Different Distribution Options

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September 2012
by Brian Jud

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Sales through nonbook retail outlets make a good many independent publishers profitable. These outlets include discount stores, airport stores, supermarkets, gift shops, specialty stores, pharmacies, and a long list of others. Each kind of store has an established distribution network, and publishers must work within it to get their books on the shelves.

The goal, of course, is not to be just another distribution client. It is to make your titles stand out and be sold. You can increase the number and speed of your books moving through the nonbook retail pipelines in four ways.

1. Choose the best distribution partners. A successful distribution partnership is a two-way street. The distributor must choose books that fit with its primary product line and with related books it carries, as well as books that will appeal to its customers. Of course, this means that you must provide quality content, priced properly and supported by targeted and frequent promotion.

Identifying the kinds of nonbook stores that will work for particular books is largely a matter of common sense. Which stores serve a book’s target market? Which stores would be likely to sell more of their primary products if their customers read your book? How could your book be displayed effectively on shelves or counters in those stores?

Ask retailers you decide to target which distributors they use and which distributors they recommend. Then do some research about each distributor that interests you. See what categories of books it sells, whether your title(s) will fit into its current line, whether it carries competitive titles, and what geographical areas it covers.

You will also need to find out whether potential partners require an exclusive agreement, and what your—and their—contractual responsibilities will be. Although the discount terms will be similar to those of your trade distributor, you might ask for such things as the freedom to call on some businesses yourself, preferred placement in the distributor’s catalog, or a reduced fee for displaying at their trade show exhibits.

Once you assess the information you gather, decide which distributor or distributors to approach, and submit a package including a marketing plan that describes your target buyers, summarizes current market trends, reports on your findings about store display, and explains how your content is different from and better than the content of competitive titles.

2. Utilize your partners’ expertise. When you and a distributor have decided to work together, build a rich relationship.

Ask for opinions about cover design, page layout, pricing, and promotion plans. If you intend to sell your children’s book through a distributor that serves supermarkets, you may learn that the cover should look more like a box of kids’ cereal. If the distributor serves retailers that will discount your book heavily (as a warehouse club might) or sell it at list price (perhaps in airport stores or museums), you may need to rethink your pricing.

Do not be just another supplier. Listen to observations and suggestions and adapt your marketing strategies to reflect them. Collaborate to prepare a launch plan.

3. Educate your partners. Distributors know retail distribution in their market segments better than you do. But you know your content, unique buyers, and competitors better than they do. Help them become more successful by sharing that knowledge.

Describe your prospective readers using objective characteristics such as age, income, and education. Relatively precise figures can be helpful: for example, people in the target market are between the ages of 25 and 45 and have annual incomes of $50,000 or more. But more general information is useful too. For instance, you might note that the buyers for your book about retirement planning skew toward the higher age and income brackets, which would tell a distributor to focus on specialty stores for this title and avoid selling it through discount stores.

Also describe potential buyers in subjective terms. If your book is about increasing wealth, readers may have a variety of objectives. It could sell to a younger adult audience saving to buy a new home or for children’s college funds, or to empty-nesters saving to buy a boat, a second home, or an exotic vacation. The more you can tell a distribution partner about each audience, the more likely it becomes that the distributor will be able to make your book available where that audience looks for the kind of content it offers.

Be clear about the benefits the book provides. Consumers do not buy 320 perfect-bound pages of words; they buy how those pages can help them. They do not buy the recipes in a cookbook; they buy the pleasure that they feel when dinner guests oooh and aaah over a dish they had never heard of before. A distributor’s sales force can use information about benefits to distinguish your book from similar titles when presenting it to retail buyers.

Finally, describe the competition, highlighting the ways your book is different from and better than each competing title. That will help you compete for your distributor’s attention.

4. Target your promotion to each rung of the distribution ladder. The unique value you bring to the supply chain is defined differently at each level. Distributors want quality books that are supported with creative and well-implemented marketing plans. Retailers want products that will increase store traffic and move off the shelves quickly and profitably. Consumers want content that will help them in some way.

Your job is to make each level aware of your book’s unique value and what it will do for them.

You can help distributors succeed in selling your book to retailers by using push marketing. Ask distributors about trade shows where they have booths. Could you display your book there? Tell them what shows you are exhibiting at and explore opportunities for partnering there, too. Tell them about your other promotion plans. Could you conduct a contest or sweepstakes for the distributors’ sales representatives? Could you attend and speak at their sales meeting? Would they like to have sales literature and quality reproductions of your cover?

Once your books are on nonbook retailers’ shelves, a distribution partner’s role is to refill the pipeline after promotion gets people to buy. Consumer promotion—or pull marketing—is your responsibility. Customize your promotional activities for each segment. Generate media exposure that aligns your message with seasonal sales peaks and customer demographics.

Be sure to tell your distributors where and when your promotional activities will take place so they can alert retailers in those areas to put more of your books on their shelves in anticipation of increased demand. Regularly send summaries of your upcoming promotion activities. Make it easy for distributors to sell your books, and they will do so.

Providing value for nonbookstore distribution partners is simply a matter of knowing what they want and providing it. Giving them current, practical solutions to their problems will elevate you above the mass of average suppliers to the level of trusted partner. Then watch your sales increase.


Brian Jud, the author of How to Make Real Money Selling Books, now offers commission-based sales to buyers in special markets.

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