Distribution is probably one of the least understood areas of book publishing. For starters, distribution, like a lot of words in book publishing, is used to describe a process. But as we all know, not all processes function the same. The rise of self-publishing is responsible, in large part, for the confusion, because as more and more self-published authors publish, distributors are springing up to meet the demand. After all, all books have to get to their customers—but the effectiveness of the systems built to make that happen vary a lot.
And so, just as in publishing, the way to distinguish between what’s what is to think of distributors in terms of traditional distributors and everyone else. In some ways I hate to draw these lines, because in the publishing arena I’m calling for more nuance (ie, there’s a difference between DIY self-publishing, partnership publishing, copublishing, etc). But where distribution is concerned, I haven’t yet figured out if there is a middle ground. (Maybe someone who knows will enlighten me in the comments.)
So what is book distribution?
Very specifically, book distribution is the process by which books get from a warehouse and into a customer’s hand. It just so happens that this process is riddled with complexity. Which I had to figure out the hard way.
When She Writes Press first started, we signed with a distribution company. At that point I wasn’t distinguishing between traditional and everyone else. So I just figured they were a distribution company and our books would make it where they were supposed to go and that would be it.
What we signed onto, and what the vast majority of self-publishers have, was a relationship with Ingram Wholesale. Now, Ingram Wholesale is great, but they are not a distributor. They fulfill books. What I discovered is that a lot of these so-called distribution companies are calling themselves distributors, but what they should be calling themselves is fulfillment companies, because all they’re doing is fulfilling orders. And that’s a lot different than what traditional distributors do.
Here’s what traditional distributors do for their client publishers:
1. Presell your book into major and small accounts. They have a sales force that has relationships with book buyers. Those reps go out on monthly sales calls and individually sell titles to buyers. It’s competitive, yes, but there’s face time with buyers.
2. Collate, organize, and output metadata. All traditional distribution companies have major platforms in place to collect data and then release it via daily feeds out to retail channels like Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Indiebound, etc.
3. Maintain relationships with major accounts. Again, there is access here to Amazon, B&N, and other retail outlets where you might otherwise find it impossible to reach an actual human.
4. Streamlined processes. This is way bigger than it sounds. The point here is that if your book is warehoused by a traditional publisher, there is a steady, stable pipeline from their warehouse to wholesalers and retail partners. They’re shipping massive quantities of books every day. There will never be a delay in your order, and your book will never show up as being out of print—unless it really is. For anyone who’s self-published and wondered why their book is showing up as low stock or temporarily unavailable on Amazon or any other retailer's website, it’s because this pipeline has to be well oiled. My observation is that only traditional distributors have the right oil.
5. Have access to special sales accounts and libraries. There are certain markets that are simply impenetrable by self-published authors—and these markets are among them. You cannot get your book into airport bookstores, Costco or Target, or libraries without traditional distribution. Part of the reason is because these buyers want certain guarantees—on pricing, on returns (though library sales are non-returnable). They don’t want to gamble and they have relationships in place with traditional distributors. You could say that it’s a case of wanting to deal with a known quantity.
The reason I’ve been wanting to write this post is because I feel like She Writes Press got sold a bill of goods when we signed with the first distribution company we went with. As I said, what they were really doing was fulfilling our books—and that’s it. We had major issues with our metadata. Major issues with our books showing up as low inventory, unavailable, or temporarily out of stock.
In October, we signed with a traditional distributor, IPS, which I’ve written about. And it’s been a game-changer. And an eye-opener. It’s been a major learning curve—and A LOT of work—to keep up with everything IPS needs, but when we signed with them, all of a sudden the walls came down.
My new suggestion for self-published authors is to use CreateSpace and IngramSpark directly. At least this way you have a direct relationship with Amazon and Ingram. And you can in fact upload your book to both platforms. The trick is to upload to Ingram first. As it turns out, Ingram will block you from using an already-published ISBN, while CreateSpace will not. Being a client author of Amazon’s and Ingram’s is much better than having a “distributor” in between you and them. You might as well just cut out the middleman. And finally, CreateSpace and IngramSpark now offer what they call “extended distribution” options, which, though they offer you the author next to nothing on trade sales (seriously under 50 cents per book for a $16.95 price point), at least means they can get your book into trade markets.
Just FYI here, Wikipedia's page on distribution is wrong in its listing and understanding of distributors. I checked it out and saw immediately that their list includes fulfillment companies and presses that have distribution arms. The Big Five—Random/Penguin, Hachette, Macmillan, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster—have their own distribution, and often take on smaller publisher clients. Among the rest of the list, only the following qualify as traditional distributors (though I cannot speak to the comic book market, since comic book distribution operates differently from other book distribution):
(I’d love to know what others belong on this list, if any.)
I’m still learning about distribution even though I worked for two companies over fourteen years that were both distributed by Publishers Group West while I worked there. (Seal still is; North Atlantic Books is now distributed by Random House.) As an editor, all I experienced of the distribution side was our three-times-a-year sales conference where I was responsible for pitching titles to the reps. Now that I’m a publisher I see firsthand how this massive machine works—and it’s impressive. Traditional distribution is a force to be reckoned with. And while all kinds of lines are being blurred out there on the publishing frontier, this is one place where traditions are firmly in place. Traditional is better—and self-published authors are going to continue to struggle until a distribution partner comes along that can specifically cater to their needs. CreateSpace’s and IngramSparks’s extended distribution is a start, but it’s not a solution.
*Books in shopping cart image courtesy of BigStockPhoto.com