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Is Working with a Distributor Right for You?

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A master distributor acts as your sales force and fulfillment center. Many people confuse distributors with wholesalers, often using the terms as if they were interchangeable. But there are important differences between wholesalers such as Ingram and Baker & Taylor and master distributors such as NBN, Biblio, BookWorld, Consortium, IPG, and PGW.

Here are the primary functions of each:

Wholesalers serve as warehouse/replenishment centers for retail customers; they do not require exclusivity and they do not have sales forces. In general, they are reactive rather than proactive.

Master distributors handle warehousing and fulfillment for publishers; they require exclusivity as far as the book trade is concerned; and they do have active sales forces. In general, they are proactive.

Small pressesoften start out by making their books available through as many wholesalers as possible, as well as through the Amazon Advantage program and local bookstores. Once you’ve done that and begun to establish your publishing program, you might start considering a master distributor.

Here’s why you may want to work with one:

    • You want to have your books sold to B&N, Borders, Books-A-Million, etc., on a national level.
    • You want your books to be available through Ingram to reach stores that buy only through Ingram.
    • You can’t afford a sales force of your own.
    • You’re tired of packing books in your garage.
    • You have an ongoing publishing program that the distributor will be able to benefit from through more than one season.
    • You’d like to give your publishing program more credibility in the industry.
    • You want to access the experience of professionals with a stake in your success.
    • You’d prefer spending more time on acquisitions, editorial matters, production, and publicity, and less time on sales, fulfillment, and credit and collections.

Advice on Applying

If you decide that master distribution is for you, you can compile a list of prospects by searching the Web for “book distributor” and looking in books on publishing by folks like John Kremer, Brian Jud, and Dan Poynter. For a full list, check the Ingram Web site: www.ingrambook.com/new/distributors.asp.

Be sure to shop around and investigate all your options. If you’re fortunate, you’ll get several distributors interested in your program, and you’ll be able to compare contracts and services. This gives you the chance to choose the best fit for you, and possibly to negotiate your terms.

However, if you’re still quite small and just starting out, getting a distributor to offer you a contract can be challenging. Make sure your submission to each prospect follows its guidelines, is professional, and shows that you have an understanding of the business. It’s a lot like a job interview.

Here are the questions I ask when reviewing a submission to Biblio from a prospective publisher:

    • Did the publisher fill out the application completely and send all materials requested?
    • Is the cover letter respectful, informative, and concise?
    • Does the book have an EAN barcode on it and a printed U.S. price?
    • Is the price reasonable and competitive? (My #1 reason for rejecting a submission is that the answer to this question is no.)
    • Is the cover design competitive for the category?
    • Does the publisher have a clear marketing and publicity plan?
    • Does the publisher understand that promotion is the publisher’s responsibility?
    • Is the book POD? (We don’t accept POD books–the chains won’t buy them.)
    • Is it perfect bound or casebound? (We don’t accept spiral bindings or books without a spine.)
    • In terms of quality and potential, is this a book I could confidently ask my sales force to sell? (Credibility is all-important in our business.)

Make sure you do your research before signing a distribution contract. Get references. Ask questions. Understand the distributor’s schedule and requirements. Don’t sign a contract just because it’s the only offer you received. There are lots of places to get more information about particular distributors–regional publishing and writing associations, consultants, industry publications, your existing accounts, printers, and other independent publishers.

Signing a contract with a master distributor is one of the most important decisions you’ll make when it comes to your publishing business, so take this step very, very seriously.

Jen Linck has been the director of Biblio Distribution and a superstore manager for Crown Books in northern Virginia. She is now director of marketing programs for National Book Network and director of trade marketing for Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.

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