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Building a Winning Relationship with Your Distributor: Part III

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Editor’s Note: This is the third and final installment of this series (the first two appeared in the November ’97 and December ’97 issues) on making life with a distributor successful. With this installment, we now have examined this relationship from its beginnings through its tenure.
In the first two installments, I discussed the importance of making your selection of a distributor a good one from the start, revealed realistic expectations between the publisher and distributor in this relationship, and gave advice on how to recognize things when they are going wrong. Now let’s talk about how a distributor works and what to do to get the most results. And then finally, as promised, I am going to rate the distributors based on the experiences that I and/or my clients have had with some of these businesses.

How a Distributor Works

You may recall that in the first article I defined the distributor as “an extension of the publisher.” As such, the distributor is quite frontlist driven. That means that the distributor’s selling activities parallel the typical selling seasons that the publishing industry has fallen slave to for nearly a century! Most have two seasons: Fall and Spring. They produce seasonal catalogs and have sales conferences to showcase the new frontlist titles to be published by their client publishers. Some distributors also create specialty catalogs for computer books, children’s books, etc. Because of the ever so many new titles published annually, some distributors (and larger publishers) now march to the beat of the drums of three and four selling seasons.

Personally, for the smaller or medium-sized publishers, I find that falling into the trap of the pressure to publish new books so that “the distributor’s reps will have something to sell” is definitely not in the publisher’s best interests. That is why it is so crucial that a publisher find other markets in addition to the book trade (book wholesalers and book retailers) for its books. In my seminars, I have stressed what I referred to as “Bob Erdmann’s Favorable Balance of Trade”: a publisher should sell at least half its books outside of the book trade, i.e. through mail order, special sales, premium sales, educational outlets, etc.

What happens to a book after its first selling season? The reality is that, unless it is a megaseller, it will probably fall into the backlist section of the distributor’s catalog and essentially be forgotten. The distributor will certainly fill orders for it, but forget about any active selling activity on the distributor’s part.

So what does the publisher do to make everybody happy?
This very, very simple equation satisfies everyone’s needs. The author and the publisher need to be tireless promoters of their books to create consumer demand. There is no magic potion to create consumer demand. But there are certainly many alternatives and it is up to the publisher, not the distributor, to find what works and make consumer demand happen! The distributor will put books onto bookstores’ shelves through frontlist selling, that’s its fundamental responsibility. It’s really all a distributor is capable of doing! But the success of the book will come from how well the publisher and author promote it in order to move it off the bookstores’ shelves.
Consumer demand = sales; it cures everyone’s woes!

Placing the Onus on the Distributor to Perform

The biggest element, in my opinion, to distributor performance is put into place early by the mutual understanding that both the publisher and distributor agree to at the very beginning when they have their initial discussions to enter into the relationship. That means an agreement to each other’s expectations, objectives and priorities. If the marriage is made with complete disclosure and mutual understanding and agreement, it should work! To better understand my point here, go back to Parts I and II in this series and re-read my comments about communication, feedback, partnership, stability, expectations, reporting, key accounts, innovation, and savvy. These are the items which must be very clear to both the publisher and distributor at the beginning.

There is a framework in which a distributor must operate which is very much predicated by how the industry works, like it or not. I think also that distributors have to understand that there is a framework in which an independent publisher must work and the distributor should make efforts to conform to the publisher’s needs as much as the publisher is expected to conform to the distributor’s/industry’s needs. The distributor’s franchise, as defined when it came into existence many, many years ago, was to provide assistance to the small, independent publisher in gaining maximum distribution of their books. I am afraid that many distributors have taken almost an arrogant attitude toward this responsibility and have become yet another wall for the independent publisher to hurdle over. But that’s a subject for another article! For now, understand publishing’s conventional wisdom, but don’t become its slave!!!

Bob Erdmann is a publishing consultant and past president of PMA. A veteran of nearly 40 years in the book business, he can be reached at: PO Box 270024, San Diego, CA 92198-2024, phone 619/675-0303, fax 619/675-0088,e-mail RErd@aol.com.

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

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