As heads of large publishing houses talk about finding more ways to reach readers, the sales channels that niche publishers use may figure in their plans. To get a sense of how PMA members might react to bids for entrée to their markets, we blasted a what-if question:
“If you distribute your books outside conventional book-trade circles, imagine for a moment that the marketing director of a huge house is pounding on your door, begging you to handle distribution for titles from the house that fit your niche. Would the idea appeal? Please let us know what your reaction would be–and why.”
Responses covered the gamut from “No way” to “You bet”–often declaring, in essence and intelligently, that it depends on the deal–and they included reports on past and current distribution partnerships as well as on those that might eventually occur. Here’s a sampling.
Action in the Comics Channel
We actually do distribute Random House’s graphic novels into the comic-bookstore market, although not on an exclusive basis, more like a wholesaler. We buy nonreturnable from them, as that is how we sell, and margins are rather tight, but the titles add to the lineup our in-house sales rep uses to get orders from the comics stores market. This helps increase frequency of ordering, which helps us get our own books well stocked in those stores.
This started when one of our authors was also being published by Crown (an imprint of RH). It made sense to offer the Crown book together with ours, and we made the arrangement grow from there.
Our computer software is set up for this since we distribute for some self-published authors, so our reporting is smooth, and we can keep track of how and what we’re doing.
Partnerships in Prospect
We publish for the camp and conference-center field and make more than 80 percent of our sales directly to those markets and to the youth or recreation organizations that support and operate these types of facilities, and we are actively attempting to broaden our market to cover all workers in the field of youth development. Our distribution system is strong, and some larger houses have already asked for partnerships. We may be working one out in the very near future.
Melody A Snider, Publishing
American Camp Association
Watch Out for the Double Whammy
Both as the former publisher of Ortho Books and in my role as a book packager for numerous large publishers, I have seen alternative channels of distribution become an increasingly vital part of the market for certain titles (examples include books on outdoor sports, gardening, home improvement, and cooking) as bookstore sales of specialty subjects have plummeted. More and more weak books are being published, with bigger page counts but less content, and with lower prices as demanded by the chain bookstores. These books train consumers to be dissatisfied with quality and content, discouraging further purchases of books and further visits to bookstores.
However, if a large publisher approached us about providing distribution into a specialty channel that we had developed, we would in all likelihood turn down the request. Here’s why: First, the publisher probably wouldn’t let us pick only those books that served our consumers, and second, its books would compete with ours for space and revenue in our specialty channels.
Space in specialty stores is limited, and book rep time is precious. Adding a distribution client would mean less time to present our line and would divide up the already small pie of store purchasing intent and budget.
No amount of subsidy of our costs for selling to the specialty channel is worth this double whammy. As a publisher who has had as much as 85 percent of all sales come from nonbookstore channels, I see access to those channels as too precious to dilute. It’s a reality that too many large publishers don’t understand, and a vital advantage worth keeping.
Dolezal & Associates
The Can-Do Response
If a big publisher asked me to distribute selected titles I would respond with delight, and hope I could figure out how to do one more thing.
Street Vendors’ Sales
A nonconventional distribution channel that my company uses has been helping fuel the growth of my independent publishing house while providing steady cash flow with no accounts receivable headaches.
Q-Boro Books publishes Street Lit novels, sometimes referred to as urban lit or hip-hop lit. While Street Lit titles are well received in the chain bookstores, their popularity also depends on guerilla marketing and distribution tactics employed by the independent companies like mine. One of those distribution tactics is reliance on street vendors.
If I publish a title with an initial print run of 10,000 copies, I know that I can easily distribute 1,500 to 2,000 copies via street vendors in a two- to three-week period and have the cash in hand from those cash and carry sales. Then those 1,500 to 2,000 sales give us the money to go to print for another title and also jump-start our marketing efforts via word of mouth. Customers who buy our books from street vendors often recommend them to their relatives and friends, and when their relatives or friends live in areas that don’t have street vendors they may purchase the books through chain bookstores, independent bookstores, or major online retailers.
I like the idea of creating another revenue stream for my company simply by doing for somebody else what I already do for myself, and I don’t see what a larger publisher would have to lose.
Mark Anthony Holsey
We already distribute titles that fit our niche and are published by a larger company, so we believe that it is a good idea. We buy quantities at discount and sell them at full price. Specifically, since we published the French translation of a successful title from Oxford University Press, we decided to distribute the original in English alongside it. And–in reverse–we are distributing a French title that has a good sales record in France, while negotiating with that company for licensing English translation rights.
Joanne S. Silver
Beach Lloyd Publishers, LLC
As editor-in-chief of Corinthian Books (25 titles, 17 authors) that distributes through Ingram (all titles), Baker & Taylor (some titles), and several dozen wholesalers, library jobbers, and the like, and also services about 200 accounts direct, I would rather chew on broken rusty razor blades and drink strychnine by the pint than take on the job of distributing anyone else’s books again. We did it for several years, and almost lost our shirts because:
- The profit margin is ridiculously low.
- The labor cost is high.
- The accounting needs are ferocious.
- The cash flow is lousy.
- And the returns nightmare–and its inherent accounting burdens—would drive even a devout Baptist minister to drink.
If, nevertheless, any large house ever did wind up on our doorstep with such a request, I would direct my highly trained army of German cockroaches (here in genteel Charleston, we delicately refer to them as “Palmetto bugs”) on them until they got the point that we don’t want that kind of business.
It is far, far better to endure the relatively manageable miseries (and many pleasures) of being a small publisher and distributor of one’s own books. We deal direct with a large number of museums and National Trust and National Parks Service outlets, as well as with a very strong gift shop/museum shop/historic properties gift shop tourist market in South Carolina. All these sales are virtually trouble-free. As an author, I also do a healthy direct-to-the-reader sales volume via approximately 75 in-person speaking events a year.
Richard N. Côté
Expanding Existing Arrangements
We already have conversations about distributing fairly often. We specialize in textbooks on marketing and advertising and have often helped smaller publishers just getting started by giving them a corner of our table or display at the conventions we go to. We are dancing around offering this service to larger publishers with only one or two titles for our niche and would gladly do it. Wouldn’t ask much in terms of compensation either; it reflects well on us and reinforces our leadership in this small segment.
The Copy Workshop
Keeping Publishing Paramount
Florida Academic Press distributes the books of some 40 small and foreign publishers. If a large house approached us with a distribution deal, we would probably not accept it because it would change the ratio between our publishing activities (currently still paramount) and distribution. Organic growth via publishing is our goal. We offer distribution as we have excess capacity–manpower, storage, and so on.
Our distribution services appeal to smaller publishers partly because of their lower cost and also because we integrate distribution with marketing to libraries, college professors, indie bookstores, and the Canadian and foreign markets via four-flyers-per-envelope co-op mailings. We stress a no-nonsense 20 percent (maximum) discount, free s/h only for paperbacks (on hardcovers we levy a flat $3.75), and no returns. We have always had these terms, and have helped sway large numbers of publishers to this model.
Florida Academic Press
Not Without Author Promo
I’d ask if their authors would be willing to travel with me to sign their books and talk to readers. That’s the secret to my sales. Although my novel, The Race, has mainstream appeal, the likeliest readers congregate at cycling events, so that’s where I go. I’ve sold thousands of books by getting out and meeting potential readers whenever possible. It’s hard work (a lot harder than I had initially assumed it would be), but I can’t think of a better way to introduce the public to an emerging author than booking him/her at events where the likeliest readers already congregate.
Three Story Press
Filling a Need for a Marketplace
Our customers are our teachers when it comes to their needs. Our second book came about because customers expressed a need, and we got into specialty tools because customers asked where they could get them.
We did not wait for larger publishers, or manufacturers, to come to us about handling their products. We approached them about seven years ago. The impetus was threefold: we found that the broad, general domain name pipefitter.com was available; customers constantly asked us about other books they were seeking; and we needed more cash flow. Some of the books we distribute are from other small publishers, and some are from the largest publishers or their imprints. The books and tools were difficult for the pipe fitters to find, and the pipe fitters were difficult for the publishers and manufacturers to find. We set up a marketplace to bring them together. We sell books and tools all over the world. We also benefit through learning what the market is looking for every day.
Construction Trades Press
Starting on a Web Site
Opine distributes to the trade through National Book Network and its affiliate for Christian book sales, FaithWorks (soon to be officially owned by STL, Inc.). We have distribution for nontrade sales through QP Distribution in Missouri.
Our books reflect the basic Christian perspective on life, and most of our sales are direct–at book and author events, conferences, and so on. We also target small groups such as community book clubs and discussion groups for books on parenting, humor, prayer, marriage, marriage reconciliation, and faith.
Recently we began an in-house discussion about offering other publishers’ books–selected titles–on our Web site. If a major publishing house approached us and allowed us to select titles from a catalog of new and/or backlist titles, we would be interested in acting as a wholesaler via our site and would be open to other possibilities that might emerge. We have discussed creating special Web pages or a new site for this venture. We would like to include thumbprint or other cover images and publisher information.
More Product, Please
Para Publishing has a distributor to the trade (PGW) but handles the nontraditional parachute-industry market in-house. We could distribute into the parachute market for another publisher very easily. Our dealers know and like us. They want more product. They order by the carton, feel a 40 percent discount is good, pay in 30 days, and never return a book.
A larger publisher of a parachute/skydiving book would be smart to work with us.
Could We? Should We?
I hang up the phone in shock. It was Random House, asking if we would distribute one of their books in our niche. They are sending us information regarding the book for our perusal. Random House! Do they really think we could say no? But how could we say yes? How would this affect our small publishing company?
I hang up the phone and my brain kicks in. After eleven years of working at Newsweek magazine in New York City, I am an expert at covering breaking news, and this is breaking news for us. The list I always doodle during my creative brainstorming begins. We’d need to hire two people, add two phone lines, move to a bigger location. And then the computers . . . we’d have to upgrade them and, of course, network them. Renowned in the past for being able to come in under budget, I estimate costs as I go along. And then a big issue comes to life on my paper. Can we take on this project without undermining the authors we already have?
Even more important, can we still enjoy our day-to-day business processes while trying to please a big publishing house? I call my partner, Linda, feeling that I have at least thought out some of the problems. She lets out a great squeal of joy! Two minutes later we start discussing specifics.
I just hired a freelancer for 10 hours a week. She’s enthusiastic, bright, motivated, self-directed, and always two steps ahead of what I ask her to do. So our next employee is in the wings waiting to come on.
Space–never an issue for me. I own a small resort on Glen Lake and decide we can set up our business in one of its cottages for the winter months, put in more phone lines, and get rolling.
Technology is probably our weakest area at the moment. We need to have systems in place that make all our jobs easier, including a good customer database to take care of all the venues on the book tour.
Linda can hardly wait to hear more about the author. We decided when we started our business that each author would have to commit to marketing using hidden talents, such as singing, acting, and story-telling . We know printing books is easy; selling books requires a splash.
Our next meeting consists of brainstorming the parameters of acceptance. We all list our concerns on one side of the large board on the wall. Then, one by one, we all address each concern until it is resolved for each of us. Suddenly the project looks feasible. We are the kind of team that can handle whatever comes along.
We are also lucky. The next day we get the contract and information about the book and author. The author’s name is Tony Gaston–not a bad name to promote. The book is Dogs You Love to Walk. Immediately we start jamming on marketing ideas. Let’s contact Pet Smart and see if we can do some signings there. The dog-biscuit stores that are popping up all over the country will be great places to do signings. And, of course, the author must bring at least one dog with him, because that will make him approachable.
We look over the contract. The money is fantastic! We can do this. I pick up the phone to call Random House–and wake up from my wonderful dream, knowing that when it really happens, we are ready!
Northern Spirit Creative Productions