Working with Book Distributors

Working with a distributor gives you the advantage of having your book accessible to multiple stores across the country. The costs incurred are worthwhile in the long run.

Authors who are traditionally published have an advantage in that the publisher already has connections with book distributors to get books into stores.

Self-published authors, however, will wonder whether it is worthwhile to partner with a book distributor. While there are costs involved that can bite into your take home income from book sales by reducing your profit per book, ultimately the result can be more books sold.

As self-published authors, we often hear that the advantage is we get to keep all the profit, rather than just a small percentage, such as a royalty of 5-10% with a traditional publisher. But what does “keep all the profit” really mean?

Let’s say you paid $7.00 to print your book and have it shipped to you, and you’re going to sell it for $20.00 plus your state’s sales tax. Had that book been traditionally published and you got a 10% royalty, you’d have made $2.00 a copy (remember you didn’t have any printing costs).

If you sell your self-published book directly to a customer, you get to keep all $20.00, a profit of $13.00 per book.

By contrast, if you sell through a bookstore, gift shop, or other outlet, you have to give the bookstore a percentage, typically 40%, although it can vary by store. At 40%, that means you receive back $12.00. That’s still a $5 profit and nearly a double return on your investment.

A book distributor is going to want a bigger percentage because it will resell your book to a bookstore that will want 40%. Typically, book distributors want somewhere around 55%, giving them a 15% profit. That means you would receive $9.00 for your book, leaving you with only a profit of $2.00 (10% like your royalty might have been).

On top of that, the distributor will order books from you that you have to pay to ship, and if the books do not sell, the books will be returned to you—frequently with bent or worn covers that make it difficult for you to resell them independently. In other words, you could end up with books that aren’t sellable and no money from your efforts.

So why work with a book distributor?

Because a book distributor can get your book into multiple stores across the country. An author can only do so much on his or her own. You can easily deliver books in person to stores in your area, maybe even in your state, but the costs of gas, postage, and your time quickly make it impractical to try to market your book directly to stores outside of your area. Bookstores in the neighboring state are not likely even to know about your book if you don’t tell them, and even nearby bookstores may not be able to, or may not want to, work with you as an individual.

Certain corporate bookstores such as Barnes & Noble require that all their stores order only through a book distributor rather than dealing with individual authors. Other stores may just prefer to order only from a distributor because it’s easier to pay one vendor than keep track of invoices for fifty individual authors. If you want your book in a major bookstore chain, you’ll need a distributor.

Will book distributors market your book to these stores? No, they won’t individually talk to each store about your book, but they regularly produce catalogs that will have your book listed. These catalogs go to thousands of bookstores across the country, and while your book is competing with the hundreds of other books in the catalog, or at least the few dozen in the same category as yours, your book is more likely to be seen by more decision makers in more bookstores than you could have done on your own.

Furthermore, bookstores are often leery of self-published authors because they think self-published authors may not know industry basics such as the need for an ISBN number. A book distributor will not promote a book that doesn’t meet industry standards so being in a distributor catalog lets bookstores know your book looks “professional.”

Your book is still one of hundreds in the catalog, but sometimes distributors have special catalogs, such as a regional catalog that will market your book to its target regional audience. You can also take out ads in the catalogs. Ads can cost anywhere from about $50 to a few hundred dollars, but if you get enough orders, the ad will pay for itself.

If you’re still unsure whether you should work with a book distributor, give it a try. Contracts are generally only for a year or two and most distributors will be willing to negotiate the contract somewhat.

The major distributors to choose from are Partners, Ingram, and Baker & Taylor, but smaller distributors exist that handle only specific regions or specialize in distributing specific types of books. Do a little research online and talk to your local bookstores to find out which distributors they use and what they would recommend.

Hopefully, your book will soon be in many more stores.

Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.