Do you know the one thing that defeats most self-publishers who try to break into national bookstore sales? It’s not bad editing, it’s not crummy cover design, and it’s not clumsy typesetting. No, the one thing that’s always defeated self-publishers going up against big publishers is lack of distribution.
Last week we had a presentation at the monthly meeting of the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association (BAIPA) about book distribution, and how an independent distributor works with small publishers.
Elise Cannon, VP and Director of Field Sales, Susan McConnell, Director of Sales and Marketing for children’s books, and Kevin Votel, VP of Marketing and Development for new publishers, all from Publishers Group West (PGW) were the presenters. (Shown left to right in photo above.)
Here’s how PGW presents itself on their website:
Publishers Group West (PGW) is the leading book sales and distribution company in the United States, representing over 100 independent client publishers. PGW sets the standard for integrated, full-service distribution, provides complete digital conversion services, and is a top-ten vendor to book retailers and wholesalers across the country.
PGW is owned by Perseus Books in New York, an independent publisher and distributor of independent press books.
The speakers know a good deal about independent publishing, small press publishing and self-publishing. PGW has traditionally been willing to take on self-published books if they are commercially viable.
The audience at BAIPA, of course, is largely amateur publishers, many of whom are new to the business. They are driven by idealism or the desire to share a story with the wider world. Like most self-publishers, they are rarely involved with publishing for the money.
There are also experienced and savvy publishers and designers, editors and other suppliers in the group, so there is a diversity of interests and experience at each of these meetings.
Probably the most interesting part of the presentation was the attitude toward self-publishers. Several times the idea was expressed that authors might be better off partnering with a publisher (i.e. a “real publisher”) and let them do the business side while you just write.
Don’t get me wrong. This is a sensible business approach based on the traditional world of publishing. Although PGW, through Perseus Books, now has access to digital printing equipment and is starting to move into ebooks, they clearly are part of the existing world of bookselling and retailing. It’s their entire reason for being in business, and PGW is one of the ten largest book distributors in the country, regularly putting books on bestseller lists and in prime media appearances.
But most self-publishers these days operate in a world of Amazon, ebook downloads, blogs as marketing vehicles, social media promotions and book tours that take place entirely online. These two worlds seemed to only have brief interactions during this presentation.
Book Distribution the PGW Way
Here are some of the topics that made an impression from the presentation:
- They explained for the audience the difference between wholesalers and distributors, and how retailers order weekly from wholesalers like Baker & Taylor and Ingram, who are supplied by PGW for their publisher clients.
- Their publishers work with PGW six months before publication date to get the word out to bookstores. It’s important for the publishers to highlight what will be happening with the book, ads that will run, author appearances and so on.
- During meetings with retailers the PGW representatives also receive feedback about formats, pricing, and other preferences that are passed along to their publishers.
- As a distributor, PGW works on behalf of their publishers with ingram and others. They use information from publishers, like comparable books in the market, to help position the new books with retail buyers.
- Although they don’t work with many single-book publishers, they are quite used to working with indie publishers from the San Francisco bay area. (PGW is located in Berkeley.)
- It’s important to know what’s going on in your category, what’s been published in the past. Use bookstores and libraries for comparison title research. Your comparison titles should be fairly current, published in the last 5 or 6 years. They advised authors to look at the competition and ask themselves, “Can I really compete with these books, with their covers, their interiors, at their price?”
- In order to sell yourself to a distributor, show the relevance of your book, and find comparable titles. Do your homework and show that you know your own market. Be prepared to explain the need that your book fills.
- Regional books are good for self-publishers, including local sports books. Big publishers won’t take a chance on regional books.
- Distributors are able to market to bookstores, mass market retail, gift and specialtiy stores, institutional and library markets. They sell to each channel differently, and have sales reps who specialize in each retail channel.
- Book reviews are really important if you have a distributor. Your book is more likely to get face-out position in a bookstore, and to “sell through” if it has received good reviews.
The Other Side of Distribution
Although one of the PGW speakers explained that, in order to sign with a distributor and receive all these terrific services, you would have to give them exclusive rights to market your books to retail outlets, they also sidestepped questions of exactly what this glorious treatment might cost.
It’s not hard to find out that most distribution contracts call for the publisher to give up 65-70% of the retail price of their books to the distributor, who has to pass along discounts all down the distribution chain.
The usual hostility toward Amazon as an exemplar of everything that’s ruining traditional publishing was evident, and the offerings on Amazon were at one point referred to as a “big pile of crap.”
It never fails to amaze me when people from traditional publishing speak to groups of self-publishers and go out of their way to abuse Amazon. It’s the one place that gave self-publishers equal footing with everyone else, who brought real retailing to every self-published author. This is tone-deafness of the highest order.
On the other hand I’m sure the idea that writers should write and leave publishers and distributors to take care of the rest was powerfully appealing to many people in the room. The whole cachet of having your book in thousands of chain stores throughout the country remains. The reality of watching those books get returned isn’t nearly as romantic.
The speakers went so far as to give examples of authors who they had paired up with one of PGW’s existing 125 publishers, and it’s obvious that can work to everyone’s benefit.
That’s as it should be. Book distribution in the United States is a business done beteween mammoth corporations with properties that can cost millions of dollars, and in which blockbuster media events are necessary to carry the financial load of the operation. PGW straddles the line, as an aggregator of lots of independent publishers. But it needs to aggregate to get big enough to play with the other big companies in the market.
PGW is a terrific company staffed with lifelong bookselling professionals. Their record speaks for itself. But when we broke up for the day, I felt there was something missing, and I realized what it was.
It was that spirit of the indie author, the one who doesn’t want someone else to be their publisher. The indie author who has decided that getting 100% of their very own income from their books is better than getting 8% or 10% of net from somebody else. The indie author who knows their own market, who is savvy enough to produce the book that market wants, and who reaps the benefits of their efforts. And the indie author who’s tired of being treated like a gifted but slow child who should just go off and create, and let the businesspeople handle the rest. Through much of history creative artists have been the ones left with the wrong end of the equation when dealing with mega corporations.
Happily, that time may be coming to an end.