Understanding the Book Distribution Channels

Authors and publishers need to be clear on how they'll get their books into the hands of customers--but many don't understand distributors versus wholesalers, and what each can do. I thought I'd pitch in with definitions, advantages, disadvantages and other thoughts.

Distributors: (Disclosure: my company, Beagle Bay Books, is a distributor of non-fiction (mostly travel)) 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 pal of mine had 2 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.

They charge 25-35% of revenue earned. Some figure this off list price (a mistake, from my pov), others off actual revenue (what is earned after the wholesalers or bookstores take their 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 sales after speeches, kitchen stores, etc), then you should probably skip distributors and look at vending directly to wholesalers (see below).

Advantages:

Some of the bigger distributors can get your book into B&N, Borders, Costco, etc. But you had better do a lot of marketing to support that effort, or those books will all come back.

It's hard to get attention as a 1-2 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, etc. have been reviewed by at least 1.

Books on Amazon are listed at the favorable 20-30% off, which Amazon usually doesn't do with Advantage products.

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 2 months in advance). They can provide feedback when you try different marketing tactics.

Disadvantages:

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 1 (or a few) book in their line. But YOU have to 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.

Wholesalers: Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Quality Books and many other smaller companies take orders from bookstores and libraries and then order from the 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 special order and these wholesalers will not stock it. Booksellers are notoriously nervous about ordering a book that is listed in Ingram, B&T, etc. as special order. For some books and marketing plans, this isn't a problem. For a traditional market plan (targeted to the book trade), this is an invitation to fiscal disaster.

Getting your book into B&T and/or Ingram will get you stocked on Amazon, and probably at the 20% off discount. However, Amazon is now buying titles in the wholesalers' databases directly. It's not clear if Amazon is discounting new titles acquired this way.

Ingram is the 6000 lbs. gorilla of wholesalers. It doesn't accept books from publishers of less than 10 titles or whose income *from Ingram* is less than $25,000 a year. (This figure will probably be raised to $30k 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. They have programs through SPAN to sign up. Be aware that unless there is significant ordering, B&T 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 2 weeks after shipment when you are a 1-2 book publisher). This is because they are terrified of You owing Them money (returns are charged back to you).

NOTE: B&T underwent a reorganization of their accounts payable office recently and it has been nothing short of a disaster. If I tell you we're on a first-name basis with our AP person (Accounts Payable), you should take that to mean we call on a very frequent basis--and it's not a friendly chat. You might require pre-pay. I don't know what this will do to your order status.

Advantages:

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 they just come back and the buyer won't believe you next time). Make sure you do this at least 1 month in advance.

Disadvantages:

When the orders are just a few books a month, it doesn't take much time. But if you start to have 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 outsource 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. You have to create demand for your book--which means you have to figure out how to create customers!

JC Simonds is CEO of Beagle Bay Books: Publishers of books that empower and inform, book packaging services for authors and publishers, and distributors of fine small press offerings http://www.beaglebay.com/

[Editor's Note: Beagle Bay is the distributor for my book, Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First.]


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