titles and a basic inventory level of all other titles in the warehouse section of our offices. This allows us to fill orders quickly and also to respond personally to customer-service problems and requests for review copies. Since we pride ourselves on giving our customers good service, we want to know thate
roblem was taken care of immediately because our sales manager went back there and handled it himself.

Who Benefits and How

The system seems to be working well for everyone involved. The distributed clients are able to devote their energies to producing books, which is what brought them to publishing initially, while getting orders that they might not have gotten otherwise. Buyers are able to combine their orders from several small publishers into one shipment with one invoice. And we get increased sales while maintaining our own publishing program and increasing everyone’s visibility in the marketplace.

Carolyn Sakowski, who began her career in the book business as the founding manager for Watermark Books in Wichita, Kansas, returned to her native North Carolina to work as the publicity director and later sales director for John F. Blair, Publisher. Since 1992, she has been president of Blair. She has also served two terms as president of the Publishers Association of the South and was the 2002 recipient of the Robin Mays Award.

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