“Wheee doggies! My UK book is being sold in the US!”

August 13, 2010

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.

Good ideas and great intentions ain’t enough

July 30, 2010

The setting: Overworked and Underpaid Editor is toiling over a manuscript while the beagle lazes in the sunspot that’s shining on Underpaid’s desk. The phone rings.

Overworked and Underpaid Editor: Answer that, willya?

Beagle: Bite me. I’m working on my beagle tan.

Overworked and Underpaid Editor: (swearing under her breath as she reaches for the phone) Why bother, it only brings out more of your freckles. (speaking into the phone) Hullo, this is the land of the oppressed and overtoiled, how may I help you? (listens, then hands the phone over to the beagle) It’s for you. And how many times have I told you not to use the office phone? Use your cellphone, dammit.

Beagle: If I’m gonna use my cellie, then you need to trim my nails. Last night I accidentally dialed the Hot Dachshunds Talk Dirty line. Ever heard a dachshund talk dirty? All they know is the the Oscar Meyer wiener song. (talks into the phone) Beagle here, how may I help you? (the beagle gets excited and jumps off Overworked’s desk.) Yipeee!!!

Overworked and Underpaid Editor: What? Did the Fireman’s Fund send you your Sexy Dalmations calendar?

Beagle: Better than that. I’m taking submissions for my fellow canines to send me recipes for designer chewie bones. So far I have my own – the margarita flavored chewie bone and that hot Rotweiler down the street’s recipe for Frightened Postal Worker chewie bones. And last week, I got the recipe for Gardner In Full Retreat and a tasty recipe that contains nacho cheese and freshly caught rat. De-lish!

Overworked and Underpaid Editor: (considers the possibility that the beagle has finally gone ’round the bend) Um. What are you planning on doing with these designer doggie chewies?

Beagle: Oh, I’m going to sell them and make a fortune. That way I can blow this popscicle stand and follow my bliss and gather up independent wealth. And you, dear Ms. Overpaid and Underworked Editor, can answer your own damn phones.

Overworked and Underpaid Editor: (gritting teeth) That’s overWORKED and underPAID, you rancid fleabag. So, how are you going to distribute and promote these doggie chewies?

Beagle: Eh? Whazzat? Distribution? Promotion? Whaddya mean?

Overworked and Underpaid Editor: I mean, how are you going to get your chewies to market? You’ve collected all these chewie bones, and you need to show them to grocery stores, pet stores, national chains, and the like. So far, all you have is a groovy idea and no way to get them in front of buyers. And you need to consider why they would they buy your chewies if you have no promotion plans. You gotta take out ad space or talk to your fellow fleabags about your chewies in order to create interest. Otherwise you’ll end up with a warehouse full of designer chewies and no demand. Or worse, you’ll get them on the store shelves, but they’ll come back to you because no one knows they exist. Think how totally suck-o-licious it would be to be you – broke and out of business.

Beagle: (growing paler by the second) Oh holy Kibbles ‘n Bits, I’d…I’d…I’d have to come back and live with you.

Overworked and Underpaid Editor: (enjoying the moment) Exactamundo.

Beagle: (choking back a sob) So it’s not enough to have a good idea or great intentions?

Overworked and Underpaid Editor: That is your fuel – the tequila to your margarita, the jam in your jelly doughnut, the cream in your Twinkie. But no, intention and ideas are not enough to make it in this tough world. Being prepared, knowing what the hell you’re doing, and making the right connections to make those dreams into realities are what you need. And that takes money. Lots of it. But…you gotta know how to spend it, and what to spend it on. ‘Tis better to be rich and smart than rich and dumb because the dummy will soon be broke.

And that, gentle authors and authorettes, is what publishers must do as well. It’s not enough to have an infusion of cash if you don’t know how to spend it wisely. We’ve already seen how that ends up, yes? And the reason for this post is that I continue to see this a lot.

And you don’t hook up with someone who has little idea whether the product they bought (your book) is marketable or unworkable – and how they plan on selling it.This takes experience. One does not go into this business with little experience and expect to hang out their shingle and call themselves a publisher, and expect instant success.

And you certainly don’t allow anyone the first print rights on your book unless you KNOW they have proper distribution. I’ve said it a million times, and I’ll say it again: INGRAM AND BAKER & TAYLOR IS NOT THE SAME THING. These are distribution warehouses for libraries and bookstores to order from. They do not have sales people pushing your catalog to the genre buyers of the chains, indie bookstores, and libraries. That is what an indie distributor does.

If your publisher doesn’t have a relationship with an indie distributor or is tied in with another publisher for distribution, your books are going about as far as the beagle’s designer chewies…though I have to admit that the margarita chew has real potential.

And so do you. Choose wisely. Ask questions. Be careful.

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