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An Update on PMA’s Trade Distribution Program

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(Editor’s Note: Those unfamiliar with this program may wish to consult the accompanying sidebar article, “How the Program Works.“)

The PMA Trade Distribution Program was initiated in 1991. To date, 300 titles have been accepted into the program and a total of 590,000 copies sold for a value of $4.8 million. Returns have averaged 16%. For 1998, sales will certainly be over $2 million and about 200,000 copies will have been shipped. This is an increase of almost 100% over last year.The first catalog was a very modest affair with 12 titles listed, and it has to be said that not all the books in it were quite up to trade standards. In the current catalog (Fall-Winter ’98), 42 new titles are offered. The average initial sale (or laydown) per new title, for the four months the catalog has been in use, is 1,028 copies ($8,522 in billing). The highest laydown was 3,283 copies, the lowest 424. All of these new titles are well produced and a dozen of them are utterly superb. Most of the ’98 fall titles will sell out their initial print runs, and some will be strong performers over many years.From the start, PMA’s Trade Distribution Program has emphasized backlist. Many books that were initially offered five and even seven years ago through the program are still selling well, some of them in second and third editions.Every effort is made by the Independent Publishers Group (IPG), as the distributor for the program, to place even one copy of a new title in as many stores as possible. Our goal is that the laydown will be broad rather than just deep. For titles that show some life as frontlist, IPG continues to carefully monitor sales, and if possible expands the books’ penetration into more bookstores. We will also attempt to sell these books into “special markets” such as book clubs, catalogs, and nonbook retailers. Many titles that have run their course in the trade continue to sell well in these “special markets.”The program has worked well because it addresses the most difficult problem facing new independent publishers: credibility. The fact that all the titles in the program have been screened by trade professionals assures the bookstore buyers that their time is not going to be wasted looking at unsuitable books. The books’ presentation in a special catalog, The Small Press Selection, makes a virtue of their publishers’ newness. This catalog is explicitly a showcase for new publishers. (The same books offered in IPG’s general catalog might cause a bookseller to ask, “Who the heck is this publisher?”) And it is important that the books are sold through a major independent press distributor such as IPG. The IPG reps report a high level of interest in this catalog among buyers, and a willingness to give new publishers a chance to break into the business.There is one element of credibility that the program cannot provide, and describing this difficulty will help to explain which kinds of books have been successful in the program and which not.Titles that cannot be expected to sell reasonably well without strong publicity support are usually a bad bet. Having been burned too often, most booksellers simply do not believe the publicity promises of new independent publishers. (There has been far too much talk of a sure thing with Oprah.) Credibility in this regard has to be earned by performance over time, and titles likely to sell poorly without strong publicity support are simply skipped by the bookstore buyers. Fiction, memoirs, children’s picture books, and political or social commentaries, if they are not written by well-established authors, are leading examples of such books. The initial laydown must be adequate or else even a very good publicity campaign cannot produce much in the way of sales.On the other hand, there is much less bookstore resistance to titles that will end up on heavily browsed shelves; such books can sell reasonably well even with little or no publicity and without a brand-name author-which is why booksellers are much more likely to take the risk of stocking them. How-to books, guides, local interest titles, reference-hard information books on almost any topic-are much more likely to be given shelf space. And, of course, once the books are in the stores, publicity efforts can pay off.Publisher satisfaction with the program varies with the success of their books, but almost all who have participated are confident that each book has been given an authentic chance to find its market and succeed. The participating publishers’ knowledge of the industry also broadens. A number of publishers are now part of IPG’s regular distribution activities, and some are working with other independent press distributors.Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press Books (30 new titles in 1998) and Independent Publishers Group, the first and one of the largest distributors of independent press books. He served on the PMA board for four years and was President of PMA for two years. Further information about IPG can be found on the Web site: ipgbooks.com.




This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor December, 1998, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.

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