Foreign distribution. The very ring of it is music to any author’s ears. But what are the realities of this?
A UK author commented on that very problem in my post about advances. She talked about the overly generous advance paid by her UK publisher because the publisher struck a deal with a US publisher for distribution in the US. It all went south when the US publisher canceled the deal due to the tough financial climate. Simply said, the US pubby couldn’t afford the added risk.
How does foreign distribution work?
Your large conglomerate publishers and large indie presses (think Sourcebooks and Adams Media) have their own sales teams, which include employing sales teams in other countries.
Smaller publishers who want to get in on the full distribution action will sign a deal with those larger publishers who have those strong distribution channels.
The other choices smaller indie presses have is to sign on with a large independent distributor like IPG, Consortium, PGW, etc. who also have sales teams in other countries.
So, whee doggies yeeehaw, right? My UK publisher got my UK book into the US stores, right? RIGHT? Eh, not so fast. Just because they now have the ability doesn’t mean those books will actually get into those foreign stores.
The reality/risk of using a foreign publisher or a distributor
Everything about publishing is assigned to risk. Having one’s catalog sold through a publisher in in a foreign country is terrific…clear up until something goes wrong with the publisher. Think Dorchester. Not only have they blown up, but the publishers who used their distribution pipeline are now without distribution. The inability to distribute books can kill a publisher faster than the beagle can down a pitcher of margaritas.
So let’s say the small foreign indie press signs on with a large distributor like the ones I mentioned above. Whee doggies yeeehaw, you say. Notsofast. You are a foreigner in a foreign land, so your risks increase due to competition, ability to promote locally, and the ability to stand out.
Competing for shelf space is hard enough, but what if you have to compete with your fellow publishers who are repped by the same distributor? The large distributors have hundreds and hundreds of client publishers and a finite number of sales teams. Most of their clients are based in the distributor’s home country. Let’s use the US distributor as our example. They accept their clients based the fact that they a) are well-established and enjoy great sales, and/or b) they’re niche – meaning they specialize in one particular genre, like thrillers or mysteries and are extremely good at what they do. Think Tyrus Books.
Given that a distributor’s clientele is mostly US-based and employs a finite number of sales teams, how much attention will be given to the foreign press looking to break into the US market? A foreign press doesn’t have the footprint that the US publisher has, so who stands to lose? I know what the distributors tell prospective foreign clients – “hey, no problemo! We represent ALL our wonderful clients” – and I also know the realities of what they do in practice, which is give the most attention to those whose cream rises to the top. And that doesn’t usually include the indie foreign publisher.
It’s one thing to have your books in a foreign publisher’s or distributor’s catalog. It’s quite another to get those books sold to bookstores. This is a big gamble with no assurances it’ll pay out.
So let’s say you’re a UK author and your UK pubby struck a distribution deal with a US company. Sales are harder to come by these days, and the first thing that comes out of the genre buyers’ pieholes is, “What’s the author’s promotion plan?” If you’re sitting pretty 8,000 miles away sipping tea with the odd crumpet or three, then you, basically, have no promotion plan that will entice a buyer here in the US. You’re an unknown quantity.
Time was that a book that sold well in the UK would be welcome over here for shelf space. Those days are loooong gone. Stores can’t afford to keep books on their shelves for too long, so they’re only buying what’s selling. They’ve gone even deeper with their cuts by sitting on their hands until demand comes in for a title. And this isn’t just small fries like us, but with the big guys as well. What kind of demand will a foreign book have if there is no promotion?
What does this mean to you?
What happens if sales fall far short of expectations? How will this reflect on you, the author? As my commenter above said, she was paid a generous advance with the expectation of garnering high US sales. When the deal fell through, she was left feeling very guilty. I spoke with another author whose UK publisher dropped them, over similar circumstances.
Ugh. How is this the author’s fault, for crying out loud? For starters, I would never bank on foreign sales for the very fact that my US authors can’t promote in foreign countries. Foreign sales is icing on the cake – if the book actually sells.
Sadly, this is yet another part of publishing that is undergoing evolution, and publishers are having to rewrite a new rule book. What used to be the norm is now the exception. It’s an upturney world right now, and those who want to stay in business have to be very careful about learning what will sell books and keep them in business.