Book Distribution

You won't need distribution services or warehouses if your book is marketed by a traditional publisher. Nor for a book in electronic form. But the self-publisher may indeed need what the trade calls distributors to booksellers, book distribution services or fulfillment warehouses in these cases:

fulfillment warehousesYou don't have the facilities to store books safely

You don't wish to be burdened with fulfilling book orders

You live outside your main market area. If, for example, you live in Turkey but have the book printed in Hong Kong for a US market, it will make more sense to ship the entire print run to the States for a US company to a. distribute to bookstores and chains and b. fulfill individual orders. How?

You have four options:

1. Printing Company

Many short-run printers, and those serving the small presses, provide a fulfillment service. Here are some better-known companies: you'll find more through Internet searches.

BookMasters. Full service, single orders or distribution to bookstores/chains.

Printorium Bookworks. Canadian company with services for authors and publishers.

WebCom Link. Handle book and CD fulfillment, Canada and overseas.

Faithworks. Essentially for Christian publications.

Lightning Source. Distribute through Ingram.

2. Fulfillment Company

Many of these have sprung up to the needs of ecommerce. You'll find these listed under 'fulfillment company', etc. on the Internet search engines, but below are a few of some hundreds. The fee structure is 1. one-off setup, 2. storage per month (including insurance), 3. handling per item and 4. returns charges. There is often a minimum monthly fee, with package materials and shipping being charged at cost. You may also need to own the ISBN.

Para Publishing. Book Fulfillment: Order Entry, Picking, Packing and Shipping. A how-to booklet with useful listings. $19.95.

Autologic. Full range of services, fees on application.

eFulfillment Services. US fulfillment services. From $2.00 plus per order plus $0.30 per product. Storage from $68.50/month.

Webgistix. Free quote on site.

Shipping-and-Handling. Fulfillment services for smaller companies, authors, musicians, etc. From $2.35/item.

3. Warehousing: Book Distributors

Publishing houses don't of course keep their publications of the premises but employ a chain of companies to get the books into bookstores. Many distributors deal with the larger publishers only, and some require the publisher to produce five books or more per year.

Distribution is an important element of publishing costs: remember to factor it in when deciding on the retail price of your publication.

Publishers Weekly. Useful articles on book wholesalers and distributors.

Publishing Central. Good listing of book distributors.

International Specialized Book Services. Historical, specialized or academic books.

Small Press Distribution. Handles distribution for 500 small presses.

Ingram. World's largest book distributor.

National Book NetworkWorks with 70 small-medium US publishers.

Independent Publisher's Group. US and worldwide book distributor.

Yankee Book Peddlers. Distribution to academic and research libraries in US and UK.

Publishers Group West. Serve US independent publishers.

Consortium Book Sales and Distribution. Exclusive distributor for over 50 US and Canadian publishing companies.

4. Print on Demand

Most POD publishers will handle book distribution for you, at a cost but conveniently through Ingram and/or other national distributors — a point to bear in mind when selecting your Print on Demand publisher.

Wholesalers and Distributors

Book distributors are often confused with book wholesalers, since both help to get your work into bookshops, but there is a crucial difference. Wholesalers merely supply books that have been ordered by individual customers or sales outlets. Distributors, however, actively market your work: promoting it with catalogues, reps, adverts and the like. That sounds admirable, and so it is, but distributors also want to be sure that the work will sell in sufficient quantity, and that you are putting your full weight behind its promotion.

Distribution costs money. In general, a publisher will receive one third of the list price of a book, and the distributor two thirds, out of which the distributor will give 40-60% discounts to bookstores and wholesalers. That doesn't leave them much over when sales reps, warehouses, staff, accounting, administration and overheads have been paid, and some do go out of business periodically. The services they supply you as publisher are invaluable — warehousing, cataloguing, sales representation, shipping, billing, collections, marketing and editorial consultation — and may be your only realistic chance of getting your book into more than a few local bookshops. At an additional cost, they may also exhibit you work at book fairs, advertise in trade periodicals, mail bookstores when you're appearing on local radio or TV, or even fulfill individual orders. It makes sense to use them where possible because distributors add kudos to your publication, making it more likely that you will appear on local TV, and that local stores will stock your book. Book distributors also provide the electronic ordering systems that chains and larger bookstores look for, which are often too expensive for the individual publisher.

Now the bad news. Distributors are choosy. Only some fifteen US distributors carry a wide range of books: most specialize in fiction, new age, cooking, travel, local history, etc. Many of the latter carry only 200 new titles a year, giving preference to existing clients. On anything offered them, especially from a new publisher, they will ask themselves:

1. Can we move this title in quantity? Your own sales to date will be relevant.

2. Is the book professionally produced? Covers are especially important.

3. Is the book backed by an appropriate marketing plan, and budget to match?

4. How many books does the publisher produce? The one-book publisher needs to have something pretty special.

5. How long has the publisher been in business? Rookies learning the business will waste too much of management time.

Distributors also specialize on outlets. Some target the super chain stores, some the regional chains, or schools or libraries. All will want exclusive distribution rights, so that they can monitor results and give reps their customary commissions. Distributors pay 90-120 days after delivery, and of course something is retained for returns.

You may want to submit your book to the PMA Trade Distribution Program, where books are screened for appeal to the big buyers. One much touted advantage of PoD is the automatic appearance of your masterpiece in Ingram, the largest book wholesaler in the States. As one well-known PoD company puts it: 'Your book will be listed in the Xlibris on-line bookstore and major on-line stores, including,,,,, and many more. Xlibris books are listed in the database of Ingram, the largest U.S. book distributor, so they can be ordered at most bookstores in the US. But you can get your book listed with Ingram anyway, can't you, so why take the PoD route?

As always, the truth's a little more complicated. With Baker& Taylor, Ingram are the largest supplier of books in the States. They stock huge numbers, and can supply as required. If a customer wants something not in stock, the sales clerk simply looks in the Ingram listing, picks up the telephone, and the book is delivered to the store overnight. Even better, instead of writing checks at the month-end to every publisher, and there may be hundreds of them, the bookstore writes only a handful to their wholesalers. Everyone is happy. How does it work for you, the publisher? You sign a contract with the wholesaler, usually paying a small setup fee and providing them with books at an appreciable discount. The wholesaler fulfils the orders from individual booksellers, allowing them a smaller discount. The difference between the two discounts is what wholesalers live on, though they will sometimes charge for freight. For example: Ingram, who sell over $2 billion worth of books every year, and list some 100,000 titles, require a 50% discount, but do pay the freight. Baker & Taylor, who concentrate on educational books, selling around $800 million annually and listing some 120,000 titles, require a 55% discount, insist that books are fully returnable, and put freight down to your account. Can you use both Ingram and Baker & Taylor, or even several of the smaller wholesalers? You can, but it's wise to give one wholesaler exclusivity, especially when those books have to be returned. Yes, a good proportion of books are sent back, over 50% sometimes and of course you pick up the bill. Hardbacks are returned generally so badly packed that they cannot be sold again. Paperbacks are gutted, just the covers being returned for a full refund. The wholesaler passes the refunds on to you — or usually withholds payment for the eventuality. Given that booksellers are notoriously late payers, the wholesaler pays you 90 to 120 days after shipping to the booksellers. As publisher you're at the end of a long chain of selling, though of course the author is even further away from payment. It's a madness, as everyone in the book business admits, but that's how it works.

To return to Ingram: you can ship to them directly, right? Possibly, but it's unlikely. Wholesalers are not as choosy as distributors, but they have a distinct aversion to dealing with small publishers-naturally, as sales won't cover management time. Even worse in their eyes are publishers just starting up, with only a few titles, and no proven demand for those titles. At the least they will want to see decent reviews, and some figures for promotional efforts. In short, that novel you have self-published, or that first collection of poems, is not going to fill them with happy anticipation, despite your stunning website and those encouraging university readings. For PoD it won't matter, since they don't carry physical stock, but if you want to get your traditional book listed by Ingram, then you'll have to start selling it seriously first. No doubt that's a Catch-22 situation, but anyone looking round bookshops may wonder if we're not overwhelmed already with reading matter. Lastly, wholesalers don't market books, they simply fulfil orders. You as author or publisher have to create that demand. Moreover, since booksellers don't like books that can't be returned, they are often reluctant to order a PoD item unless the customer pays in advance. While PoD makes sense in many cases, getting the product listed in Ingram will not necessarily boost sales. Libraries — school, college, public and institutional — are an important outlet for your books. In 2004, the USA had 70,000 school libraries, 3,000 college libraries, 16,000 public libraries and over 3,000 institutional libraries. Each library may have thousands of volumes: the New York Public Library alone has 11 million, and Harvard has 14 million. In all, US libraries spend around $1.5 billion on books, accounting for some 14% of books published. Their buying periods tend to be the end of June and of December, when they use up their budget or break into a new one. How do you get your books in?

Some general points. Libraries buy books that have been well-reviewed, will fit on their shelves (no spiral bindings) and which fill a gap in their coverage. Since books wear out, on average every 2 years or 18 lendings, libraries will often repurchase or buy several copies. Their problem is the cost of ordering and processing the order, which can exceed the cost of the book itself, and most therefore order through wholesalers or specialist distributors. Since funds are tight, all purchases have to be carefully considered, sometimes by the acquisitions librarian, an acquisitions committee, or more often through an area supervisor. Reviews are critical, and you will want to get your book reviewed in Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and the New York Times Book Review, and by every trade, profession and hobbyist association that is relevant. E-mail, write and phone them, sending more than one copy if the book will be reviewed by several experts. Given a handful of encouraging reviews, you can move to the next step, which is some combination of:

1. Distribute through Quality Books, which requires a 55-60% discount, a consignment contract, fully returnable books (no PoD) and 90 days to pay. The company knows its market, and returns are low. Nonetheless, Quality Books will not handle poetry or fiction, nor books too expensive or specialist.

2. Becoming a stock publisher with Baker&Taylor, who sell around $800 million annually, require a 55% discount, insist that books are fully returnable, and require you to pay freight.

3. Joining the PMA Trade Distribution Program.

4. Contacting the largest libraries with a press release and/or promotional package.

5. Placing a small ad in specialist magazines and the Library Journal, etc.


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