What Does Distribution Really Mean for Self-Publishers?

POSTED ON Jul 6, 2010

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

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Do you know “new media” marketer Chris Brogan? Chris is an incredibly bright guy and a long-time blogger who blogged a book that went on to become a New York Times bestseller. I was listening to an audio that Chris did for the Third Tribe community and I was struck by something he said about Starbucks.

Chris was talking about how Starbucks realized through listening to their customers that people wanted something hot and nutritious in the morning, something besides croissants and scones. Since they already had cups and water and spoons, it was a short leap to selling oatmeal, which perfectly satisfied their customers’ need.

But the comment that caught me was when Chris said that Starbucks could do this because they already had distribution—the thousands of retail stores with the cups, spoons and water just waiting for the oatmeal to arrive.

Distribution—It’s Bigger Than You Think

As long as I’ve been involved in publishing I’ve heard people complain about the book distribution system. And as long as I’ve been in self-publishing, I’ve heard that the one thing self-publishers can’t compete on is distribution—they just don’t have it.

The book distribution system certainly seems like it’s stuck in an earlier era. It has made the book retailing business into a consignment shop, where nothing is owned by the stores. Instead, they are like manufacturers’ outlets for a dozen big companies. If a particular book doesn’t sell this season, just send it back to the factory and get new ones in more modern themes or colors.

And even though thousands of knowledgeable and dedicated book people work in these retail stores, the system itself rules. The waves of books go out, and sometimes waves of returns come back.

Despite all that, traditional publishers have an insurmountable advantage in the reach of their distribution that few self-publishers even understand.

Self-Publisher’s Distribution: Oh Really?

A self-publisher these days, having read one too many websites, thinks that having their book printed at Lightning Source grants them “distribution.” You can go to different author-services companies and buy “distribution packages” which amount to about the same thing: a listing in the Ingram catalog.

According to this, distribution is equal to a catalog listing. It is simply made available for purchase.

But this is really closer to the definition of a wholesaler, not a true distributor. Even small-press distributors attempt to sell the books of their publishers. A large, traditional publisher doesn’t just have a listing in a catalog. They have a dedicated sales force. They might use commissioned sales reps, or their own sales reps, or a combination of the two to cover different regions.

These reps develop long-term relations with important booksellers over the years. Each season the reps hand carry the big books of the year to present to book buyers across their territory.

The publisher supports the retailers with cooperative advertising, and national advertising for its big books. Authors of some celebrity are made available for bookseller events and in store promotions. Marketing coordinates with Promotion and Sales to try to maximize the book’s potential.

What the big publisher is able to do is both push books into the thousands of retailers where book buyers will find them, and pull the buyers into the store with coordinated advertising and promotion. They use the bookstores in a similar way that Starbucks uses its own stores.

But the reason the big publisher can sell so many books is this distribution apparatus.

It’s Only Just Begun

This distribution system makes it difficult for most self-publishers, and dooms a good many of them. You can make it work to your advantage if you have a book with steady sales. In other words, you will probably need to go out and create the demand for the book, before any distributor will take you on.

If you have a book with steady but modest sales, you may have to build up your publishing company until you have a line of closely related books, each of which sells, before a distributor will agree to take you on. Even then, you will only have a part of the whole coordinated distribution-marketing-advertising-promotion system being used by big publishers.

So when you look at what distribution really is, you have to conclude that self-publishers can only get a piece of it. It can be enough to make you profitable, if you learn how to use it to your advantage.

Game Not Over

This great asymmetry between the power of the large publisher and the limited ability of the self-publisher, may be changing very soon. The rise of the ebook will change everything. It may just wipe distribution away completely, replacing it with an entirely new model for digital distribution. The playing field is likely to be considerably flatter than it is now, don’t you think?

Takeaway: Self-publishers can only acquire a part of the book distribution system used by big publishers. Their efforts are better spent on special sales and selling online.

Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/yourdon/

Joel Friedlander

Written by
Joel Friedlander

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