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Eight Tips for Better Relationships with Distributors

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1. Have reasonable expectations. Approximately 150,000 new books are published every year. A publisher must earn the right to get its books onto the crowded bookstore shelves by establishing a reputation for quality products and reliable marketing success. Put yourself in the buyers’ shoes, knowing that they will judge your performance by sell-through. Why should a bookseller take a chance on an untested publisher and an unknown author? This is a question from buyers that your distributor’s sales rep will have to answer, so provide all the relevant facts that you have and recognize that they may not be strong enough to overcome self-protective sales resistance.

2. Communicate in a clear and timely fashion. Keep your distributor up to date about your marketing and publicity and send an e-mail if you schedule a major national event–the earlier the better. Find out how your distributor likes to receive information and respect those preferences as much as possible. It’s always a good idea to include the basics–title, ISBN, author, and publisher–on anything you send. Your distributor has many clients, and you want to make it as easy as possible for staff to pass information along to the sales force and buyers.

3. Understand your distributor’s motivation. Distributors are in an interesting position because they have two customers–the publishers and the accounts–and a distributor must often act as a mediator between the two. It’s always important for you to remember that everything your distributor does is motivated by what the accounts need (and not by a sadistic desire to drive you crazy with multiple requests).

4. Work with your distributor’s timeline. Make sure you have plenty of lead time before you begin publicity efforts. It’s frustrating for you, your author, and your audience if the book is not available when the demand starts. Your distributor’s timeline is not flexible–it’s based on the accounts’ needs. Chain stores may take as long as three months to order a book after it’s presented to them. Most distributors run on the same basic seasonal schedule, but you should make it a priority to be clear on what schedule your particular distributor uses. Find out when your book will be cataloged, when it will be sold, and when promotion should start.

5. Don’t interfere with your distributor’s accounts. Distributors usually hire sales reps who can get buyers to trust them. When a publisher contacts an account directly, it undermines the sales rep and confuses–or, even worse, irritates–the buyer. If you have a question about an account or a concern about a specific sales rep, it’s best to talk to your distribution contact or sales director and let them deal with the issue.

6. Market and promote your book, your author, and your publishing program. It is the publisher’s responsibility to create demand for its titles. Because there is so much competition, bookstore buyers do not need to take risks on unknown publishers, authors, or books. Most of the time, a buyer will wait to see demand for a book before placing an order. Your distributor has one shot to present your book to the buyers, and if they don’t buy then, only a successful publicity campaign is likely to get your book on the shelves. Bookstore buyers cannot ignore consumer demand. Of course, even when a buyer does take a chance and order from the rep, you still need a successful publicity campaign to avoid returns. Don’t acquire a book unless you’re willing to support it.

7. Do your research. Know your competition and know that every book has comparable titles of some kind. In fact, the more successful your competition is, the more successful you will be, especially when you’re first breaking into the market. Buyers have extensive databases with sales information that goes back for years. Many of them base their buying decisions on what their computer tells them about previous books on the subject as well as about your author’s previous books and other books you’ve published. They need to know that the book has a market, and these sales histories bring them as close to proof as they can get. Ask your distributor what you can do to help buyers identify useful comparative titles.

8. Publish what you promise. Don’t make changes in your book after your distributor has cataloged it. Any changes after a rep has sold your book can harm relationships with buyers and lead to canceled orders or returns. It’s easy to get a reputation as an unreliable publisher, and it’s very difficult to change that impression.

Hopefully this set of tips will help you build the kind of publishing program that buyers recognize and respect. Once you develop a good reputation among buyers, they tend to relax a little and give you the benefit of the doubt. One of your distributor’s primary goals should be to help you get to that point.

Jen Linck is the director of Biblio Distribution, the small-press sister company of National Book Network, as well as the marketing programs director for NBN. Prior joining NBN, she was a store manager for Crown Books.

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