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SALES CHANNELS: Many Paths to Book Buyers

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Reports from PMA members about the sales channels they use lead to one overarching conclusion: Publishers can and do devise innumerable ways to reach readers.

The three-part series that began in the January issue and concludes below also supports other broad generalizations, including:

Many small and midsized publishers do a lot of business with conventional bookstores, usually via a distributor or a national wholesaler.

Publishers with distributors often praise them highly.

Various PMA members are determined to steer clear of distributors, sometimes because of bad experiences.

Major wholesalers get high marks from some small and midsized publishers and failing grades from others.

Amazon gets high marks from many, except in terms of its apparently immutable and thoroughly counterproductive policy on listing new editions (see Skip Thomson’s report, below).

A mix of channels often works best.

We invite you to keep us posted on instructive experiences in various sales channels. Please email JAppelbaumPMA@aol.com whenever you have information to share.

—Judith Appelbaum

The Best Are Local Buyers

My little company is growing fast, and the sales channels have been expanding. My first book, Mammoth from the Inside, sold mostly through two regional distributors, with some direct sales; it took two years to break even. My second book, Hometown Pasadena, was published in November 2006 and took off quickly. We’re on the fourth printing in 12 months.

The most lucrative sales have been direct and in quantity to local companies and institutions; I hired a friend as a local rep and pay her a 10 percent commission. Next in profitability are sales at wholesale directly to gift shops, gourmet stores, various retailers, and the bookstores not handled by my distributor. We targeted every local retailer that made sense and went in and showed them the book. About 75 percent of them decided to carry it, and plenty did well with it, especially those that displayed it prominently.

Last in line in terms of profitability are the sales through my distributor. If we were trying to make it just on distributor sales, I don’t think we could stay in business. The balance makes it work. And now that Hometown Pasadena is in Costco (via my distributor), the low profit margin is offset by higher volume.

Because my focus is on regional titles, I’m not trying to blanket the nation, and that makes it a lot easier. We have had good success working directly with the GMs at regional Borders, because they have discretionary buying budgets and are encouraged to support local books. PartnersWest does a fine job of supplying Barnes & Noble, and it’s up to us to make sure the regional Barnes & Nobles know the books and are motivated to display them and host events.

Individual relationships with independent booksellers, local Borders managers, and all the small retailers we work with are the best part of selling. I love a big sale, but it’s almost as rewarding to see one of my books on the counter at a local coffeehouse or neighborhood bookstore, selling enough to make a difference to that business and making its customers happy. It’s labor-intensive to get books in all those little places, and on a per-unit basis it’s not as profitable as high-priced direct retail sales or high-volume Costco and Barnes & Noble sales, but it’s tremendously satisfying and an essential part of our mix.

Colleen Dunn Bates

Prospect Park Books


Art Builds an Audience

I may have one of the most unusual sales channels you’ll ever hear about. I make 90 percent of my book sales at my community art installations held around the country. The installations consist of nine large freestanding screens covered in inspiring quotations. The book, Dialogue, contains all these quotations and a 56-page color insert with photos and descriptions of locations we have visited in the past.

Dialogue is also listed on Amazon.com and at Baker & Taylor, but I have not received many sales through these channels yet.

Mike Garibaldi Frick

EvolveArts, Inc.


A Site That Takes Bulk Orders

The Jewish Learning Group, a two-person company (me and my wife), publishes beginner guides for those seeking to bring more Jewish observance and ritual into their family life and homes. Being an ordained rabbi who likes to read and write, I write the books myself and oversee production from beginning to end. Also, being the youngest of 10 in my family, with most of my siblings working in Jewish outreach, I grew up with excellent examples of how to help Jews from all backgrounds feel more comfortable with their heritage and religion.

To date, our 15 titles have sold nearly 150,000 copies combined, mostly through nontraditional channels. Our latest book, Going Kosher in 30 Days, has been a huge hit, with over 3,000 being sold in three months, sans distributor.

We usually print 5,000 to 10,000 copies at a time to take advantage of better pricing and to meet customer demand (I confess it takes longer to deplete inventory with some titles, but those run quantities worked for us). Our distribution channels consist mainly of our Web site, which generates about 50 orders a month from both wholesalers and the general public (we have bulk pricing right on the site to serve both segments, and it works quite well). Jewish outreach centers around the world also order from us, plus Jewish bookstores in major cities.

We used to sell to Barnes & Noble and other mainstream outlets when we had a distributor (through the PMA program), but the incessant fees (catalog fee, report fee, this fee and that fee), coupled with the required 75-plus percent discount, led to us running a deficit.

Selling direct is great, since we don’t have to offer steep discounts for most sales, but the other side of the coin is, we do have to know how to generate those sales.

Along with books, we sell an electronic gizmo we made called the Say a Blessing Keychain, a nifty device that helps people recite the correct Hebrew blessing over food and drink. It sold thousands in weeks, and when the popular gadget blog Gizmodo.com featured it, we were slammed with orders; this was two days before we were supposed to leave for vacation. I stayed up for two nights packing orders, and schlepped cases of keychains to our vacation spot so I could finish packing them once we arrived (don’t ask!).

As one product is released, I get right to work on the next. I know I need to devote more time to sales and marketing, and that’s my daily challenge. During the 10 years that I have been doing this seriously, I have found that my strengths lie in production and content creation, not necessarily in sales and marketing. I think it may be time to bring in a sales rep who understands our market, and perhaps can help break us out into other, more general markets. Even with that handicap, our materials are found all over the world. Our popular Passover Seder Table Companion is even used at the Seder of the White House staff!

Zalman Goldstein

The Jewish Learning Group


Chugging to a Target Market

My market niche is railroads, and my target market is model railroad hobbyists and railroad historians. My first book (Prototypes for Modelers: Volume 1, San Diego & Arizona Railway) came out in June 2006 and is primarily for a regional customer base in the Southwest; a second book will be out this year.

The sales channels that have worked best are:

direct to hobby stores and museums—54 percent of sales and 52 percent of revenue

distributors that serve hobby stores and museums for my target market, one West Coast and one East Coast—22 percent of sales and 21 percent of revenue

online booksellers for railroad hobbyists—9 percent of sales and 9 percent of revenue

direct via hobby shows and book fairs—8 percent of sales and 10 percent of revenue

mail order—4 percent of sales and 7 percent of revenue

In other words, it’s all about reaching your target market.

From a first printing of 1,000 units, I have sold about 550. I would be much better off if I was writing sex-and-romance paperbacks that were railroad related—maybe Lust and Locomotives, Private Compartments and Liaisons, Romance on the Railroad, etc. You think?

Charles M. O’Herin

Link Pen Publishing


Traditional with a Twist

At Monkfish, which publishes spiritual and literary works, we use a traditional distributor, Consortium Book Sales & Distribution, now owned by Perseus Book Group, which contributes about 70 percent of our total revenue and all our trade revenue. Its breakout is roughly: 25 percent to independent bookstores, 50 percent to wholesalers (Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Bookazine, Bookstream, and New Leaf, with Ingram and B&T accounting for about 85 percent of total wholesale business), and 25 percent to the chains. Library sales, which go primarily through the wholesalers, are an important part of the mix. For example, libraries purchased about 1,200 copies of our hardcover novel, The Passion of Mary Magdalen, which has gone on to sell 10,000 copies. Of course, we are not likely to get reorders from libraries, but then sales to them were nonreturnable.

Having a distributor frees us to focus on editorial and publicity, helps brand our press with bookstores and libraries, and forces us to maintain a publishing schedule; it’s this consistency that builds credibility over time.

There is also a part two. We started a self-publishing division called Epigraph Publishing Service that publishes books for a fee through Lightning Source, which we chose from among the various POD possibilities because it guaranteed easy access to Ingram and Amazon.

So far, we have published about 10 titles with LS, and the experience has mostly been positive. It must be the fastest way to press—you can see a proof in about 10 days, and the book appears, sometimes within a day or two after proof approval, on Amazon. The publisher has flexibility in terms of setting discounts to Ingram, although if you are anticipating bookstore sales, you need to set your discount at 55 percent, returnable. When we had an author on tour recently and needed to get books into bookstores, including chains, we were able to do it through the LS/Ingram system, perhaps because considerable publicity was involved.

This has convinced me, mostly, that POD can work distribution-wise, although it is by no means the same as having a distributor and a seasoned rep. Consortium would have gotten more orders, for sure, but, on the other hand, we did not have to pay for a print run to make these sales happen—with LS, printing costs are deducted from net receipts.

Paul Cohen

Monkfish Book Publishing Company


Where the Math Works Better

Although the publishing side of our business generates a small percentage of our total annual revenue, our publishing profit margins are the highest they’ve been in years. We originally published our only book, Coin Laundries: Road to Financial Independence, in 1989 as a 298-page softcover. It went out of print in 1998 and was reintroduced as a 449-page hardcover in 2001. Soon we will be doing a fourth printing of the second edition.


Throughout the ’90s, we sold mostly to libraries, library distributors, and bookstores; about 30 percent of our sales were direct, stemming from advertising in The Wall Street Journal and coin-laundry trade magazines, and from direct mail. With the exception of Amazon, the Internet was not a factor.


Today we sell next to nothing to libraries, book distributors, or bookstores, either Internet or brick-and-mortar. The conventional channels have taken the position that they would rather deal in percentages than dollars. New math has taught them that it’s better to have 70 percent of $15 ($10.50) than 40 percent of $45 ($18). Go figure!


Our book sales now result from a combination of promotions. We advertise in all coin-laundry trade magazines, and these ads direct the readers’ attention to our Web site. Our book’s author, Emerson G. Higdon, writes a monthly technical column in Coin Laundry News, which also lists our site. Higdon, an expert witness for The TASA Group (Technical Advisory Service for Attorneys), also does extensive coin-laundry consulting.


The National Coin Laundry Association promotes our book, and so do several of the large coin-laundry equipment distributors. A large percentage of our single-book sales come from referrals. And best of all, we have no uncollectable accounts, and you can count our returns during the past 18 years on the fingers of only two hands.

Ermon Watt

Mountain Publishing


Murder, She Sold

I sell my books through Amazon.com fairly steadily, but sales there are not as profitable as sales through nontraditional venues, such as bicycle shops, lock shops, and places where I speak to civic groups, church groups, and historical societies. I’ve even sold books at chamber-of-commerce meetings, which is kind of surprising, since some of them are true-crime stories about murders that happened in the chambers’ cities. The profits are modest, but the satisfaction is great.

Mary Ellen Cooper

Padlock Mystery Press


Praise for Intermediaries (plus a Protest About Amazon)

We participate in the Amazon Advantage program; since the many glitches have been ironed out, Amazon has generated about 50 percent of our sales. Roughly 10 percent come via Booklines Hawaii, 20 percent via Ingram and Baker & Taylor, and the remaining 20 percent are direct from our Web site and other miscellaneous sources. 

Some of our Web-direct orders come though a fulfillment service, the rest directly to our shipping department through PayPal. Since we don’t have to give up over half the income on Web-direct orders, we offer free shipping on them.

We do the “search inside the book” thing with both Google and Amazon, list our titles on Google Books too, and work hard at creating links to our Web sites, which has improved our position on the search engines a great deal. 

Greenleaf Book Group, our conduit to Ingram and Baker & Taylor, is a good, low-maintenance connection. The staff is communicative and helpful, and the accounting is clear and on time every month.

Amazon Advantage is great once you get a title properly listed, but that can be a long and frustrating experience. One of our biggest issues with Amazon has been that it will not remove the listing for an out-of-print edition when we try to replace it with a new one. Instead, it lists both, which means many of our existing links from other sites will take the visitor to a “no longer available” page. We have spent countless hours trying to get Amazon to replace a listing, but it is Amazon’s “policy,” and the company “can’t do anything about it.” For this reason, we published the third edition of Affordable Paradise with the same ISBN as the second edition, but of course this creates problems elsewhere.

Skip Thomsen

Oregon Wordworks


Non-bookstore Sales Benefits

Books can be divided into two basic categories: bookstore-type books and non-bookstore-type books. Books aimed at the general public will sell in bookstores, but many books, often technical, are best sold to the reader through other outlets the book industry calls nontraditional.

We have technical books on parachutes and popular books on skydiving. Parachuting: The Skydivers Handbook is a popular book aimed at the general public. It is handled by our distributor, National Book Network, and is sold through bookstores. Our other parachute books are more technical and are aimed at specific kinds of users within the parachute industry. They would not sell in bookstores.

Some 90 percent of our books are sold to parachute catalogs, skydiving schools, parachute stores, skydiving clubs, through skydiving magazines, and so on. These dealers purchase books by the carton, pay in 30 days, never complain about the postal charges, and never return a book.

Go where there is a large concentration of your particular potential buyers. The mine is richer there.

Dan Poynter

Para Publishing


Percentages Change with Mounting Sales

Our adventure in learning started in 1997, when we formed our very small family-operated science and medical book publishing company. We developed our niche in the hearing industry with our first book, The Consumer Handbook on Hearing Loss and Hearing Aids: A Bridge to Healing, which filled a void.

We solicited bulk sales prior to printing and presold 11,000 copies of this single title. This created a sort of marketing firestorm in the industry, resulting in incredible reviews that are still posted on Amazon.com. Within 12 months after launch, we became the number-one link between our industry and consumers. At that time, our philosophy was that any business outside our industry would be just icing on the cake. Thus, in our first year or two, we probably made 98 percent of our sales through the hearing profession, with perhaps 2 percent through bookstores, the Internet, brokers, wholesalers, and libraries combined. In the beginning, we exhibited at library shows, but we quickly discovered that this generated losses.

Sales through the book business now account for about 13 percent of revenues. With annual gross sales averaging a bit over $400,000 for our four titles, we have sold 995,000 books! 

Richard Carmen

Auricle Ink Publishers


Lessons Learned Along the Way

Here are my percentages, straight from the pie chart in my Excel spreadsheet, from July 2004, when I sold my first book, through early 2008:

trade distribution, 30 percent

Amazon (I kept Amazon Advantage even though I now have a distributor), 27 percent

RV/road-trip vendors (Camping World, AAA, Trailer Life, etc.), 23 percent

my Web site, 7 percent

shows and presentations, 4 percent

miscellaneous, 3 percent

review copies, giveaways, and gifts account for the other 6 percent

My observations:

If you want any reasonable volume and genre penetration, you must use at least some of the high-discount channels.

Everyone should sell on Amazon; it is just too large a channel to ignore. And Amazon Marketplace doesn’t count, because the volume there won’t be big enough to make a difference with just one or two books.

Your own Web site won’t do significant volume either; people are too wary of giving credit card info to an unknown entity, even with a secure shopping cart and first-page ranking on Google, etc.

Find nontraditional channels where you can sell; discounts are less, and generally terms are better. This is one of the best opportunities for independent publishers.

Carol White

Road Trip Dream


Hotels and More Here and Abroad 

Roughly two thirds of the sales of my foreign-language phrasebook take place overseas. In Mexico (Spanish), Italy (Italian), Afghanistan (Dari), Russia (Russian), and Ukraine (Russian), I engaged part-time sales agents to market the books to hotels, kiosks, souvenir shops, tour guides, language tutors, language schools, and bookstores. In Russia and Ukraine, they also sell phrasebooks through introduction agencies, since a large number of Western men seek introductions to women from those countries.

In Mexico and Italy, hotels have been a particularly lucrative venue. By agreement, hotel managers place a brochure for the phrasebook in each room and display a box of copies on or near the registration desk. In the United States, I’ve relied primarily on Amazon, Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and Quality Books. Amazon is quite good. Ingram and B&T produce results commensurate with my own marketing efforts. I find Ingram’s wholesaling practices predatory and their returns deplorable. I have never received a single returned book from Ingram that was saleable, and my complaints have fallen on deaf ears.

I’ve had decent success in the United States selling books through Spanish and Italian tutors and through RV parks in the Southwest. However, these efforts require a good deal of time and effort, which I’m not always able to devote. Recently, I’ve discovered that ethnic festivals, street fairs, and bazaars are good venues for my kind of book.

I have a hard time getting into most bookstores because the big-name phrasebook publishers (Berlitz, Lonely Planet, Barrons, Langenscheidt) have an armlock on them. So I do what they don’t do.

Bob Powers

Rodnik Publishing Co.


It’s About the Message

I recognize now that I was little prepared for my first venture into self-publishing, but I loved the title that came in a dream for my book, Heal the Earth, Heal the Soul, and the essays in it connecting conservation of nature with human spirituality; and the name I gave my little publishing endeavor, Bartram Books, for those pioneering earth-healers, John and William Bartram.

I think the most important lesson I’ve learned so far is not to depend on wholesalers or retailers. For me, it works better to develop my own conduits to readers who are open to my message. My impression is that the bigger the outfit, the more it’s about money and profit, as it is with the mainstream publishing houses.

I’ve had experience here. Although Heal the Earth is my first try at self-publishing, it is my 20th book, the others having been published over a period of 50 years with major firms in New York and with various academic presses. I started writing travel books, then raised my sights to write about the natural treasures in our wilderness areas, national parks, and national forests that need appreciation and protection. My biggest seller was the Rand McNally National Park Guide, which sold almost a million copies. A few of my works won awards and were chosen by book clubs. Maybe I should have quit there.

Here I am now in my upper 80s, likely old enough to know better. However, correspondence with Lee Foster of Berkeley, CA, whom I had known in the travel-writing fraternity, encouraged me to plunge ahead into self-publishing and directed me to PMA. 

Heal the Earth appeared almost at the same time in 2007 as Rebel on the Road, my memoir, published by Truman State University Press. I take both to readings at nature centers, faith groups, environmental groups, and bookstores. One presentation leads to another. My wife and I send postcards in advance that help stimulate attendance. Yes, people buy books, but that is not why they come.

Recently, at Random Lake, WI, a woman came up to me and said, “Your writing feeds the soul . . . ” And I had my reward.

Michael Frome

Bartram Books/Big MPG




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