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PRESIDENT’S POST – An Evolved Distribution Solution

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The questions we receive most often at the IBPA office concern distribution—how to get it; what companies provide it; is it really needed in the e-era? The article that follows, sent by former IBPA Board President Curt Matthews, the CEO of Independent Publishers Group, covers some of the challenges smaller publishers have historically faced in getting distribution and explains one solution designed specifically to serve them.

Small Press United is not the only possible distribution choice, of course, and some publishers may do best without any distributor at all (see “Conduits to Customers, Part 1: Distribution Options,” and “Do You Need a Distributor?” in the December 2008 issue).

As you would for any marketing expenditure, I urge you to carefully weigh the financial impact on your company if you’re considering partnering with a distributor. Be sure you understand the implications of any distribution contract you sign, and contact the IBPA office if you have questions.

From SPS to SPU

by Richard T. Williams, Director, Small Press United

For about 15 years, IPG ran a book trade distribution program called Small Press Selection (SPS) in cooperation with PMA/IBPA. Over those years, the 1,100 titles selected for the program had total sales after returns of more than $22 million. With almost 3 million net copies shipped and returns of about 450,000, the returns rate was 19 percent. During the last decade, yearly sales in this program have averaged a little over $2 million.

Also during those years, a number of very small presses in the program became sizable and profitable businesses. Others published a title or two and dropped out. The average sales per title were about 2,400 units, but some titles sold tens of thousands of copies.

A year and a half ago, IPG created a new distribution program called Small Press United (SPU), which has superseded the Small Press Selection, to reflect new realities and capitalize on new opportunities in the book marketplace. Two changes are especially significant.

1. SPU can sell around the traditional publishing seasons to better accommodate books published independently of these established timelines. We used to have to tell prospective client publishers that the release of a book would have to wait until it could be included in a seasonal catalog. This often meant a delay of six or seven months and sometimes as long as a year—bad news for a publisher who had just taken delivery of 5,000 copies from the printer.

Today, the modern tools and technology utilized by our sales force, both in the field and in-house, allow us to reach out to all accounts frequently throughout the year, even those that still prefer to buy on traditional models.

2. It is no longer necessary for publishers to print a large quantity of copies to see if a title is viable. With a very modest first printing—yes, even a POD printing—a title can be built gradually to become very successful.

Partly this is because the “long tail” made possible by Internet search capabilities keeps books with good information in them selling well for years.

But the crucial change this reflects is that a big “laydown” or initial sale into the bookstores, followed by a highly concentrated and perfectly timed publicity blast, is no longer the only way to get the attention of the public. Books still never just sell themselves, but “pull” marketing rather than “push” marketing is now a real possibility, and pull marketing is much more affordable, and far less risky, for small and startup publishers.

A Mighty Mix of Titles

There are now 100 new publishers participating in the Small Press United program along with 150 who transitioned over from the former Small Press Selection.

These publishers aren’t all self-published authors with single titles; they have come to us from all walks of the industry, some with strong titles formerly offered through other distributors, and they include authors previously published by large houses who have decided to branch out on their own. Our selection includes fiction and nonfiction, adult and children’s books, bilingual and seasonal titles.

SPU titles have been covered in major print media such as the New York Times, on major TV programs such as NBC’s Today, and on major Web sites such as CNN.com and Time.com. The mix of titles and publishers showcases just how far the “small press” has come over the last 15 years, when our former program debuted.

In fact, small-press publishing is more affordable now than ever before, and with today’s technological advances in design and printing, there is essentially no difference in final product quality between books published by a small press and those produced by a major publishing house.

No Second-class Citizens Here

So why do so many people, including some industry professionals who ought to know better, still think that independent publishers’ titles are somehow second rate? The attitude is especially strange when you consider this fact: Unit sales in the book business have reportedly been flat for the last 10 years, but small press and niche publishing have enjoyed strong growth. Much of this growth has been at the expense of the major houses.

The Small Press United program was designed to counter the mistaken notion about the quality of smaller publishers’ books. It is not deficient product that preserves this antiquated viewpoint; it is the way titles too often have been presented over the years. There has been far too much of the attitude that buyers should take pity on the little guys and their brave little books. The SPU attitude is anything but apologetic. Instead, we celebrate the quality and cultural importance of small-press publishing.

As we see it, aggressive distribution is still an essential part of the trade book business. Some argue that a small publisher does not need and cannot afford the services of a distribution company, but even titles produced by print-on-demand technology or available in the various e-book formats need to be actively marketed. Availability is a necessary, but hardly sufficient, condition for success.

And although publishers can sign up directly with wholesalers and online resellers to make their books available to the trade market, the books need the extra push that an experienced sales force can provide. Furthermore, major book retailers still require that small publishers have professional distribution in place, because this is how they keep their cost of doing business down.

Despite its close working relationship with IPG, which distributes larger and longer-established publishers, the Small Press United staff is keenly aware of the uphill battle a small publisher faces when it tries to break into the trade market. Because there is a lot to learn about making and promoting books, SPU provides resources to its client publishers to help them develop better products and publicity campaigns, in addition to providing expertise from the sales frontline. This is also why SPU publishers are required to be members of IBPA, and why we strongly encourage them to make use of IBPA’s rich trove of publishing information.

Does the SPU marketing approach work? Within a couple of months of signing a distribution agreement, Small Press United is able to place a publisher’s books in the bookstore chains and at wholesalers’ distribution centers. Orders from independent booksellers and gift stores take a little longer, but SPU titles go immediately into the hundreds of specialty catalogs IPG produces every month. Thousands of units can be sold from each new bundle by the time the next one is introduced. Some titles will continue to gain strength in the marketplace for months afterward, especially those supported by publisher promotion and media activity.

Crucially, SPU’s method of distribution keeps its client publishers’ costs under control. We sell in the books with care and never oversaturate the market, thereby avoiding returns that can be devastating for a small press. In fact, while the industry has an average returns rate of more than 25 percent, the SPU returns rate is below 13 percent.

The economic downturn and the incredible increase in the number of new titles produced every year have made the competition for shelf space truly intense. Books that would have been reliable sellers 10 years ago may now be skipped entirely by store buyers. But distribution through SPU is designed to give the buyers confidence, because they know that any title offered by IPG, through any of its distribution programs, has been carefully selected; and that the distributed publishers have access to solid marketing and publicity advice.

Sometimes the result of broad exposure for SPU titles is bittersweet. Recently, distribution clients sold the rights to two of the bestselling titles in the program to major publishing houses for a lot of money. Though nothing provides a better backbone for a publishing program than an evergreen title, we certainly understand why sometimes a publisher simply cannot afford to pass up a big payday. We are proud to play a part in our clients’ successes, and we look forward to creating many more opportunities for them through the SPU program.

These issues and others are explained in considerable detail on the Small Press United Web site. If this program could be right for your company, take a careful look at smallpressunited.com.

Exploring Distribution Options

As you begin research on your distribution options, you may want to consult John Kremer’s “The Top Independent Book Distributors,” available on his Book Marketing and Book Promotion Web site (bookmarket.com/distributors.htm).

Given the current speed of change in the book industry, do check other sources as well, such as Literary Market Place (literarymarketplace.com) and distributors’ Web sites, to ensure you have up-to-date information on contacts and criteria.

—Florrie Kichler



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