Bookstore Distribution—Self Publishing Dream come true or The Emperor’s New Clothes? Remember the childhood story of the Emperor who paraded around in his underwear but the royal subjects were too afraid to say anything until one day a small child blurted out “the emperor has no clothes.” Well I am a long way from being a small child but I am going to blurt out for all to hear, “Bookstore distribution is the publishing’s emperor who has no clothes.”
There is no self-publisher alive who doesn’t dream of a mailbox full of bookstore orders. This dream is probably only slightly less popular then the “wait until I get on Oprah” dream. Some time back, I was quite vocal in touting a new book distributor, Biblio. As a subsidiary of the well-established National Book Network, they represented hope for the small publisher. Also, a while back, a publisher could open an account with Ingram, a major book wholesaler, which gave them access to a variety of book retailers. That changed when Ingram changed the rules forcing small publishers to either come to them through a book distributor or use their then-struggling, POD printer, Lightning Print. Very few legitimate book distributors wanted to deal with small publishers. There was an array of “distributors” whose main goal was to make money from upfront fees and storage, not sales to bookstores. Then, along came Biblio. Biblio truly wanted to sell books to bookstores and help the small publisher. They charged a very small setup fee and their storage charges were reasonable. The word spread like hotcakes and their list of publishers grew. On the surface, it looked like a small press dream had come true. Unfortunately this dream turned into a nightmare for not only many small publishers but for Biblio as well.
One of my oldest friends, Bob Johnson, the co-author of the Publishing Basics book, had been supporting himself as a self-publisher for almost 30 years. Publishing mostly local history, Bob never had a real need for a traditional book distributor or even a wholesaler. Most of the books he sold were on a one on one basis. Bulk orders were almost always to local stores where sales could be monitored daily. Many of his books were sponsored by a single advertiser. He was a success. In short, he was a poster boy for self-publishing—a real entrepreneur.
Then came a series of books which were centered on the first book in the Bible, Genesis, and its relationship to Greek mythology and the Parthenon. Without going into too much detail, these books had very broad appeal and were perfect candidates for a “traditional” bookstore distributor. Bob goes into detail about his experiences with this distributor in another article in this newsletter but let me sum it up by saying that, with the help of this distributor, Bob was able to reprint 2 times and earned over $30,000. That’s the good news. To make a long story short, over a year later the distributor wrote Bob a letter looking for $34,000 back. There was a fat chance of that happening. (Click here to read the details of Bob’s distribution saga)
It was not long after this that Biblio basically closed their doors. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out why. To make matters worse, they didn’t just close their doors but they shipped all their books off to another distributor. News of how this is working out will be the subject of a future article, although all you need to do is join the Yahoo Self Publishing listserv and read some of the postings. It’s not pretty. If you are one of those publishers, I would love to hear from you with your experiences, good or bad.
Now let’s go back to my first paragraph where I was singing the praises of Biblio. What went wrong? I consider myself fairly intelligent and I certainly consider myself “above average” in my ability to spot scams, and once I find them, I am certainly not bashful in writing about them. Their basic structure was sound. There were low setup fees so you knew that they would need to sell books to make money. They seemed to have plenty of commissioned salespeople with the experience to sell books. A hungry salesperson is good for everyone. Their storage fees were very reasonable. I believe they were charging 1½ cents per month per book. Not bad. Again, this meant that they needed to sell books to make money. The third and perhaps the most important thing for the small publisher is they worked on a straight 60% discount. No hocus pocus or fuzzy math . . . a ten dollar book netted the author four dollars, period. So with all this going for them, what went wrong?
Their demise is the bane of the entire book industry . . . RETURNS . . . and lots of them. Everyone has read about the evils of returns at one point or another. I won’t belabor the point in this article. The whole return issue warrants an article of its own. Talk about a scam? Take the Bob Johnson experience and multiply it by 100, 200, or 300 other small publishers. It doesn’t take much imagination to see why Biblio is no more.
With no more Biblio, I thought it was time for me to re-visit the whole distribution game. I was helping almost a thousand authors per year become publishers. Everyone thinks they want distribution but, at the end of the day, all they really want is to be listed with a wholesaler that can access retailers.
I used to be high on Baker & Taylor but, according to everything I read, they are a giant can of worms, not made for the weak of heart. While they have been around for years and will deal with small publishers, for a price, most of what I read is bad, all the way from customer service to payment. This left all roads pointing back to Ingram.
In my infinite wisdom, I thought that maybe I could work something out where I could become a limited distributor for the sole purpose of having books listed with Ingram. I already had POD access to Ingram through my Thor program but that was, at best, a very basic, entry level program that did not work for most of my authors. I felt that they needed the real thing. Obviously, I wanted to avoid the Biblio mistake of paying out, before books were returned. It seemed like the answer would be easy. No money would be paid to the author until after the last date of return had passed. If that date was 6 months, it was 6 months. If it was a year, it was a year. When I contacted Ingram, they were more than willing to set me up as a distributor. I had more than enough titles and those titles would surpass any minimums Ingram would impose. Luckily, I bounced my payment idea off the Ingram rep. I can still hear him laughing.
If I wanted to hold money until after the last day that books could be returned, I would never pay my authors a cent. Why? Books are returnable FOREVER. What kind of crazy system is that? Well it is what it is . . . Bookstores pay their bills to Ingram with returns. Ingram pays their distributors with returns. In short, if any real money changes hands, it is not by design. It’s a giant scam. No wonder the big publishers are in such sad shape. This system is total nonsense. As a small publisher, let me tell you this: You do not need bookstore sales under these conditions. You can’t afford it. The Bookstore Distribution Emperor truly has no clothes. Stop wasting your time and energy looking for someone who can waste your money for you. You are more than qualified to do that on your own. One book . . . One twenty dollar bill . . . Two books . . . two twenty dollar bills. That’s how the self-publisher becomes successful.