What is Distribution?

By: Jeff Herman

The term distribution can be made to rhyme with many words, but other than that it feels anti-creative. What does it have to do with being an artist? Well, even artists have to brush their teeth twice a day and attend to other hygiene requirements. Distribution may feel boring, but it's what traditional book sales depend upon. If you want to be part of the commercial process of publishing, you should understand distribution, same as you should learn Portuguese if you ever take advantage of Brazil's lack of an extradition treaty with the US.

In my experience, there are only a handful of industry insiders who truly understand distribution, and naturally enough they tend to be in the sales departments. Many editors only have a superficial understanding because they don't have to deal with it on a daily basis, or ever.

Technology has made the distribution process more efficient, but the underlying process never changes. Uh oh, I'm starting to bore myself. This is such a tedious subject. But how would you live without plumbing? OK, there are bookstores with shelves, and on those shelves are books for sale. 80% of those books are there on cosignment, meaning they can be returned without payment. This is what can kill an independent publisher that pours all its capital into creating an inventory to fulfill real orders. If the books don't get bought from the stores, they will be returned and the publisher might face financial disaster. Large houses can absorb these situations and move on.

If the book does sell, approximately 50% of the sale price will be paid to the publisher by the store, and that forms part of the publisher's gross revenues. However, the publisher can't put books on the shelves. The stores get to decide what books, and how many, to actually offer for sale. The overwhelming ratio of titles vs. shelf space means that only a minute fraction of books in print will actually be findable in a store. The stores will stock the titles that match what their customers are most likely to buy, and will dismiss what they don't think they can sell.

More than half of retail book sales are made by Barnes And Noble. There are several smaller franchises and a few thousand independently owned neighborhood stores. Amazon has a large market share of retail sales, but the same rules don't apply because they only exist as a digital retailer and don't have to maintain the same levels of physical inventory. In fact, for obscure books they often email orders to the publishers or their designated jobbers for direct fulfillment.This way, virtually every book in print, or available only in used condition, can be found on Amazon.

To keep their lives manageable, store-buyers will generally review and order books from the publishers they know and trust. They have faith in the editorial quality control; everyone understands the logistics, and they can discover more than they need in more categories than anyone can ever want. This culture creates a de facto monopoly for the handful of publishers who enjoy a self-perpetuating legacy status, and means that self-publishers or new publishers are at a distinct disadvantage.

If I see that people are actually reading this, I will follow with ways to bypass the road-backs.

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