Obtaining Distribution

One of the early challenges you'll face with your fledgling publishing company, is how to get your books out to customers. It's one thing to make customers aware (and desirous) of your products, it's another thing entirely for those customers to be able to get their hands on them.

As a publisher, you generally can't be aware of all of the thousands of retail outlets around the nation/world. Distributors have these relationships, and you can benefit by gaining access to them. Distributors and wholesalers will typically buy products in bulk from publishers, and then sell them on to retailers directly. This results in a smaller cut for you as the publisher, but it also results in sales you wouldn't otherwise have at all. 

Obtaining distribution for your products is not always guaranteed. Once you've found a distributor (see below) who could handle your products, you've got to convince them it's worth their while. Each distributor will have slightly different criteria for that of course, but much of it boils down to two questions:

  1. How many titles do you have?
  2. How much product do you expect to move?

With every part of the publishing/retail business having fairly thin margins, distributors have to be fairly judicious about which publishers they handle product for. It's an important part of the puzzle though, because many retailers will only deal with a small handful of distributors (or just one!), and in general, retailers will not want to deal directly with you as publisher. For the same reasons of profit margin, they want to order as much as possible from a single vendor to save on shipping and hopefully gain access to preferential pricing.

So, where to start? The Christian distribution business is fairly small. Your major players are as follows:

David C. Cook is also a publisher of books, but distribution is a big part of their business. Spring Arbor / Ingram also receive product from most of the other distributors, so getting your product into Anchor or Send The Light can make it available to Ingram as well, which is great, because Ingram is the 400lb gorilla in the distribution world.

There are two other gorillas: Amazon, and ChristianBook.com. Both of these are huge, and both of them are composite distributor/retailers. Because of their huge direct-to-customer businesses, they drive the hardest pricing and can be a pain to deal with. But if your books aren't available there (especially on Amazon), your books don't exist.

With most of the distributors listed above, each of them can be contacted and will offer you various options for distribution, assuming you meet their basic criteria. You can negotiate on all the terms they offer (like Amazon sub-distribution, etc.), and work out a deal that fits your needs and your finances.  Distributors will usually attempt to lock in exclusive rights, and this may be OK with you. Just read the contracts carefully.

Obtaining distribution through Ingram is usually not an option for people directly, unless your volumes are enormous (regularly moving 10,000+ units). The way in to Ingram is usually through another distributor, as I mentioned, like Anchor or Send The Light. You will see this option on your contracts with those distributors. 

Amazon have a number of different programs that you can participate in, depending on the experience you want shoppers on Amazon to have. You can set up an Amazon Marketplace account (Seller Central) to sell your products much like an eBay store, and the customer pays a basic shipping rate to Amazon who pass this on to you along with a percentage of the sale price. This is the simplest option, but is a less positive experience for Amazon shoppers (they lose access to free shipping deals, combined orders, etc.) and it can make your operation look small. Amazon Advantage is another option, it works as a consignment program where Amazon lists your products within it's normal inventory (allowing all Amazon sales incentives), but you retain the product at your facility until orders arrive. Amazon aggregates the orders to some degree, and you ship the product to Amazon when orders come in. Amazon handles the shipping back out to customers. This provides the nicest experience to customers at Amazon, and makes you look like a legit operation, but you're stuck handling the cost of shipping product to Amazon's fulfillment centres. Amazon pays out 45% of the retail price, unless you're a non-profit/educational publisher, in which case you can negotiate to 55%.

Yet another option offered by Amazon is Vendor Central, whereby you are a pure-play distributor/vendor to Amazon. This program is by invitation only, and Amazon will only care to do this when they've decided your product is one worthwhile for them to carry. You'll be assigned a buyer, and will negotiate with them directly. More on that program here

As for ChristianBook.com, it is my understanding that they are extremely judicial about the products they carry, and they will not respond to your requests to supply them. Once you've reached a certain level of recognition (sales volume for your titles across the industry) then they'll contact you and be looking to buy direct. Some distributors (like Send The Light) can also distribute to ChristianBook.com, but I'm not familar with how this works or how decent the margins are. Based on the deep discounts they usually offer customers, it's my guess that ChristianBook is working with a handful of publishers directly and pushing aggressive pricing.

Another option to consider is how you implement Print on Demand. The two major POD vendors are part of the distribution chain: LightningSource is owned by Ingram, and CreateSpace is owned by Amazon. Setting up your titles for Print on Demand, whether or not you plan to actually produce the bulk of your materials that way, lists the titles automatically with Ingram and Amazon, and saves you the hassle of having to ship product. As with everything POD, the margins are less, but so are the risks. 

All Catch The Fire Books product is available through Ingram / Spring Arbor, Anchor, and Joining The Dots. Our products are also available from our own distribution business, Catch The Fire Distribution.