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  • Distribution: How to Work Within an Imperfect System
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Distribution: How to Work Within an Imperfect System
Written by
Brooke Warner
October 2015
Written by
Brooke Warner
October 2015

Once you’re a published author, there are two avenues of legitimate distribution you may have: extended distribution and traditional distribution. As a self-published author, you may opt into extended distribution using CreateSpace (a division of Amazon) or IngramSpark (a division of Ingram). Extended distribution costs you more per unit than not having it, but it means that your book is made available to bookstores. (Note that I did not say bookstores will carry it.) As a traditionally published author, or as a hybrid-published author connected to a company with traditional distribution, you are automatically distributed traditionally, which means that your book is also available to bookstores, but the extent to which it is readily available and in stock depends on how many months your book has been in print and who you’re dealing with at the bookstore level.  

It’s helpful to break down distribution by chain of command. Let’s take a look at who the key players are:

The distributor (and their sales representatives).

When a self-published author says they’re distributed by Ingram, what that really means is that a customer can walk into a bookstore and ask for that author’s book, and the bookstore can order it through Ingram’s wholesale division. If a bookstore wants to actually stock it, they can, but there is no sales force actively trying to get the books on bookstore shelves. There is no additional pipeline supplying retailers with the author’s book. It’s just available in a database. End of story.

When a traditionally (or hybrid) published author says they’re distributed through Ingram (meaning Ingram Publisher Services), or through PGW (Publishers Group West), or Perseus Distribution, or through their publisher (the big houses have their own distribution), this means they have a sales force working on their behalf to “sell in” their book to retailers. A sell-in is an initial buy from bookstores to the tune of one single copy or thousands of copies, depending on perceived demand. 

Bookstores and other retail outlets buy “front list” books, meaning books that are coming out in the next six months. Traditional publishing is working on a crazy advanced schedule. Books are sold in a full half a year prior to publication. Sales reps (who work for traditional distributors) have the job of going around to their accounts (Amazon, B&N, independent bookstores, and Baker & Taylor, among others) and pitching their “front list” to those accounts. The buyers at these retail outlets then decide how many copies they want based on how many they think they can sell—an estimate that is based on two things: 1) the author’s previous sales track record for their other books (or comparative titles, if an author is not previously published); and 2) the author’s publicity and marketing campaign. Sales reps may push a certain book if the publisher has assured them that there will indeed be big publicity, or that the author is known for something—like her popular blog, or her podcast series, or her connections in her particular industry. Without something big like this, sell-ins are likely to be fairly modest. (That said, any sell-in is a big deal compared to nothing, which is where self-published authors find themselves.)

The retailer places their buys. These buys are returnable, meaning they are not hard sales. They’re estimates based on the sales reps’ pitch, and the publishers’ expectations. These buys are called “preorders” and those preorders can come back to the publisher at any time, even one year or more after publication—and the publisher has to give a full refund. (I know, awesome, right?)

The wholesaler.

Wholesalers are the stop between the distributor and the retailer. These include companies like Ingram Wholesale, Baker & Taylor, American Books West, New Leaf, and a host of others. Wholesalers order inventory—books—from all sorts of outlets, including self-published books from CreateSpace and IngramSpark, and small press books from presses like New World Library and Graywolf, as well as from big houses like Random House and Simon & Schuster. Their inventory is impressive, and their access to books is far-reaching. There are few books a wholesaler cannot get—unless there’s a reason not to.

Why would a wholesaler have reason not to order books? Well, this happens all the time, especially if a wholesaler is specific in its outreach—like Baker & Taylor is to libraries. Wholesalers stock a lot of books in their own warehouses, but again, mostly front list books or perennial bestsellers. Most books stay in those warehouses for up to six months before starting to get returned to make room for new inventory. This is part of the sales cycle. Once your book is six months old, it’s considered “backlisted,” and most wholesalers do not keep backlist books in stock unless they’re still selling really well and showing demand. This does not mean they cannot order it; they can, but that fulfillment is fully based on their discretion. If it’s not worth it to them to order, they may well tell you, the inquiring author, that they don’t have access to your book or can’t get it. This may or may not be true, and you need to check with your publisher. If your publisher has stock, then a wholesaler can order it; however, the purchase of every book, including from a wholesaler, is a business decision, and if it’s not in the interest of the wholesaler to order your book, they may simply not order it. If you’re a pesky author pressing them for why, the easy answer might just be, “We can’t get it.”

What’s frustrating here is that many small bookstores have only particular wholesaler accounts. They may only order through Baker & Taylor, for instance, which is common. So if Baker & Taylor is not carrying your book, and will not order it from Ingram, you’re stuck. Your only option if a bookstore wants your book, then, is to offer to sell your book to the bookstore on consignment (meaning that the bookstore will pay you 50%-60% [usually] of the retail price of your book and return to you what it does not sell)—and when you’re in this position, you should sell your book on consignment. At the end of the day, if you’re holding an event, all that matters is that the bookstore (or other venue) has books to sell. It’s your responsibility as an author to make sure inventory gets to the bookstore where you’re having an event.  You need to call ahead—a month and then a week in advance—to make sure the books can be ordered, and that if they can be, they’ve arrived. If they cannot be ordered, you bring books and you sell them on consignment.

The bookstores.

Now that you understand the role of the distributor and the wholesaler, let’s talk about the role of bookstores in all of this. If you hold an event at a bookstore, the bookstore essentially wants to ensure zero risk. (Sometimes they even ask you to pay to have an event there—with a convenient little charge called “co-op”—to really make sure they don’t lose money by hosting you.) As much as we may all have good feelings toward our local bookstores, most of them do not want to go out on a limb for you, especially if you’re an unknown quantity. And if your book is more than six months old, you’re extra risky. As a backlist author, you need to tell the bookstore how they can order your book. Help them help you. If they suggest they cannot get your book, then your next course of action depends on what type of author you are. If you’re self-published, you simply bring your own book. You sell on consignment. Make it easy for the bookstore. If you’re traditionally (or hybrid) published, you can ask a few more questions. Or put them in touch with your publisher. Even still, always be prepared with extra books on hand, and don’t try to singlehandedly convince the bookstore to order more books than it wants to order. That’s not your job, and you’ll end up alienating them and getting less-than-clear answers about your book’s availability simply because they want you out of their hair.


Here’s what’s important to understand if you’re a relatively unknown author doing bookstore events:

1) Bookstore employees often don’t know what they’re talking about. I don’t mean this to sound rude; it’s just true. If an employee goes into their system and sees that a book is not available in their most immediate warehouse, and/or not available from their preferred wholesaler, they may simply tell you it’s not available even though it is. I’ve talked to many bookstore events coordinators who have told my authors that their books aren’t available, but when I’ve pressed, the truth is that the book is simply not available in the warehouse they want to order from, or from the wholesaler they have an account with. This is very different from “not available,” obviously. It can take some pressing to figure out how to help a bookstore want to carry your book. If you get the message that your book is “not available,” the very best thing to do is to ask if your publisher can be in touch with the bookstore.

2) You might be showing yourself to be an amateur without realizing it. If you’re a self-published author with extended distribution, you may simply be getting the runaround due to not having set the correct discount (a 55% discount is required to get into bookstores), or not having made your book returnable (also required by bookstores). Some bookstores have an anti-Amazon policy and don’t order CreateSpace books. Not all bookstore buyers want to have these conversations with authors, which might be perceived as educating them about what they should already know, so they just say your book can’t be ordered.

3) The bookstore doesn’t think you’re going to sell as many books as you think you’re going to sell. Assume that a bookstore believes (because they’ve been made cynical by this industry) that you aren’t going to sell more than five copies at your book reading. But you’re pushing them to order 30, or 50, or 70. What’s the easiest method to get you off their backs? To say they can’t get that many. And that’s it. You go away feeling frustrated with your publisher or your distributor, and scratching your head as to why the system is so flawed. But you’re not thinking like a bookstore owner, who is thinking you’re crazy if you think you’re going to sell that many books—especially if your book is six months old, or a year old. So be a savvy partner. Ask them how many they think they can sell, and then ask them to order that many. Then you bring the balance with you, in your car, at your expense. If the bookstore sells the quantity they ordered, you have the rest on hand, as a backup. No matter who your distributor is, they cannot quibble with this strategy. At the end of the day, you have to sell books. Even if your distributor has an exclusive relationship with a bookstore, there are workarounds in these situations. If your publisher prefers, your distributor can charge the bookstore back for the units you sold, and they’ll work out the details with your publisher. If your publisher allows for consignment in these kinds of extreme scenarios, then you simply bring your books and pocket the profit. You either go home with the books the store doesn’t sell that night, or the bookstore may decide to keep some in stock. You will need to follow up with them three to six months later, however, to ask if they’ve had any sales, and/or to pick up any quantity not sold. Do not expect them to follow up with you.

More so than ever, you must be a proactive author these days. Even if you have access to the best distributor, a publisher that supports your every move, and a bookstore that loves you, things can go wrong. Distribution is an imperfect system. Be hypervigilant. Do not leave it up to others to confirm that your books for an event have been ordered, or that they’ve arrived. Also do not automatically assume that your publisher and distributor are inept because a bookstore says they cannot get your book. Ask questions and put the correct people in touch with one another. But also do your best to make it very easy for bookstores to get your book. Consider any workaround to be no problem. Roll with the punches. Give your publisher and distributor constructive feedback when things don’t go well. Be congenial with bookstore employees, but don’t assume they know better than your publisher. Figure out how to work with rather than against the system. And finally, good luck. This business is not for the faint-hearted, or for those easily disillusioned.


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  • Irene Allison

    Thank you, Brooke. It's very helpful to have some light shed on this complex maze of distribution. So I really appreciate you doing just that! 

  • Bella Mahaya Carter

    Great post, Brooke!

  • Karen A Szklany Writing

    Thank you, Brooke, especially for your perspective on the timing of follow-up contact!

  • Karen Burns

    Brooke, what kinds of "co-op" charges are you seeing? I was asked for $300 from one bookstore (for a traditionally published Big 5 book). Is this normal? 

  • Barbara Ann Lipe

    Thank you Brooke this was very helpful. This is my first time with the publishing end and it is a bit scary. But I have a few things in mind for both my ebook and paperback. 

  • Lydia Sherrer

    Wonderful post! It makes me scared just thinking about doing this, but I will try. I plan on self publishing at least at first. I figure in that case it is just easiest to give them books to sell rather than worrying about them ordering anything.

  • Thanks, Brooke. Such an eye-opener!

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Hi Vicki, and thanks for your perspective. It's valuable, and obviously not all bookstores or bookstore employees are the same. We get so so so many bookstores telling us our book is not available to order when it is. I don't understand this, and it always takes pushback on my part and then the bookstore apologizes and they order from Ingram. I would love to better understand what's behind this, but my characterization here is based on my experience. Sometimes ordering fluid, but often it's a difficult and an uphill battle—and I'm talking about bookstores where events are already confirmed. Many many bookstores charge us co-op to host events. Not all, but many. I'm grateful for those who don't. I totally understand the business decision behind doing so, but my larger point about bookstores is that authors have to do whatever it takes to make themselves a desirable partner in this exchange, and if they're doing multiple events, they cannot assume that the bookstores will have everything figured out for them or on their behalf. I can imagine the work that goes into hosting an event for an author, and it sounds like you guys are the gold standard. I of course love Copperfield's and you have an amazing reputation here in the Bay Area. But this book ordering thing, for many authors (even those with traditional distribution), ends up being complicated, messy, and often screwed up. Unfortunately. :/

  • Darlene Burns

    Thank you Brooke for the wealth of information!

  • Vicki DeArmon

    Lots of good industry info, but as someone who is an events director at an independent bookstore I take a bit of issue with the attitude you assume we have toward events and book ordering. When we agree to do an event at an independent bookstore, we invest time, money and resources to make it work and it is important to us that our events pull in audiences. Most writers don't realize that there is a cost to producing events. We never ask authors to pay to cover event costs. We just try to make wise choices on what are the best events for our community. It's a bookstore investment and we take it very seriously. And we order book quantities based on our knowledge of past book events (we produce 500 events a year) and our communities. We are experienced and actually do know what we are doing. and work hard at providing our readers diverse programming. Because we are so pressed for time and operating with comparatively small budgets (compared to publishers), we cannot set up separate accounts for each small press and author, which is why we rely on distributors. Our first question to an author or his or her representative if we don't have an established account, is whether he or she is distributed by one of the wholesalers such as Ingram? If not, we will consider whether the author is local and has connections in the community. For instance, an author who does a book on mental health issues and is connected with a local mental health agency is a good choice for an event that serves our community and will draw people. We don't like to have events where 5 people show and no books sell. It's a waste of everyone's time. And if we decide to do an event with an author without an account, we'll do a consignment deal as described in your article. At our bookstores, we've also set up partnerships with local writing groups such as Redwood Writers here in Sonoma County so that we can showcase local writers through panels and forums because we are often overwhelmed by the number of self-published authors. The best thing an author can do is to befriend their local bookstore and staff. To be contentious about whether the book is available or not is the worst kind of conversation you can have with an events person who is trying to deliver good programming to their community and fields 200 emails a day. We want to know if it's a quality book and if our audiences will respond by showing up. You can pitch to both issues and then we'll make a decision. It's tough because we don't have the time to educate writers about how it's done which is why your article is appreciated. I just wanted to give everyone a bit of  perspective on the hard choices booksellers have to make and why we make them. Vicki DeArmon, Marketing & Events Director, Copperfield's Books with seven independent bookstores in San Francisco's North Bay

  • Stacey Aaronson

    Wow! A wealth of knowledge I will happily share with my author clients. Thank you, Brooke, for this wonderfully written, insightful article!

  • JoAnn Smith Ainsworth

    Good information to know, Brooke.