Book Distribution 101
Getting Your Book to Market in Canada
In an ideal world, the sales forces of the book industry are presenting new books to retail buyers long before the books even reach the printing presses. Hard working sales reps are selling the idea of a book and booksellers are placing their orders based mainly on a catalogue image of the book cover, a description (called a “blurb” in book lingo) and the promise of much media to come. In this way, not only can publishers gauge their print runs to some extent, but they also have confirmed sales in advance of the finished product. This means cash back in the bank within a known period of time. Distributors, in place to ship the orders, eventually receive the finished books, fill their orders and send them on their way.
Many first time publishers learn about sales and distribution only after their book has arrived from the printer. This is a little like closing the gate after the horse has left the farm. To maximize success, the time to make distribution plans is early in the publishing process. About the same time that you decide on your book concept, you should be thinking about how exactly you’ll get your finished book out into the wonderful world of bookstores and specialty shops. It’s all part of the planning required in the publishing process.
Publishing on your own requires a multi-talented person who can manage a wide range of tasks. As if getting a book ready to go to a printer isn’t enough of a job, you’ll need to do research into finding a company that will agree to be your primary book distributor. While some intrepid self-publishers have been perfectly satisfied with doing their own distribution, this is not recommended; the book industry in Canada is diverse and peculiar about dealing with known entities in the supply chain. Understandably, bookstores want to deal with suppliers that they know and trust. An established distributor can often sell a new title to a far wider network and in greater quantity simply by virtue of long standing sales relationships with their bookstore customers than can a new and unknown publisher.
Finding a distributor can be difficult, however, as there is just a small handful of Canadian distribution companies that will work with individuals with just one book. The largest companies are generally not interested in dealing with anyone who does not already know the book business. These distributors carry large commercial publishing houses that can be counted on to produce multitudes of new books each season. It’s been said that the amount of time and effort spent on an individual with one book is the same as the time and effort spent on that single contact in a large publishing house – with all the benefits of working with a company that knows the ins and outs of the book business.
Another factor is the concept of returns. Books are returnable after ninety days up to one year from the invoice date. If a distributor takes on a single title and gets it into the bookstores, but the book doesn’t sell, those books will come back to the distributor who in turn must credit the bookstore accounts for the returns. If the distributor has paid the single title publisher, the distributor must request a refund from the publisher for the returned books. This represents a risk factor that many distributors are unwilling to take. In some cases, the distributor will minimize this risk by withholding partial payment until the returns factor is assessed.
Before sending your book to a printer you should investigate distribution companies that will take on single title publishers. Do the research first: check their Internet sites and look at the kinds of books they carry. Talk to bookstore owners and find out which companies they recommend. Most distributors have a certain mix of titles that they tend to maintain. If you are publishing a self-help book and the distributor you are looking into has none on their list, perhaps you can find a distributor that specializes in that genre. Contact prospective companies by phone and ask if your book topic will fit with their list. Have a conversation with the person who makes acquisitions and find out if they are willing to consider your book for distribution. I don’t know of any distribution company that will take on a book sight unseen but you can get an indication of interest far ahead of your release date. Even if your book is not yet printed, ask if you can send a colour laser print of the cover, a table of contents, introduction and sample chapter. Don’t send your whole manuscript unless it is extremely short or you are asked to do so. You should also send a copy of your promotional plan. It’s your job as publisher to promote the book to the general public and a distributor will be encouraged to know that you are prepared to work hard to help them sell it. In the end, you may get an encouraging but conditional agreement for distribution. The final go-ahead will not happen until the distributor sees the printed book.
If you’ve already published and a distributor has agreed to look at your book, send a sample copy along with any newspaper articles or a list of media that has featured your book. Include a biography of yourself, particularly if your primary career lends authority to your topic. Wait about two weeks and call to see if the acquisitions person has had time to review the book. Don’t make any assumptions if the company hasn’t called you first. It may be that your book is somewhere in a pile with a multitude of others and no one has had the time to get to it. It may mean that the book looks interesting on its own, but the acquisitions person is on the fence about it. It may have been turned down as unsuitable. It’s up to you to call back and make any arguments you can to convince the distributor that the book will sell and why.
You should sell your book to a distributor in much the same way that a sales rep pitches a new book to a bookstore buyer. You’re selling both the concept of your book and yourself. I’m always curious when I ask a person the simple question, “What is your book about?” and they are unable to tell me in one sentence. A perfect response would be: “It’s a fascinating story about a man who rowed a hand built jolly boat up the coast of British Columbia.” Be enthusiastic. You should also be very clear about the genre or category that your book falls into. Is it a business book? Outdoor adventure? A memoir? A how-to book? These are some of the key descriptions that booksellers understand – knowing how to classify your book will literally speak volumes to a re-seller on the inside of the industry. Your personality on the telephone will also have some influence since you and the distributor will have to form a strong and supportive working relationship to be really successful.
If you come to an agreement with a distribution company, you should be offered a distribution contract or something in writing that spells out the obligations of both parties. You need to know how the company operates in terms of payment and returns and whether or not there are other costs involved such as additional charges for placement in a catalogue, handling fees for returns or storage fees.
The average distribution discount in Canada is a minimum of 60% off the retail price. This news, for those who have not given prior thought to discounts, can come as a rude shock if you have priced your book without considering the margins necessary in the book business. Consider that the standard bookstore discount of 40% is taken from the 60%, leaving a gross margin of 20% for the distributor. Both booksellers and distributors require these margins to maintain their profitability – and to cover the costs of operating their businesses. Your job, before you publish, is to assess all of the costs of bringing your book to market. The real trick is to do so without over pricing a book that has no hope of selling at $29.95 when all other similar books are selling at $19.95. The hardest thing about publishing a first book is to know how to keep to a budget and whether or not a printer’s quote, for example, is a fair price. Ask lots of questions and don’t hesitate to call people in the know for advice.
Having a distributor does not mean delivering your books and simply wishing the staff well before you go back to living a normal life. Now is the time that you must get on with the job of promoting your book to the general public. In terms of sales, this is as important as writing the book. As a single title publisher, this responsibility falls on your shoulders. If you have the financial resources, you can hire a publicist, but many people are able to create their own media buzz through a planned approach. You’ll need something called a “sell sheet” which is a page that shows the cover of your book with a description and all of the information that a buyer will need to make a purchasing decision. Sell sheets will usually be required in some quantity by the distributor and are used in mail outs and presentation packages when first selling your book. Even if you are lucky enough to catch the company at a time when they can get your book into their catalogue, it is still a good idea to have a sell sheet for targeting specific customers and for your own use in mailings to the media.
And what will having a distributor really do for your book? Being represented by a distributor is, in some sense, like having a publisher – if only because it shows bookstore buyers that someone else in the industry has confidence in what you have created. It reflects a kind of professionalism in your entry into the book industry as a first time publisher. Beyond that, a distributor is keenly interested in getting your new book out into stores. For most distributors, this involves sales through a combination of newsletters and mailings, telemarketing, advertising, personal presentations to retail buyers and seasonal trade fairs in various regions of the country. Any media coverage that you and your book are about to receive should be quickly communicated to your supplier so that stores in the media coverage area can be alerted. For example, if you are going to be on a radio show and know two weeks in advance, make sure your distributor knows so bookstores can be alerted in the region where the broadcast airs. This will usually help create sales or at least an awareness of your book should someone specifically request it.
Stay in touch with your distributor so the staff knows that you are actively interested in helping them to sell your book – but don’t overdo it. People in the book industry are endlessly busy and I think phone calls should be kept to a minimum. Emailing information is helpful. One word of caution: if you have a distributor, you should support them. There is no quicker way of dimming the sales enthusiasm of a distribution company than to sell books yourself to retail customers that are serviced by your distributor. You should certainly introduce yourself to as many bookstore staff as you can so they will identify you as the author of your book. At the same time, you should encourage booksellers to marry the name of your book with your supplier so they come to know immediately where to place their re-orders. This is an invaluable kind of personal promotion that will pay off in spades over the long haul.
At the core of distribution is the concept of physically moving books to a destination in the fastest and most efficient method possible. Order entry, packing and the shipping of books are precise jobs. The margins for error are great as are the risks of damage in transit. A good distributor has all of these systems worked out to provide excellent service for their customers. Also involved is customer invoicing, inventory control, debt collection and payments to client publishers. Having a distributor perform these tasks on your behalf will save you much time and labour and eventually free your time to focus on your next bestseller.
Nancy Wise is the owner of Sandhill Book Marketing Ltd., a national distribution company established in 1984 that specializes in small press and independent publishers. She is also the co-author, with Marion Crook, of How to Self Publish and Make Money: Writing, Publishing and Selling Your Book in Canada is now out of print, but available through your local library.
Copyright April 2005 Nancy Wise
Sandhill Book Marketing Ltd