How will you distribute your book? Bookstores and libraries don't have time to order from tens of thousands of individual authors who sell from a stack of books in their basement. It's much more efficient for them to order from a small selection of wholesalers and distributors.
So how do you get with the right distributors so that your book has a chance to make it into the main places that sell books? Some of the answers are pretty straightforward and others a bit more tricky. Make sure you know precisely what you're getting into.
"Available" or "Available with Return Policy"?
One publisher said that they do an especially good job of making their books "available" in bookstores. Hmmm... "available?" What they may mean is that "it's available for any bookstore to order through a major wholesaler."
Just one problem with that set-up: if the wholesaler offers no return policy, then most bookstores won't order it except when a customer comes in and puts through a special order. Why? Because bookstores are used to having the option of returning books that don't sell and getting their money back. (Libraries, on the other hand, will order with no return policy.)
So, if it's important to you to get your books into bookstores, you'll want to make sure your publisher sets you up with the major wholesalers - Ingram and Baker & Taylor - with a return policy.
If you're going the print on demand route, Booksurge hooks you up with Baker & Taylor, while Lightning Source gets you with Ingram and Baker & Taylor. But check to make sure whether or not they're offering a return policy. If not, and if getting into bookstores is important to you (it's not important to everybody), you might need to pay extra to establish the policy.
On Getting a Distributor or Wholesaler
If you're with a major publisher, you're almost assuredly hooked up with both Baker & Taylor and Ingram with a return policy. If you're publishing yourself or with a small press, you need to find out how you're set up.
Ingram won't take books directly from any press that has published less than ten books. If your publisher is very new, or if you're self-published, you'll need to find a distributor that has a relationship with Ingram.
Some distributors passively take orders. Others actively market your book and make personal calls to open up new distribution channels.
Some ask for exclusive rights to distribute your book. Let's say you're with Booksurge and excited about making 35% on each Amazon sale. Could signing an "exclusive" contract with a distributor require you to distribute to Amazon through your distributor, giving you a much smaller part of the action? (This week, I chatted with a representative of AtlasBooks, the largest distributor for small to mid-size publishers, who told me that although publishers sign an exclusive distribution contract with them, they allow BookSurge authors to keep their 35% from Amazon.)
Make sure you know exactly what you're getting in a distributor!
Here's an annotated list of select distributors from John Kremer:
Ingram lists these distributors as having a relationship with them: