The Tool Chest
Box ’em Up, Move ’em Out: A Guide to Shipping Options
by Peter Goodman
Until our industry is taken over by e-books, transported instantly as weightless electrons over waves and wires, we publishers will continue to physically ship and schlep our books all over the country and around the world. Few publishers or booksellers believe the printed book will ever disappear completely, and with the percentage rise of e-books actually slowing down in recent months, the challenge of moving books from one place to another will surely be with us for a long time to come.
It takes physical effort to prepare shipments and paperwork. You have to buy supplies like boxes, labels, and packing filler. Freight bills, especially for overnight and second-day deliveries, are very high even for low-weight packages—and astronomically high for those full cases of new books you need to get to that bookstore event the next day.
Plus, it’s frustrating just figuring out the best way to ship, since much about shipping is counterintuitive: short distance is not always cheaper, nor is faster always more costly.
Whether you ship by ground or by air, by case or by pallet, there are lots of ways to save money, time, and heartache. What follows gives you basic tips about shipping strategies and where to find the best deals, without ever sacrificing speed or reliability.
United States Postal Service (USPS)
A push for efficiency and the fierce competition with UPS and FedEx have led USPS to step up over the last decade. The cost of postage has risen, but not outrageously. At the same time, USPS has rolled out improvements in its Web site and customer experience, as well as reliable, new, fairly priced services.
USPS’s Priority Mail flat-rate boxes (2–3 day delivery to all destinations) are perhaps the best deal in shipping today. They are ideal for books, which are relatively dense, because you can ship as much as you can cram into a box, regardless of weight.
Plus, USPS offers:
● Free shipping boxes (saving easily $1–$1.50 per shipment) and other supplies.
● Free pickup at your location if you call a day ahead.
● Tracking and email notification.
● A new selection of “regional” flat-rate boxes (named A, B, and C) offering huge savings on nearer destinations.
● No extra charge to Hawaii and Alaska (unlike UPS and FedEx).
● Free pickup of any Media Mail or other stamped package at your office as long as the pickup involves at least one Priority
● Mail package. If you have 40 or more Media Mail packages, for example, you can simply choose any one of them to send as Priority Mail and the mail carrier will take all the Media Mail packages too, without charge and without complaint.
But you do have to plan your USPS shipping carefully. To get the best price, you must use the USPS-produced flat rate boxes, and they are available in only a few sizes, none of which is ideal for our industry mainstay of 6″ × 9″.
Also, a typical medium-sized order of 15 to 20 trade paperbacks may not fit in a single USPS box. The chart below shows currently available flat-rate boxes with an estimate of how many copies of a standard book will fit in each. Since the actual quantities are lower than the volume of the box might suggest, the USPS cost per book or cost per pound is not always attractive.
Here are some other USPS shortcomings:
● Although USPS book shipments generally qualify for Media Mail rates, which are extremely low, Media Mail prepaid labels cannot be printed online, and Media Mail is not easily trackable.
● USPS observes an antiterrorist “13 ounce” rule: Any mail piece that uses postage stamps and weighs more than 13 ounces must be dropped off at a post office window and cannot be dropped in a mailbox. So if you don’t print your postage online or don’t have a registered meter from a company like Neopost or an online postage account from stamps.com or endicia.com, you may find using USPS a hassle. (Note: This does not apply if you generate Priority Mail postage-paid address labels through usps.com’s Click-N-Ship function.)
USPS is actively pursuing commercial customers and offers bulk rates and automated services, albeit with volumes of detailed regulations. Everything you need to know is online at usps.com.
United Parcel Service (UPS) and Federal Express (FedEx)
UPS and FedEx offer nearly identical services and prices for flat-letter and small-package delivery. Both also offer freight services for palletized shipments and special rates for multiple-package heavy-weight shipments of more than 100 pounds (UPS) or 200 pounds (FedEx).
These are the express carriers most of us use for shipping proofs to and from the printer, for last-minute review copies, and for time-sensitive contracts and other legal notices where speed, reliability, trackability, and security are paramount.
Such desirable features don’t come cheap.
If you just walk into a UPS Store or FedEx Office you will be charged “rack rate” at the counter.
If you get your own UPS or FedEx account you can negotiate a discount yourself, and it will be applied to every shipment you make. The discount will vary greatly, depending on service, destination, and handling (my company, for example, gets 14 percent on home delivery, 17 percent on ground, and 36 percent on express). And if, over time, you do not meet the negotiated quota your discount may be reduced or eliminated.
A better solution is to take advantage of the IBPA member benefit offered through PartnerShip, a shipping broker that manages a hundred or so FedEx accounts and passes its savings to you, the shipper. Keith Korhely of PartnerShip says average savings are $400 a year stemming from discounts that average 31 percent on express (1-, 2-, or 3-day delivery), 20 percent on ground shipments, and 10 percent on home shipments (with Saturday delivery at no extra charge).
Here are some tips for working with UPS and FedEx:
● Beware of surcharges. Both companies add fuel surcharges, residential area surcharges, out-of-area surcharges, and other handling fees for what initially appear to be standard deliveries. These surcharges do not always show up on the online waybills and can quickly wipe out any discounts. (In contrast, USPS has no hidden charges and offers regular Saturday delivery—for now.)
● UPS and FedEx regular ground services effectively offer overnight and 2-day deliveries in your region; that is, you choose regular ground service and it is delivered the next day, but at the ground price, which is much less than the express price. Don’t waste money on express when you’re shipping within a few hundred miles.
● UPS and FedEx don’t penalize you for using your own packaging, which means you can pack efficiently and perhaps beat the USPS flat-rate pricing (see chart).
● If you are paying for incoming freight, be sure that printers and everyone else who ships to you use your UPS or FedEx account number so you can claim your discount and credit your quota. Bear in mind, though, that if you specify pickup by a service not regularly scheduled by your printer, you may get hit with a pickup charge—anywhere from $4 to $20, depending. Many printers already have regularly scheduled pickups and can pass on the substantial discounts they get from UPS and FedEx. Check first.
● UPS and FedEx “ground” shipments to Alaska or Hawaii are very expensive, only a bit less than 2-day service. Also, UPS and FedEx cannot ship to APO boxes for the military or to post office boxes. For such addresses, USPS is usually the best bet.
● UPS has integrated ground and express services. FedEx does not; you cannot give a ground package to a FedEx express driver. And in my locale, the FedEx ground pickup is a couple of hours earlier than the express pickup.
These points only scratch the surface of all the different services and price tiers offered by both UPS and FedEx. If you are a high-volume shipper, they want your business and will work hard to give you the discounts and services you need.
If you are sending a print run of books from a printer to a warehouse or fulfilling a large order, you will want to pile your cases on a pallet and ship them by truck.
Shipping by truck can be very cost effective, and, because the boxes are stacked and wrapped, your shipment will arrive in good shape, undented and uncrushed (not always the case with ground shipments).
Most book publishing shipments are classified as LTL, or “less than truckload.” LTL shipments weigh anywhere from 150 to 20,000 pounds. They are consolidated from local pickups and sent to a central destination, where they are split apart for their separate, final delivery points. Different carriers cover different routes; some are local, while others go nationwide.
LTL shipping can be very complicated. It is highly regulated, with room for lots of variation depending on the carrier. You could make all the freight arrangements yourself, but you don’t need to. Many freight brokers will set up an account with you and manage all your needs.
PartnerShip is one such freight broker. Others are Hercules and YRC, both also IBPA benefit providers. At my office we use a company called Freight Management Systems, which offers similar services and comparable savings. According to FMS’s Larry May, using a broker makes a lot of sense for a small press. Savings run about 70 percent of the published rate (Dick Hampton at Hercules says 77 percent), and in addition the broker troubleshoots, tracks, and, most important, selects the best carrier for the job.
But this doesn’t mean you can sit back and do nothing. Here are some tips for sending your books by LTL freight:
● Always get freight quotes online or over the phone before you ship. You’ll need to provide weight, dimensions, origin and destination ZIP codes, and the freight class (used to determine rates and to balance freight volume vs. density, since shipping pillows instead of books takes more space on the truck but weighs a lot less; for books, figure the freight class is 60 or 65).
● Watch out for add-ons. If your warehouse requires trucks to call before delivery, that might cost you an additional $12–$40, or more. If you are receiving books at a residence or don’t have a loading dock, liftgate, or fork truck, you will also pay extra. If you need the driver to provide inside delivery, it’ll cost you. And so on.
● When asking for a rate quote, be sure you know what facilities are available at the origin and destination. And don’t forget that fuel surcharges average around 30 percent these days (Larry May of FMS points out that these are always assessed on your discounted freight charge—all the more reason to work with a broker). Also, when getting an estimate, be sure to include your wrapped pallet weight: 30–40 pounds.
● Printers often include delivery in their job quotations. Ask them to quote delivery separately, and be sure you check their numbers and add-ons thoroughly. Most printers do get substantial discounts and will pass them on to you. Some have so many publishers as customers that they send their own trucks to book distributor warehouses (like the big Perseus operation in Jackson, TN), and in my experience such shipments are incredibly economical. Be sure to check with your printer around the ship date to see if you and other publishers can piggyback.
● Freight brokers like PartnerShip and FMS also manage ground freight. Just because you think a shipment should go LTL doesn’t mean there isn’t a better deal via UPS or FedEx ground. Again, have your specs at hand and call your broker for a quote.
● Many freight brokers offer additional services, like inbound and outbound freight to trade shows. Anyone who has ever tried to organize sending books and exhibit materials to arrive by a time and date certain to BEA or ALA will appreciate the savings and coordination that brokers provide. And many truckers will be happy to work with you on trade show shipments whether you have an account with them or not.
Package services such as USPS, FedEx, and UPS as well as some LTL freight brokers can all manage your overseas shipments. International UPS and FedEx are almost absurdly expensive, however. If your books fit in USPS-produced flat-rate or Express Mail boxes, USPS will likely be your best bet for international mailing, although it’s still expensive (does anyone else miss the days of cheap book-rate sea mail?).
Note that USPS mailings get tossed into the domestic post once they hit their destination country, and from there they have been known to go anywhere, depending on the country and the scruples of its own postal employees.
But one international solution trumps everything else, and that is FedEx’s freight program called Great Rates. Because FedEx wants to fill up its planes, it sells surplus space at enormous discounts, often from 55 percent to 77 percent off the published rate.
The amount of discount depends on the destination and the day of shipment. Rates vary from week to week, so the only way to arrange a Great Rates shipment and get an accurate estimate is to call the Great Rates office. You must have a FedEx account, and your shipment must be more than 11 pounds, but you can ship pallets weighing 1,000 pounds too.
Using Great Rates is simple. Phone in and give the customer service rep the destination country, the addressee’s postal code, your shipment weight and dimensions, and the contents (books). The rep will then quote you a rate and, if you approve, give you a quote number.
You then go online and prepare the airbill, affix it to your package, and call FedEx at least 24 hours in advance to arrange a pickup. In our case, we create the airbill, save it as a PDF, and then email it to our warehouse in Tennessee, where the books are shipped from on the scheduled day.
Recently we had to ship two cases of books to Bangkok, and Great Rates beat USPS’s flat-rate air by more than 30 percent. As another example, 500 pounds to Tokyo on a Friday was delivered in just four business days, and instead of costing the FedEx published rate of $1,893, cost $622. A much smaller box weighing 30 pounds to the United Kingdom cannot go by USPS due to weight restrictions, but by Great Rates express air delivery it cost $95.46, vs. the FedEx published rate of $316. Customers will thank you for passing these savings on to them.
Check Before You Ship
Online you can find plenty of rates and plenty of companies offering freight deals and services. But none of the information you get will be of any use unless you have a basic understanding of how shipping works and how all the different services compare.
So start by spending a lot of your time making charts and comparisons, calling ahead, asking questions, and figuring out the costs of cardboard boxes and labels. Also, add in the overhead for the hours spent putting books in boxes and packing them for rattle-free shipment.
Choosing the best shipping options has little to do with common sense or intelligence. You will undoubtedly make mistakes and sometimes pay more than you might have. But as you work with different services and people to get your books from one place to another, you will develop a sense of which shipping solution is best in each circumstance.
One last tip: Try not to get too obsessed with details. Sometimes it’s better to just get your stuff in a box and out the door!
Peter Goodman is publisher of Stone Bridge Press in Berkeley, California, and a member of the IBPA board of directors. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For Specifics About Shipping
IBPA member benefits re shipping and freight
Federal Express (FedEx)
Great Rates (a division of FedEx), offering international air freight, heavily discounted
United Parcel Service (UPS)
United States Postal Service (USPS)
PartnerShip (see also IBPA member benefits; PartnerShip offers discounts on FedEx express, ground, and home, and FedEx Office, with offices in Ohio and Southern California) microsite.partnership.com/default.aspx?assoc=17ibpa
Hercules Freight (see also IBPA member benefits; Hercules offers freight from the Midwest and East Coast to the Southwest and West, and all of Canada, and also offers iTrans for other destinations)
YRC Freight (see also IBPA member benefits; YRC offers freight services nationwide)
Freight Management Services (offering LTL freight and trade show in/outbound service)