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PMA’s Trade Distribution Program

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This is an update on the PMA Trade Distribution marketing program which operates in conjunction with the Independent Publishers Group’s trade distribution services. I am the president of IPG.

The Trade Distribution program was initiated six and a half years ago to address a problem faced by many PMA member publishers, namely that the larger and better established distributors would not deal with publishers who had only one title or just a few titles in print. PMA approached IPG to see if a special program could be created that would overcome IPG’s reluctance to deal with very small presses and provide at least some PMA member presses with a secure entrée into the book trade.

The program that emerged operates as follows. Twice a year PMA gathers at its offices a committee of book trade professionals — representatives from the chains, major wholesalers, and independent book retailers. PMA members can submit finished books to this committee, which judges their potential for trade distribution. From the start, it has been the case that 25-30% of the books submitted are selected. The quality of the submissions has increased greatly over the years, but so has the competitive situation in the bookstores. (For a list of the titles most recently selected for the Trade Distribution program, see Jan Nathan’s column)

Publishers whose books are not selected are given an explanation as to why the committee did not think their books would succeed in the trade. This information, while not usually what the publisher wants to hear, can point the way to better trade books in the future or to a realization that the book trade is not a suitable sales venue for a particular style of publishing.

Publishers whose books are selected receive a distribution agreement from IPG, which they may either accept or decline. Some publishers have used the committee recommendation to approach other distributors; others have found the terms of the distribution agreement unacceptable. Most, however, accept the agreement, and their book or books are included in a catalog called The Small Press Selection. This catalog is produced by IPG and carried by the IPG reps on their sales calls to the book retailers, wholesalers, and other trade accounts. The last few seasons, The Small Press Selection catalog has featured approximately 35 new titles and all of the viable backlist.

Since the inception of the program, slightly over $3,100,000 in sales have been made and returns have been 17% of sales. Some titles have sold over 10,000 copies, some less than 1,000. Sales for the last 12 months have been $1,049,000 with a 15.5% return rate. Overall sales have increased steadily because titles have been added each season that prove to be good backlist performers.

Certain categories do not do well in this program. Fiction does not do well, partly because fiction is always difficult. Another reason is that usually the publisher has exhausted most of the publicity possibilities — which are very limited in the case of fiction — before the book is accepted into the program. Children’s books have not done well. This is a fiercely competitive and over-published category and one in which the strength of the publisher’s name is much more decisive than in other categories.

The books that do well usually offer fairly hard information that is not available in existing books. (But keep in mind that generalizations are hazardous in the book business.) Some examples of subjects that have made strong titles: hotels that accept pets; wine making; a guide to London pubs; a career in massage; an encyclopedia of pasta sauces; a guide to interfaith marriage. (Titles represented in the Small Press Selection catalog, beginning with fall 1996 publications, and some further information on the program, can be seen on the IPG website: http://www.ipgbook.com.)

Publisher satisfaction with this program varies, unsurprisingly, with the volume of sales achieved. The committee, while almost unanimous in its choices, is nonetheless sometimes simply wrong about the prospects for a particular book — which can lead to disappointed expectations. Book-picking is an uncertain science at best, and much depends on the publishers’ ability to generate publicity. It is fair to say, however, that most publishers who have participated in this program are satisfied that their books have been given a good chance to succeed in the book trade, and that their understanding of this part of the publishing industry has been greatly enhanced. And of course many publishers have had good financial results from the program, and a few have gone on to produce distinctive lines of books that are solidly established in the book trade.

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