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How to Date Your Distributor

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As head of sales and
marketing for a master distributor, I’m often asked to speak to publishers
about what distribution is and how it works. After a particularly harrowing
conversation, I finally realized there was an easy way to explain distribution
in terms everyone could understand—dating.

 

Let’s face it, publishing is all
about passion. It is about hoping for what may happen in the face of
overwhelming odds. It is about luck, timing, and often gut instinct. Sounds a
lot like dating, doesn’t it?

 

One of the first things I should
explain is that working with a distributor generally means you need to be ready
to make a monogamous commitment. Most distributors are exclusive, but you may
see slight differences in how and where the boundaries extend. For example,
Biblio Distribution is exclusive for trade accounts (book retailers and
wholesalers), but it leaves client publishers free to work with library
distributors such as Quality Books or Unique Books, and to sell directly to
consumers. If you are not ready for a monogamous commitment and want to
continue to play the field, you might want to work with wholesalers, which
offer more casual relationships. You can create a system of supply and demand
with a wholesaler, but you won’t get dinner . . . I mean, a sales force.

 

Making a Match

 

If you do decide you are ready to
settle down with a distributor, you need to start looking around. Don’t just go
to your corner bar and hope for the best. Get out there (physically, on the
phone, or online) and meet appropriate people. PMA has a list of distributors
at pma-online.org/distribute.cfm.
Take your time and review what each has to offer. Ask around, and ask for
references.

 

While you’re sizing up any
potential distributor, that distributor is going to be sizing you up. Remember,
each of you is looking for a partner. If you seem antagonistic or excessively
high-maintenance, the distributor probably won’t want to work with you, no
matter how great you and your books look. On the plus side, if you follow the
distributor’s submission instructions, you’ll improve the odds of getting
together.

 

Make sure you have something in
common. If your distributor sells only to colleges and your target audience is
preschoolers, you will soon be throwing the good china at one another. Your
consumer audience and the distributor’s accounts should exemplify a perfect
union.

 

You don’t want a distributor that
takes every publisher that applies. I think you can see how the dating analogy
(and the potential need for antibiotics) applies here.

 

And bear in mind that no matter
how right you are for one another, no one partner can be your whole world. If
your books are right for multiple venues, don’t isolate yourself by counting on
one distributor to do everything. Getting your book into bookstores is great,
but so is getting them into libraries and nonbook stores and book fairs and
places where the author is speaking, and those sales channels may be best
handled on your own or with a separate sales force. Like any good partner, your
distributor should support you on these moves.

 

If you do find a distributor you
like that likes you, don’t rush to the altar. Read the contract very carefully.
Keep asking questions about any terms, fees, or conditions that you don’t
understand until you are completely comfortable with the answers. Make sure you
are both clear about your expectations.

 

Something else you shouldn’t rush
is the pub date. Your distributor has catalog and sales schedules that usually
can’t be bent (although pleas for later deadlines are probably the most common
request we get from our publisher partners). Distributors are at the mercy of
their accounts, so use the schedule they must use and trust that they are
working as fast as they can to sell your books.

 

Neither one of you should sign the
contract with the desire to change your partner as soon as the ink is dry. It
is foolhardy to think that a distributor will change systems or sales channels
to suit you. Likewise, a distributor shouldn’t expect that you will change what
you publish or how you function.

 

If you are lucky, you will develop
a relationship with your distributor based on trust. The distributor trusts
that you will deliver well-produced books on time, which you will support with
smart and energetic marketing. You trust that the distributor’s sales force is
out there advocating on behalf of your books (and your publishing company).
Because books are generally sold to trade customers as returnable, understand
that your distributor will try not to oversell (or undersell) your titles.
Results will depend heavily on your marketing, so if you deliver what you
promise, you should both be happy.

 

Toward a Long and Happy
Life

 

Once you and your distributor have
gotten past the honeymoon period around pub date, you still need to communicate
with one another. Your distributor might not know about your reviews, awards,
media coverage, and so on unless you report them. You can’t be angry if the
wholesalers are out of stock on the eve of your big tour if you never told your
distributor about it.

 

Picking up your socks, not leaving
dirty dishes in the sink— these are the day-to-day issues you need to
work out with any partner. If your distributor provides you with sales reports
(online or otherwise), you should learn how to read and use them. Calling your
distributor monthly (or weekly!) to find out how many books have sold, and
where, when you could have looked the information up yourself is much like
leaving those dirty dishes in the sink. On the other hand, if your distributor
isn’t responding to your legitimate questions, this should be cause for
concern. If it has been a few days since you emailed or called and you haven’t
received a reply (or an out-of-office reply), try a gentle reminder. If that
doesn’t work, try another contact person. I’ve had publishers wait for answers
to queries, growing angrier by the day, when it turned out that their emails
went to invalid addresses.

 

In the long term, raising a book
can be a lot like raising a child. The more attention your child
requires–whether the child is winning the science fair or stealing
cars—the stronger the partnership needs to be. And believe me, we love
watching your kids grow as much as you do.

 

Davida Breier is the sales
and marketing manager for Biblio Distribution (www.bibliodistribution.com), a
master distributor that specializes in small and independent presses.

 

 

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