Friday, May 29, 2009

On Getting Distribution

Seeking distribution? Small, independent publishers (like us) have a rough time getting distribution into bookstores. Here's why.

Imagine that you own a bookstore. You love books and you'd love to be able to order any book you want. But you don't have time to establish relationships with each of the 85,000 American publishers (Publishers Weekly stat. from 2004). (Can you imagine learning 85,000 different ways to order books?) If that's not overwhelming enough, c. 10,000 new publishing companies pop up each year ( If you're a bookstore owner, that's about 30 new publisher's you'd have to sign up with each day. Kind of takes the fun out of book selling.

That's why the publishing industry established middle men. Ingram and Baker & Taylor are the two main wholesalers that mainstream bookstores work with. Most bookstores have a relationship with both of them, allowing them to order regularly through those two systems. (Christian bookstores have their own middle men.)

But as you can imagine, Ingram and Baker & Taylor don't have time to establish relationships with 85,000 publishers and this year's 10,000 new publishers. They'll work directly with larger publishers, but otherwise they'll work with another set of middle men - the distributors.

So small publishers must establish a relationship with a distributor by filling out an application, paying a sign-up fee (some don't have a fee like this), and agreeing to give the distributor a cut in your profits (or both). This distributor in turn supplies the big wholesalers with your book.

This arrangement of four middle men (publisher, distributor, wholesaler, bookstore) between an author and a book-buyer shows why an author will get maybe 8% of a bookstore sale (80 cents of a $10.00 book). And, from what I read, none of these four middle men are getting rich.

What does this mean for a small publisher or self-published author? If you've printed your 2,000 or 5,000 copies, if you want to have a shot at getting into bookstores, you'll have to convince one of the distributors that your book will sell and establish a relationship. If you went print on demand through Lightning Source or Booksurge, bookstores and libraries can purchase through either Ingram (Lightning Source) or Baker & Taylor (Booksurge). But I don't think that either wholesaler is set up with a return policy with these print on demand books. Thus, only in rare situations will a bookstore stock your book. It's too much of a risk on their part to stock a book that they can't return if it doesn't sell. They can put through a special order if a customer wants it, but they won't stock it in hopes that someone will purchase it.

So it shouldn't have been a surprise when I received this rejection letter from Baker & Taylor:

Dear Publisher,

Thank you for sending in your materials for consideration as a new vendor to Baker & Taylor, Inc. After careful review of your application and supporting materials, we have decided not to establish a business relationship with your company at this time.

Our decision was based upon the following factor(s):

Inadequate marketing and/or promotion plan

As a courtesy, they included a list of distributors I could work through to get to them.

Hmmm. I sent them three copies of my 45-page marketing plan. One publisher had called my plan "over the top." I must assume that since I'm not a major publisher with catalogues going to bookstores and marketing through the traditional bookstore channels, that they fear that bookstores wouldn't buy it.

And you know what? They're probably right. While I've been on TV twice and had an excellent review from a major financial columnist, I doubt people are flooding the bookstores looking for my book. I think that my primary sales will come through Amazon and non-traditional channels. Why waste time and money trying to establish distribution into bookstores if bookstores aren't likely to carry it?

My decision, at this point, is to only distribute through Premium Book Company. I took out a $400 ad that they will use to try to distribute through alternative channels (libraries, to businesses as incentives, etc.) I'll let you know how it goes. I'm getting healthy sales through and through my own efforts to sell in bulk. For now, this seems like the best course to stay on.

One publishing adviser had counseled me against seeking a return policy with a wholesaler. If bookstores ordered 200 copies and they didn't sell, they'd get returned (some of them damaged), and I'd be out some money. Glad this phase is behind me. One less thing to worry about.


  1. Liked the information. Tips there that I didn't even know of. Thank you. Do more like this!

    I tweeted this @pronfwriter

  2. Mr. Miller,

    Glad you wrote the entry "On Getting Distribution", it is very informative! I have a question about the Book Marketing Company, how has your experience been with them?



  3. Sean,

    Thanks for asking! Premium Book Company tries to sell in bulk to companies or organizations that may buy 500 or 1000 or more copies as an employee gift or as a free enticement to buy a product ("Buy this and get this free!"). So I'm not surprised that nothing's sold through them so far. It's a long-term prospect, but I'd like to see something happen within the next year.

    Since I wrote this post, I got reviewed in VOYA - a publication that goes to librarians concerning their young adult collections. I also put a press release on a site that sends press releases to libraries. Probably because of one of these, a respected distributor to libraries - Follett - contacted me saying that they'd received orders and wanted to distribute my book. I've already had some orders through them and am very hopeful about this relationship.

    Does that help?