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My Distribution Discoveries

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Cardboard boxes around the globe on a laptop screen and airplane. Concept of online goods orders worIn 2012, I launched She Writes Press with a fairly simple idea in mind. I envisioned curating manuscripts and basing decisions about which books to publish solely on the merits of the writing. During my eight-year tenure as executive editor at Seal Press prior to that, I’d witnessed, and become tired of, publishers’ increasing emphasis on author platforms when they contemplated acquisitions decisions.

Having worked independently with some self-published authors whose attitude and drive I admired, I liked the idea of a press that occupied a gray zone between self-publishing and traditional publishing. We called it hybrid, a “third way” of publishing, and the response out the gate from women wanting to publish with us was tremendous. In our first year we signed nearly 50 authors.

Since I had gotten my start in traditional publishing, the model I chose for She Writes Press mirrored what I knew in terms of editorial and production processes. But because we weren’t trying to be a traditional press, and because authors pay up front for our publishing package, I figured we wouldn’t qualify for traditional distribution so I didn’t seek it out. Instead, we partnered with a fulfillment company that had an account with Ingram Wholesale.

My education in distribution began shortly after we published our first book. All I could see were the gaps in the supply chain. For 15 years I’d worked for houses that had Publishers Group West as a distributor, and I suddenly realized the extent to which PGW’s infrastructure, deadlines, and sales force had been the backbone of those presses.

What I saw all too clearly included inventory that wasn’t moving, and the fact that I was scrambling to figure out how to get more stock to Ingram so it could fulfill demand from bookstores through Ingram Wholesale.

Sometimes our fulfillment company partner shipped directly to accounts such as Amazon, and the shipping lag time caused our books to be out of stock. Big notices on their Amazon pages said no copies were available, a phenomenon I’d never experienced at traditional publishing companies; with them, Amazon always had stock to draw from, generally through wholesale accounts.

Even when bookstore managers could see that our books were available in their systems, the lack of ease in fulfillment often meant that the stores didn’t place orders. Meanwhile, I was trying to run a publishing company that was growing fast, and I was spending way too much time with frustrated authors, and bookstore managers.

Beyond those problems, our metadata was a mess. It wasn’t centralized. We had separate accounts for Kindle Direct Publishing, Nook, Kobo, Apple—and the list goes on here, folks. Our print metadata was handled by Lightning Source, which meant that every time we needed to make a small metadata change—altering a subtitle, for example, or adding a middle initial to an author’s name, or updating a price—we needed to make it on multiple platforms. More than once, something got missed, and we ended up with messy metadata, a kiss of death for publishers.

Rethinking An Option

As my headache was growing because of all this, a friend of mine from my PGW days suggested that we get traditional distribution. A lightbulb went off over my head, and I approached Ingram Publisher Services, which I’d since discovered was open to alternative models of publishing. The people at IPS were excited by our program and signed us on in October 2013.

Since then, I’ve continued to climb the learning curve, and I’ve felt as though a veil has been removed from of my eyes.

The biggest aha! moment for me had to do with how much traditional distribution does to open doors. Signing with IPS has been a game changer for us in terms of legitimacy. Before we signed, we didn’t qualify to submit our books to the trade magazines as a traditional press; now we do. And now bookstores see our books in the same way they see books from any traditional press. Our titles are in their systems and good to go, with information on quantity available, books returnable, and discounts. We have reps who presell our books to their accounts and vouch for the books’ quality. And our books are being sold into libraries.

But there’s a downside to all this access that I never understood as an editor. And it lies in the returns. I knew, of course, that getting books into bookstores entailed making them returnable. But I wasn’t aware of the consequence of bigger buys that come with traditional distribution, including big preorders from major accounts such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Baker & Taylor.

These companies buy returnable inventory to stock their warehouses in anticipation of buys from customers once the books go on sale. Our titles regularly “sell in” 500–1,000 copies apiece. Now, this is peanuts compared to sell-in for bigger houses. At some independent publishing companies, preorders often run as high as 3,500, and sometimes even to 8,000 to 10,000, while preorders for the giant houses can reach into the tens of thousands per title.

But for us, as a small press with a lot of authors who don’t have name recognition, the 500–1,000 buys are a big deal. And therefore so is the fact that many books come back.

At lunch recently with another former colleague and PGW friend, I mentioned that I was blown away by how much there was to learn about distribution. “Most small publishers don’t make it,” she said, “because the returns crush them.”

And the returns are crushing, even if they’re only 30 percent, which is the industry average. Our returns costs include processing charges and charges for excess inventory after a year of storage. So we have to be careful. We want to print enough to take the risks involved in fulfilling preorders and to benefit from economies of scale with a print run. But we have to brace ourselves for the returns, and we’ve now taken to educating our authors not to count their chickens during the first six months of a book’s life in the marketplace. Seeing how things turn out takes a while.

What Works For Us

Despite the huge risk involved, traditional distribution is the big legitimizer. Whether that will continue to be the case remains to be seen. We have been riding the wave of a major revolution, after all, and CreateSpace and IngramSpark have done independent authors a great service by making their books available to trade accounts through their extended distribution programs.

Still, many physical bookstores still won’t carry self-published books, and that’s not always a matter of policy. Often, it’s a matter of practicality because getting the books is a hassle, or because the authors don’t set discounts that are high enough or don’t make their books returnable.

Traditional distribution removes such problems, but it also ups the stakes, and the upfront and backend costs. To make it work, I now know, you need volume along with good publicity plans that will get your books not just into accounts, but sold through. Given the trade-offs, I’d sign again with IPS in a heartbeat. Having been on the other side, it’s clear that traditional distribution is the best choice for a growing press with multiple titles.

Brooke WarnerBrooke Warner is publisher of She Writes Press, president of Warner Coaching, Inc., and author of What’s Your Book?, How to Sell Your Memoir, and Breaking Ground on Your Memoir. She serves on the IBPA board and on the board of NAMW, the National Association of Memoir Writers. To learn more: warnercoaching.com.

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