Distribution or Be Damned?

Should a publisher ever pay for shelf space in a bookstore, even if the publisher is the author?
The quick and immediate answer is absolutely not.
Take a deep breath, pause for thirty seconds while contemplating the models of business for mainstream publishing and the various opportunities and avenues for authors looking to self-publish their book. Consider how large publishers operate and market books and consider, too, how precious shelf space is to a small independent press and a self-published author even using the most professional services they can hire.
Ruminate on all that for another thirty seconds.
Now, we will ask the question again.
Should a publisher ever pay for shelf space in a bookstore, even if the publisher is the author?
The real answer is that both publisher and author already do. If anything, the mainstream publisher has no choice, but at least the small press publisher and self-published author can resign themselves to the reality of niche market, flexibility, the potential to exploit a direct social network with their customers and readers, and without the impending pressures of having to make a title pay soon after publication and move on to the next batch of titles. If anything, we are quickly learning that the savvy self-published author can become highly adept at fusing the tools of social networking, along with their own personal web presence and online sales platforms like Amazon, Scribd, Smashwords, and the Apple iBookstore.
Even if a self-published author employs professional editors and book designers—following the design, production and printing of a book—there is one fact which still sets mainstream publishers apart from their small press and self-publishing brethren. Mainstream publishers worth their salt have in place a dedicated avenue of distribution to physical stores. While an independent publishing house may not have an in-built sales distribution team like large groups like Random House, HarperCollins, Penguin or Macmillan, they will have agreed deals with national distributors who represent an array of publishers. Those distribution deals have to be paid for by the publisher. Distributors are not some form of clandestine literary charity in the publishing industry.
Some companies will be general distributors dealing with both major retailer chains and independent bookstores, and others will have particular markets or even be genre specific, for example; academic and business books; the Christian book market; gift and pocket books; children and illustrated books; foreign language books; book clubs and library editions.
What makes a distributor different to say a wholesaler is that the distributor, using a team of representatives, is actively selling books into bookstores—the wholesaler is simply a logistical centre storing and listing a catalogue of books, ready and waiting to react to a received order before shipping the product out. Distributors have skilled sales representatives who actively visit and deal with book product buyers in retail outlets, actively promoting and selling the publishers catalogue day after day.
In short, here is the adage:
Wholesalers – React
Distributors – Pro-act
…or another way…
Wholesalers – Store, list, make things available, and follow orders and ship.
Distributors – Show it, Shop it, and Sell it.
Some companies like the Ingram Group in the USA are both wholesalers and distributors, but believe me, there is a hell of a difference between a wholesale contract and a distribution contract. Most POD publishers who offer self-publishing services have wholesale contracts with Ingram. And by the way—no—even if you paid your POD publisher service $200 to get listed in the Ingram catalogue, you are still not having your book distributed by Ingram. Oh, and by the way, most of the POD publishers use Lightning Source as their choice of printer. Lightning Source is owned by the Ingram Group. Is the penny dropping now? Perhaps you understand why so many POD publishers mention the tag line – ‘your book will be available in 25,000 retailers worldwide’. It’s call getting a listing with Ingram who supplies books, via LSI POD facilities, to most major online retailers in the USA.
But guess what…
Proper distribution will not transform a bad book into being a good book, nor will it make a good book a bestseller, but what it will do is give a book the best possible chance it can have to reach the widest readership it can and earn back the initial expenditure invested by a publisher or author to get it printed and published.
The decision to self-publish for an author is entirely arbitrary—even if the decision takes into account how that author’s work is received and critiqued within their network and reading community. The decision to accept a submission and publish a book by a mainstream publisher, and even for an independent publisher, is mostly made on marketing considerations, and the potential reach and sales of a book. An independent publisher may have more leeway and be prepared to look less starkly at the thin line between profit and loss, but ultimately, their desire is like any other publisher—they want to be here tomorrow and not just today.
Are some telling porkies and selling invisible space?
Last month, Megan Garber, writing in the Nieman Journalist Lab, highlighted one store in Boulder, Colorado, USA, who have taken the bull by the horns and put it up to self-published authors. In this case, yes, the author can buy shelf space.

“They’ve paid for the privilege. The store charges its consignment authors according to a tiered fee structure: $25 simply to stock a book (five copies at a time, replenished as needed by the author for no additional fee); $75 to feature a book for at least two weeks in the “Recommended” section; and $125 to, in addition to everything else, mention the book in the store’s email newsletter, feature it on the Local Favorites page of the store’s website for at least 60 days, and enable people to buy it online for the time it’s stocked in the store.

And for $255 — essentially, the platinum package — the store will throw in an in-store reading and book-signing event.”

For a self-published author, this offer by the Boulder store might actually have its rewards if an author has a book worthy of its readership, and a readership supportive enough to attend a book signing and stump up the cash for a signed copy, and an author happy in the knowledge their book will be stocked there as long as they also stump up the cash. AuthorHouse offered a deal like this for their authors using Waterstones and Borders, as part of their publishing packages, but frankly, this really is bottom of the barrel stuff if you are attempting to equate this with any semblance of what could be called distribution.
Likewise, PublishAmerica, AuthorHouse, Dorrance, iUniverse, Xlibris,Trafford and even Lulu are now engaging in these kinds of foolhardy promotional schemes for authors. That was very apparent at this week’s London Book Fair. At least the efforts in Boulder provider a real store committed to supporting independent authors. The shack foisted upon visitors as an excuse for ‘publisher presence’, ‘bookshop’, ‘exhibition stand’, or a heavenly oasis to discover the next great literary hope for the world resembled more like a temporary halting point on the way to purgatory. I am indebted to Emily Veinglory and POD People for directing me to this footage of video (still shot below) filmed this past Monday afternoon at the London Book Fair, but above all to Peter May who made it available.

Should a publisher ever pay for shelf space in a bookstore, even if the publisher is the author?
Well, if it is your local bookstore, perhaps, but only if you believe the expense is going to be compensated by the sales you will generate. The Boulder store model is an experiment, and you may find local and regional stores willing to stock your book on consignment without an upfront fee. For the most part, real distribution costs any publisher money or a significant discount. It can be as near as impossible for a self-published author unless they have a number of titles and their own imprint and are prepared to negotiate a deal with a proven national distributor willing to take their book(s) on.
For mainstream publishers, shelf space is a racket—it always has been. The retail business in music and film operates much in the same way, except that the book industry is less willing to learn by the mistakes of an ailing music business. Every month, publishers meet with their distributor representatives, who meet with head buyers from major store chains and discuss space, units, who is paying for the marketing point-of-sale, and just how many units are coming back as returns.
Ultimately, we are all paying in some form or another, whether we are publisher, author or reader.

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