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Building a Winning Relationship with Your Distributor: Realistic Expectations; Recognizing When Things Are Going Wrong

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Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a three-part series on making life with a distributor successful. We will examine this relationship from its beginnings, through its tenure.


Last month I discussed the importance of making your selection of a distributor a good one right from the start. I gave you twenty-five tips to do this. This month I would like to review the realistic expectations that a publisher should have about its distributor, and vice versa. I once again want to stress to you how important it is that both the publisher and distributor understand and agree to each other’s expectations up front in order to avoid the situations which I point out later in this article.

A Publisher’s Realistic Expectations of Its Distributor

Communication: The publisher should be able to get prompt follow-up and a timely response to questions and concerns that it brings to the distributor’s attention.
Sales Reports: The publisher has every right to be informed about actual sales by way of on-time sales reports. If the standard reports are not specific enough, the publisher should be able to simply ask the distributor about a book’s sales activity at a specific account and get a reasonably prompt response. They really don’t like to do this, but it’s data you need to know!
Accounting: A distributor holds a fiduciary responsibility to the publisher and as such is legally bound to account for its client publisher’s funds that it has received in the form of payment for selling the publisher’s books while in the consignment inventory at the distributor.
Maximum Distribution: It is not unreasonable for the publisher to expect that the distributor will make earnest attempts to maximize the distribution of its title(s).
Feedback: The publisher should expect honest feedback from the distributor on what is or is not working.
Sales: The distributor should be expected to be pro-active in sales efforts, not just when a book is new and considered frontlist, but also after it becomes a backlist title and needs a push.
Partnership: The publisher should expect the distributor to be in agreement to the definition of the “partnership” that they are in together.

A Distributor’s Realistic Expectations of Its Client Publisher

Communication: The publisher must be realistic. The distributor can’t jump every time a client publisher calls. The publisher needs to determine the degree of urgency and let the distributor know if it’s an “A” priority, a “B” priority, etc.
Inventory: The distributor expects the publisher to provide inventory when promised. The distributor is running a business and out of stock situations reflect very badly on the distributor’s performance.
Marketing: The distributor rightfully expects the publisher to be active in driving demand for the publisher’s book(s) at the consumer level which sends prospective buyers into stores to seek out the book(s). This is not the responsibility of the distributor or the store . . . it’s up to the publisher!! Don’t ever forget this!
Exclusivity: In the first installment, I defined the distributor as “an extension of the publisher.” As this extension, the distributor must have exclusivity, and the industry expects this too.
Savvy: The publisher should understand how the book business works and the relationship with the distributor is probably the wrong place for him to cut his teeth. There are many sources of industry knowledge and the publisher should use them to learn about the publishing business.
Publishing Program: The distributor wants the publisher to be committed to a publishing program of future titles, not just one book.

Recognizing When Things Are Going Wrong

Here are some warning signs that your relationship with your distributor may be going downhill:

Slow/Partial Payments: The fiduciary responsibility of the distributor means it is handling your money. If you are not being paid in full on time as per your agreement, look out!
Late/Incomplete/Inaccurate Accounting: A sure sign that the wheels are coming off! It’s time to put the distributor in your crosshairs.
Lack of Timely Communication: This can mean many things, all of them bad as far as you are concerned. If you are not being responded to, get pushy. If you are still not getting their attention, it’s time to make a change.
Using “Returns” as an Excuse: Returns are a big part (unfortunately) of the business. But in my experience whenever a distributor’s back is to the wall their claim of defense is “returns.” This can be very real. However it can also be one big lie and an excuse not to pay you your money.


Meaningless Answers to Questions: One word . . . smokescreen!! Watch out!!!

Stalling: You should be able to recognize it when you see it. Endless voice-mail hell, unreturned phone calls, constantly in meetings, lost in the mail, etc., etc.


In Part III, I’m going to raise a lot of eyebrows. I’m going to rate the distributors in several categories based on the experience of my clients and myself. Plus, I am going to give you a few tips on putting the onus on a distributor to perform.

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 December, 1997, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.

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