Book Distribution: The only question or a non-question
This post arose out of a conversation Jenn and I have been having for a week or so. Book distribution has for a long time been seen as THE real hurdle for independent self-publishing writers. Here, Jenn and I give our different takes on the issue.
While I recognize it’s all about the readers, when you’re trying to sell a book, it’s all about the bookstores.. It’s a cycle that no one is going to break, and it’s still a very significant component of getting your name out there for the recognition that will eventually translate to sales.
[The error of that argument is that it ignores Amazon. Amazon is not a bookstore, and it is the increasingly dominant player in the making or breaking of a writer’s work. This direct reader-to-Amazon relationship will only continue to grow as e-books grow in popularity—conditional upon, of course, the deflation of prices of the devices on which to read an e-book.]
So as much as I would like to paint the debate with broad strokes (who, me?), there is more nuance to it. Let’s focus, first, on the bookstores—the kind with a door and walls and stacks and stacks of books. The kind with posters in the window, and prominent displays of new bestsellers. (Wait, how are they bestsellers before they even get to the store? Has anyone delved into those “rankings?” Should we be questioning the *bestseller list* of books stacked in front of the door and at the cashier desk so high you can’t find any other books you would like to read? I digress.) These joints are ground zero for cultivating fans and selling books, no doubt about it. I want my books on those shelves. I want a Local Author section. I want an Independent Author section. I want to be appearing at readings and doing readings at every opportunity to meet people who come in there and browse. Because when I go into a bookstore I usually come out with way more than I intended, so if my cheapo buying habits are anything like other readers’, my books ought to sell alright, combined with my other marketing efforts.
So about those marketing efforts. Targeting bookstores to carry the books isn’t easy, as I wrote about recently. They are reticent to stock a book from an author who walk in from the street. They’re scaredy-cats. They’re risk averse. Whatever they are, it’s not working from where I’m sitting and I can’t keep sending shills into stores asking for my books—I don’t know anyone in Nebraska.
Hold on a second: When I used to run my record label, I rarely went straight to record stores to stock my releases. I went to DISTRIBUTORS, or, because I was in a lucky niche area, the distributors usually came to me because word on the street was that I was about to release so-and-so’s new record. BLAMMO! That’s it! That’s my missing piece! Book Distributors, here I come!
Oh, wait, there are none. Fuck.
There are marginal, niche distributors, ok, fine, I’ll give you that. But I don’t write arcane veterinary medical technology texts for academic institutions in St. Kitts, so they don’t apply.
When you mention book distribution, everyone’s default response is, “Publishers do that.” Yeah, well, I am my own publisher, but I don’t have the strongarm ability to insist that stores carry my releases. This means that unless I can convince bookstores on my own, and there are at least 1500 independent bookstores in the US to carry my work, I won’t have adequate distribution.
IDEA: Can’t we do it together? Can’t we form a book distribution collective that will serve as THE MOTHERFUCKING GO-TO CATALOG FOR INDEPENDENTLY WRITTEN AND PUBLISHED BOOKS?
We should be heading balls-out into these stores and insisting they consider carrying our books. Isn’t there strength in numbers? What becomes problematic is the administration of such an entity. Another problem is the issue of filtering out shitty stuff—but that’s not just a distribution entity problem, it’s an overall publishing problem across the board in both indie and mainstream publishing.
Anyway, there it is. Book distribution.
Book distribution is the great white elephant in the room of self-publishing. It’s the big non-question.
I don’t ahve an ISBN for Songs from the Other Side of the Wall. The initial reason for that was financial. I couldn’t afford the £110 for a block of 10 from Nielsen. And it bothered me. Immensely. No ISBN, no Amazon, no orders from bookstores, no logistical potential.
It was only when I was making up the first copies of SKIN BOOK I actually realised what a non-issue distribution is for an author like me. Not for every self-publishing author of course. But for authors like me.
Why did SKIN BOOK make me think like that? Well, it’s not really a book. It’s a lanyard. It’s a thing. It has artistic content but it’s – well it’s not really a book. An ISBN would be inappropriate for it. Which got me thinking – maybe the whole ISBN/distribution thing is inappropriate.
Why? Well, what’s my business model as a writer? Simple. I want to connect directly with readers – I want people to come into contact with my work, fall in love with it, become fans, and then buy my physical products. Five years down the line I would like to be selling a few thousand copies of each boko each year.
My readership will build and grow through direct contact at readings; through reviews in theplaces they like to hang out; and through serendipitous discovery of my e-books. Once that initial contact has been made, I hope the content will capturtheir attention. Once their attention’s grabbed, they know enough about me and my products to know exactly how to get hold of the physical stuff they want.
Of course I want my books stocked. But why do I want an ISBN for that? I want them stocked by shops that believe in me, and what I’ve got to sell, by places I’ve done readings, places my readers go. And not 1000s of shops – I’m talking 5000 units in 5 years’ time – whay do I need tens of thousands of outlets to be able to get hold of my book? I spent long enough in business to know those figures are kooky. I expect to write 6 or 7 books in that 5 year period. And I expect organic growth through word of mouth and direct engagement with readers. I expect to build a relationship with places that will sell lots of copies because my book is part of their vibe – maybe 20-30 copies each, eventually, plus my signings – add in direct web sales, and a target of 5000 copies, and that’s not a whole lot of outlets – and it’s EVENTUALLY.
The point is, given that’s my business model, I don’t see how traditional distribution questions figure.
So the answer’s simple. Either I try and fit the old question back into my model. Or I forget about it, and get on with what I’m doing.
Is distribution what’s holding you back as a self-publisher? Are you frightened of it? Why is that? Is it because you’ve been told it’s the big hurdle? I suggest you start from zero with your business plan. Look at where you want to be in terms of sales in 5 years’ time; and figure out the best way to get there. That’s what I’ve spent the last few weeks doing. And you know how many times I despaired because I couldn’t get my books distributed? Not once.
The point about being an independent self-publisher is that you go direct to your reader. You have the freedom to bring your words to them in new and exciting ways. And you have the freedom to take time with your progress. You can afford to sell a hundred copies of your first book; 200 of your second. AND you have the knowledge you can always get the sales back in back catalogue later.
As indie self-publishers, we’re the one group that DOESN’T have a distribution problem