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The Future of Book Distribution
Written by
Brooke Warner
October 2014
Written by
Brooke Warner
October 2014

As a representative of the hybrid publishing arena, I attend a lot of conferences and sit on a lot of panels. In the Q&A portion of these events, the question of distribution always comes up. I wrote a post called "Distribution 101" in February about distribution in which I laid out the what’s what of distribution. If you don’t understand what distribution is, you might want to start there.

If you do understand distribution, this is a more advanced post to explain why, when it comes to print, there’s distribution--and then there’s distribution.

Ingram seriously complicates the distribution conversation for authors because it has two parts to its business—Ingram Wholesale and Ingram Publisher Services. If you have published through Lightning Source, or more recently through IngramSpark, then you are, by default, entering into a very basic distribution relationship with Ingram. CreateSpace actually also uses Ingram Wholesale as their “extended distribution” solution, because Ingram has a better reach into more channels than Amazon does. (CreateSpace is great at getting books on Amazon, but not nearly as effective as Ingram is at getting books anywhere else.)

If you are distributed through Ingram (you’re in their catalog and you have a relationship with Ingram Wholesale in that they carry your book), you can technically say that you have distribution, but that’s not traditional distribution (which you can read about here). This basic level of distribution is a pain point for self-published authors, and it will continue to be until either a hybrid distribution company comes onto the scene, or until we see traditional distribution tear apart at the seams. (Either of these scenarios is entirely plausible.)

What you get at this basic level of distribution is very little. You are in the Ingram database, so bookstores can order your book. But it’s also obvious to them at first glance that your book is print-on-demand because the database they’re ordering from shows inventory and stock. If you know what you’re doing and you’ve listed your book at a 50-55% discount and set it to be “returnable,” then bookstores may well order it, but many authors have not been advised to do so, or don’t know any better, and without these two parameters, bookstores will not order your book. Even if you have set these parameters, they still might not order your book because they don’t trust that the books will be returnable, and you are considered a “risk,” an unknown entity. Or they’ll see that your book comes from a “secondary warehouse,” an alert to them that they will have to pay a hefty shipping fee to return the books, even if they can.

Some of you may succeed in creating relationships with your local bookstore. They might take your book on consignment, either because you’re doing an event, promising to bring in lots of readers/buyers, or because you’re local and you’re driving traffic to the store. This is fantastic, but it’s typically limited to your neighborhood. Trying to get your book out in a larger capacity and through broader channels, you’ll soon discover, is nearly impossible as a self-published author.

It’s important to note that the main benefit of traditional distribution, truly, is with print books. Where e-books are concerned, you can have a direct relationship with e-tailers, like Amazon, Kobo, Nook, and iTunes. I think that authors who are drinking the Amazon Kool-Aid are successfully publishing and selling e-books, and they’re happy as clams with their results, not relying much on print, and therefore not relying much on reviews, or sales reps, or points of sale, or Bookscan numbers. Genre authors, for instance, love Amazon more than anyone—because their books don’t rely on traditional industry standards. They don’t really need traditional distribution, because their readers are mostly online anyway, and they’ve often built up a bit of a fanbase by the time they break out. But it’s notable that even Hugh Howey signed with Simon & Schuster to publish his print books, while retaining digital rights, due to how exponentially more effective traditional publishers (and publishers who have traditional distribution) are at getting print books out to retail outlets nationwide.

The authors we publish at She Writes Press are mostly novelists and memoirists, though not exclusively. They care about reviews, library sales, awards, and having their books available and easily accessible to bookstores. Not every author cares about these things, of course, but not having access to these things just creates more pain points for self-published authors. It’s possible (and probable) that hybrid publishing will continue to grow in popularity as savvy authors realize that they need more effective distribution in order to be successful. And I welcome more hybrid options—I really do. And yet there’s also a question as to how big traditional distribution companies can or will grow, and who they’ll take on, and how this part of the business will expand and react to questions of quality. Right now the industry is divided between self-published authors and traditionally published authors. The in-between space is just a tiny fraction of published authors. We are fighting hard for legitimacy, which is a lot about fighting hard to have the same rights as traditionally published authors. Eventually, all self-published authors will be fighting for these rights, and the first barrier they’ll need to break down will be distribution. It’s probable that this will force distributors to make decisions about what qualifies publishers, or even individual publisher-authors, for distribution. The rise of self-publishing has created a glut of books, some fantastic and others sorely lacking. The growing pains the industry faces truly have only just begun. Perhaps since review outlets are refusing to judge books based on merit (instead creating separate self-publishing review sections or barring self-published authors from submitting altogether), it will fall to the distribution side to create a solution that further levels the playing field, or possibly that forces authors to publish quality works in order to qualify for distribution. I don’t know how exactly this will all play out, but let this be a challenge to authors everywhere both to insist on better distribution for their books, but also to demand of themselves that only work worthy of better distribution be published.

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  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    I wish you luck with this, Lisa. It's definitely tricky, and getting traction locally is a big deal. So congrats on that front. Thanks for your comment.

  • Lisa Thomson

    You've hit on a puzzling topic, Brooke. As a self published author for 3 years now, I've had some success with distribution in my local city and a few other cities. I've had a public library buy several copies directly from me as well. I now have an Agent who has struck a deal with Ingram for print distribution and my question to him was, how do we get the stores to order my books? No one can answer that little nugget of a question. I'm thrilled to have at least the opportunity for greater distribution in the U.S. though it remains to be seen how much will be ordered or sold. It's a grind. Bookstores will not stock the book for long if they don't fly off the shelf like a Nora Roberts novel so that can be discouraging. Sorry, my comment is so long but this has been a conundrum for me since I published my book. I hope that the distribution hybrid is created soon and with people like the women here at SWP changes are in store, I've no doubt.  Nice work and thank you for the informative post!

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Elizabeth, you might want to read my first post, Distribution 101. I'm very clear on the difference between distributors and wholesalers, and part of why this conversation is confusing to authors is because Ingram is both—they are a huge distributor (Ingram Publisher Services) and they are a wholesaler (Ingram Wholesale). Two divisions of Ingram. Ingram Publisher Services (a conventional distributor) does not require a 75% discount to stock books. The 55% is the industry discount, and then Ingram (and all distributors) takes their percentage off the top of the net proceeds that go back to the publisher, to trickle down to the author. And it's much much lower than 75%. These numbers would never make sense if they were 75%. I'm just not sure where you're getting this information.

    I guess you are trying to educate me about distribution, but what She Writes Press has is traditional distribution, in the conventional sense...I'm very clear about our distribution terms. Here's the original post you might want to check out:

  • Elizabeth K. Burton

    Ingram is a wholesaler, as is Baker & Taylor. A distributor is a company that warehouses published books for distribution to retailers. Distributors require a 75% discount to stock books. If one is already giving Ingram 55% while keeping the cover price of a book within market range ($15-$20 for a trade paperback), one would need to increase the cover price to use a distributor and maintain the same return on sales.

    It's not uncommon for people to confuse wholesalers and distributors, especially in the on-demand industry where the printer acts as the distributor. To my knowledge, all of the Big Five have a distribution arm, and they will sometimes sign with independent presses as well—at 75% discount.

    Using a third-party distributor only makes sense if one does fairly large print runs such that the per-copy price is lowered. If by "we" you mean She Writes Press, what you're describing isn't a distributor in the conventional sense. Rather, you're describing a marketing support service utilizing the efficiencies of on-demand printing. In other words, not the same as what the industry means when they use the term "distributor."

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Thanks to both of you, Julie and Christine, and yes, Julie, Jill is terrific. I feel so grateful to have her as a SWP author!

  • Christine Keleny

    Another good post that I will share on my blog.

    Thanks, Brooke!

  • Julie Maloney

    Brooke, This is a wonderful post. Just yesterday, I interviewed an SWP author, the fab Jill Smolowe. I am the founder/director of WOMEN READING ALOUD…Jill was part of our AUTHOR SERIES. The audience thought she was "terrific" and so is her new book, FOUR FUNERALS AND A WEDDING. Delighted to be part of this…and very interested in meeting with you and Kamy. Will talk further. This Sat., we're hosting another writer for a Memoir Salon in my home. WRA supports women writers. We've been doing this since 2003. And yes, it's changed lives. Just as She Writes is…all the best to you.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Hi Elizabeth, this ridiculous cover price discount does not reflect the kind of distribution relationship we have. I wonder if what you're talking about is a relationship with a wholesaler, which is different than traditional distribution. Traditional distributors take a percentage of sales, plus commission, and it's not based at all on cover price.

    I agree with your assessment. It's not harsh at all. It's real, and it's why I said this whole thing could tear apart at the seams. The ground is already more than trembling beneath us. Thanks for your insights!

  • Elizabeth K. Burton

    In order to utilize a third-party book distributor, the author or publisher has to give a 75% discount off cover price. I have been approached by legitimate distributors in the past, and that is the least they would accept. Unless one is prepared to price a book out of the market, that's simply not feasible using on-demand printing.

    Returns are also off the board with on-demand printing; the cost, again, is too great. Unless and until booksellers are actually willing to, you know, sell books instead of borrowing them, even a hybrid distribution channel isn't going to be any use.

    The real problem with the traditional business model is that it's 80 years old and counting. It's allowed bookstores to operate without any of the financial requirements of other retail businesses, which know they have to sell what they order even if it's at cost. I would never advise an author or publisher to accept returns, because it's nothing but corporate welfare in which bookstores are really only second-tier distribution centers for publishers who can afford to help keep them in business.

    Yes, I know that's harsh, but a careful study of the industry makes it difficult to reach any other conclusion. No other industry allows merchandise ordered for sale to be returned for credit solely because it didn't sell, yet the publisher/bookseller interdependence continues on the basis of "preserving culture."

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Thank you, Cate. I so appreciate your comment! And I'll keep posting. :)

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Hi Carole, your case is unique because you're a SWP author. I can and will send you the info you need for European bookstores to order your books. The only thing that makes bookstores uncomfortable is knowing that they can't return books. International distribution is tougher than domestic, for sure, but traditional distribution basically gives you access internationally, but not any reps preselling your books into international markets.

  • Carole Bumpus

    So, my launch date was yesterday and already I've received requests from friends and acquaintances across the U.S. and in France to be able to buy the book in their own bookstores.  How do we 'grease those wheels' so bookstores feel comfortable in ordering my book for them?  Some have requested books for their own book groups and, yes, they can go to Amazon which is a great boon, but what mechanism must I put in place to be able to encourage them to do this?  It is certainly a great problem to have and I am honored to have been published through She Writes but I would love to shout it to the world and have them respond in kind.