Distribution is one of the toughest nuts to crack when it comes to publishing. There’s a few reasons for this, one of which is that it’s boring. It’s hard to get excited about receivables, warehousing, and invoices. But good distribution has made it possible for me to make a living off my books.
When I started thinking about No Media Kings six years ago I thought through doing distribution on my own. I would have to write letters to all the bookstores in Canada, and ship out the orders myself. Assuming that they took it seriously enough to order, and I shipped out the books, they sold, and I followed up with an invoice, I then hit a snag. My invoice would naturally float to the bottom of the pile: those from distributors representing a number of books and publishers would get paid first. They had the leverage of not shipping out any more of their books (and a collection agency), while all I had was the threat of not sending out any more Jim Munroe books. So I discovered the strength-in-numbers value to being with a distributor.
Over the years I’ve discovered a few more things about getting your books out into the world. Let’s start with some general concepts of the book distribution business.
60%-40% SPLIT: Bookstores get a 40% discount from the distributor, and big box stores often get 45%. This means the bookstore gets $8 when a $20 book sells.
RETURNS: When a bookstore orders books from a distributor, it is understood that they can ship them back up to a year after they receive them for credit against future orders. Publishers expect, on average, about 30% of their initial sales to be returned. Contrary to popular belief, trade paperbacks are not “stripped” (ie. simply the covers returned for credit to save on shipping, which happens with mass market paperbacks and magazines) so they can be shipped out again when another bookstore orders them.
COMMISSION: When we discuss sales here we’re not talking about sales to the consumer, but within the book trade — your sales rep will be the person presenting your book to the booksellers either by mailing a catalog or visting in person. The rep works on commission and only gets paid when books “sell through” (ie. are not just ordered by the bookseller, but are sold to the consumer). The distribution company also works on commission, which is one of the reasons they are so picky about taking on non-validated clients: if the books don’t sell through, they lose the money they’ve spent storing and shipping the books. When they do sell through, the sales and distribution combined commission is around 25-30% ($5-6 on a $20 book).
Here are some distro options, staring with the most accessible and going to the least.
I’ve sold books directly to people on the street, at zine fairs and at book launches. When I had print runs of 500, it was how I sold most of my books. These days it’s not nearly as big a part of how I get my books out there, but I keep doing it because it’s fun. I’m pretty sociable and I like to chat with strangers about books, and now that I have a couple of books out it’s neat to get feedback from people who’ve read them. I wasn’t so into signing books at the start, it felt bigheaded and silly, but nowadays I offer to do it: most people like a souvenir of a personal interaction. I try to come up with a twist on it to make it more interesting–with my last one I spattered blood on the title page. (OK, it was food colouring, but it was totally evil food colouring.)
I also sell books direct to people via this site. I don’t mind stuffing envelopes once a week. It doesn’t have to be fancy or complicated: PayPal’s pretty easy to set up. I was pretty anti-PayPal at first as they had some real problems in Canada a few years ago, but when I did get on that system I found I got more sales. A lot of people have money sitting around in their Pay Pal account and so they’re more free with it — I am.
Selling direct means that you can make three times the amount per book than you can make via a sale through traditional bookstore distro. However, even with the amount I do, it only amounts to 10% of my book sales and 1/3 of my income. Bricks-and-mortar bookstores are my bread and butter.
Consignment at Bookstores
Some of the cooler indie bookstores will take books on consignment. A 60% to you, 40% to them split might seem a bit unfair to the uninitiated, but it’s the standard in the book trade. Consignment means more paperwork for a product that is less validated by the conventional system of distributors and publishers. I figure if they take that risk, I’m happy to pay the split they’re used to. It might help to look like you know what you’re doing: get little invoice book to use in case they don’t have their own, and books on hand to leave (they’ll probably take between 2-5 copies at first). I also follow up after a month, again after three months, and at six months I offer to close the account. Dust on your book doesn’t really make anyone look good.
If sales are brisk, some bookstores will offer to buy your book outright which saves on paperwork and hassle. I generally sell it at half the retail price in this case, since the bookstore’s assuming a risk. I offer this discount to bookstores when I’m touring in other cities too, since I don’t want to deal with consignment through the mail.
Overall, try to work on a relationship with booksellers where you both feel good about the exchange. If you continue to publish books this’ll make it much more enjoyable. Remember that people who are selling books generally love them.
There are very few small book distributors, and those that exist tend to be specialist. Last Gasp Distribution (pictured left by Scott Beale of Laughing Squid) focuses on “the unusual, underground, and out-of-the-ordinary” and state in their FAQ that they pay you 40% of your cover price if it sells. AK Distribution focuses on political and punk books. Browse a distro’s catalog and if they sell stuff like your book, send them a copy and see if they want to stock it. Siue Moffat reports that AK took 200 of her vegan desert cookbook Lickin’ the Beaters and sold them all.
An advantage to small distributors is that they generally know their bookstores better than larger distros. The orders tend to be smaller but more realistic. Returns with larger distributors can be very high: 30% returns is expected, but I’ve seen it go as high as 70%.
Another option is to make an arrangement with a publisher who already has a distribution deal and a sales team. For a percentage of the sale, they will include your book in their catalog, which goes out with the sales reps to book stores across the country, and their sales team will present your book. Some publishers may want all the attention for their own titles, but some may like the idea: there’s no printing cost for them, for instance. Get a cover and the book to them as early as you can, because the catalogs go out 4-6 months in advance.
This is the route I’ve gone in Canada (thanks Mike!) and have distroed over 5000 books since 2000, an average of about 1200 per title I’ve published.
To you, your press is your passion, your inspiration, your life; to them, it’s a financial risk. They don’t have the time or inclination to do a case-by-case analysis for every publisher they take on, so they look at how long you’ve been doing it to make that decision. Most larger distributors won’t take you on before you’ve got four books in print. They will also want you to have a sales team who will present your books to booksellers, to show that you’re willing to compete to move those books. Often they will want an exclusive deal for a certain territory (ie. the USA) so that all orders go through them.
They will also prefer you be publishing on an ongoing basis and like a contract for a certain number of years. The reason for this is that they might send you a cheque for books that have sold, but then the books come back and so you end up owing them money. No big deal if you have another new book bringing money in, but a hassle for them if you don’t.
Another issue with full service distribution is that the smaller you are — the less money you make for them — the higher their percentage. Again, they want you to assume the risk. Distributors take a minimum of 20%, but it will easily go closer to 30% if you’re a small publisher. You’ll also be charged a couple of hundred dollars for extras (co-op ads, setup, admin) — between that and the higher percentage, you might find you sell a few hundred books but don’t end up making any money. So it’s important to find a distribution system that suits your outfit: you don’t want more infrastructure than you need.
Don’t rent a truck when a wheelbarrow will do. It’s not as fancy, but it’s cheaper and more appropriate.