There’s book distribution and then there’s book distribution. Since we have such a wide array of experiences, I thought I’d do a series about distribution because it’s vital to your literary career. Knowledge is power, and you need it in order to maximize your ability to make good, solid decisions.
According to the dictionary, Distribution is the state or manner of being distributed.
Sounds simple, right?
HOW books are distributed makes all the difference in the world. It’s the difference between watching your books die a slow, lonely, obscure death and enjoying fabulous sales and wide availability.
I know, I can hear you now – But, Pricey, what can we do to influence how our publishers distribute our books?
Well, let’s talk about that, shall we? But before we do that, it’s important to know the differences between distributors.
The Distribution Process – The good, the bad, and the ugly
For starters, distributors are not created equally, and I’m the first to suggest that it’s better not to be distributed at all than distributed poorly. A crappy distributor will take a publisher’s money, NOT get the books into stores, and do one of two things – a) go out of business or b) assume as little risk as possible.
Either way, the publisher loses. And if they lose, so do you. So let’s get down to basics.
The good distributors have sales reps – both in house and commissioned. The in house sales reps take care of of national accounts like B&N, libraries, Target, Wal-Mart, specialty venues. The commissioned reps deal with the individual stores in their region.
But it doesn’t just stop with the sales reps. They also employ an entire support staff who do nothing but work toward getting your publisher’s titles nationally stocked. This means that you have marketing and publicity staff at your fingertips, along with the angels who put together the catalog twice a year. And let’s not forget the folks who keep track of stock and the blessed soul who deals directly with the large chain buyers.
They have excellent communication and offer advice on marketing, promotion, cover design, focus, print runs. Suddenly a publisher doesn’t consist of just their own staff, but rather an entire football team whose focus on helping their client publishers be successful.
I tend to call these lovely nugget o’ love Cadillac Distributors.
The Bad sucks. Let’s just get it out there right now. There isn’t anything in between The Good and The Bad because this is an either/or business. You either do great, or you suck. The Bad may have commissioned sales reps as well, but they probably split their time working for other distributors. It becomes a matter of to whom do they give more weight? Your distributor or someone else who is possibly a bit higher on the food chain?
The Bad may be a new distributor who hasn’t been on the block too long and they don’t have established reputations within the industry. This has a trickle down effect because this business is based on who you know. If your publisher’s distributor is starting from scratch, they may not have a real clue how difficult it is to sell books to the stores and probably doesn’t have their foot in the door. They may be vastly underfunded. In their ignorance, they may take on risky publishers who don’t have marketable books. They may not have held back enough in reserves to allow for returns, thus putting them at financial risk.
All of these elements spell disaster for your publisher – and for your book. I know because we lived it. We busted our hump signing quality books with marketable stories and authors with good platforms, but The Bad had constant trouble with their sales teams. We had several extremely big regional books that should have been in every store, yet they weren’t. We screamed and yelled, and The Bad apologized profusely, stating that they were in the process of replacing their regional reps. Great. Fabulous. How does that help us and our books? We ended up doing it ourselves. Oh yes, The Bad got their cut from all of our hard work. One book even made the LA Times bestseller list. They were thrilled, of course. We seethed because this was no team effort. We’d done it all.
But as with most new start ups, they took on too few marketable publishers, and the dogs dragged the rest of us down. When we all suffered the Huge Return Implosion several years ago, The Bad was driven into bankruptcy because they hadn’t kept enough money in reserves to ward against returns. This means that the publishers actually had to write them a check to pay for the returns. They couldn’t/wouldn’t pay. So The Bad went belly up owing us over ten grand. We’ll never see it.
What could be worse than being owed ten grand? Sadly, it gets worse. Much worse. There are distributors who profess to be far more than they really are. They’ll avoid specifics, thus keeping their publishers in the dark about what they can, can’t, won’t do for their clients. This is especially insidious because the publisher ends up being in the dark as much as the author, and it can all fall to bantha twaddle in a matter of months.
This can result in your book not even getting the attention of a genre buyer, library, or specialty account because the distributor doesn’t even have sales teams. The Ugly offers zero support because they aren’t really interested in standard distribution. Instead, The Ugly is a glorified Ingram or Baker & Taylor, meaning that they’ll wait for orders to come in and they’ll ship out. They send out catalogs, but do no follow-up to take orders.
They are reactionary rather than proactive.
They do this in order to decrease their risk. As we saw with The Bad, distributors can go belly up if they overextend themselves. The Ugly avoids all that by being the middleman for the publisher and the buyers. So, you’re asking, “Pricey, how do the buyers know to order if there’s no one pitching the books? Do they even know the book exists?”
Ding! Ding! Ding!
The publisher ends assuming all the risk for marketing and promotion without any help from The Ugly. Let’s use an example. Say you have a book that has a huge marketplace and the author has a fabulous platform. I’m talking about the Cadillac-stars-in-alignment kind of book. Obviously the publisher is pulling out all the stops to promote and market the book. In a perfect world, the publisher’s distributor’s sales reps have been out for six months prior pushing the book.
Not so in the case of The Ugly. They do nothing. This means that while your publisher has been busting a gut to make a big deal about your book, the distributor has done nothing to get the book stocked in the stores before the book’s release. So when your book comes out to great fanfare…no one can buy your book.
Or even find it.
This creates a huge bottleneck because everyone is now clamoring to get the book in stock. The Ugly can’t get the books out to market fast enough. You would think this would thrill the pants off everyone. Not so. What happens is that many stores end up not getting the stock because orders get lost or misdirected. Or worse, the orders take so long to fulfill, demand quickly drops off. Remember,distribution is about the ability to feed that instant gratification that call demand. If it drops off due to The Ugly’s lack of effort, then your publisher could be stuck with a warehouse of books.
And who do you think takes the gas for this debacle? Your publisher…from both sides, no less. You, the author, will be furious (and rightly so), and the book buyers will be foaming at the mouth. And let’s not forget the customers who are clamoring for the book. Who wins? The Ugly – because all they did was fulfill orders. They assumed zero risk of returns because those books are flying out the door so fast, everyone’s head is spinning. They’re on Cloud 9. And for all their “help,” they’ll collect their “distribution” fees that they happily get to keep because they don’t have marketing or sales teams on staff.
Oh. And they might further tie the publisher’s hands by not allowing them to contact individual bookstores to pitch their new books, saying that it’s a breach of contract. The Ugly types believe that individual stores don’t want to be contacted – which is hogwash – so they will only deal at the corporate level, and force the publisher to keep their mitts off the stores.
But one needs to take that logic one step further. Corporate isn’t as in tune with retail customers as the individual stores are, so it’s a huge mistake to ever cut them out of the picture. We’ve had many cases where the individual stores clamored for a book to the point where Corporate got off their butts and sent a P.O.
Anyone who is looking to be driven out of business needs to look no further than The Ugly type of distributor. The publisher can have the most amazing book in the world and be driven out of business because no one is pitching their books to the buyers.
So those are the specifics about the kinds of distribution that exist. Tuesday I’ll talk about: Why doesn’t everyone have The Good Distribution and Distribution is a Team Effort.