Personal Journeys in the Book Business

28 Aug

It’s been a while but I’ve been busy — publishing three novels and putting together a new anthology. Lazarus Risen is due back from the printers next week and, in the lull, I thought I’d bring you up to date.

Distribution

I recently ended my relationship with my distribution company. That may seem like a crazy thing to do but actually the decision was pretty easy. It all came down to money.

Selling books is hard; selling anything is hard but books are harder because it is the only product that stores can return for a full refund. This practice started in the 1930s when publishers were looking for a way to kick start book sales in the depression. The mass market paperback was relatively new and was designed to be printed cheap and distributed widely. To encourage book sellers – a notoriously conservative lot – to take the risk on unknown writers, the books could be returned for a credit against future sales.

This worked pretty well for publishers, who in those days mostly distributed their own books. They didn’t actually have to give money back – they simply took a loss in the future, which as any economist will tell you, is a discounted loss.

It doesn’t quite work that way anymore. As the world became more complex, sales processes became more specialized. Publishers outsourced their warehouses to distribution companies. Gradually those distribution companies developed their own salesforces (on top of the marketing departments of big publishers) and took over marketing for medium and small publishers.

And of course they took their cut of the sales – which would be okay if they also didn’t charge fees for every transaction they undertake. There is a fee when they send the book to the store and another larger fee for when it comes back. And if the books stop moving, they charge you a fee for storing them and a different fee to dispose of them or return them to the publisher.

Generally you are told you should budget 30% for returns, though the distributor assures you they will do everything possible to keep it below that. But what if they sell your books to the wrong stores – such as stores that don’t sell a lot of science fiction, or stores who won’t keep new or relatively unknown books on their shelves for more than a few weeks? Returns can quickly rise above 30% and, with all the associated fees, it is possible to actually lose money through distribution.

Which is what happened.

I could see that it was coming and I have thought of an alternative – two, in fact. One would be to find a new distributor. There are several out there but getting them to take you on is not as simple as asking. You need to have a certain size back catalog, you need to publish a minimum number of titles each year, you need a certain size print run.

Requirements vary, of course, but obviously, the bigger the distributor (access to more stores, larger sales force, and so on), the stiffer the entry requirements. And returns are still a problem. Still, I’m looking into the possibilities.

Not all distribution companies are created equally and some are as hard to work with for store-owners as they are for publishers. Complex accounting processes and inefficient shipping practices can lead stores to refuse to work with certain distribution companies.

I’ve talked to a few book sellers about the problem and they either suggested a smaller, but reliable, mostly Canadian firm (there are several) or to do self-distribution. If authors can self-publish, why can’t publishers self-distribute?

So, for at least the interim, that’s what I’m going to do. I’ve created a catalog that includes all the backlist (and announces the titles of upcoming publications) and I’ve started sending it out.

My first experience was a good one. A few weeks ago at When Words Collide (which was a great success – we won an Aurora Award and had a successful triple book launch), I approached a couple of regular book sellers with the catalog. One took the catalog and the other took some books. So while supplies last, Calgary readers can buy Bundoran Books from the Sentry Box. I’m hoping to add a lot of names to that list in the coming weeks.

The secret – deep discounts for the book sellers (more than the traditional 40%) and no returns for the publisher. Even with shipping costs I expect to make more money than I did with my big American distributor. And I certainly won’t lose money. Obviously this approach is unlikely to work with the big chain bookstores and it definitely won’t work on Amazon – but it might actually result in more books sold which will be good for both me and for the authors I publish.

E-books

Like most traditional publishers, I publish e-books of all the books I also publish by print. I’ve even published one stand-alone novella. Some have sold okay – mostly when both I and the author independently promote them – but none have been spectacular. The only exception is my anthology, Blood and Water, which sold a lot of copies by being included in a book bundle with nine other Aurora-winning or nominated books.

I’ve done all the usual things to promote e-book (and print sales): Twitter, Facebook, (including ads), Goodreads, blogs, manipulating the Amazon algorithm, but the results have been so-so..

But then there was Stars Like Cold Fire by Brent Nichols, which in the last two weeks has sold more units than all the other titles (except for the aforementioned Blood and Water) sold in the last six months. How did this happen? Neither of us have a clue. It’s not like it has become a best seller in its category (Space Opera) – although apparently that doesn’t mean what you might think anyway – but it has ticked along very nicely. Neither Brent nor I are likely to get rich – but you never know. Maybe a year from now, we’ll be referring to Brent as the new Hugh Howey. And I’ll have sold my company to Random House.

Speaking of e-books, the debate continues to rage over which is doing better – e-books or print books. Some would have you believe that e-books are in decline and print books are on the rise and sales figures would suggest they are right. Total e-book sales have fallen since 2013, while print books have shown a modest but steady increase.

Others would point out that e-book weakness is largely because there wasn’t a breakout YA novel in 2014 or 2015 – which shows how a single author like J.K.Rowling can move the market more than 10,000 other lesser selling authors. And at the same time, the rise in print sales is almost entirely due to the recent fade of adult colouring books.

That’s right. Colouring books. Maybe I need to produce a book of colour-it-yourself space ships and alien landscapes.

My own view is that – publishing is a tough business and few people are going to make a decent living at it. Most people who make a living as a writer start out being supported by family, friends, spouses, and lousy part-time jobs. Or if they live in a country that values the arts – by public arts granting agencies. For Canadians, things recently got a little better – but it’s still a rough go. Here are the median individual incomes in Canada. If you are doing better than that as a writer – count yourself lucky.

Still, we persevere – both as writers and as publishers. After all what else can we do?

Yeah, I know, get a haircut and get a real job

 

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