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President’s Message: Notes from the Distribution Discussion

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The PMA Board meets once each quarter for a couple of pretty intense, issue-filled days. It’s a lively, diverse group representing a broad spectrum of the industry: publishers both general and specialized, companies both large and small. Most of its attention goes to planning PMA marketing and educational programs, member benefits, and such. At a recent meeting, though, our conversation over lunch turned to distribution.

Representatives from two national distributors are on the board, and publisher-members include some who manage their own rep groups, some who work with an outside distributor, some who hand-sell their own books, and various combinations. We all agreed that, in the coming year, distribution will be a pressing issue for many independent publishers. The conversation was all over the place, and none of us felt we had definitive answers. However here are some remarks worth thinking about:

• It’s important to develop marketing channels other than the book trade–most pay better and have fewer returns.

• If your book fills a genuine need, you won’t be troubled by excessive returns. Be objective and critical of what you’re putting out there.

• Some of the larger independent publishers today started as one-title publishers–but their kind of growth has gotten much harder to achieve in today’s distribution and retail climate.

• If you’re a small publisher, don’t expect to have much if any room for negotiation of terms in dealing with a distributor.

• A good toe in the door for the beginning small publisher is Biblio, the new distribution program being developed by the National Book Network (NBN) in cooperation with Ingram. And the PMA Small Press program has provided extremely successful launches for a number of publishers.

• In a perfect world, independent bookstores would provide a strong market for independent publishers. In the real world, that’s not generally the case. Consider the fact that a typical chain superstore stocks maybe 100,000 titles, while an independent bookstore might stock only 3,000. On the upside, you can often develop strong relationships with local or regional independents, or indies that are strong in your content category.

• Small marketing cooperatives are worth considering–getting together with other similar small companies to gain critical mass.

• A book that’s successful locally or regionally won’t necessarily translate to a national market–and that’s OK. A book can be highly successful without being national.

• Books can also be highly successful without being in the book trade at all.

Notice the first and last comments, and take them to heart. If you put all your eggs in one basket–e.g., the book trade–you’re subject to a lot of market whims beyond your control. And if you consider trade distribution the only measure of success, you may be selling your books short.

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