Does distribution make sense for small publishers?
Of course you would like to see your book in your local bookstore. Who wouldn’t?
As a small indie press, a self-publishing author/publisher, or a micro press, you might actually prefer that you could tell people to buy your latest book at the book store instead of an online corporate giant.
The irony is that the system is set up to make that very difficult and very expensive for you as a small publisher.
“Help me help you” should be the rallying cry here!
The Bottom Line
There are two things a bookstore really cares about: will this book sell? And will I make any money selling it? As much as we might romanticize what a bookstore represents, the harsh reality—that authors and publishers sometimes forget—is that bookstores are for-profit businesses designed to sell profitable products.
Does your book have (pre-release) trade reviews and/or (post-release) consumer reviews outside of Amazon? Is there buzz around your book already? Is your book being promoted to consumers? Can it be ordered at market-rate margins, and returned if it doesn’t sell? These are questions a bookseller is asking.
Bookstores Only Buy From Distributors
A distributor’s job is to help get your book into bookstores—into the trade as it is called. A distributor makes a bookstore’s job easier. As a publisher, you pay for that service.
The reality is that, short of going door-to-door and one-by-one begging the bookstores to carry your book on consignment, the only way your book is likely to be ordered by a bookstore, let alone have any chance of being stocked in their shelves, is if your book is in distribution or some other way has been listed in a wholesaler’s catalog.
If not, it just isn’t financially worth the trouble for a bookstore to figure out how to order your book. And, by proxy, is perceived as likely not worth their effort to try to sell your book, anyhow. Learn more about the bookseller’s point of view at the American Booksellers Association (ABA) Website.
So, the first question you have to ask yourself is how important book store sales are to your business at this point in time?
If someone walks into a bookstore and wants to special order your book, it is safe to say a bookstore will take the order—so long as it is available for wholesale (e.g. IngramSpark or KDP with “expanded distribution”).
What I’m talking about here is a bookstore stocking your book.
As a publisher, using a distributor means that you have an exclusive agreement with one company (or one company per market) to represent your book, and to act as the point-of-contact for stores and wholesalers who want to obtain your book.
There are two basic ways to do this:
Print in bulk and warehouse books, traditional distribution
Print on demand, and let POD provider act as distributor
If you decide to go the print-and-warehouse option, and want to get into the “trade” (i.e. wholesale catalogs, so bookstores and libraries can easily buy your book), you need to contract with a distributor.
And, just like the bookstore, the distributor is going to want to know that you are worth their time. How extensive is your current catalog of books? How many books are you producing a year? Do you have a clear marking and promotion plan for your books, including trade reviews?
Yes, a distributor makes money every time your book sells. But they must also consider the effort to set up and maintain you in their system, and what your book will do for their reputation.
For new publishers, your options are limited
Itasca is a good option in that they will take almost anyone in regardless of publisher size, and they provide a base-level service. Short run digital printing sister company Bookmobile offers a good write-up about Itasca’s services.
Small Press United is another possible option geared toward “micro presses” (although they may have a minimum catalog size).
Other players such as IPG (who owns SPU), SCB, SPD, and Consortium all seem geared toward small presses with an existing catalog and established publication schedules. A fairly complete list of distribution possibilities can be found at IBPA’s website.
Bear in mind, a distributor will want exclusivity (they are the only seller) and likely will want the entire catalog. So mixing and matching traditional and POD distribution may not be allowed.
The other path into the trade is through a print-on-demand service that includes distribution. And the largest player in this space, coincidentally the largest player in the wholesale traditional distribution space as well, is Ingram.
Ingram’s entry-level service, IngramSpark offers a semi-automated web-based system for uploading both print book files and ePubs, and includes listing in the Ingram wholesale catalog, making your book available to book stores, libraries, and online retailers including BookShop.org, IndieBound.org, Barnes & Noble, and of course also Amazon.
The main downside to POD is a lack of options and control. IngramSpark, through their printing engine Lightning Source, offer softcover and hard cover, even dust jackets in some cases. Black and white or two levels of color printing are offered. But no cover embellishments like spot varnish or embossing, no softcover flaps, no paper weight options, and no control over the quality of the printing.
This is a perfectly reasonable compromise for many publishers, but it will depend on the book. This is a deal-breaker for high-quality art books. And even with color children’s picture books it can be cost prohibitive.
Catalog only means a bookstore can, not will, carry your book
But the main advantage is that anybody can print and distribute a book this way. Mind you, having the book in the Ingram catalog does not guarantee sales—you’ll still have to promote and market your book. And without a traditional distributor’s sales team working for you, you may still find it difficult for your book to find its way onto bookstore shelves.
Which still leaves us with question #1: are book store sales important to your business at this point in time?
Other POD players
IngramSpark is not the only player out there. Other companies such as Amazon’s KDP (formerly CreateSpace), BookBaby, and Lulu offer different levels of support and access to print book services. Previously I compared the dominant players KDP and IngramSpark.
Nobody wants to carry a book that is hard to sell. The bookstore will generally only carry books that have appeal and interest to its customers. Promotion and marketing can help with that, but having an easy way for the bookstore to buy your book helps, too. And that means you need a relationship with a distributor.
For new publishers, who lack an established track record, it is very difficult to establish a traditional distribution agreement. You’ll have to demonstrate something that is really worth the distributor’s time. Fortunately, there are also print-on-demand services that offer distribution as a way to on-ramp your fledgling new venture.
But if this describes you, the first question you need to answer is whether bookstores are actually important to your business at this point? If you expect the vast majority of your sales to be direct (e.g. your website, or speaking engagements) or online (e.g. Amazon, Bookshop.org), maybe the costs and burdens of traditional distribution aren’t worth it at this time.