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Do You Need a Distributor?

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Do You Need a Distributor?

by Davida Breier

Do you wonder exactly what a distributor is and does? Do you think you might need one, but you are not sure how it all works? If so, you’re invited to read on.


A distributor acts as your sales force and fulfillment center and handles credit and collections. Master distributors warehouse their client publishers’ books, actively sell the titles to wholesalers and retailers, and are exclusive to the trade. They try to get stock into the marketplace ahead of demand at the retail level.

Wholesalers, which newcomers often confuse with distributors, provide books to retail customers, are nonexclusive, and do not have sales forces. Generally, they are reactive rather than proactive about demand.

What Distributors Do

By serving as sales force, credit and collections staff, and general box packers, distributors leave publishers more time for editorial and marketing tasks and ideally generate enough additional revenue to more than cover their commissions and fees.

Each distributor is a little different. It may be a matter of the size of the publishers represented, the types of publishers, the nature of the books, and/or the region the distributor covers. Some recognizable names include NBN, IPG, PGW, Consortium, Perseus, Atlas Books, Greenleaf, Midpoint, A&B, and SCB. Part of Ingram, the giant national wholesaler, is a distributor too. You can view a list at ibpa-online.org/pubresources/distribute.aspx.

Some distributors focus on a single market, as Quality Books does for the library market. Some focus on multiple markets, which may include traditional bookstores, big-box stores (e.g., Costco, Target, Wal-Mart), religious bookstores, gift stores, libraries, and educational accounts.

If you are ready to take a book national and want to sell to wholesalers such as Ingram and Baker & Taylor and to chains such as Borders and Barnes & Noble, you’ll probably need to partner with a distributor to have access to those accounts.

When Publishers Don’t Need Distributors

In many cases, it makes sense for small presses to start their publishing programs conservatively, begin trade penetration with a wholesaler like Baker & Taylor or New Leaf (for new age/alternative health titles), and sell direct via online retailers.

Starting out slowly will help novice publishers avoid overly ambitious (and often expensive) marketing that results in low sell-though and high returns. A cautious startup period may also help them learn what works and doesn’t work with their publishing programs before they go national.

Furthermore, many books successfully sold at seminars, direct-to-consumer, and via special sales will not be successful in the retail market.

What a Distributor Requires

Master distributors require exclusivity in the trade market because most accounts there will deal only with exclusive distributors. This is because of the confusion that would be created if more than one sales rep was selling the same book, and if more than one vendor of record supplied the book. Accounts may require one primary vendor to order from and return books to because their databases will not allow multiple vendors for the same ISBN.

Distributors also require a good fit. They need to see that your audience meshes with their market. As they review new submissions, they look for evidence that you understand not only your target audience, but also their accounts, and they try to determine how the two of you will work together.

In addition, they look for publishers who will continue publishing. If a publisher has only one book planned, the relationship with the distributor may be short-term. Distributors want to help their publishers grow.

Understanding what a distributor does and explaining why you are seeking a particular distributor’s services will often impress more than simply saying you have $25K to spend on marketing.

Many books are not suited for bookstore sales and do much better with special sales, academic and library sales, and sales through channels such as gift stores, special-interest stores, the Internet, and seminars. Distributors may direct you elsewhere if yours is one of them.

Other common reasons distributors reject titles include prices that are too high, content with a great deal of competition (fiction, self-help, children’s books, and business are especially competitive categories), poor production quality, and insubstantial marketing.


Every distributor has different contract terms and services. Some also offer services a la carte. You will want to compare and contrast. Overall, you can expect to pay a distributor 18 to 30 percent of net sales.


Signing with a distributor doesn’t mean that a book will be in every bookstore in the country. That depends on individual buyers at both the corporate and retail levels. They decide whether or not to give your books precious shelf space. Please remember that distributors can only promise to present the book to buyers and to make the book available.

However, one of the most important reasons to sign up with any distributor is that information about your book will be made available to a variety of databases utilized by nearly every retailer and wholesaler in the country. This means your book will be available for ordering when inquiries are made at a bookstore.

Marketing Responsibilities

Distributors are responsible for making sure clients’ books are available to the marketplace so that bookstores have them or can get them. Publishers are responsible for creating demand for their books and driving consumers into bookstores to buy them.

Every book needs all the marketing and publicity help it can get. And you must sustain these efforts for the entire life of the book, not just for its first few months.

Recipe for a Successful Relationship

Always bear in mind that you and your distributor form a partnership, and that you each need to do your part to make it work. Your distributor counts on you to communicate information about your book, both before and after pub date, in a timely, concise fashion. The better the materials you provide, the better job your distributor and its sales force can do for you.

Remember, within the trade market, stores are essentially buying on consignment, so your distributor wants to sell your books as much as you do, and no one likes returns. If you don’t understand something or just want more information, seek advice. Answering questions is always preferable to fixing mistakes. Make sure you understand your distributor’s schedule and boundaries. Listen to your distributor’s needs, and if you don’t see why the distributor wants certain information or paperwork, just ask.

Davida Breier is marketing director of the master distributor National Book Network. To learn more about it, visit www.nbnbooks.com. To reach her, email dbreier@nbnbooks.com.

Distributors, Wholesalers, Commissioned Reps: What’s Right for You?PMA-U 2008, Davida Breier



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