You’ve got quality titles with stellar, well-designed content. You know your market, and you have tactics for reaching readers. But unless you qualify for traditional print distribution with sales teams that pitch your list to retailers, you can forget about big print sales, right?
Not even close.
Publishers who have distribution appreciate the warehousing, fulfillment services, and sales team attention their distributor offers. But by leveraging the power of being independent, others are making the most of their market even without traditional distribution.
The Retail Connection
Print-on-demand (POD) technology opened up all sorts of possibilities for independent publishers. No warehousing is required, and with online retailers such as Amazon providing POD services, fulfillment is seamless. But the missing link is discoverability. All the fulfillment potential in the world doesn’t matter when readers don’t know about your titles. That’s where a distributor’s sales team shines, pitching books to brick-and-mortar retailers.
One workaround is for publishers to sell directly into retail outlets, effectively taking on their own distribution. With a goal of earning most of its revenue from retailers other than Amazon, that’s the model the owners of Feet Wet Writing embraced.
“My husband and I started Feet Wet Writing in 2016 with the idea that we would both write,” says CEO Victoria Rydberg-Nania. Based in Wisconsin, they’ve focused on building relationships with independent booksellers and small businesses throughout the Midwest to achieve their aim of selling into those spaces.
“We have three distribution channels for print sales: print on demand at Amazon for Amazon customers, print on demand through Ingram Spark with distribution for all their channels, and a regular press run for direct distribution to independent booksellers, libraries, and other small retailers,” Rydberg-Nania says. “We distribute to traditional bookstores, bait-and-tackle shops, cabin decor stores, and more.”
This approach requires some extra effort. By acting as its own distributor, the company also has to identify and track contacts with potential retail partners. In addition, they’ve had to figure out the most efficient methods for handling orders and shipping books.
When distributing directly from its offset run, Feet Wet matches Ingram’s discount for POD orders. They also offer free shipping and returns. “Our margin is less per book using this route than if we just pushed all of our sales through Amazon,” Rydberg-Nania says. “Business-wise, we know this doesn’t necessarily make sense, but we want to live by our values. We know the value of bookstores, libraries, and public schools, and we want to support the reading community and local economies.”
Independent publishers are responsive, flexible, and personal, attributes that serve them well when handling their own distribution, Rydberg-Nania says. “Because we have relationships with each of our retailers, we know their preferences,” she says. “They know they can always contact us and we’ll respond promptly.”
She suggests publishers interested in this distribution alternative take a critical look at their platforms to see which retailer channels are most prominent. She also recommends building relationships with booksellers. “Booksellers are your greatest allies,” she says. “Find out what they need and how they prefer to work with publishers, and be responsive.”
Publishers who sell their titles at events also enjoy the benefits of direct distribution. And for those put off by the prospect of schlepping books from event to event, fulfillment companies stand ready to help.
Recognizing that most bookstores won’t stock titles from very small presses absent a book event, publisher Catherine Lundoff at Queen of Swords Press decided to bypass traditional print distribution. Most of the company’s print sales now come from tabling at events such as science fiction conventions and art, comics, and community and book festivals.
“Our books are available via Ingram,” Lundoff says. “But we find that unless we’re doing an event at a specific bookstore, our sales are a lot more reliable—and higher—when we go direct to customers.”
She admits that stocking and selling at events takes a good deal of time and effort, but part of the payoff comes from building a consistent customer base of regulars at the events. To make things easier, Queen of Swords often collaborates with other small presses, trading marketing materials, splitting tables, and sharing travel costs. These collaborations even include an informal distribution network, with presses swapping books to table at their local events.
Lundoff notes several advantages to the company’s distribution alternative. “It’s been a big boost to our visibility,” she says. “We make more money per book, and we sell more books than your average bookstore.” She also doesn’t have to deal with returns as she would if she’d opted for traditional print distribution.
Publishers who want to pursue this distribution alternative without the logistical hassles may benefit from the services of a fulfillment company like Porchlight Books. As operations manager Ryan Schleicher explains, “Our goal is to make sure we get books into people’s hands when and where they are needed.”
Having evolved from a brick-and-mortar bookstore nearly 100 years ago, Porchlight differs from a traditional distributor by centering the book and the customer. “We are a customer service company rather than a company that simply moves product,” Schleicher says. “We pride ourselves on being nimble and on our ability to say yes. If someone has a distribution challenge, we will try to find a solution rather than tell a customer that we can’t help them because their request doesn’t fit our business model.”
According to Schleicher, any publisher with a platform can benefit from Porchlight’s services, which, in addition to fulfillment, include bulk book pricing, book customization, and advertising options. “If you need to get a lot of books to a lot of people in an efficient and cost-effective way, with whatever bells and whistles you want to make it distinctive, we are your huckleberry,” he says.
Like independent publishers, Porchlight is nimble, Schleicher says. Whether it’s mailing to 1,000 people, adding bonus material to individual books, or pre-scheduling shipments to arrive at multiple locations, the company stands ready to help. Porchlight’s online retailer status even allows it to report publishers’ direct sales to Bookscan.
Schleicher encourages publishers interested in alternatives to traditional print distribution to reach out to Porchlight. “There is not much that we can’t help with,” he says. “Nobody is ever going to compete with Amazon’s ability to sell and deliver single copy orders in record time, but for everything else, if an author or publisher has a need, we can likely fulfill their request.”
The Online Advantage
Fulfilling orders from inventory or through POD, online retailers like Amazon provide a stripped-down form of distribution for the online market. But discoverability is a problem, and publishers have little control over how their book is presented on the page, not to mention the constantly changing algorithms that drive traffic. And as with traditional print distribution, there’s no way to follow up with individual readers.
For these reasons, some independent publishers prefer using their own online platforms to sell direct to consumers, effectively handling their own print distribution as they attract—and keep— customers using targeted marketing. At the children’s book press Puppy Dogs and Ice Cream (PDIC), this model has proven wildly successful. In the four years since the company’s inception, its catalog has grown to over 150 titles, with seven occupying Publishers Weekly’s Top 100 list for children in 2021.
Bypassing traditional print distribution altogether, 80% of PDIC print sales funnel through the company’s website. The other 20% come through Amazon, with what CEO Jason Kustasi describes as thin margins. “Amazon has driven a race to the bottom,” he says. “That’s a real problem.”
With a background in direct-to-consumer marketing, Kutasi was convinced from the start that direct sales and fulfillment would be the best way to reach his market. Orders come in through PDIC’s Shopify site. For frontlist titles, a company specializing in third-party logistics handles fulfillment. Orders for backlist titles are filled through Ingram’s POD services.
Why use this system? As Kustasi sees it, the problems of traditional distribution into brick-and-mortar outlets outweigh the advantages. As he points out, retailers tend to be most interested in new releases, while PDIC has some top-performing backlist titles. He also finds the system’s baked-in lag times—for most books, a year or more between acquisition and release—an impediment to his company’s nimbleness in market testing and direct outreach. And then there are the cash flow problems that come with returns and revenues that move slowly from retailer to distributor to publisher.
Overall, Kustasi finds his direct sales and fulfillment model “way more profitable” than going through traditional distribution channels. But to enjoy those profits, publishers who distribute titles directly need to generate orders through their marketing.
“Most of our orders are cold shopped,” Kutasi says, meaning that customers are typically funneled into his direct marketing system without intentionally setting out to buy a book. But he notes that publishers have all sorts of ways to reach their market. “Influencer traffic is free,” he says. “Can you find those people who really love your book and post about it?
Without distributor sales teams to provide product feedback, Kutasi builds testing into his marketing. He can also track readers with the data acquired from orders, an impossibility with traditional print distribution. With these benefits, he points out that publishers who bypass traditional print distribution can truly be independent. “We can do what works for us,” he says. “We’re not beholden to anybody else’s rules.”
If the logistics of working with a third-party logistics company for warehousing inventory and processing orders seem daunting, don’t despair. By integrating Shopify with a POD fulfillment option like Lulu xPress, independent publishers can still get the distribution they need for a vibrant direct sales business.
Author-publisher Katie Cross moved to a direct sales focus in the fourth quarter of 2019, finalizing the print component in the first quarter of 2020. “I craved more entrepreneurial control over my company and my cash flow,” she says. “I was tired of swimming upstream on Amazon. Direct sales offers a better relationship with my readers because I control their shopping experience.”
Cross describes the setup for fulfilling Shopify orders through the Lulu xPress app as “simple and straightforward.” After setup, the process is entirely automated. Simplifying things even further, she uses her Shopify site as her primary website. Her accountant sorts out any sales tax obligations.
The direct sales-fulfillment model has a positive impact on Cross’s bottom line. “Direct sales enable almost immediate cash flow and data analysis,” she says. “When you aren't waiting 60 days for your money to hit your account—or worrying whether it will ever get there—it makes it easy to take stock of what works, make better cash flow decisions for the company, and stay in the black.”
With most of her readers finding her books through word of mouth, Cross has quit using paid advertising. Instead, she is testing different methods of outreach to see which yield the best cash flow. She keeps her readers engaged by giving them more of what they want, releasing a book a month and interacting with them in ways that would not be possible if she relied on traditional print distribution alone. Not that all of this is easy. “It takes time and trust and a heaping load of patience,” she says.
Cross isn’t opposed to adding traditional print distribution as a way to diversify her business, but for now, her direct sales and fulfillment model fits nicely with her goals. In addition to controlling how her products show up on the page, she had complete control of her assets, her cash flow, and her relationships with readers.
“That’s the penultimate power of an indie these days,” she says. “I get to pump more books into the world in a way that makes it easier and more affordable for readers.”
Building a successful online business that bypasses traditional print distribution can take time, so Cross advises publishers to be patient. “If you track your numbers, give yourself space for slow growth, and serve your readers, the numbers will follow,” she says. “Just keep at it.”
Leverage Your Power
Conventional thinking suggests that traditional print distribution is the key to successful book publishing. And the model does offer advantages, including a sales team that can get titles into retail spaces and logistical support so publishers can focus on acquisitions, production, and promotion.
But if they make the most of their markets, publishers can opt to bypass traditional distribution. By thinking outside the box, developing systems, and relying on the help at hand, they leverage the power of independent publishing and forge their own path.
Deb Vanasse is the author of several traditionally published books, her most recent being Roar of the Sea. In addition to her work as a freelance editor, she self-publishes as Vanessa Lind.