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The Evolution of Distribution

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by Richard T. Williams, Director, IPG

Photo of Richard Williams

Richard Williams

For decades, “self-published” titles were considered second-rate and not worth bringing to the market because nobody exercised editorial control by vetting these titles. This is no longer an unequivocal fact—now the only real distinction to be made is whether or not someone other than the author has been tapped to perfect and improve the final product, because no author can edit his or her own work. Creating a marketable trade book requires both critical distance and special expertise.

Fortunately, there are now ways to have solid self-published books edited and designed by professionals; and there are companies that can capably market such self-published books. Many of these editors, marketers, and other publishing consultants recognize the growing need for their services and genuinely want to help deliver great products to the market.

Authors looking to self-publish who need this kind of support should do their research before hiring. IBPA is a great place to start networking and gathering recommendations. And Small Press United, which partners with IBPA and which was created by IPG especially for small and self-publishers back in May 2009, is just one example of a distributor whose selectivity serves as curation and quality assurance for a skeptical market.

Today’s Timing

IPG’s previous distribution partnership with IBPA goes back a couple of decades, when we would meet twice a year with Jan Nathan and board members from IBPA (or PMA, as it was called then) to select a few books for our catalog. Sales through the program rapidly hit more than $1 million annually, but the needs of the industry outgrew that format.

A few years ago we realized that the small-press industry was really booming. Technology had advanced and was more affordable, granting people access to resources that could produce viable, trade-worthy titles. Startup publishers from all over were sending us good-looking, finished books on timely topics with publicity plans ready to go, but we weren’t able to distribute them right away because of our traditional semiannual catalog model.

Publishers with skids of books in their garages or basements were very anxious to get them moving, and when we had to say, “We can help you out in six months,” it was not a happy conversation.

As a result we switched to a rolling submission model and renamed our program SPU. We now publish an SPU catalog five or six times a year, and we add these titles to our weekly metadata feeds very quickly so that the books will appear in search engines and account databases throughout the industry as being available right away.

New technology also allows publishers to take advantage of POD and e-book options that make it possible to do smaller test printings rather than the 5,000-copy print runs that used to be necessary to achieve a reasonable unit cost, so those overstock storage issues no longer cause as much concern.

Marketing Across All Formats

POD and digital-only formats are now completely valid in today’s marketplace. Old-school distribution models don’t entirely accommodate the new publishers that have popped up as a result of these changes, so what IPG tries to do is make all our distributed titles available in both electronic and print formats—because that means we can cross-promote them.

When publishers come to us with e-book editions only, we try to convince them to take part in our affordable POD program. Likewise, when publishers come to us with only a print book, we explain the advantages of having digital copies available, and we arrange to get the e-book conversion done for them at a very low price. IPG handles the production of many thousands of e-book and POD titles every year, which has allowed us to drive the cost to our publishers for both formats way down.

Since e-book promotion and digital distribution are very new, many people are trying to learn to do these on the fly. Working to stay ahead of the curve, we have established relationships with more than 300 different e-book resellers—not just Amazon, Apple, and the other consumer-facing e-book stores—and we have a dedicated team in-house that works directly with our publishers to find promotional opportunities and to involve them in the e-book resellers’ various marketing packages and promotions.

E-book resellers don’t stigmatize “self-published” titles the way many traditional booksellers did in decades past, so the modern marketing arena has become much wider and more open-minded.

21st-Century Selectivity

Even with additional clout throughout the industry and new ways to market and produce self-published titles, today’s distributors still face a challenge—how to select titles they can sell when the sheer number of titles grows exponentially each year and fewer of those titles are immediately disqualifiable in terms of trade or consumer interest.

There was a time when we could almost pick the best small-press books by the quality of their covers. Now, however, even the most amateurish titles can look professional (new technology again), so we have to be very diligent.

At SPU, our online application process allows publishers to complete a short form with a cover image and some basic book information. We use that information to investigate the book’s subject category and to research how other titles in that category are performing. As a result, we discover quite quickly whether the book’s publisher is truly aware of the market; whether the package can compete with the other books in its category; and whether the book is priced correctly, formatted correctly, and has a competitive cover.

Sometimes we take on a title with minor problems that cannot be rectified because it is already in print. But a publisher should bring its distributor into the process early enough to offer suggestions that will optimize a title’s salability. For example, you might need a different title or subtitle or a cover with more “pop” or an adjustment in price to make a title more competitive in its category. After one- or two-book publishers navigate the learning curve, they can go on to develop a list of 10 or 20 books and become full-fledged publishing companies.

Sales Channels, Old and New

Although distribution used to be a term for selling physical books into bookstores and libraries, even today’s smallest publishers can get books into many additional kinds of places via a distributor. For example, SPU reaches hundreds of accounts besides the digital outlets mentioned above through IPG’s sales force: a dozen in-house people who sell to major national retailers, wholesalers, and mass merchandisers; 35 or so commissioned reps who call on independent bookstores and major museum accounts throughout the United States and Canada; more than 100 gift reps for titles that are relevant to the specialty retail market; 15 reps who cover teacher supply stores and school districts; and a 6-person in-house special sales team that reaches deeper into the education market and to accounts outside the book trade such as park and public land shops, sporting goods stores, and department stores.

All things considered, the term distribution should now simply mean selling into a wide range of sales channels.

When you’re considering a distributor, or considering alternatives to one, remember that nothing beats active selling. Distribution services that collect monthly fees to cover their overhead may have no incentive to sell and be content to simply make titles available. Distributors like SPU that make money only when they sell a book are motivated to push books aggressively through all the channels they reach.

However, publishers should keep in mind that simply having a broadly active and energetic distributor does not guarantee the megamillion-copy sales numbers we’ve all read about. For obvious reasons, it’s important to have realistic expectations.

A good sale of an SPU title depends partly on its category—nonfiction from experts in their fields tends to find audiences better than books in leisure categories such as fiction and children’s picture books—but an indie publisher that sells through 1,000 copies of a title in a year has published a pretty solid backlist book, and can hope to sell more copies over time, perhaps many more.

Some SPU titles sell several thousand copies in their first year; some sell only a few hundred. Much depends on the size of the category—again, fiction and children’s tend to be enormously competitive—but in our view no market is too big or too small. What’s essential is having a clearly defined market for each book. That means you must know how to target the customers who have something to gain from the book, usually a problem solved or a special interest met.

A book we’re currently distributing provides a good example of an independent publisher working and learning to get everything right. The Carnival at Bray, written by Jessie Ann Foley and published by Elephant Rock Books, has won numerous awards from the ALA and has been ranked by top-tier publications as one of the best young adult books published this year. It was perhaps the fifth book that the publisher brought to us, and is now one of the top-trending titles on the entire IPG list, which includes books from many much larger companies.

Two books of photographs published by CityFiles Press have also recently done very well. They showcase the work of Vivian Maier, a nanny by profession, who took thousands of rolls of film that were found hidden in a storage locker after her death and that turned out to contain genius images of people on the street. These books are gorgeously produced and stunning to behold; you would never guess that they were published by a small press.

Overview Insights

I could cite many more examples that show the viability and the cultural importance of the independent publishing community. Every day I see how exciting and vital it is. Self-publishing has grown in stature; new models of publishing continue to pop up with each passing week, and distributors are faced with new challenges to accommodate these big-picture shifts in the industry. The idea that books have to be prepped for sales six months prior to their publication dates is increasingly bizarre in a world that moves so much faster than it used to.

We need to be able to bring on a title regardless of what other titles are happening at the same time. At SPU, I want to be able to sign a book, prep it for the market, position it for our customers, and sell it right away. It really should be the interests of consumers, not the interests of industry professionals, that determine how we market books.

Richard T. Williams is the director of IPG’s Small Press United distribution program. This article is derived, with permission, from an interview with him conducted by IPG’s CEO, Curt Matthews, and posted on his blog at ipgbook.com.

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