What are the choices? You can do all the distribution yourself, employ a distributor or use a combination of both. Either way, there are cost implications that will make a difference financially but you also need to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of the options. Part of the planning will be whether you want to distribute locally, regionally or interstate.
Self-distribution also involves getting the books to the booksellers.
We’re sure that having an experienced distributor in Western Australia was a very significant factor in the book’s early success. We did our own distribution locally to home but our distributor pitched the book to a wide range of booksellers in the rest of the state, outlets that we could not possibly have reached ourselves.
The first job is making a list of possible outlets for your book and contacting each one to arrange a meeting or phone conversation, doing a sales pitch and discussing financial details such as the cost to them, the percentage they will take from sales and the arrangements for orders. You may want to negotiate on the percentage the bookseller will take or whether you will accept orders on a sale or return basis (‘consignment’). If you haven’t done this kind of work before, the range of potential outlets might not be immediately obvious but if you think about the kind of readers who might be interested, other outlets might be added to your list. For example, if the setting is a particular place or region, then tourism outlets might take some copies to see how they sell.
Self-distribution also means delivering or arranging delivery. That could mean anything from hand-delivering a few books to your local bookshop to packing boxes and arranging interstate transport. You can plan to do a regular delivery by car around your own region but sales can vary widely from month to month and aren’t always predictable. If a bookshop 25kms away gets in touch on Wednesday to say they’ve just sold out and would like another three copies in time for the weekend, but there are no other re-orders for that area, you’ll have to decide whether or not to deliver without fully covering your travel costs from the sale.
We always made those special car journeys whenever we could, thankful for the shop selling the books and the readers buying them, and aware that goodwill builds and grows and tends to come back at you later in unexpected ways. Each person who buys one book can also be the starting point for many other sales. Booksellers can make such a difference by promoting your book to their customers so it works both ways. If asked for a recommendation, they might suggest your book. They might display it with a sticker on the cover: ‘Staff favourite’, ‘Our bestsellers’, ‘Signed copy’. If they are re-ordering, even in small numbers, they are supporting and marketing your book.
What do I need to think about?
It might be a quick discussion or even just an email exchange but the person who makes decisions about orders isn’t always someone who works in the shop so make the first contact in advance and arrange a time to meet. Decide before you arrive what your range is for agreement on the price to the bookseller and know whether you will negotiate or not if pressed.
Tip: be aware that you might be asked for a free ‘shop copy’.
Be clear about your principles on selling to multiple outlets in the same town and think about what you can do to help booksellers. You can offer to do a book signing, especially if they think your book might be popular as a gift at certain times of year. Don’t expect booksellers to create marketing resources for you. Offer them what you can within your budget and your skills, such as A4 and A3 posters they can display in different ways. This relationship is critical in getting your book to its readers, for every outlet who supports you.
You’ll grow in confidence as more retailers want to stock the book. If you don’t hear from them for re-orders, it doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t like your book or it’s not selling. They will have many individual suppliers and are very busy. Without becoming pestering, follow up at regular intervals to check whether retailers need more books from you.
Tip: don’t just call in without notice if you can avoid it as the person who makes purchasing decisions won’t always be available.
Tip: think about the differences between outlets because every sales pitch won’t be exactly the same.
Tip: always carry a box of books in your car.
Using a distributor
A distributor will have an established list of retail outlets and will visit them on a regular basis to deliver books ordered and also to promote new books available for order. This means a distributor will probably reach far more booksellers than you can alone and across a greater region. Large distributors work Australia-wide and others only within their own state. A distributor might not agree to add your book to their list. If they think it will sell, they will discuss terms with you and your agreement will include the percentage of each sale the distributor will take as payment. It will be up to you to monitor payments from all the outlets and then to pay your distributor their percentage fee accordingly. Some distributors will handle both invoicing and collecting payments others may only market and distribute copies so you will be responsible for all the financial arrangements.
Income from sales
However you arrange distribution, you will have to manage sales and income information or employ someone to do this for you. This ensures that invoices to booksellers are paid, and payment is made within a reasonable period of time. You will also need to record and manage your own finances associated with income and costs for the book, including for your tax returns.
We found quite a variation in the way different outlets pay invoices. Some pay immediately, others periodically and some pay the previous invoice when they make the next order. There were just a few we had to contact more than once to request payment.
Tip: sometimes, shop ownership changes or thing get busy and paperwork can slip through the net. If you’re dealing with invoices from a lot of retailers, it’s easy to miss one or two that haven’t been paid over a long period of time so make sure you do a check and follow up if necessary with an email or letter and then a phone call if necessary.