Bookstore customers are much less likely to buy smaller publishers’ books as a result of policies that Ingram Book Co.–the biggest bookstore wholesaler–recently instituted. Ingram has dropped not only self-publishers but many well-established small royalty-paying publishers. While the loss of one wholesaler may not seem like a big deal for a publisher, most bookstores buy most of their books from Ingram. Therefore, losing Ingram means losing a huge part of the bookstore market. It will be interesting to see what trends develop as a result. Perhaps all small publishers who care about bookstore sales will take on the high added cost of working through exclusive distributors. Or perhaps bookstores will purchase more often from wholesalers such as Baker & Taylor that do work with small presses. But for now, small presses and their customers are faced with a serious setback.
What Happened to Us
My small company, Upper Access, provides an example. Since 1986, we’ve been publishing one, two, or three new titles per year. We introduce new authors and nonmainstream ideas, and we take chances on some of the less-commercial works by established authors. Our books typically sell between 5,000 and 15,000 copies. Not all of them do well in bookstores–some sell mainly to libraries or nonprofits or directly to retail customers. But bookstore sales are good for some of our titles, and we definitely don’t like to write them off for any of our books. Ingram’s new policy hit us with no warning last fall. We had gone through several months with more returns than orders, but we thought it was just one of those not-so-good times for bookstore sales. Then I got a call from a bookstore clerk who said she couldn’t find one of our titles in the Ingram database. A quick check showed that all of our titles had been removed. Frantic, I called my Ingram rep, only to learn that she had been fired. I finally reached a person who told me that Upper Access had been dropped without notice because its net sales to Ingram had fallen below $20,000 per year. This was true–our handful of new titles in the last couple of years had not seen strong bookstore sales, and of course the net sales figure had been decimated by the huge number of returns of older damaged books. My biggest immediate concern was for a new title I was working on, Such Men Are Dangerous: The Fanatics of 1692 and 2004 by Frances Hill. The main window of opportunity for selling that book would be this year’s political campaign, and to succeed, it would have to be in stores, on the tables along with the big-press political books. This seemed like the worst possible time to lose Ingram sales.
The Use-a-Distributor Option
There is, of course, an alternative–selling to Ingram through a distributor. We had done that years before and had opted out of the relationship. The distributor’s sales reps didn’t even seem to know our books existed. Because they typically sell 5,000 to 15,000 copies, they were being ignored in favor of titles that were selling in the millions. We were paying a steep price for sales that we would have made anyway. It made a lot more sense to sell directly to the wholesalers and use the money we saved for additional book promotions. But at least for our new title, we now suddenly needed a distributor. Fortunately, a wonderful small distributor, Beagle Bay, agreed to pick up the book under very reasonable terms without insisting on taking over sales of all our other titles.
Cutting Down on What Readers Will Buy
For a variety of reasons, it wouldn’t make financial sense for all our titles to go through a distributor. For example, our next book, due in September, should see high library sales and direct sales and won’t need bookstore sales to succeed. But it would be a shame if people aren’t able to find it in their local stores. Sadly, unless Ingram has a change of heart, some of our critically acclaimed books won’t be available in stores that purchase only from Ingram. And the same is likely to be true of high-quality books from hundreds of other small presses throughout the United States.