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President’s Column:
The Distribution Challenge

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We’ve been asking PMA members to identify the most difficult problems they face, and we keep hearing the same comment over and over again– “distribution; my biggest problem isdistribution!” Early on, I politely nodded my head to communicate that I, too, understood the problem. Lately, I’ve been rethinking and am no longer sure that I do understand. While I want to remain sympathetic, let me raise a few iconoclastic challenges regarding this “distribution problem” that I hope will be helpful. Perhaps these observations will irritate you. (“He doesn’t know the unfairness I am facing.”) But perhaps they will stimulate your thinking. (“Yes, there are a lot of other ways to sell my books.”) Maybe they will even help you take more active charge of selling your books in new ways. (“Hey, I can make this happen. I am not a pawn of the book trade system.”) Whatever your reaction, I do invite your response.

 

What Is This “Distribution Problem”?

Is the problem not having a distributor? Is it that a key chain buyer won’t put a particular book into stores nationwide? Or that the independent bookstores aren’t ordering it? Or that stores won’t stock enough copies? Or that the big warehouse clubs haven’t picked it up? Or that the returns are too high?

All of these definitions of the problem rest on the assumption that the trade book system is THE way to sell books. Each of them leads the smaller independent publisher to a feeling of impotence and to the status of victim. (“Hey, if they won’t cooperate, what canIdo?”)

 

Challenge #1: Redefine the problem.

Here’s one productive way to state the core issue of distribution. “I have books in my garage that I would like to trade for cash–preferably more cash than I have already spent on them. How can I best do that? Where can I best do that?”

This definition gets us out of the limitations of the book trade system. As we realize that one shut door doesn’t mean disaster; that no one system and no one buyer owes us anything; that there is no one universal best market channel; that we can never get our book everywhere; that there is no way to saturate any market; that there is no room for coasting and that no one else is going to sell our books for us–only as we get out of that set of mind-numbing thought traps can we discover new ways of controlling our own destiny.

Until we redefine the problem so that we can take full charge of creating successful sales solutions, we will likely remain mostly passive and totally frustrated. And that’s neither enjoyable nor profitable! So find a way of defining the problem so that you will be moved into action.

 

Challenge #2: Create books that people want to buy.

This sounds obvious, but it’s not that clear or that easy. Authors and publishers regularly publish books that they created for their own pleasure. That’s wonderful. No problem. You have a right to do anything you want with your money. However, everyone else also has that same right. No one else is obligated to trade money for the book that you published just because you wanted to do so. If you want people to buy your book, you must create something that a substantial group of people want to buy. Period. Yes, that’s commercial, but there’s no reason to be upset about it. This is simply a fact. Selling is a commercial venture.

I am reminded of a sequence from one of Rev. Jesse Jackson’s campaign speeches. At a time of economic crisis in the U.S., he asked his audience, “How many of you own a Sony VCR?” More than half the people in the audience raised their hands. Then he asked, “How many of you own an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile?” No hands went up. “See,” he said, “in this country we’re making what nobody is buying!”

Selling books requires publishing what people want to buy, and then, of course, figuring out how to get to those people.

 

Challenge #3: Capitalize on the strengths of being small.

Yes, it’s true that small start-up publishers with one or two books have an awfully difficult, sometimes impossible time getting their books into the chains. This is why PMA works hard to help its members gain access to that system. But being locked out isn’t totally bad.

Some books with great sales potential don’t even belong in bookstores. The best and most profitable market for almost every topical book is direct contact with the intended audience, not the trade distribution channel. If you can find a way to get to your audience directly, you will get a much higher response rate, and you will get paid the full price, with no delay and with no returns. To reap the same financial benefit through bookstores, you must sell at least three times the number of units.

When you’re small, you can control your own destiny as needed. You can drive around town for a day, get 10 “dumps” of your book placed in 10 new retail outlets and at the end of the day pay your $500 outstanding car repair bill. When you have a dozen books and half a dozen employees, you can no longer make that same difference as quickly. We sold 212 copies of Pfeifer-Hamilton’s first book in six weeks at a small corner grocery. No bookstore sold that many. When we had 12 books, we were in bookstores, but the corner grocery store’s counter was no longer big enough and they sold none.

Years ago, we published a book about a dog sled peace-making expedition across the Bering Strait. One Saturday night, the author was featured in a national call-in radio show. The producers let him announce our 800 number and we got calls all night as the program rolled across the time zones. Finally, at 6:00 a.m., the show rolled through Hawaii and out over the Pacific, and we counted up almost 700 books sold for a total of $13,000.

If I had printed 5,000 copies, the bills would have all been paid and the rest would have been gravy. But no, I had solved “my distribution problem” by printing 25,000 copies and successfully getting the chains to take 14,000 units. Six months later, after totaling the returns and other costs, I had lost my shirt, and socks and several other unmentionable items. I was so successful in overcoming my “distribution problem” in the traditional way that I nearly broke us.

 

Challenge #4: Thank your lucky stars.

You publish and sell your books in the context of the world’s greatest market. In the U.S., just about anything of value (and a lot that’s of no value) can be sold through any number of channels. I have small-business friends who live elsewhere in the world and all of them would give their eyeteeth to be part of the U.S. market with its energy and multiple options. Nowhere else in the world does the market economy work as well for the smaller independent entrepreneur.

But it does demand an active approach and constant creativity. So when you run into a distribution barrier for your book that you cannot leap, don’t just stand there and spend energy complaining. Try a maneuver from football; do an “end run.” Get past the problem by encouraging yourself to find new and even more profitable options for reaching your buyers.

Then, when you’re successful, please write an article for this newsletter, for the benefit of the other PMA members, about how you took charge of and solved your “distribution problems.” Your boldest, most successful ventures will certainly be useful to the rest of us.

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