Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Changing Face of Distribution

Over the years, fellow self-publishers have cited distribution as the self-publishers biggest drawback, and today, traditional distribution is as pie-in-the-sky for a self-published author as it’s ever been. But, again, I knew the odds did not favor my getting a major distributor (and given the size of my print run, what would I have done with one anyway?). I was content to limit my market to Mississippi and eventually the states making up the old Confederacy. I did hope for a regional distributor. As it turned out, I was my sole distributor.

When I wrote my first business plan six years ago, my first stated annual goal was to pay off the print run of my then current book (and it followed, in theory, to pay off each “current” book annually). Today, I’m in debt with three books printed by an off-set printer, because I never met my first annual goal--or met that goal in any of the years following.

In addition to my annual goal, I stated two objectives:

(1) Produce a new title each year
(2) Increase my print run by 50% (from 2000 copies to 3000 copies for each new title)

I didn’t give a timeline on point (2). Of course, any incremental increase would have been linked to a growing readership. Well, my readership is growing, but not enough to increase my print run annually, but more to move what I already have on hand. I do still believe that my old books (and their critical ancillary readership) will help sell my new ones and my new books will help sell my old, but that takes time, and I’m not sure how much having a “real” distributor would have changed that.

A distributor must be provided books to distribute. I talked—or tried to make contact with—two regional distributors back in 2006. I was never sure, but I think they were the same distributor (over in Louisiana), which had started out under one name, folded, then began anew under a different name. Whatever, numerous calls were never returned and I never made contact with anything but the answering machine.

With print runs of only 2000 books, I was of no interest to the big distributors and why should I have been? Unless I sold lots of books very fast, I couldn’t afford to print more. It was a catch-22. There was no great conspiracy on the part of the “disembodied” paradigm to shut self-publishers out. It was simply a matter of sound business.

Okay, calling the big publishers cycle from print to distribution and back to the publisher a sound business practice might be considered oxymoronic. I’m scarcely knowledgeable on their business practices and expectations, but I do know that the big publishers print huge runs of thousands of copies of each book they publish, then get them, via the established distribution system, in stores across the country. Then, sometimes as soon as one month later, they accept the unsold inventory (which may be substantial) back from the bookstores and destroy it.

Self-published authors cannot afford to operate like that, at least I can’t. But book stores can’t purchase books, then just let them linger on their shelves if they don’t sell. Well, I guess they could, but before long they’d have no space for new ones and they’d stop purchasing. Now wouldn’t that cause a bottleneck back in old New York? Gee, they’d have to stop publishing until the inventory cleared out. Ain’t nobody happy at that point, including the readers. My point is that to be part of the established distribution system, the publisher must be willing to accept returns.

So the system was established “by them, for them.” There is no great conspiracy to cut the little guy out—the little guy simply doesn’t fit. And like all those thousands of traditionally published authors, many copies of whose books are returned to the publisher because they didn’t sell, I’d have great difficulty marketing my books a long way from home. Returns? Egads, what would I do with them? Well, that would be what I do with them anyway—get out and sell them in Mississippi, where I can, at least, promote them personally.

And what would have been the point in distributing my books a long way from home? The answer, of course, is to get my name/books out there. But with limited time to move my books, it was not practical, and would, more than likely, have proved a fiscal disaster. I will always maintain that an individual goes to a bookstore to buy a book, not sell one; the reader has to know its there. That’s where marketing fits in.

Getting my name out there is still hard, but expense is no longer a prohibitive factor. “Time” is, though. Recall that old adage, “Time is money”?

A quick note:  All my books are now up at the Kindle Store (see my December through February posts). I got the last one, which was my first book, The Devil’s Bastard, up this week. My goal for this next week is to have my three older books—the ones printed on an off-set press—up at Lightning Source. That will be the subject of my next post, the new distribution paradigm made possible by digital printing.

Thanks for reading,



  1. Thank you Charlsie Russell for your great thinking.Your comment about self-publishing are really made me thinking.sell my house

    1. Glad to help, sell. Have you got a book to publish?


I encourage you to leave comments. I'll reply to all questions within a week, and errors in the posts will be acknowledged in the comment area. Feel free to answer questions/clarify confusion I express in my posts. Disagree with my points if you believe there is need for disagreement, but keep in mind that all off-topic comments, disparaging comments, comments with more than one link, and comments that include profanity will be deleted.