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IBPA Roundtable: Working with Distributors

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PUBLISHED APRIL 2016

by Lynn Rosen, IBPA Independent contributing editor


In this edition of IBPA’s monthly Roundtable, distributors discuss barriers to shelf space, selling e-books, and the perks and challenges of going the distributor route for indie publishers. Enjoy!


Cardinal Publishers Group
Tom Doherty

Tom Doherty

What are some of the biggest challenges facing indie publishers today in terms of securing wide distribution?

The most daunting challenges that indie publishers face today are very similar to those faced by the largest publishers, such as getting their product noticed by consumers in a crowded marketplace, and the ongoing consolidation of the major customers. One area where I think that independent publishers have a lot more trouble is gaining attention in the major review periodicals. Aside from some branded products, most readers don’t care much about whether a book is published by a large or small press, but the established industry book reviewers do not seem to give independent publishers their fair share of attention.

What are some key issues indie publishers need to consider as they decide whether to work with a distributor?

An independent publisher must first know itself. Distribution is a daily grind. Customer service, fulfillment, billing and collection, metadata, sales, and the rest of it are distinctly different than the more creative aspects of the business like editing, design, and marketing. If the publisher feels it can efficiently manage the tasks required, then managing its own distribution might be the best option. If, however, the publisher feels it can make good use of its time outsourcing the distributor functions, there are many fine distributors available. Publishers should look for the distributor that best suits their individual needs.

How have e-distribution services grown in the last few years and what are the challenges and advantages of selling e-books?

Cardinal Publishers Group has managed the conversion and distribution of e-books for many of our clients, and done so successfully for nearly a decade. We saw the great swell in e-book sales several years ago, but on a title-by-title basis, sales have leveled off in some categories. We expect overall growth to continue in this platform, but there will be challenges. It is the book business, after all!


Consortium Book Sales & Distribution
Julie Schaper

Julie Schaper

What are some key issues indie publishers need to consider as they decide whether to work with a distributor?

First and foremost, it is a financial decision, so it’s important to understand your business and the impact of the cost of distribution. The financial stability of a distributor and length of time in the business is also something to consider. Evaluating the services that a distributor provides to make sure they have the ability to reach the channels appropriate to a publishers list is key. For some a “fit” is important. Some publishers like to be associated with similar publishers at a distributor while others do not. It’s always a good idea to talk to other publishers about their current distributor. Ultimately it is a relationship, and you want to feel a sense of partnership with your distributor.

What are the top benefits to a publisher of working with a distributor such as your company?

I think the comprehensiveness of our offering is one of the main attractions including trade, academic, gift/specialty, digital, and international. Publishers need to be represented in all the market channels appropriate to their titles, and we have the ability to do that. We provide our publishers with a wide variety of tools to enhance their knowledge of publishing and marketing, including a publisher handbook, a marketing handbook updated annually, and educational seminars at our seasonal sales conferences. Consortium has an active social media presence and we promote our publishers and their books on our Tumblr and Bookslinger blogs. We amplify publisher-provided publicity through a wide range of in-house newsletters to booksellers and the Library Express for librarians. Consortium provides a range of opportunities to participate in industry shows and select academic and specialty exhibits. Our staff works collaboratively with our publishers through seasonal presales meetings and sales conferences where all publishers are invited to participate. We require that every new publisher spend a day in our office to meet our staff, understand how we work, and so we can learn more about the publisher and its books.

Are indie publishers at a disadvantage when it comes to gaining shelf space? If so, how can they overcome this?

I am consistently impressed with the outreach that our publishers do with booksellers to get attention for their books. Many do this through store visits, setting up author events with stores, coordinated social media efforts, publicity and marketing initiatives, and attendance at regional trade shows and other industry events. Smart booksellers understand they have to differentiate their stores by having more than what customers think they want. Independent press books help booksellers define their stores and make them more interesting for their customers. I feel that there is always an opportunity with libraries as well. As long as you get good reviews, you will get some representation.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing indie publishers today in terms of securing wide distribution?

I think it is the same across publishing in that you have to figure out who the audience is for the book and then what the widest possible distribution is possible for that book. There are so many steps to the publishing process and getting any of them wrong can affect the distribution. A bad title, or poorly designed cover, a lack of materials to sell with, no real marketing, an author who doesn’t promote, or insufficient metadata can all impact how a title is distributed. It’s an incredibly competitive marketplace and everything a publisher doesn’t do can have an effect on the distribution.

Can you share a success story about an indie publisher you represent?
One of my favorite success stories is Akashic Books. We started distributing Akashic in fall 2000 when they had four backlist titles. I turned down Akashic previously over concerns about its small size, but Johnny Temple was persistent! By 2004, the list had grown to 18 titles and Akashic launched Brooklyn Noir, the first in a series that now numbers over 80 titles. In 2011, Akashic announced the now infamous GTFTS, “a bedtime book for parents that live in the real world.” The book became a sensation before publication and Akashic turned down a six-figure offer before publishing the best-selling title in Consortium’s history. In 2015, we celebrated the millionth copy sold of GTFTS with Akashic.


Small Press United
Richard T. Williams

Richard T. Williams

What are the top benefits to a publisher of working with a distributor such as your company?

Distribution these days is more than putting books on a shelf; a distributor helps curate titles for an overcrowded marketplace, and acts as a partner to help publishers navigate the industry and better optimize their books for the trade. In terms of the vendors, we give books professional clout. At SPU (Small Press United), many of our publishers may only have a book or two, and as such, it is that much more crucial for publisher and distributor alike to release a competitive product that will sell.

Can you share a success story about an indie publisher you represent?

I’d like to tip my hat to Georgia McBride at Month9Books, who brought us an upstart publishing program just over three years ago that focused almost exclusively on developing e-books. Now, through extensive author promotion, knowing the needs of her audience, and some experimenting with print-on-demand models through SPU, McBride has grown her program so that the majority of her best-selling titles are print books sold through the trade.

How have e-distribution services grown in the last few years and what are the challenges and advantages of selling e-books?

E-books were growing exponentially for years as more e-books became available and dedicated e-readers were heavily selling, but now the initial fad has subsided a bit to reveal a steady and dependable market, especially in mass market and genre fiction. The main challenge in selling e-books is reaching all of the different sales avenues, as it really has expanded beyond the primary consumer-facing e-bookstores into hundreds of vendors experimenting with business structure, discoverability, and reaching new audiences. Subscription models and online libraries are more popular than ever, and some vendors can even scan your physical bookshelf through dedicated phone apps and provide complementary digital copies of your books at discounted prices. Just as with physical books, a distributor amasses a bigger list of titles and, as such, is able to reach more vendors at better terms and with greater access to promotional opportunities for the publisher.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing indie publishers today in terms of securing wide distribution?

Wide distribution really requires great publicity and an author with a solid platform to make consumers aware of the title. The biggest challenge may be getting the opportunities for this, as a distributor wants to see these things already in place but also knows that publishers without distribution may have difficulty fetching them without professional guidance and wide availability. In that sense, it’s a catch-22. But publishers need to realize that not all titles require wide distribution. The fragmenting of the market means that certain titles can often find more immediate and long-term success within a small niche. Wider distribution requires a marketing platform that will be relevant to a broad market, but that can only happen if a title has potential to transcend. Great success within a niche market can be enough to sustain a publishing program, and a distributor can be very helpful in reaching that niche.

What are some key issues indie publishers need to consider as they decide whether to work with a distributor?

Is the book actually ready for the trade? Is the audience for the book clearly designated by its title, subtitle, and cover? Does the author have a platform? Does the publisher have a strong foundation of reviews, marketing, or publicity? And can the publisher afford to trade a share of sales revenue for the services that a distributor provides? Publishers need to run the numbers in advance and see if they can afford distribution, as author royalties and printing costs can vary widely.

What would you like indie publishers to know about your company?

Small Press United in particular is one of the few distribution programs that will sign the smallest publishers, but the books have to be salable to the trade. As such, because we only make money when we sell a title, we remain a selective program, as it does neither publisher nor distributor any good to sign a book that isn’t ready.


Sunbelt Publications
Diana Lindsay

Diana Lindsay

What are some of the biggest challenges facing indie publishers today in terms of securing wide distribution?

The main challenge to any publisher is to get the word out about its books. Distributors are helpful; however, the people that know the books best are the ones actually involved in its creation. It is imperative that the author and publisher do what they can to promote their books. Even if a distributor is in the picture, it is up to the author and publisher to make each book a success.

What are some key issues indie publishers need to consider as they decide whether or not to work with a distributor?

  1. Does the distributor sell in the region or to the types of stores that are the best fit for the publisher’s books?
  2. What are the distributor’s main markets/customers?
  3. What are the costs involved in working with the distributor (freight, co-op, title set-up fees, discounts, chargebacks, etc.) and will the price point of the publisher’s titles allow for such costs? In other words, will the publisher make a profit on the sales after a distributor takes its fees?
  4. How easy is the distributor to work with? It is important for you to be able to communicate with the distributor and be involved with the book promotion. Our distributed clients work closely with us, setting up events and coordinating the release of new titles.

What would you like indie publishers to know about your company?

In addition to publishing and distributing our own quality books, Sunbelt Publications offers both custom publishing and distribution for a multitude of clients that include nonprofit organizations, private and government corporations and businesses, as well as individual independent publishers. Two fine examples of this are the book published for the City of Chula Vista, Chula Vista Centennial: A Century of People and Progress 1911-2011 and My Bargain with God, the story of Lou Dunst, survivor of five concentration and slave labor camps of World War II.


Bookmasters
Kristen Steele

Kristen Steele

What are the top benefits to a publisher of working with a distributor such as your company?

AtlasBooks is Bookmasters’s distribution division. Bookmasters is a publisher services provider.

Two things set us apart. First, we are not a publisher but a distributor that shares our knowledge with our publishers. Our philosophy is to execute best practices to ensure discoverability/visibility for our publishers’ titles. Second, Bookmasters is a business partner that also offers offset/short-run digital printing, POD, and warehousing/fulfillment, among other services, to help publishers manage sales pipeline and restocking challenges.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing indie publishers today in terms of securing wide distribution?

Discoverability is paramount to successful distribution. Having a partner that drives visibility of a title and is connected at multiple levels throughout the industry is key to each title’s success. Publishers need to know how today’s accounts buy their books, and what information is needed, and when, by booksellers. Many publishers spend an enormous amount of effort communicating what a book is about, and while this is important, also crucial to a book’s success are: listing the correct comparable titles, having a marketable publication date (and sticking to it), understanding the six-month or longer lead time in the trade, and having a detailed marketing plan so book buyers know there’s a strategy in place to tell the public about a book.

What are some key issues indie publishers need to consider as they decide whether to work with a distributor?

A publisher should evaluate distributors based on their expertise and market reach. Publishers also need to understand where their titles fit in the retail landscape, recognize where their books will be in each distributor’s offerings, know their competition and consumer, and be prepared to compete for that market with their distributor’s guidance. Understanding basic solicitation requirements and industry deadlines is key. Other considerations: the distributor’s scale and what priorities drive their actions, key contacts across all market channels, staff experience, and the distributor’s commitment to success.


Publishers Group West
Kim Wylie

Kim Wylie

What are the top benefits to a publisher of working with a distributor such as your company?

Access and advice from the first kernel of a book idea through the entire life cycle of that book. We help publishers get their books to market the best way possible: shaping the list, providing the best structure for jazzing up the bookseller community, and helping publishers to not waste money but to use their limited budgets the best way possible on a book-by-book basis. We like to develop relationships with our publishers and believe that growing a publisher healthfully is a great way to go. We aren’t shy about putting books out there in big numbers but we try to work within the context of what each individual publisher can bear.

Are indie publishers at a disadvantage when it comes to gaining shelf space? If so, how can they overcome this?

I really think that is a thing of the past, for the most part. The buyers we work with see the beauty in what independent publishers do. They create unique, smart, and ultimately saleable books.

Can you share a success story about an indie publisher you represent?

Parallax Press started a gem of a series called the How to Live series: How to Love, How to Eat, How to Walk, How to Sit, etc. This started as an indie bookstore phenomena and spread like wildfire. Thank you, Parallax!

What are some key issues indie publishers need to consider as they decide whether to work with a distributor?

Does your personality fit with your distributor? Does your distributor care only about gross or are they interested in your well-being, trudging down the long road as a partner versus just being a service provider? Are they experienced in all kinds of categories? Do you get good face time with the most important people in the company? I always recommend potential publishers to ask some of our current clients how they feel about working with us as well as book buyers. Test the waters.


DeVorss & Company
Gary Peattie

Gary Peattie

Are indie publishers at a disadvantage when it comes to gaining shelf space? If so, how can they overcome this?

Yes. Most indie publishers benefit from working with DV when introducing a new title because of our ability to use our sales history when reaching out to specific buyers and how they prefer to receive new info. Customers have come to rely on consistent announcements from DV when making new title decisions. Another disadvantage is that indies usually don’t have sales reps who personally interact and advise buyers. The larger distributors can help with this, but it’s up to the indie to decide whether the cost of sales reps is worth the potential shelf space.

Can you share a success story about an indie publisher you represent?

Acropolis Books came to DV in 2000 because it wanted to partner with DV and our market of New Thought and Body/Mind/Spirit accounts and readers. At the time, the publisher was operating out of a small warehouse in Atlanta looking to build its brand and readership, and DV met the criteria to achieve this. Acropolis Books’s titles were a perfect fit for our catalog and backlist. After the initial shipments, DV reduced its overhead costs, as well as supported its marketing efforts and branding with design and editorial guidance.

What are some key issues indie publishers need to consider as they decide whether to work with a distributor?

They need to be certain of the costs involved. Be sure to itemize in detail what the revenue will be on orders from Amazon, Ingram, BN, bookstores, and direct. Then ask for sample reports to see how the distributor will share the sales information. Too many times, I’ve seen an indie publisher (or self-published author) start by producing the book only to find out there’s very little margin once the distributor takes its share and eventually sends a payment. Also, it’s very important to understand how a publisher/distributor relationship will end if that day comes. What steps are required? Who will be financially responsible for inventory shipments? When will the remaining payments be made? These are unpleasant items to consider, but very important.


Lynn Rosen is co-owner of the indie Open Book Bookstore in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Rosen was previously editorial director of Book Business magazine and director of Graduate Publishing Programs at Rosemont College.Lynn is the author of Elements of the Table: A Simple Guide for Hosts and Guests and currently serves as editorial consultant for IBPA Independent.

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