There are four stages in the life of every book: writing, producing (printing and binding), distributing and promoting. Some authors and self-publishers get the most frustrated with that third step. They feel the distribution system is unfair and that their books are being kept from the bookstores. In most cases, they just do not understand the book trade. The key is understanding distributors—who they are and what they do. But first, let's define a couple of things.
What's a wholesaler?
Wholesalers warehouse books and supply bookstores. The two major wholesalers in the United States are Ingram and Baker & Taylor; there are dozens of smaller ones. Ingram serves more bookstores than libraries while Baker & Taylor is stronger in library sales. Ingram has five warehouses across the United States; they have a facility within one-day UPS of more than 90 percent of the stores.
What's a distributor?
Distributors appear to be the same as wholesalers except for one important difference: Distributors have sales reps who visit the stores and get the orders. According Mark Sexton, author of Heretics Guide to Quality Assurance (Penman), "Wholesalers perform a valuable order consolidation and distribution service, but they don't market individual titles."
That means wholesalers only make your book available if a bookstore orders. Distributors prime the book-pipeline pump by placing the book in the store.
Do I want a distributor?
Yes—if you want your book in stores. Most bookstores will not buy books directly from you. They would rather write 25 checks at the end of the month, not 25,000. It takes time and money to open and serve a new account. So they buy from major publishers, distributors and wholesalers.
Julie Bennett, author of Masters of the Universe (Charm Write), says, "A distributor is a surrogate sales department for a group of independent publishers." So, in short, distributors serve as almost a division of your publishing company. They get your book into the wholesalers such as Ingram and Baker & Taylor, the online stores such as Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com, and into the independent bookstores. They transmit the bibliographic data and make sure your book is in the systems of each player in the book trade.
Plus, distributors are a time saver. Sending 20 cartons of books to a distributor requires the same amount of paperwork as sending a single book to a bookstore. So, distributors are very important to you. In fact, if your dealer price list requires a large number of books for a discount, it will force more stores to order from wholesalers and distributors, which may simplify your business.
Keep in mind that distributors require an exclusive in the book trade. This exclusive is for bookstores and wholesalers only. You are free to sell elsewhere and may even have to find another distributor to serve industries such as gift stores or sporting goods stores.
Another fact: Only 3,000 bookstores (out of 15,000 nationwide) are a good match for any given book. (Parenting books go to malls and suburbs; business books go downtown.) So, even if a chain store buys your book, you will not see it in every store in the chain.
If you can land the right distributor, you can forget the wholesalers, chains, online stores and independents. The distributor will serve them for you. Then you can concentrate your efforts on the nontraditional markets that are easier to reach, much more lucrative and a lot more fun.
How do I get a distributor?
Distributors specialize. There are about 85 distributors across North America; some carry several categories or genres while others sell just one type of book such as computer, children's or cookbooks. Now the question becomes, how do I find the right distributor? The secret is to match your book (or line of books) with a distributor already offering titles of the same type. It will have a relationship with stores that have major sections of that type of book, and it may be serving other appropriate stores outside the book trade.
Is there a downside?
Middlemen cost and services cost. The more you want, the more you pay. Distributors have to sell to the wholesalers at 50 to 55 percent off and stores at 40 to 45 percent off. In the end, you'll often receive less than 40 percent of the book's retail price when it is sold through your distributor.
Also, most distributors operate on consignment inventory and pay 90 days after they sell the books to the bookstore or wholesaler. You will not be paid for a long time. But if you've got a large print run, part of your inventory might just as well sit in another warehouse as your own.
The large publishers have sales reps to get their books into stores. The medium-sized and small publishers have distributors who have sales reps to get their books into stores. The playing field is level. With a distributor, you will have the same access to the bookstores as Simon & Schuster.
This article appeared in the July 2002 issue of Writer's Digest.