Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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June 17, 2024

Book Distribution 101 for Writers

by Lisa Norman

group of women reading books in front of boxes of books

There's a secret power in the traditional book world, a cohort of people who determine the success or failure of published books. And most authors don't even know they exist.

As a small indie publisher, I've been told that if I truly want to succeed, if I want to play with the big kids, I need to gain the favor of a book distributor. This starts not with a great book, but with a profit and loss statement and a marketing plan.

Authors generally don't consider distributors in their writing business, and many don't understand what these companies even do.

With the sudden collapse of Small Press Distribution (SPD), the title of distributor has been in the news. How could this company so many authors didn't even know existed disappear, taking author royalties with them?

What is a book distributor?

I was surprised to learn that Amazon and Ingram Spark are not distributors. These are wholesale fulfillment centers. Yes, they provide "book distribution" but this is not the same as being a distributor. In an industry where words matter, this tiny difference has a huge impact.

A book distributor is a centralized company that sells books from many different publishers. (Yes, even the Big 5 use distributors, although they generally have their own in-house and support other smaller publishers.) Each book can only be purchased from one distributor. This means that if a book is put on Amazon, it is put up BY the distributor, not by the publisher. All sales, barring special circumstances, must go through the distributor. The distributor gets the money and sends the publisher a portion of the profits.

Compare this to the way that indie authors and indie publishers work: putting their books up on Amazon, Ingram, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, etc. Every month, they receive sales reports from each of those vendors and the vendors send the profit to the publisher/author.

Depending on the distributor, the reports that the publishers receive may be an aggregate, which makes their reporting and royalty distribution to their authors much simpler, but also means that they don’t have as much raw data as indies do.

A distributor works with printers and warehouses books. They manage fulfillment and logistics. The logistics of the book industry are extensive, encompassing a global market of paper shortages, printing costs, resources, and retail spaces. Printed books are sold to bookstores as returnable commodities, with 10-20% loss being considered good. 50% loss is not uncommon. (By loss, we mean destroyed, pulped, thrown away.)

The Secret Sauce

But the key feature of a distributor is that they have an on-staff marketing department. That marketing department is made up of sales representatives with connections. Very special connections with book buyers.

Bookstores want the ease of working with a sales representative that they know. They want the very favorable terms they have negotiated with these distributors, knowing that books will be available when needed, and knowing that someone has researched the marketability of the books that they're offering.

Distributors receive a percentage of the profit from any book sale.

How distribution affects book sales

Distributors can't market every book the same. They have to pick and choose based on the sellability and the promise of a book.

Note that each publisher should only have a distribution relationship with one distributor. In order to be accepted by that distributor, the publisher’s catalog needs to be of a proven level. In other words, the distributors do have the ability to limit the types of books they work with, creating a situation where some marginalized voices can not be adequately represented through the distribution network. (I want to point out that there has been a lot of work done in this area recently and that work is ongoing.)

Publishers can't afford to market all books the same. They choose the ones they're going to invest most highly into, and those are the ones the distributors push.

Imagine you own a bookstore. An author comes in off the street and asks you to carry their book. That author generally isn't offering you 50-60% of the profit OR the ability to return the book if it doesn't sell. Now imagine your friendly distribution agent contacts you and tells you that a publisher is about to drop a lot of money on an advertising campaign for a book. Early sales predictions are off the chart. They'll send you a case of them, you pay for them if they sell, and you keep that healthy profit.

Who would you buy from?

Why I think authors need to understand distribution

I admit it, my approach to distribution is along the same lines as “know thy enemy.”

As a small indie publisher, I have chosen not to work with a distributor. If I *had* been working with one, SPD would probably have been the one I’d’ve been working with. So yay for missing out on that mess!

Indie authors and small publishers generally don’t have access to distributors. Even some traditional authors may not have been chosen by their publisher’s distributor as “the next hot thing.” So what can authors do to help book sellers connect with our books? Or should we go directly to readers?

With the closing of SPD, more and more small presses are experimenting with creating their own distribution networks. Perhaps indie authors will join them in innovation.

TikTok has been the darling of the industry, driving readers to ask for books, creating a demand that is even more powerful than what the distributors have built.

If we’re going to win at the marketing game, we need to understand how the industry works. Maybe simply so that we know how best to disrupt it.

Do you work with a publisher who uses a distributor? Were you affected by the closing of SPD? Have you encountered situations in the industry that may have been related to having or not having a distributor?

* * * * * *

About Lisa

head shot of smiling Lisa Norman

Lisa Norman's passion has been writing since she could hold a pencil. While that is a cliché, she is unique in that her first novel was written on gum wrappers. As a young woman, she learned to program and discovered she has a talent for helping people and computers learn to work together and play nice. When she's not playing with her daughter, writing, or designing for the web, she can be found wandering the local beaches.

Lisa writes as Deleyna Marr and is the owner of Deleyna's Dynamic Designs, a web development company focused on helping writers, and Heart Ally Books, LLC, an indie publishing firm.

Interested in learning more from Lisa? Sign up for her newsletter or check out her classroom where she teaches social media, organization, technical skills, and marketing for authors!

Top image from Depositphotos.

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13 comments on “Book Distribution 101 for Writers”

  1. Well, thank you, and thank you - for informative and trustworthy insight. I have not published or sought to publish yet, but I have to admit I remain suspicious of the process and 'biggies' ... so much so that I do not strive to publish traditionally. Publishing, like so many things, seems to be the familiar game of who knows who (IMHO), and that's not a game I tend to be interested in - although we must all play on some level.

    by the way, do I sense a rebellion in the making? [smile]

    1. You absolutely sense rebellion! But at the same time, I think it is important for independent authors to understand this. So many authors go into bookstores not knowing how books get there and this can cause awkward moments with book sellers.

      Understanding how these things work help us figure out how to succeed in the industry. We have to know how it works in order to play the game well.

  2. Oh my gosh, Lisa. I've known about distributors for quite some time but like you, I thought of Ingram Spark as a distributor. Thank you for setting me straight. This is shifting my view on how to market my books. SIGH. Always learning and always shifting-a blessing and curse of this industry.

    1. That's it exactly! We're told they are a distributor, and Ingram does run a huge distribution company, but Spark is just a wholesale fulfillment company.

      Bookstores *can* buy your book in the same order as the place with Ingram (distributor) but they won't know to order it there or that is exists.

      And if you aren't playing the game as the stores expect (55% discount, allowed returns) then they aren't likely to buy it anyway.

      Even if you pay to have Spark list your book in their catalog (marketing) you aren't getting the sales force component.

      You can do all of that and still not sell to bookstores.

      But if you know that... You can do all the things AND mobilize your fans to talk to bookstores and libraries. We can add that distribution component to our own process and get the sales boost of selling to bookstores, libraries, etc.

      First time authors often have very uncomfortable discussions with bookstore owners. It is a rare store owner that isn't burned out on these discussions so badly that they barely talk to writers.

      I was stunned when I learned this (many years ago) and fresh off a publishing conference last month, I was struck by how many writers haven't heard it.

      In an industry focused on words, distribution and distributor are so similar, it makes sense to read them as the same thing... But that similarity hides a difference that makes a huge difference in book sales!

    1. Hi, Kathleen! It is in a lot of ways, and I can tell you that most of what I do is focused on changing these odds in favor of authors.

      I'll give you some insight. The #1 challenge affecting every publisher (from the big 5 right down to every individual indie author) is the *same*: Book Discoverability. This is an industry term that means: can the ideal reader find the book and are they motivated to buy it. In sales, they talk about "conversion" - the actual moment of a sale. But in our industry, we have different levels of conversion: from sales, to getting them to read it, to getting them to become super-fans so that they talk about it. The heart is: how do we get readers to learn about a book. And that is HARD. Bookstores and libraries are one way people learn about books, but they aren't the only ways.

      Having a distributor with a sales force dedicated to YOUR book - that's power, and that's where we see the huge sales numbers. But as indies, we're a lot more focused on our fans than SOME traditional authors. And fans can be our sales force. If our fans go and ask librarians often enough to buy a book, they WILL go and buy it... provided we have it available from somewhere OTHER than Amazon. Libraries will buy from Amazon only as a last resort. Remember: they want that discount. They are working on limited funds. And bookstores will NOT buy from Amazon. They're not going to feed the competition if there is any way they can avoid it.

      We take this information and we use it to our advantage. We make our books available at a discount to book sellers. Maybe we go and have intelligent one-on-one discussions (can even be on the phone) with book sellers. We think about who wants to buy our book and we don't approach bookstores that don't stock that type of book. Bookstores have a focus. Learn the ones that match your book. Approach those bookstores and offer them one or two books on consignment (where they don't pay until it sells) and give them a VERY favorable discount.

      This means that we need to set the retail price of our books high enough that we can offer that 55% discount and still make SOME profit.

      Think about what the bookstore owner needs to know: that you will be doing your part to sell the book through marketing, your own fans, etc.

      For some authors, it might mean forming a cooperative of like-genre authors who can share the marketing aspect. They can each pitch not only their own books, but each other's. Let's say you have a set of 5 books that sell well together. You sort out the logistics (get the books in advance) and then you contact book sellers and let them know you'll be doing a marketing push (give them details to prove you know what you are doing) and that you want to be able to drive your fans to their store. Now be careful: don't make a false promise because that *will* bite you and close that door not only for you, but for other authors. If you ever encounter a book shop buyer who is actively hostile to authors... this is why.

      Imagine a writing group that sits down and says, "what are our strengths in these areas?" And you learn that one person is good at accounting, another is good with people. Another is a crazy brainstormer who comes up with great promo. You start learning to work together and you build your own distribution network. Maybe Jane has an empty closet that you fill with books. Then Mary calls around and gets bookstores to buy them from you. Jane's husband Fred packages and ships them out. Alice is an accountant and takes care of all of the ugliness that goes into this process and makes sure everyone gets paid. That is *one* way authors could use this. Maybe Mary makes friends with a Barnes & Noble book buyer. She gets them to take a chance on the group's "catalog" (bunch o' books) and then everyone pitches in to get their fans to go and buy those books - using marketing to HELP the bookstore sell books. Now Mary has a valuable connection who is motivated to work with Mary and future books from the group will be seen more favorably.

      This is HARD, complex work. And many authors won't want to do it. That's fine.

      Or maybe this is just insight into the need to build a fandom even before the book is out... so that you *have* motivated fans (aka street team) that you can ask to go into all of their libraries and ask for the book.

      Alternatively, you may decide that the system is rigged and you'll focus your entire efforts on selling direct to readers. Because THAT is a powerful solution as well.

      This is knowledge. What each author does with it will be different. My hope is that having the understanding will help empower authors to come up with new and creative ways to connect with readers and book sellers. And - on a more personal level - I'm hoping it will help cut down on some of the book buyer bridges that authors burn each day...

    1. Nope. Wholesale fulfillment. They're missing the sales force piece. Are they doing print again? I think so? If I remember right they were going to connect with Ingram, but I may be wrong on that... But I don't think they do warehousing. They're print on demand (which I adore, BTW).

      So they're a piece of the puzzle, but there are still bits missing. Can you set up to send books at a wholesale price to bookstores? Or would you need to do that yourself?

  3. Wow! You always blow my mind with things I've never even known I was supposed to know about!

    Okay. Great information. Now I have a more informed way to look at book distribution.

    Thanks, Lisa! You're the best!

    1. Hugs, Sally! I think as indies we focus on direct-to-consumer -- which is HUGE. It is interesting to see larger publishers saying that maybe they should be doing more in that area.

      It feels like there's always more to learn in this industry. And I'm always looking for ways to help indies be even more successful. At the conference, I was told that the difference in sales numbers with distribution was 10x what you'd get without it. I'm not sure I trust that person's numbers.

      This isn't trust but verify. This is verify, verify again, and then maybe consider. (grin)

  4. I'm late to the game, but I had to return and reread this. I had no idea, as you've noted most of us don't, and it's mind blowing. Thank you for enlightening us, once again!

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