Distribution—getting your book out to markets far and wide—used to be the biggest thing that traditional, mainstream publishers could offer authors that self publishing could not. That has become less and less true over time, particularly with the advent of ebooks, Amazon.com, etc. etc.
Every other aspect of the writing, editing, and publishing process can be purchased independently.
Getting your book into bookstores, while good in itself, of course, is a small part of effective marketing but not a comprehensive plan of distribution. Remember, bookstores don’t sell books, authors do!
None of us will live long enough to have time to re-invent the wheel so it's wise to glean what you can from the experience of others. As part of your wider marketing strategy, look at the experience of authors who have already self published as a good source of information on how to tackle distribution. Writers love to talk about both their books and their publishing experiences.
Good distribution is what happens when good marketing happens. However, distribution as merely having lots of copies available for purchase is not a marketing strategy, especially if they are just gathering dust in the trunk of your car, your basement, or the garage.
Take other self-published authors to lunch and pick their brains about all the marketing techniques that have either worked well for them or have fizzled, including, of course, different approaches to distribution. In publishing circles, you’ll find key players are always willing to share their experiences, knowledge, and resources.
Certainly, consider professional publicists and determine if they could better handle your publicity efforts—especially getting bookings for you on radio and television. For some of them, it’s their full-time job and specialty, so they will have a system down pat.
What features of your book do early reviewers particularly like? How can you make those features into key selling points? If you are not confident in your ability to be the best judge of your book and how to sell it, gather a group of friends, writers and experienced business people together for a brainstorming focus group. Good ideas bring about more good ideas. Personal referrals and contacts are good places to start.
Make use of the Internet, particularly social media. Possibly write an ongoing related blog, write letters, make phone calls, and talk to other authors at writers' conferences.
If you are planning to use a professional distributor for your work, let one of them review your book. It’s actually a good idea to have them review it before you go to press. Since their main interest is in selling your work, they will be a good judge of its content and ability to stand up to the competition. Suggestions received before your book is actually printed can save you costly errors.
Some distributors insist on quality controlling your product before they will promise to handle its distribution. Distributors may ask you to submit sketches of the front cover design, front and back cover copy, and a copy of the complete manuscript (prior to copy editing) in order to make reasonable suggestions for changes. Often, they can make suggestions that will increase your book’s marketability (including printing the name and address of your distributor in the book so additional orders can be generated).
Submitting your work in progress during the early stages eliminates the risk of not having it picked up by a distributor because of inferior quality. A distributor who is right for your target audience will have a better grasp than most people of what it will take to make your book sell well.
By the way, when you have signed a deal with a distributor, you will want to make sure your book cover graphics are supplied to them in time to make their catalogue production. When a book is introduced in a distributor’s front list, the book cover becomes your most important marketing tool.
Distributors are generally considered your one big link in achieving high volume sales and getting your hooks into the major bookstores. A distributor’s sales force can promote your book in places where you can’t go (like to the offices of major wholesalers). Distributors do some marketing of the books they carry so they are selective, based on what they think they can sell. They publish their own catalogues with reviews designed to promote the books with which they are dealing.
Wholesalers can also promote your book but most of them do it simply through a catalogue and do not have a sales force. Most wholesalers are strictly fulfillment houses—the middlemen between publishers and stores or customers. They do not create sales; they fill the demand that someone else creates.
Many wholesalers have a regional distribution territory. To get a better understanding of the comprehensive coverage of distributors and wholesalers, read the Literary Marketplace. It is easier to get both wholesalers and distributors excited about a book that is already being publicized and promoted.
But even securing the aid of a distribution house will not guarantee sales. Your best chance may be to find a company that successfully sells books similar to yours.
Be aware that selling books through distributors and wholesalers means it can be a long time before you see any cash in your pocket. The distributor must sell your book to a wholesaler, which sells to its clients, which are the bookstores that sell to their customers—and you don’t get paid until the customer pays the bookstore and the money goes back up the line. At each step, there could be as much as a 30-45-day wait for money to change hands, thus a three-to-six-month delay in your receiving payment.
And, of course, there is no guarantee the books will ever be sold, in which case you will receive no payment. You place your books with distributors “on consignment.”
Beware of giving any distributor an exclusive unless you are convinced they cover all the book trade you need to reach.
Distributors demand, and get, big discounts for handling your book, which will drastically cut into your profit margin if you have not priced your book to take them into account. With the shrinking profit margins for distributors, many are adding deep discounting to their contracts, along with service charges, increased cash reserves, and fees for returns. New self-publishers are often surprised to find that distributors and wholesalers expect discounts of 55-65 percent.
When thinking about the cover price of your book, an often-used rule of thumb is that your book should be priced at five times the cost of having it printed.
“Without a sufficient price, there is not enough money for promotion and without promotion, a book won’t sell. If the book fails to sell, there is no money for promotion or even to pay the print bill. You must assume that 98 percent of your books will be sold at wholesale prices” (For All the Right Reasons, page 273).
The other side of the coin (no pun intended) is that you must double check to be sure the price on your book is one that the market will bear. In today’s economy, with ebooks, eBay, Amazon, big discount stores and more all being in the book business, it’s a reality that if you want to sell a lot of books, you will have to keep the price down.
In considering who to use for fulfillment services and whether or not to solicit the help of a distributor, you will want to closely look at the responsibilities and services the distributor is offering:
• How will they help in promotion of your book?
• Who will bear the expenses?
• Will the distributor do more than place the book in their catalogue?
• What discount do they require from you?
• What are their terms of payment?
• How big of a territory do they cover?
• What is their success record with your genre?
• What is their reputation in the industry’?
• Do they have booths at the major trade shows or do any advertising in appropriate media?
• Who supplies the press releases and review copies and pays the cost of distributing them?
Too many authors have hung there heads saying, “I had a few good-sized distributors, but with no publicity there was no interest and no sales to the bookstores.”
Explore every possible way to get your book into the Baker & Taylor, Spring Arbor, Ingram, Appalachian, and Amazon.com systems. These are the main ordering sources for most bookstores. And there may be more since this writing!
Some time ago, in an editorial in Small Press Magazine, Mardi Link wrote: “When it comes to signing with a national distributor, many publishers are drowned in lost sales if they don’t, or drowned in fees, returns, and questionable profits if they do. Neither independent publishers, bookstores, distributors, nor the almighty marketplace has come up with a solution to how books can be sold nationally and still make a respectable profit for all concerned.”
Make a list of a dozen or more distributors that could be a possible fit with your book and then call to ask about their submission procedure. But be realistic; just because you apply to a distributor does not mean your book will be accepted. Your book title faces stiff competition, even for distributors, and will be evaluated on the size of the print run, writing and editing quality, subject matter, promotional campaigns, and packaging. Then someone makes a guess as to whether or not they think your book will sell based on the competition with similar books already in the marketplace.
Be creative in convincing a distributor that you have a great book and that you are going to be aggressively promoting it to make sure it sells.