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    Want Your Self-Published Book in Stores? Weigh the Options

    by Carla King
    June 10, 2010
    The old world of book distribution is changing

    The rise of online book retailers means that self-publishers have better access to customers than ever. But many authors still want to be on bookstore shelves. The good news is that you don’t really need traditional distribution to get into bookstores.

    Big distribution companies have not been eager to work with self-publishers, but that's changing."

    The Databases

    With your ISBN and bar code from Bowker in hand (read my previous post that told you how to get control of your own ISBN), it’s time to register your title and your contact information in their Books In Print and Global Books In Print databases. Registering with BowkerLink is the first step to enabling the industry to discover your book, and it’s free.

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    Ingram is the largest book wholesaler and distributor in the world and if your book is not listed in their ipage ordering system, it’s simply invisible to booksellers. You must have 10 titles a year to be accepted into their program, but this article shows you three ways to get in through the back door.:

    1. Create a relationship with a traditional distributor whose titles are listed with Ingram, and send them an inventory of offset-print books.
    2. Print your book on-demand with the Ingram-owned company Lightning Source, and you’re automatically in.
    3. Use a self-publishing services company to list your book with Ingram.

    No matter whom you distribute with, a 55 percent discount is standard. (You can offer less, but expect few takers.) When calculating your profit margin, factor in printing, shipping, postage, returns and start-up costs like editing and design — all the costs of doing business. Don’t forget ongoing costs like marketing and publicity, giveaways, promotion and accounting. Direct sales is certainly more lucrative than traditional distribution and you give that up when you sign an exclusive distribution deal. So why bother?

    Traditional Print Book Distribution

    In traditional distribution you (the publisher) prints a large number of books with an offset printer. The books are sent to a distributor who wants to sell mass quantities of your book to wholesalers and retailers.

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    Unfortunately, your book isn’t really sold until it’s bought by a consumer, so when — not if — your books are returned (a sad fact about the industry), the distributor then returns them to you.

    i-83000b2356008039927b013499c78573-distributors.jpg

    The well-respected Independent Publishers Group has a new branch called Small Press United (SPU) and, if you’re one of the fewer than 20 percent accepted into their program, they will present your book to resellers next to offerings from the mainstream press. Also consider Publishers Group West (PGW) and Baker & Taylor (B&T), the most important distributor to the library market.

    Big distribution companies have not been eager to work with self-publishers, but that’s changing. Still, it’s easiest to get in through membership in the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) or the Small Publishers Association of North America (SPAN). Both are worthwhile organizations for self-publishers thanks to their seminars, advice, discounts, and community.

    But don’t rule out a smaller distributor who specializes in your niche or genre, especially if you need help with design, editing, e-book conversion, and other tasks in order to publish your book. They may be more dedicated and more effective in providing you with personalized service over the years. As with the self-publishing services companies, you pay these distributors; but since they must maintain a good reputation with booksellers, they carefully vet their authors. Check out IPBA’s Distributor/Wholesaler Directory and this list of Top Independent Book Distributors to start.

    The downside? You relinquish the opportunity to sell your print book and your e-book direct to the consumer. Measure that benefit against the potential benefits of having hired a sales force, paired with your ongoing promotion efforts, to make your decision to go this route.

    POD Distribution With Lightning Source

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    The newer print-on-demand distribution model works like this: If a brick-and-mortar bookstore customer asks for your book, the bookseller finds it in the ipage Ingram database and places an order. Lightning Source prints it and sends it to the store, where the customer picks it up.

    These days, customers are more likely to order from an online reseller, which cuts out the middle step. In this model, the customer orders a book from the online reseller, who sends the request to Lightning Source, who mails the book directly to the customer on the reseller’s behalf.

    Along with many other advantages, there are fewer returns because booksellers don’t have to order several and wait to see if they sell. You don’t have to worry about returns with print-on-demand.

    POD Distribution With a Self-Publishing Firm

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    Even the most basic, do-it-yourself self-publishing services companies — think Lulu, CreateSpace and Wordclay — offer services that includes an Ingram database listing for your book in your publishing company name. But since booksellers are definitely not flocking to what they consider the vanity presses in order to stock their shelves, make sure the publishing house name on the spine is your own. (See my previous article, The Pitfalls of Using Self-Publishing Book Packages.) They may — invisibly to you and the customer — use Lightning Source or another POD subcontractor to print and send it, which is fine, but realize you’re paying a little more for this service.

    A Middle Path

    Before you seek out traditional distribution, you might ask yourself if you really need it. Many authors are more easily served by direct sales and POD distribution of print and e-books. Think of these options, for example:

    1. Using your website for direct sales via an online store.
    2. Back-of-room sales at personal appearances.
    3. Consignment deals with local booksellers and retailers in your niche.
    4. Using Lightning Source for both printed books and PDF-formatted e-books sold to stores and online retailers in U.S., Canada and Europe.
    5. Using Smashwords and Scribd for e-book sales in many formats for many e-readers (See my previous article for details on How to Pair Scribd and Smashwords for an Ideal E-book Strategy.)
    i-cb0a230f519067aac1c45cb16ac67d65-smashwordsscribd-thumb-100x64-1889.jpg

    You may be one of the many authors who missed the news that you can get into the Ingram database by printing on-demand with Lightning Source, or the newer news that self-publishing services companies now include this in their packages, too. (Yes, do keep looking for even newer news in this quickly evolving industry.) But do not miss the fact that you are responsible for the marketing and promotion that will create a buzz and sell your book.

    The defining fact about traditional distributors is that they vet their work, whereas POD services companies will print and distribute almost anything. A traditional distributor will have opinions. Their reputation is on the line and they want to work with like-minded independent publishers dedicated to success. You should consider them a partner. Until then, an on-demand distribution solution should suffice.

    Carla King is a publishing and social media strategist and co-author of the Self-Publishing Boot Camp Workbook, which grew out of experiences leading workshops for prospective self-publishers. She has self-published non-fiction travel and how-to books since 1994. Her series of dispatches from motorcycle misadventures around the world are available as print books, e-books and on her website.

    Tagged: book publishing bowker lightning source lulu print-on-demand self-publishing
    • Great post Carla, thanks for sharing. Print on demand services are indeed a great way to democratize the publishing process while keeping the publisher costs down. I have written a guide on self-publishing tools some time ago that your readers might find useful. I would humbly share here the link if you allow me: http://bit.ly/cer44h

    • Carla King

      Thank you Daniele,
      That’s a nice list of self-publishing services companies you have on your site. It’s great to see comments and pricing on one page. Note that BookSurge is no longer — Amazon dumped it — uh… merged it with their DIY publishing tool CreateSpace. Don’t feel bad; even Writers Digest can’t keep the updates correct on their directory. http://www.writersdigest.com/article/directory-of-self-publishing-companies/.

    • Terrific roundup of choices, Carla, thanks for that. This certainly is the most challenging area of all for self-publishers, many of whom are learning for the first time what “distribution” really means. With your links and overview, they should at least be able to start researching their options.

    • Carla,

      Great article! You clearly and concisely cover the many publishing options.

      Your readers may be interested in investigating the SPANnet Online Community for authors and publishers. The community, at http://www.spannet.org, is free to join and has book production and marketing articles, an FAQ on publishing, and ever changing user generated content on industry topics.

      Thanks again for mentioning SPAN.

      Scott Flora
      SPAN Executive Director

    • Carla, as you say, “customers are more likely to order from an online reseller.” For this reason, setting a 55% discount for a Lightning Source book is just giving away money. Self publishers can double their profit simply by setting a 20% “short” discount. I discuss this thoroughly in my book “POD for Profit,” on working with Lightning Source (which I’ve been doing for over a decade).

      Also, a small quibble: Lightning Source does not send books directly to the reseller’s customer, but Ingram does. For example, Amazon orders directly from Lightning Source to obtain books for stock. But if the book is out of stock at Amazon when an order is placed, it orders the book from Ingram for drop shipping. Ingram then orders the book from Lightning, which delivers it to Ingram within a few hours.

    • Carla King

      Hi Aaron,

      Thanks for filling in some details. My focus for readers here is distribution to bookstores and online retailers, who do insist upon that magic 55% discount. Certainly that’s not the case when an author/publisher sells direct to the consumer, which can be a much better route for most self-published authors.

      Lightning Source is owned by Ingram, yes, and some operations between them are of course expected. I didn’t feel the need to over-complicate but thanks for filling in that blank. Wow, as you know, we could we go on and on about ownerships, partnerships, alliances, affiliations, and etc.

      Thanks,
      Carla

    • Carla, great article.

      “Unfortunately, your book isn’t really sold until it’s bought by a consumer, so when — not if — your books are returned (a sad fact about the industry), the distributor then returns them to you.”,

      Returnable programs are something in recent years POD services have used as another add-on service to charge to self-publishing authors – sometimes charging from $400 – $900 for the privilege.

      I’ve never understood the purpose of reeling self-published authors into such returnable programs – simply because it goes against the whole philosophy and strategy of print on demand when it was introduced as part of print/fulfillment in 1999. The core of the POD print model is that a book is only printed when it is actually sold to a customer.

      Allowing returns to booksellers (particularly large chains) is what has lumbered all the risk on publishers and allowed retailers to become kings in the publishing industry. In many cases returns can account for 40% – 50% of a titles print run. I can only think of the fresh food and dairy industry who adopt such methods of returns.

      We might ask, -since when did a book have the same shelf life as a pint of milk?

    • Carla, great article.

      “Unfortunately, your book isn’t really sold until it’s bought by a consumer, so when — not if — your books are returned (a sad fact about the industry), the distributor then returns them to you.”,

      Returnable programs are something in recent years POD services have used as another add-on service to charge to self-publishing authors – sometimes charging from $400 – $900 for the privilege.

      I’ve never understood the purpose of reeling self-published authors into such returnable programs – simply because it goes against the whole philosophy and strategy of print on demand when it was introduced as part of print/fulfillment in 1999. The core of the POD print model is that a book is only printed when it is actually sold to a customer.

      Allowing returns to booksellers (particularly large chains) is what has lumbered all the risk on publishers and allowed retailers to become kings in the publishing industry. In many cases returns can account for 40% – 50% of a titles print run. I can only think of the fresh food and dairy industry who adopt such methods of returns.

      We might ask, -since when did a book have the same shelf life as a pint of milk?

    • @Mick Rooney, I agree returns are the bane of the publishing industry. However, the simple truth is, if you are selling to bookstores, allowing returns is a very big influence on whether or not they will order your books. I don’t allow across-the-board returns on all books, but sometimes I will do so with a particular title.

      And it’s not “reeling in” an author when that author wants to hit that particular market. If the author wants to take that risk, and the risk is explained thoroughly to the author, why not let the author make the decision as to whether or not it is worth it?

      As to going against the philosophy of POD, realistically you have to accept that most booksellers do NOT accept that philosophy, no matter how much sense it makes. Their minds are stuck in the old days when book returns were expected and accepted.

      It is bothersome and annoying, but it is a fact.

    • Carla King

      @Mick and @Tony, thank you for your acute observations. I have an observation, completely unscientific.

      My book American Borders has long been offered by a traditional distributor (IPG’s SPU) who sells the stock of a frightning number of offset print books I sent them.

      It’s also being sold on Amazon via a POD deal with Lightning Source. So far I’ve never had a book returned by Amazon, but I’ve had many returned by bookstores to my distributor (who graciously resells them if they’re in good shape, i.e., not “hurt” books).

      Observation 1:
      My distributor hand sells my book to a bookstore, or the store buyer chooses my book from the catalog, in either case “buying” five or so and then returning the ones that haven’t sold after a while. We all know this happens a lot and my check (or no check) with my statement proves it.

      Observation 2:
      The new the on-demand model scenario cuts out the chance-taking bookstore buyer altogether: An Amazon customer demands my book whereupon it is printed by Lightning Source and delivered to the customer. In fact, a bookstore clerk can order the book from a bookstore at the request of a customer who comes back to pick it up. (Some people still actually like to do that, I hear.)

      Conclusion:
      When an author-publisher uses POD, that terrible ego-crushing returns statement doesn’t happen all that often.

      Call for corroboration:
      I’d be appreciative of any other brilliant theories or, even better, hard data.

    • You’re absolutely right about POD dropping the number of returns, but I have a story that happened just a couple of weeks ago.

      One of my authors went to a bookstore to set up a signing. She has been there for many signings before, with a different publisher. The manager said he would gladly order several copies, then looked up the ISBN. “Oh… it’s POD. We can’t order more than six in that case.”

      The author replied, “Yes, but it’s returnable.”

      “We still can’t order more than six. Company policy.”

      This was a commercially-published novel by an experienced and well-known author, and returnable through the distributor, Ingram. The only difference between this novel and previous books written by this author was that this particular book was POD. Why do booksellers seem to think that POD equates with shoddy? POD is just a printing method, for goodness sake! Amazon and B&N.COM don’t give a rat’s rear end how the book was printed.

      And… another thing… I hear time and time again how we should support the independent booksellers. All well and good, but when is the independent bookseller going to start supporting the small press by not expecting the same sort of financial setup that they can be given by Simon and Schuster?

      Sure, it’s a business, but if all I think about is the bottom line, I’ll focus my activity on Amazon, B&N.COM, and other online retailers, and forget about brick and mortar altogether because, quite frankly, I can make more money that way.

    • Carla King

      Yep, a prominent indie bookstore in Marin, CA apparently phoned all the authors who had books on consignment and said come pick them up. (I got the call, too, as I consigned books to them before my distribution deal.) Plus indie authors have told me that they’re now charging something like $400 or $500 to do a book reading. I hardly know what to say… they used to be so incredibly supportive. I join you in turning my attention to the much more supportive online resellers.

    • Ms. King, I read your article with great interest. I am a self-published author who has POD distribution; however, I have had no luck in getting my book into bookstores. If you have any suggestions and/or links to further help in this process, I would greatly appreciate it.

      Thank you.

      Julie Bergman, author of Deadly Vengeance
      http://www.juliebergman.net

    • Carla King

      Well darn, I guess I fell down on the job. Is it that buried? Get a distributor via SPAN, PGW, to IPG, or via any number of smaller distribution houses. Links are in the article under Traditional Book Distribution.

      But the better question is, why do you want to get your book in bookstores? Do you think you’ll make better sales? I can almost guarantee that you won’t. Best to do more online marketing, join and contribute to communities, do much more ongoing promotion. Sell from your own website, via amazon, and other places on the web.

      Best of luck!

    • >> My focus for readers here is distribution to bookstores and online retailers, who do insist upon that magic 55% discount.< <

      It's wrong to lump together bookstores and online retailers. They are very different.

      Online booksellers including Amazon, B&N, Target, and dozens of others worldwide gladly accept 20% -- or even less when they offer discounts to consumers.
      Independent Self-Publishers Alliance, http://www.independentselfpublishers.org

    • Now you have me wondering, does SPU give online retailers that 55% discount for my book or do they negotiate? I believe they auto-give 55% just like the bookstores, but will try to check that out.

      At any rate, I know they take that much and more from “me,” which is the price I pay for having a distributor and more volume.

      Direct sales from author (publisher) to store always gives the highest return, but often the lowest volume since authors can rarely sustain the sales effort that distributors provide.

    • About the question, “Why can’t I get my book into brick-and-mortar bookstores?”

      Here is part of the answer, at least. I surveyed bookstores as part of a presentation for a writers’ conference. I called a variety of bookstores, from small independents to large chains, and asked them, “How many titles do you carry, in stock and on your shelves?” Some of the large chain stores refused to answer the question, but I got enough data to say that, on average, the smaller independent bookstore will stock somewhere around 5,000 or 6,000 titles. The larger independent (such as The Tattered Cover in Denver) or a chain like Barnes & Noble, may have from 85,000 to 130,000 titles in stock and on the shelves.

      Do the math: There are thousands of titles that are considered “stock” items, that will almost always be on the shelves–things like classic literature, perennial non-fiction favorites like “What Color Is Your Parachute?” and so forth. Let’s be conservative and say that these titles might comprise 10% of the store’s stock.

      Also, there are books that continue to sell well–solid backlist titles in series that are popular, like the Louis L’Amour titles, the Star Trek and Star Wars adaptations, and Harlequin romances. These are probably at least 30% of the average store’s stock.

      If the book carries children’s books, don’t forget all those kids’ titles, whether picture books or chapter books, and of course the crossover books like Harry Potter or the Eregon books. These also take up shelf and floor space.

      Let’s be conservative again, and say that the storefront bookstore has about 40% of their shelf space that is available for new titles each year, then.

      WIth the tremendous increase in self-publishing, subsidy-publishing, and small-press titles, along with all the usual players, the number of new titles published each year has grown astronomically. There were, according to Bowker, almost 300,000 new titles and editions published in 2009.

      The average brick-and-mortar store could not hold even ONE copy of each new title published last year, much less all the perennial favorites and classics. So, the competition for shelf space is fierce. But Amazon, Barnes & Noble online, and other such internet stores don’t have to maintain a storefront, so they can do what the regular brick-and-mortar store cannot: effectively carry a copy of almost every book actively in print, much less the books that are on the bestseller lists or the “must stock this” list.

      To be blunt, the unknown or newbie author, and especially one who self-publishes, must be realistic and (at least at first) be content with whatever online sales channels they can find. Anything above and beyond that is gravy and by the grace of the bookselling gods.

    • Carla King

      Great research, Tony! And well put. So many new authors overestimate the importance of being in brick-and-mortar bookstores. Best to concentrate marketing, sales and promo efforts online.

    • PicPak

      The profit from traditional publishers is minuscual compared to self-publishing. The traditional publisher expects you to promote on radio, television and in print. Since you must do this anyway, why not do it for yourself, especially if your book fits a nitch market. The only draw back with self-publishing is book-returns and shelf space in brick and mortar stores. I’ve found that more and more people enjoy the convenience of shopping with major booksellers online.

    • Paulo Sousa

      Hello,
      We are about to launch our new platform for authors create their book.
      We will have our marketplace, but we also need to learn about wide distribution.

      Is that something you guys do?
      We need to distribute to Ingram, Amazon, Apple, B&N and any other available company that takes book for distribution.

      Best regards
      Paulo Sousa

    • Jason Hunter

      First I’d like to say thank you for the insight and thoughts you offer to us who are getting started and those in the early years of their writing careers!

      I would appreciate any thoughts, advice, or concerns on the following.

      I intended to write until I die. I am about to publish the first book of a series on Christian life development that will eventually cover nearly every aspect of life. I trust in word of mouth and that God wants to accomplish something significant through what He has placed in my heart to write, and I don’t want to get bogged down with contractual limitations.

      I intend to have a website through which hardbacks and ebooks will be available. I will be using my own ISBNs. I am leaning toward creating a DBA publishing name and buying hardbacks through a Chinese printing company. However, am considering using Createspace/Amazon and Ingram Spark to offer paperbacks only (no ebooks) to help jump-start word of mouth. I was also considering printing a 10% off retail price coupon code within each book, redeemable through future purchases on my website–obviously directing people to a sales channel more profitable to me.

      My questions–knowing that you’re not a lawyer, but simply far more knowledgeable and experienced:

      1) General thoughts, concerns, flaws, or potential contractual issues I might be missing (including contractual pricing issues, considering they would be offering a different print version, paper vs hard)?

      2) Would you know a similarly cost effective way/company that I could streamline the website order process to have the book mailed directly to the customer? (I gross 17K a year part time, so profit margin is a necessary consideration so I can devote more time to writing.)

      Thank you for any of your time, consideration, or thoughts. God bless! :)

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