Selling to the National Book Wholesalers

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April 2015
by Jeff Palicki

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“Why don’t the bookstores always just order from us?” That’s a question independent publishers often ask when they’re starting out. The answer, in brief, is that national wholesalers such as Ingram and Baker & Taylor stock almost every title, which means that a bookstore can order our books and Random House books and titles from any number of other publishers and get the whole order delivered the next day with just one invoice to process.

The discount that wholesalers give bookstores isn’t as good as the discount we give the stores, but national wholesalers make whole-store replenishments very efficient. They are an essential part of the supply chain, and dealing with them effectively is important because they are not about to disappear any time soon.

As director of sales for trade, library, and wholesale accounts for Independent Publishers Group, I regularly deal with the national book wholesalers Ingram and Baker & Taylor. Both of them service independent bookstores, libraries, international customers, and various other kinds of customers. Baker & Taylor has always emphasized serving libraries, though, while Ingram’s focus is more on retailers.

Sales Call Nitty-Gritty

Baker & Taylor requires a long lead time, much like the time required by national retailers such as Barnes & Noble. For example, I needed to go to Baker & Taylor in December 2014 to present the titles scheduled for publication in April 2015. And I had to get all the information that B&T buyers need loaded into their system before I went to their offices.

Usually, I have appointments scheduled with seven or eight category buyers, and I spend 15 to 30 minutes with each of them. Depending on the time of year, I have between a dozen and 100 titles to sell each one.

Clearly, that doesn’t allow much time for focusing on individual titles, which is why sales calls need to be tightly choreographed. Baker & Taylor has a web-based portal called Publishers Alley, which I use to create what’s called a “buy report.”

Before my sales calls, I load information about the new titles I am going to sell. Then I input information about competitive or comparable titles that have the same format and a similar price, and that were published within the last few years. The Pub Alley system then supplies Baker & Taylor’s sales history for each of those books. As a result, when I sit down with buyers, we have rich and relevant data to work with in determining the buys.

Because Publishers Alley is a subscription-based function with an annual fee, small independent publishers may not want to use it, but Baker & Taylor has a small-press buyer, and small presses have access to her.

In some ways, selling B&T is a lot like selling Barnes & Noble—you need to provide metadata way ahead of time; the company has several category buyers, and buyers insist on getting comparable title information.

But there’s an important difference. To get a new title on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, you usually have to push an old one off. But when I sell to B&T, I am not arguing that my new title is better than one it is currently stocking. Instead I am trying to establish a pattern or velocity for how the book will sell for them, based on B&T’s actual sales data for comparable books.

Their experience has taught them—and I agree—that, for example, if three comparable books sold 5 to 15 units apiece at each of B&T’s four warehouses, that is a very strong indicator of the quantity we should put in of our new title.

Baker & Taylor’s aim is to put a book in at the quantity that will cover its first 30 days of sale, the period when the wholesaler wants to get something like 75 percent sell-through, with another 15 percent within the next 60 days. In essence, the information we provide helps the wholesaler achieve optimal sales and supply-chain efficiency

Notice that 30-day period, though. Baker & Taylor used to keep a lot more inventory on hand, but the company has refined its approach, and its buying is quite accurate. After the initial buy, a replenishment team maintains the proper inventory levels.

In some ways, selling Ingram is slightly simpler. We work with just one buyer there rather than with a number of category buyers. Like Baker & Taylor, Ingram will work with small independent publishers, but the company is also looking for efficiencies in the process, and would much rather have one rep come in from a distributor to present a large assortment of titles from a group of publishers than to deal with many individual small presses.

We send Ingram our ONIX feed before a meeting with the buyer, and a week before a scheduled meeting we send the buyer’s assistant a list of the titles to be presented to make sure that the ONIX feed was successful.

One difference between Ingram and Baker is that the Ingram buyer keys an order in during the presentation of titles to her, and the very next day that order gets transmitted electronically to us. If you try to present a title that is not in Ingram’s system, it will be hard to recover from this mistake. Preparation is everything.

Costs of Various Kinds

Both Ingram and Baker & Taylor require that publishers cover some part of the freight charges. The cost is pennies a copy for IPG because we send a semitrailer-load of books to each of them every week. But freight costs would be a serious burden if we had to ship via UPS or FedEx.

Both Ingram and Baker & Taylor also want us to spend a modest percentage of our total yearly business on their advertising programs. For certain titles this sort of advertising can be quite effective. When we had a book about the new pope, a full-page ad in the Ingram Religion Advance Magazine got the word out to the right customers.

The national wholesalers are also similar in terms of return rates, which run higher than our overall average of 20 percent. During the past year, I’ve seen what seems to be a marked increase in the speed and frequency of returns from both of them.

There is just no point overselling wholesalers. If you do, the books will come back in 60 to 90 days, and then you will have an irritated buyer to deal with. These companies constantly evaluate their inventory positions and clean out titles that aren’t meeting their internal metrics. And they do sometimes buy a title for a distribution center in one part of the country while sending returns of the same title from a center in another part. It is just a matter of efficiency.

Using hard data to gauge the right numbers to start with is important in this context, especially now that the wholesalers seem to want to hold less inventory overall.

For Data-Based Decisions

Both the national book wholesalers make a range of data available to us. We collect detailed sales information from them once a week that tells us what they have in stock in each of their distribution centers; what they have shipped in the current and previous week, both in units and as a percentage of what they have on hand; and what they have on order.

We know how many copies are out in the market and their rate of sale, which is far more valuable information than what we used to have, which was simply the number of copies we had shipped over some period.

Moreover, both Ingram and Baker & Taylor have websites—Pub Alley for Baker, I-Page for Ingram—with data that allow for even more frequent and deeper analysis. Users can run sales reports by category, customer type, region, or almost any other parameter you can imagine. This sort of information is vital when major publicity breaks, so as soon as we know about a starred review in Library Journal, for instance, we can check to see whether the wholesalers are adequately stocked.

If they’re not, we pass the publicity news on to them with a buy recommendation, and they respond. Both Ingram and Baker & Taylor request as much information as possible about publicity happenings. And Ingram will gladly stock up in response to author events in a given part of the country if we provide the tour dates and venues. For instance, if we have an author touring the Pacific Northwest, Ingram will make sure that its Roseberg warehouse is appropriately stocked. That way, area bookstores can order either from Ingram or direct from us.


About the Author:

Jeff Palicki joined the Independent Publishers Group (IPG) in November of 2007 and is currently its sales director for trade, library, and wholesale. Previously, he was the trade sales manager at Sourcebooks, and he was a B&N store manager for 10 years. This article is derived, with permission, from an interview conducted by Curt Matthews, IPG’s CEO, and posted on his blog.

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