Will there be a need for book distributors in the age of electronic publishing?
This post will cover what distributors do now at a time when printed books still dominate book sales overall. The next post will describe the role of distributors as the industry transitions to eBooks.
For most of the forty years that book distributors have been around, our major function has been to gather together many independent publishers, thereby creating an entity that booksellers can deal with just as easily and profitably as they deal with the major publishing houses.
IPG, for instance, now actively markets about 50,000 different titles, and another 10,000 eBook titles, to consumers, wholesalers, and resellers down every viable sales channel for books. This marketing effort involves a combination of in-house and commissioned reps that adds up to a sales force of over 200 people, a plethora of sales materials, and a state of the art warehouse that turns out most orders in under 24 hours.
There is never any haggling with our customers over discount or returns because our terms of trade are clearly stated and consistently applied. Our accounts are clean and complete. Our service to our customers is as good (sometimes better) as the largest players in the book marketplace provide.
Many participants in the book business understand the important functions of distributors which I have just described. There are, however, other less obvious yet crucial benefits that distributors bring to the table. Here are three of them:
- Independent publishers are independent in more than just one sense. They are independent thinkers down to the soles of their feet, and they do not suffer received wisdom, or fools, gladly. They certainly are not in this game just for the money. The cross-grained mind set of most indie publishers is exactly why they are indispensable to our culture, and why they are often extremely interesting people. No middle of the road for them; they beat the bushes. But working with these interesting people one-on-one takes time and can therefore be expensive. Distributors cheerfully undertake this work because it is an essential part of our job. The other players in the book business are happy to leave this to us.
- In addition, there is a very large educational component to what distributors do. Good distributors offer their client publishers solid advice, all of it free, on titles, covers, print runs, publicity, business strategies, and much more. Even the most accomplished authors need editors; even the most sophisticated independent presses can benefit from informed feedback.
- And finally, the major distributors have made major investments in the technology that increasingly drives success in the book business. EDI, ASN, and ONIX metadata feeds weekly to hundreds of customers; data mining, POS information gathering and analysis; reorders generated by algorithms trolling through huge databases—these are just a few of the competencies distributors have had to master in order stay competitive with the big publishers. It is certainly no longer just the shoeshine and the smile that brings in the orders. IPG, for instance, now has an IT staff of thirteen highly-trained people working feverishly on new ways of storing, sharing, and interpreting data; and an IT budget of almost a million dollars a year. Very few independent publishers could afford anything like this level of expense, and very few would want to master a technology which is, after all, not what brought them into the book business in the first place. Yet without this sort of technical support at their backs, independent publishers are unlikely to thrive in this changing environment.
For all of these reasons distributors no longer think of themselves just as a conglomeration of publishing companies. Many of the difficult and expensive services we offer our client publishers greatly benefit our customers because these services improve the quality of the books we sell to them, and because our IT expertise makes us a profitable trading partner for them.
Distributors will continue to have an important role to play in the print book business. But will this role disappear as the book business shifts from “tree” books to eBooks? I should say not.
Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.