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When You Want to Outsource Fulfillment

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Not long after my husband and I started our publishing company, I concluded that fulfillment–complete with a smooth infrastructure for invoicing, account statement, and shipping–was one thing we had to hire out. We needed to keep our time free for the activities we enjoyed and understood–writing, designing, editing, and marketing.

So I set out on the search. I checked Literary Market Place in our local library and called 10 “book fulfillment” houses, shaving my list as I went. If their voice-mail maze was so confusing that it took five minutes to get to a human being, I nixed them. If a human being answered but didn’t understand what I was looking for, I nixed them too.

Then I called a company where the owner himself answered. He said he would fax me their “package” promptly, and he did. The promotional materials pleased me. The charges seemed reasonable–a low flat monthly fee to store all our books, track inventory, deal with the hassle of credit cards, and provide a 1-800 number. The clincher was that they would get us listed with Ingram. We signed without further ado.

Eight months later, we were paying $100 a month basically just for storage, plus $20 to $40 every time we had a box of books shipped to us, and we were getting confusing reports (for instance, the Ingram sales figures didn’t seem to match up with the numbers we gleaned by calling the Ingram stock status hotline). Because the prospect of switching fulfillment companies was daunting, it took us a while to do it, but we’ve now signed with a bigger and better firm–one that is actually a distributor, complete with a

If you’re interested in outsourcing fulfillment, I hope you can streamline the process by taking advantage of the lessons we learned.

Beware of sketchy contracts. I realize now that most of the promises on the first company’s Web site and in its promotional materials didn’t appear in the contract. Look for details on the exclusive and nonexclusive aspects of your partnership, and for explanations of a variety of procedures, including how returns and hurts will be handled, how payment will be remitted, and how daily online reports will be provided.

Call other clients. Many fulfillment companies may not realize it, but they make it easy to obtain their “references.” Simply visit their sites and look for a list of their publishing clients (generally under a link like Our Publishers); then get contact info from each client’s site. The first company we signed with didn’t list any clients (should this have been a warning sign?). But Googling the company got me clients’ Web pages.

Listen to your gut. Whenever I got off the phone with that first company, I felt belittled. Granted, I am a relative neophyte, but when I found myself trying to explain the difference between the Amazon Advantage program and Amazon Marketplace, I had a very, very bad feeling.

Match your fulfillment company and your niche. We needed a company that knew the Christian Booksellers Association and Catholic markets better than we did. The company we selected first focused on the trade.

See whether the company has a selection process.

A service provider that accepts everybody may be relying on the monthly minimum charges to make its money, rather than on doing its job well.

Make sure it’s technologically current. I wishIhad noticed earlier that our first choice operated as if we were still in 1970–no online reports, minimal communication via e-mail, lots of faxes.

Once you’ve signed, check on Ingram service. You can callIngram’s automated stock status system hotline 24 hours a day (615/213-6803). Check it periodically. Do your books stay on “backorder” for weeks? There’s no excuse for dilly-dallying–prompt fulfillment is what you’re paying for.

Of course, the most important question to ask before you make a deal for fulfillment is, Can this company handle and disperse the volume of books I need to sell in key channels in order to stay in business?

Bethany Torode lives in rural Wisconsin with her husband, Sam, and their two sons. By day, Sam and Bethany are cover designers, working with such clients as ISI Books, Eerdmans, and W Publishing Group. For more info, e-mail them at btorode@starband.net, or, to see their portfolio, visit www.torodedesign.com.


[sidebar #1]

Five Questions to Ask the Company’s Clients

Have you received payments from the company?


Are reports timely, frequent, and easy to understand?·
Do company staffers communicate promptly?

Have you checked company sales reports against Ingram reports?


Are you pleased, overall, with your relationship?

Keep in mind that it might not be the fulfillment company’s fault if some clients are unhappy. Projection is a human tendency, and it’s easier for us to blame someone else for disappointing sales than it is to take a long, objective look at our own products and marketing efforts.


[sidebar #2]

How You Handle Fulfillment

Many thanks to everybody who responded to the e-mailed questions about fulfillment options. A report on the methods that PMA members use–and on how well or badly those methods work–will appear in the January issue of the newsletter.–J.A.

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