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21st-Century Physical Book Distribution: Part 1

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Linda Carlson writes for IBPA’s Independent magazine from Seattle, Washington. She can be reached at linda@ibpa-online.org.

Book manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors, retailers—with vertical integration, digital format, and print-on-demand, the distinctions among those intermediaries blur. In today’s constantly changing publishing industry, it seems as if few companies are sticking to their traditional roles in the manufacturing and marketing channels.

Check the Independent archives, and you’ll find dozens of articles about your options for electronic publishing and POD. In this, the first in a two-part series, we’re exploring a different question: How does the traditional book, printed and kept in inventory, now get to market? Of course, this matters to you if you’re new to print publishing, and it matters even more if you’re a publisher considering a change from selling direct or using self-distribution via wholesalers to working with a distributor. (Coming next month: specifics on selecting one of them.)

Alternatives 1, 2, and 3

The path you choose for getting books from press to prospective reader can determine where, how, and even if your books sell. For those who produce and inventory printed books, there are three distribution options.

Sell direct. The more specialized your niche and/or the smaller your market area, the more likely you are to sell successfully via a Website and/or direct mail, at conferences and craft fairs, and by personally contacting libraries, schools, brick-and-mortar retailers, catalog and online retailers, and consumers. Obviously, when you sell direct, you warehouse the books; you do the promotion, and you handle the sales, invoicing, delivery, and collections.

Today, however, the self-distributor also has more complex tasks, including creating and maintaining metadata and fulfilling customers’ detailed shipping and invoicing requirements.

Self-distribute via wholesalers. This option means that you warehouse the books and you establish relationships with book wholesalers such as Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and Partners, and possibly with specialty or regional wholesalers as well. They buy your books (returnable in the book trade; not necessarily returnable outside it), and they fulfill orders placed by libraries and/or booksellers and other retailers.

Since wholesalers don’t have significant sales staffs, you remain responsible for generating orders by promoting the books to wholesalers’ customers and to your target readers. Wholesale relationships are not exclusive; most publishers work with more than one wholesaler, and many sell north of the border through Canadian distributors. Publishers working with wholesalers also handle their own direct sales.

Without programs such as IBPA’s Member Benefits for Publishing Professionals (for specifics, visit ibpa-online.org), very small publishers may be unable to get a national wholesaler to carry their books. Even with these programs, a wholesaler’s total of up-front fees can be daunting for a single-title publisher. And considerable technical savvy is required to handle wholesale and online retail customers’ Web-based systems and the encryption of credit card numbers.

Sell through a distributor. The distributor is an optional, although increasingly important, intermediary between the publisher and booksellers. Most distributors sell directly to consumers as well as to book wholesalers and bookstores. A distributor warehouses your books and publishes a catalog describing your titles along with those of its other clients. Distributors generally have sales reps, and many have reps that work with specialty markets such as gift stores.

A distributor relationship is usually exclusive; the contract may allow a client publisher to sell to some specialty and/or some foreign markets, and to solicit orders on its Website and at authors’ appearances, but it will not allow the publisher to compete in selling to bookstores, schools, and libraries.

Some distributors are small; think, for example, of one independent publisher carrying books from other independent publishers. Others are huge and have extensive relationships with sales reps specializing in books, gifts, and more.

A distributor’s fees can be as simple as a sizable percentage of all sales it invoices for you. Or the fees may be broken down by services provided: so much for storage of books, so much for each order fulfilled. If you are new to publishing or are returning to it after several years, the discount from cover price, setup charges demanded by wholesalers, and the fees required by distributors may shock you.

Assessing Expenses

Why give half or two thirds or more of your potential revenue to another company? you may wonder. The answer is simple: If you select the most appropriate wholesalers or distributor for your titles, they will earn it.

The DIY alternative is expensive too, after all. Publishers with several titles that could have broad national appeal may be able to reach readers on their own if they have generous budgets for travel to events, for booth rental, and/or for online, print, and direct mail advertising, but such expenses prorated per copy sold can often exceed 50 percent of a book’s cover price.

E-blasts are less expensive, of course, but providers such as Constant Contact estimate that even people who have opted in to receive a publisher’s email may only open 20 percent of promotional messages, and a far smaller percentage of recipients will click through to the online descriptions of books or eventually make a purchase.

And direct mail costs are high. With today’s postage prices, it’s difficult to get even postcards printed, labeled, and mailed for less than $1 each. A direct mail campaign that results in a 1 percent purchase rate is considered very successful. Translation: be prepared to sell as few as 10–20 books for every thousand pieces you mail.

Evaluating Experiences

As you’d expect, IBPA members have tried various distribution options. What follows sums up several members’ experiences, and their recommendations.

Pardey Books—as established in Arcata, CA, when Larry and Lin Pardey bought the rights to seven maritime titles of theirs that W.W. Norton had published—found a small publisher of similar titles to handle their distribution. “It was a match made in heaven,” recalls Lin Pardey. “We all worked to promote the books, and our distributor partner hosted our Website and handled all storage, distribution, and invoicing.”

Eventually, in part because both companies added titles and in part because of the challenge of handling returns, both Pardey and its partner publisher moved print book distribution to the distributor Midpoint Trade Books.

NBM of New York City self-distributed for decades, starting with its first titles in 1977. “We were successful in selling to the chains and to wholesalers directly, and we couldn’t justify the extra middleman’s fee,” says Terry Nantier, president.

Not that self-distribution was easy. “In our arena of graphic novel publishing, where we were the pioneers in going beyond the comics market, we learned early and well how to deal with the vagaries of the returnable terms common in the book trade,” Nantier says. “However, we did have to deal with a lot of invoicing and chasing payments, and we certainly did give up representation of our books at those indie bookstores that preferred not to deal directly with too many publishers.”

And then, he adds, “The world started getting complicated—as if returnability wasn’t complicated enough—what with e-books and metadata becoming key for ‘discoverability.’ And never mind demands from big accounts for electronic billing and the resurgence of indie stores, both in number after the failure of Borders and in size of purchases.”

It became apparent, Nantier says, “that we needed a stronger, more sophisticated arm behind us for sales and fulfillment and that we needed to get away from the daily grind of invoicing and account maintenance. We also wanted to address all the different ways of selling a book from print to electronic and outsource that.”

Two years ago, Nantier turned the company’s 200-plus titles over to the Chicago-based distributor IPG, which has some 830 distribution clients.

Bottom line, says Nantier: “While we’ve exchanged paperwork maintenance for some other maintenance problems, this was the right decision. It simplifies our lives and enables us to concentrate more on publishing good books and promoting them properly, instead of drowning in logistics. It’s also brought us dozens of new accounts. These days, realistically, unless you’re a one- or a couple-book wonder, this is the way to go.”

Ten Rivers Publishing of Walnut Grove, CA, is one of those one-book publishers. Bill Corp reports that it issues the Sacramento River Boating Guide and that it’s about as small as a publisher can be. “I’m also the author, the marketing department, the financier, and the delivery boy. My wife, Cindy, is the CFO and our indispensable support staff.” Ten Rivers printed 1,000 copies of its boating guide in July 2012 and is issuing a second edition. Self-distribution works for it now because the target market is local.

The same goes for Judy Archibald at Pet Pals Publishing in Estes Park, CO, established three years ago. “I sign up stores the old-fashioned way, by visiting them in person,” Archibald says. “First I research online to locate stores where I think my children’s book would be a good fit, and then I call or email to make an appointment to show them a copy of The Mutt and the Mustang. Sometimes I mail a free copy and then follow up by phone or email.”

“I’m lucky that my picture book fits several niches,” she says, citing “Western, children’s, pets, horses, dogs, animal rescue, tourist locations.”

Although the book is reaching only a regional audience through retailers, those retailers are in tourist communities, which means that “the audience is always changing, so sales should continue to be strong year after year.”

Archibald works hard for those sales, paying personal visits, making herself available for book signings, and sending newsletters chronicling life among the animals on her three-acre ranch in the Rockies. “I build a relationship with store owners so they come to know me as a person rather than just another title in a catalog,” she explains

Retired corporate executive and Vermont Public Radio commentator Bill Schubart established Magic Hill Press in Hinesburg, VT, after his first book had been published by an established house. He was happy with that publisher, but when he determined that most of his book’s sales had resulted from his promotion, he recalls, “I realized I could capture both the publisher and writer shares of revenue at little or no additional cost.”

Schubart manages all makeready, using a literary editor, copy editor, critical readers, and a designer, and markets directly to regional bookstores. “I visit them and New England libraries,” he reports.

DIY vs. Distributor

As the comments from Corp, Archbold, and Schubart make clear, self-distribution means a publisher must be a hands-on multitasker. Success with self-distribution means being able to sell, handle paperwork, do collections, and either handle fulfillment physically or be able to pay to outsource it.

If your time is limited or you question your ability to tackle these tasks, you’ll want to see the next article in this series, which will include IBPA members’ recommendations about contracting with a distributor. Among the topics to be covered in detail next time:

  • researching distributors to determine which ones handle books like yours
  • the detailed questions to ask about systems, fees, chargebacks, returns, discounts, and payment schedules
  • why to ask about e-books even if you’re not selling digital books now
  • the book promotion that will remain your responsibility


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