PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 2017
by L.M. Browning, Founder, Homebound Publications & IBPA Board Member —
As a publisher who routinely gives talks on the industry, I often find myself being asked the same questions by other publishers and authors alike: What is traditional distribution, and why is it important?
The importance of traditional distribution is two-fold:
1. Ease of Availability
Indie bookstores are run on a shoestring budget with a small (overwhelmed) staff. Simply to make the running of their business easier, stores like to purchase from suppliers they know and work with often, whether it is Baker & Taylor, Ingram, or the sales reps they have formed bonds with over years of interaction. Buying from the channels they know ensures ease of ordering, returning, and payment. The store’s buyer and accountant doesn’t have to juggle separate publisher-direct accounts with different terms, which is costly in many respects.
When you have traditional distribution, stores are more willing to stock your titles because they can get your books through the same channels they get their other stock from the big houses; they know the terms, they know the routine, and it is easy for them. The lack of traditional distribution isolates a press from many brick-and-mortar outlets because they are outside of the normal ordering system. It isn’t so much a prejudice against small presses that keep stores from stocking small press titles as much as it is ease/difficulty of availability.
2. Sales Representation
Most small presses start as an army of one (or two). The small press owner must be a jack of all trades: editor, book designer, website builder, social media director, accountant, and on and on. So many times, the part of the publishing process that gets ignored is marketing and sales representation of the title within the market. Emphasis gets placed on the physical book—the cover, the interior, the printing—but that is all just preparation. Once the book is published, it is the beginning of the book’s life, not the end. Everything else is just prep work. In the seven months leading up to publication and the six months post-publication, the most important thing to be focusing on is marketing and introducing the title to the market—booksellers, libraries, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, etc. This step often gets skipped with small presses simply due to lack of budget and manpower, but the impact on sales is felt later on.
Acquiring traditional sales distribution turns the army of one into an army of dozens in the form of sales reps. When you have traditional distribution, you have active sales representation among the indie bookstores as well as Barnes & Noble and Amazon. You have a fleet of sales reps who will take your catalog and the advance reader copies of your forthcoming titles into the stores they work with on a regular basis, and they will pitch the titles to the buyers. They are your book’s scouts in a market flooded with over 3,000,000 books a year.
A few things you should be prepared to do if you want to seek traditional distribution:
1. Widen Your Timeline. You will need to work far in advance. Distributors need time for the sales reps to stir up buzz. As a result, they need ARCs (advance reader copies) as much as eight months in advance of the release. Most small presses only work three to four months in advance, compared to the bigger houses’ run-up time of 18 to 24 months. At Homebound Publications, we work 18 months in advance. In the first 10 months, we edit the manuscript, typeset the interior, design the cover, and help the author establish/strength their web presence. Then, in the last eight months, we produce ARCs and start the pre-publication buzz stage. While working two years in advance may seem daunting to a small press, I find it is actually easier on a small staff to work in advance because it gives you plenty of time to get the work done properly.
2. Budget for Short Runs. Most small presses work off the print-on-demand model; however, most traditional distributors require a short-run approach so that they have stock waiting in their warehouse and can fill orders quickly for the stores. Now, printing a short run doesn’t mean you have to print 10,000 books. A “short run” can be anything from 100 copies to 500 copies to 1,000 copies. You can place multiple short runs for a book within its lifetime. While there is a strong argument for printing high amounts (mainly because the more you print the more you save), you could start with 200 copies of a book and then watch the numbers closely and let sales dictate future printings. At Homebound Publications, we estimate how well we think a title will do in the market and then print anywhere from 500 copies at a time for a small market book like poetry to a 1,000 or 2,000 copies of a novel we think has a broad appeal. Choosing not to print on demand and go with traditional distribution will lift many stigmas off you as a small press, and the ease of availability we discussed will open many doors that were otherwise closed. However, this route does mean more upfront cost when you release a title because you can’t simply print on demand. This additional cost is something for which a small press must plan.
3. New Terms. If you have traditional distribution, you must be prepared to offer stores traditional terms (55 percent discount off the list and unlimited returnability). This means smaller margins of profit, which will theoretically be recouped in increased sales. When the time came for Homebound Publications to jump from POD to traditional distribution, it was the returns that terrified me. When stores would purchase through our press when we were POD, I could limit returns to six months and dictate that the books must be in re-sellable condition. That small measure of control was lost in the switch to traditional distribution. In the end, returns are a risk we have to live with as publishers. I was particularly scared of orders from box stores such as Walmart, Sam’s Choice, Costco, etc., who demand upwards of a 70 percent off the list price, order 1,000 copies, throw discount stickers on them, and then return 90 percent of the stock. To ease my mind, I structured my deal with my distributor so that I have approval/rejection control over orders that require more than a standard 55 percent discount and, in doing so, helped project my business from a potential crushing blow.
Weighing the Pros and Cons of Traditional Distribution
- Stores more willing to stock your titles
- Fleet of sales reps
- Must have ARCs ready far sooner
- Can’t print on demand; more up-front costs
- Smaller margins of profit
In the end, the choice to pursue traditional distribution presents risk, and there are many facets of distribution I didn’t include here that a small press must weigh before making the decision. However, even with all the risks, I’ve found that without traditional distribution, a small press will hit a cap in income—one that is usually too low to pay yourself, let alone a staff, a livable wage. When a press hits this cap, usually they either fold or go from full-time pursuit to part-time, decreasing their number of titles a year so that the owner can take on full-time employment elsewhere. As publishers, we all have an image of success. Some of us can attain that image without traditional distribution and be satisfied with the business we’ve created. The benefits must weigh against the risks, and, in the end, we each must decide what is best for our publishing house and where we wish to see it in the years to come.
L.M. Browning is an award-winning author of twelve books. Balancing her passion for writing with her love of learning, Browning sits on the board of directors for the Independent Book Publishers Association, and she is a graduate of the University of London and a fellow with the International League of Conservation Writers. In 2011, she founded Homebound Publications, a rising indie publishing house based in New England. She divides her time between her home along Connecticut’s shore and Boston, where she is earning an L.B.A. in creative writing at Harvard University’s Extension School. Look for Leslie’s next book, To Lose the Madness: Field Notes on Trauma, Loss and Radical Authenticity, Spring 2018.