Today I’m interviewing Jacqueline Simonds of Beagle Bay, Inc. I met Jacqueline on Twitter, and because she is the distributor of Pete Masterson’s Book Design and Production for Authors and Publishers.
New self-publishers have a lot of trouble figuring out how book distribution works. Jacqueline, a self-published author, has a unique view on distribution, and carries books by a number of self-published authors.
Here’s a chance to get the story on book distribution from someone who is on the front lines every day. This is a great opportunity so I hope you’ll follow along for both days. It’s well worth it.
Jacqueline also sent along this note:
First, it must be noted that Beagle Bay, Inc is winding down its distribution services. As I will explain a little further into this, we feel that for most self-publishers, using Ingram’s Lightning Source International Print-on-Demand and Direct Distribution is a great way to leverage a start-up publishing company. Our business model has always been about helping small publishing start-ups, so we are making the transition to an all-consultation company.
So although you may not be able to use Beagle Bay to distribute your book, we get to reap the wisdom Jacqueline has gained as a long-time publishing professional with a deep understanding of the self-publisher’s situation.
Because this interview ran very long, I’ve split it into two posts. The second half will run tomorrow. Here’s Part 1:
Not many kids dream of becoming book distributors when they grow up. How did you find yourself in this business?
Ha! No, I never imagined myself as a distributor!
All I wanted to do, back in 1999, was to get my novel, Captain Mary, Buccaneer, into print. But back then, there was no Johnny Depp and Pirates of the Caribbean, and no publishing house could imagine why an adult would want to read about pirates. Particularly, a woman pirate.
So I learned the ins and outs of self-publishing. Fairly soon, we were approached by someone with another women pirate novel, and we published that. Then we published 3 more books.
We were lucky enough to get into the book industry when Ingram and Baker & Taylor (the two biggest wholesalers) were testing the waters with the big new wave of self-publishers. They allowed us to play on the same playing field as the big guys. But by 2002, Ingram decided they didn’t want to deal with anyone with fewer than 10 books and $20,000 a year in sales with them. We squeaked in, but a lot of people were thrown out.
At the same time, a lot of smaller distributors went under. This left a lot of self- and small publishers with no distribution (and sometimes having to buy their books back from a bankruptcy court). One such person was a friend of one of our authors, and convinced us to distribute her good-selling travel book. We took it on. And then someone else heard about that. And then someone else…
Voila! We were in the distribution business!
Can you explain the difference between and distributor and a wholesaler?
A wholesaler acquires books from publishers and distributors and sells them to a retailer. Basically, wholesalers aggregate goods so that a retailer has broader access to – in this case – numerous book titles.
A distributor takes on many publishers to get their books into as many wholesalers (and retailers) as possible. For self-and small publishers, this is an important function. Retailers and wholesalers tend to ignore a one-book press. Retailers especially hate writing multiple checks to tiny little publishers (and given that the owner is often the bookkeeper & cleaning person, you can see why they do). Getting into a distributor allows you to leverage your tiny company so that it has as much access to the book trade as, say, Random House. (Note that access does not mean sales.)
Distributors take in pallets of books from the publisher, do all the accounting, inventory management, shipping, and accepting returns.
Distributors discount the book at 65-70% off list price. This breaks down as such: 10-15% of the list price goes to the distributor; 15% goes to the wholesaler; 40% of that discount goes to the retailer. [In most retail businesses goods are marked up 100-1500%. This is why bookstores are failing. There’s simply not enough margin.]
Wholesalers may take as few as 1 copy of a title to fulfill orders from retailers. Shipping “onesies” is too expensive to sustain. This is why your title mixed with others by a distributor helps lower your costs.
For a lengthier discussion, please see my webpage about the pros and cons of each here: New Self-Publisher’s FAQ
Can you tell us a little of your experience with subsidy publishers?
I have little experience with subsidy publishers. A book produced via a subsidy press cannot be distributed to the author’s fiscal gain. That’s because the per book (unit) cost is so high, there’s no room for the 70% charged by a distributor.
The two other problems I have run into with clients who have used subsidy press services are that a) the subsidy press owns the ISBN (so the metadata points to them, instead of the actual publisher/author), and b) at one point, two subsidy presses locked up authors into 20-year contracts and a written release had to be acquired. I don’t think that’s the case anymore.
Unless you are only producing 10 books for your family, I would avoid a subsidy press.
Is traditional distribution right for today’s self-publisher or start-up small press?
For almost all self-publishers, I recommend that they reject the traditional distribution model.
Traditional distribution demands that a publisher print AT LEAST 1000 offset printed copies, arrange storage with a distributor and take returns. That’s a lot of upfront money to tie up on a risky venture. Although we all hope to sell scads of our wonderful, terrific book, hoping is not really a good business model.
For almost all self-publishers, I recommend that they reject the traditional distribution model.
A more conservative business model is to produce the book via Ingram Wholesale’s Lightning Source International, the largest digital print-on-demand facility in the world.
- The pro: While as a digital printer, their prices are very competitive (most subsidy printers use LSI, so why not just go to the source?), they also offer distribution to the book trade: other wholesalers, libraries, bookstores and e-stores.
- The con: Because it is digital, the per book printing cost is higher, but there is no shipping to a warehouse (and the fees that entails), then shipping to a destination. The book is only produced when there’s an order, and shipped at no cost to that destination (unless you are ordering a quantity for yourself). So the higher cost balances out.
If you select the distribution model, they will charge 55% off the list price of the book to ship to wholesalers & stores. You will also need to accept returns, if you intend to make the book available to bookstores.
Not aiming at bookstores or libraries? It’s probably smarter to go to Amazon’s CreateSpace (affiliate) and have the book done there. Then it will be available on Amazon (and they can send you copies). You can specify no returns and only a 20% discount.
Your business model is the only way you can make these choices. If you know absolutely (not just hope, but have the pre-orders/demand) that you can sell 3000 copies of your book in the first year, then you need to do the traditional distribution route (get a distributor, print the books offset). This method is a lower cost per unit, but a higher cost per distribution. If you expect to sell directly to your customer (and that includes Amazon), then there’s no reason to do anything else besides CreateSpace.
Most start-up self-publishers are wise to select the LSI printing route. This gives the book the optimum chance to succeed in the highly competitive book world (1 million books per year are published – and it’s not a meritocracy). If the book doesn’t succeed, then the publisher has exposed her/himself to a lower risk/loss. If the book does take off (sells more than 1000 in 2 quarters), the publisher can always switch to the traditional method of distribution and printing.
What kind of books do you distribute?
We started with women’s historical adventure fiction. Then one day we realized that the non-fiction was outselling the fiction 10-to-1. So we stopped accepting fiction.
We changed to Women’s Issues – which is broad enough to cover a lot of bases (I like what I like and love to work with new publishers on a great book). We also have done a lot with travel (who does most of the travel planning in a household? Right. Women).
What are the criteria you are looking for when deciding whether to take on a publisher as a distribution client?
Like many distributors, we only take a book 4-6 months before it is published. We do this because we assist in getting the book into pre-publication reviewers (like Publishers Weekly and Library Journal) for a chance at a review that can build strong sales at the book launch. Libraries especially do not buy unless they see a review in Library Journal or Booklist – and this can mean 1000 or more books sold. So it’s worth the hassle of getting galleys and sending the book out 4 months before the publication date.
I want to see books that have a new, needed approach to a subject. Understanding the audience is a key factor here.
The two key things I look for with a new book are:
- What’s it about – and who does it serve? If the book is just another naval-gazing self-absorbed memoir, I don’t have time for it –and neither does the industry. If the book was produced in the absence of any research or understanding of the facts, I have no interest. I want to see books that have a new, needed approach to a subject. Understanding the audience is a key factor here. If the author/publisher can tell me, “this book addresses the 18-34 age group of women who have burning questions about how ____ affects their lives – and what to do about it” I’m all ears. It doesn’t hurt to have a blurb (endorsement) or foreword by someone pretty big in the field.
- The other thing that I look at is the marketing plan. How is the author/publisher going to make the world aware of this book? As I’ve mentioned before, the book trade is not a meritocracy. Just because your book is the very best on the subject, it doesn’t mean a mediocre book by someone published by Random House wouldn’t completely obliterate your title. How can you reach your audience/customer directly in a way Random et al can’t? I want to see concrete steps and work you’ve already done to make that happen, even before the book is out.
In cases where publishers are moving from a digital to an offset print model, I would want to see sales trends and how the publisher was going to sustain and grow those numbers.
Which self-published books are most successful in your kind of distribution?
I used to think I had an idea of what kind of self-pubbed books sold and which didn’t. Since then, I’ve seen people succeed wildly with books I wouldn’t have given 10 minutes to. The single common factor to success was great marketing and the author never, ever gave up.
In general, though, I’d say that poetry, memoirs and novels are the very hardest things to succeed at. Non-fiction – and topics that fill a niche not being currently served – is the best path to success. It’s not easy finding that sweet spot.
[Publetariat Editor’s note: see part two of this interview, also]