APSS - Association of Publishers for Special Sales

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FAQ: Distributors

New Self-Publisher’s FAQ

Understanding the Book Distribution Channels

Many thanks to Jacqueline Simonds and Beagle Bay Publishing for providing the content for this page.

Self-published authors and small publishers need to be clear on how they’ll get their books into the hands of customers. To get the books to your consumers in the traditional book trade, there is a whole back structure that one needs to understand. As there has been much confusion on this issue in recent on-line discussions, I thought I’d pitch in with definitions regarding distributors and wholesalers, their advantages, disadvantages and some other thoughts.

These companies get your book into wholesalers (see below) and bookstores. Some have a sales staff (reps) who visit bookstores.

There are many different companies out there. Bigger is not necessarily better. Smaller doesn’t necessarily mean friendlier. And neither guarantees solvency. Many distributors have folded in the last few years. One small press acquaintance of mine had two go out from under her. She had to pay to get her inventory back. Ask questions. Better still, ask their current clients if they get paid on time.

Try going with a distributor who knows more about your market. For instance: If you have a travel book, find someone who carries travel books.

Distributors charge 25-35% of revenue earned. Some figure this off list price, others off actual revenue (what is earned after the wholesalers or bookstores take their discount (see the explanation). Wholesalers take 55%; bookstores generally get 40-48% discount.

If your marketing plan is aimed primarily at the book trade (bookstores and libraries), you might consider getting your book with a distributor. Start looking for one before you go to press.

If your marketing plan is primarily aimed at areas other than the book trade (back of the room (BOTR) sales after speeches, kitchen stores, etc.), then you should probably skip distributors and look at vending directly to wholesalers (see below).

Some of the bigger distributors can get your book into Barnes & Noble Bookstores, Borders Books and Music, Costco, etc. But you had better do a lot of marketing to support that effort, or those books will all come back (“returns”).

It’s hard to get attention as a one- to two-book press. Distributors help you leverage your title by being part of a larger organization.

Distributors (or most) get you into Ingram. Many bookstores will simply not order a book unless it is listed with this company. See more below about Ingram.

Distributors can send your book to the pre-publication review magazines. This apparently helps. Almost all the titles we’ve sent to Publisher’s Weekly and the other pre-publication review magazines have been reviewed by at least one. Being reviewed in one of these magazines can give a substantial launch to a new book, in terms of sales to libraries and, sometimes, bookstores. See the discussion in Getting Noticed in the Wide World)

Books on Amazon—which Amazon acquires through wholesalers—are listed at the favorable 20-30% off. Amazon usually doesn’t do that with Advantage products, where they are dealing directly with the publisher.

Distributors warehouse, pick, pack, ship, accept returns, bill and send you the check. This leaves you time to market the book... and plan more titles for your growing company.

A good distributor will work with you. They will help make sure there are enough books in the system for events (let them know two months in advance). They can provide feedback when you try different marketing tactics.

Most are exclusive, meaning you have to let them sell your book to the trade. Some get grumpy about selling off your own website.

They do add to your cost per book.

They do a little marketing—in that you are one (or a few) book in their line. But you must do the heavy lifting, marketing-wise.

If you have done a digital print run, your cost per book is already too high to work with a distributor.

This is one more layer between you and your ultimate customer.

Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Quality Books and many other smaller companies take orders from bookstores and libraries and then order from a distributor or directly from the publisher. They want a 55% discount.

If you refuse to discount and/or only let them have a smaller discount (say 20%), your book will be on “special order only” status and the wholesalers will not stock it. Booksellers are notoriously nervous about ordering a book that is listed in Ingram, Baker & Taylor, etc., as special order. For some books and marketing plans, this isn’t a problem. For a traditional marketing plan (targeted to the book trade), this is an invitation to fiscal disaster. See a further discussion about discounts and returns here.

Getting your book into Baker & Taylor and/or Ingram will get you stocked on Amazon, and probably at the 20% off discount to customers. However, Amazon is now buying titles in the wholesalers’ databases directly (contacting publishers themselves), outside of the Advantage program. It’s not clear if Amazon is discounting new titles acquired this way.

Ingram is the six thousand pound gorilla of wholesalers. They don’t accept books from publishers of less than ten titles or whose income with Ingram is less than $25,000 a year. (This figure will probably be raised to $30,000 next year.) This makes life very hard for the new or struggling small press. Most bookstores won’t bother with a book that isn’t listed in Ingram. It’s not fair, but it’s the way things are.

Baker & Taylor is more open to small presses and self-publishers. They have programs through SPAN (Small Publishers of North America) to sign up. Be aware that unless there is significant ordering, Baker & Taylor will not stock your book. They will list it in their database and order when there is activity. They have the most hair-trigger returns program I know of (books can often come back two weeks after shipment when you are a one- to two-book publisher). This is because they are terrified of you owing them money (returns are charged back to you).

Note: Baker & Taylor underwent a reorganization of their accounts payable office last year and it has been nothing short of a disaster. If I tell you we were on a first-name basis with our AP person (Accounts Payable), you should take that to mean we called frequently—and it wasn’t a friendly chat. They have since gotten very much better. But I still hear from one- and two-book publishers that they are still having problems getting invoices paid in a timely fashion. You might require pre-pay. I don’t know what this will do to your order status.

You get the orders from the wholesalers and have a good idea where your book is selling per region.

You lower your cost per book by cutting out the middle-person (distributor).

You know what quality you ship out and what condition the returns are in (if the wholesaler says you shipped a case of torn books, you can straighten them out).

You can ask your buyer to order extra copies because you are doing an event (caution: don’t over order. Be very conservative, otherwise the books just come back (returns) and the buyer won’t believe you next time). Make sure you do this at least one month in advance.

When the orders are just a few books a month, it doesn’t take much time to deal with billing, shipping, processing returns and all the other things that go into dealing with wholesalers. But if you start having strong sales (which, of course, is due to your hard marketing), you’ll spend more time shipping. At some point you have to evaluate where you can delegate or out-source some work, so that you can get crucial tasks done.

You are the one responsible for calling up and finding out where the heck the check for invoice **** is.

All those books will take up your parking space in the garage. Otherwise a storage unit is in your future.

And always remember—getting into distributors, wholesalers and bookstores is not the important part. They aren’t the end users of your product. If no one comes in to buy your book, that title will be returned to you. Self-publishers and small publishers have to create demand for their book—which means you have to figure out how to create customers!

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Many thanks to Jacqueline Simonds and Beagle Bay Publishing for provideing the content for this page.


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